China and Russia on a Nuclear North Korea: Policy Alignment, Divergent Relationships

By | September 12, 2018 | No Comments

Soviet and American soldiers pose for a group photo along the 38th parallel, 1945. Russians are quick to recall their historic legacy in Korea. | Image: Wikicommons

Commemorating seven decades of its existence as a separate state on September 9, the military parade that rumbled through central Pyongyang was deemed notable for several reasons, and drew inevitable speculation, including from one Donald J. Trump. Of foremost interest was a lack of any long-range missiles, which prompted debate over Pyongyang’s sincerity in pursuing disarmament (despite the fact that such missiles did not generally feature in past major “9.9” parades, either). However, while the 70th anniversary of the North Korean state’s founding is certainly of note, reading too much into specific aspects of the parade itself risks greatly over-egging the pudding.

Of more symbolic and practical significance was the presence on the dais of an ally of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Li Zhanshu, a man of higher seniority than any other Chinese official visitor to the DPRK of recent years, and to a lesser extent also Valentina Matvienko, chairwoman of the upper house of the Russian parliament. How North Korea’s two most important partners — China and the Russian Federation — view their relationships with the DPRK really does matter. And as Anthony Rinna explains, the evidence indicates that Pyongyang’s ties to Beijing and Moscow are not always what they seem. — Christopher Green, Senior Editor.

China and Russia on a Nuclear North Korea: Policy Alignment, Divergent Relationships

by Anthony Rinna

Scholars in both the academic and policy realms have long reflected on the implications of the growth in Sino-Russian relations. Several topical aspects (such as defense) as well as regional facets of the relationship (namely, Central Eurasia) have been the cause of cautious and highly guarded cooperation between Beijing and Moscow. The North Korean security crisis is arguably one of the strongest areas of China-Russian policy convergence. Meetings between Chinese and Russian diplomats almost invariably yield expressions of solidarity over Korean security. They have on occasion led to the espousal of specific policy proposals, namely the “road map” to North Korean disarmament.

The degree of Beijing and Moscow’s influence in the Korean security crisis, however, is anything but equal. The end of the Cold War had a profound influence on Northeast Asia’s security architecture, mainly because the Soviet Union’s demise spelled a loss (for Moscow) of a substantial amount of influence in regional security. In absence of a bipolar struggle between the USSR and the United States, China obtained more freedom to maneuver in the region’s security environment. Thus from the Russian perspective, cooperation with China is vital to Moscow’s recovery of its bygone influence in the Asia-Pacific.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin insists that it has an important independent role to play in the Korean security saga. In light of Russia’s absence from any mention in the April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration’s proposed negotiation formats, Russian deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov declared that there was no way Moscow could be excluded from regional negotiations. Supporting his case, Morgulov argued that while the Soviet Union had not been a combatant party in the Korean War, the Soviets still participated in signing the armistice that ended the better part of violent hostilities in 1953.

Today, as Stephen Blank contends, Beijing and Moscow are closely aligned on Korean security. In Sino-Russian cooperation over Korea, however, Moscow largely finds itself depending on China to lead the way, as Moscow lacks the ability to substantively influence the outcome of the Korean security crisis. The Chinese and Russian policy positions toward the security standoff are arguably more favorable to the DPRK than the US-led “maximum pressure” campaign (the current thaw in US-DPRK relations notwithstanding). Even so, the relative convergence of Sino-Russian policies towards the Korean security crisis does not mean total unity in their diplomatic relations with North Korea. In fact, China and Russia have somewhat divergent perspectives on the threat to regional security Pyongyang poses.

Sino-Russian policy convergence: favoring dialogue, condemning sanctions | One variable that underscores the alignment between Beijing and Moscow’s respective interests in Korea is their common response to pressure by the United States. China and Russia have been especially insistent on the use of dialogue to resolve the standoff. Diplomacy in the current standoff is of course not the exclusive preserve of the PRC or the Russian Federation — the United States has also engaged in diplomacy since North Korea’s nuclear breakout in 1994. But from the Chinese and Russian perspectives, diplomatic negotiations are nothing so much as a way of preventing US-led armed aggression.

Following a 2018 summit with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi declared that the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula was the key to solving all other security issues in Korea and Northeast Asia. Yi proposed the establishment of a security mechanism in Northeast Asia to account for the security needs of all interested parties, including North Korea and what it claims is a need to securitize itself against the risk of US aggression. Russia shares China’s view that North Korea deserves security assurances against the United States, and that a multilateral security regime would serve as the best means to achieve this. Indeed, Russia’s most recent (2016) foreign policy concept also highlights Moscow’s insistence on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, and specifically calls for the resumption of the Six Party Talks.

China and Russia fundamentally share the US’s position that North Korea must denuclearize. There are, however, different levels of urgency. US officials have been particularly active in verifying that the DPRK is taking steps to denuclearize. | Image: Wikicommons

In terms of employing economic sanctions, Beijing’s position is that stemming proliferation in Korea is “important, but not urgent.” The Chinese, for their part do not share the US view that sanctions are an effective method of changing the DPRK’s behavior.  Moscow’s line of thinking is much the same as Beijing’s in this regard. Although Russian diplomats at the United Nations have consistently voted in favor of sanctions against the DPRK, the Russian government condemns what it describes as a de facto economic blockade of North Korea. Instead, the Kremlin calls for sanctions to be targeted so that they do not exacerbate the humanitarian situation in the DPRK.

No third wheel: the differing states of Beijing and Moscow’s ties to Pyongyang | Given the general similarity of Beijing and Moscow’s policies vis-à-vis Korean security, one may think both countries view North Korean similarly. That would be a mistake. The striking cohesion of the PRC and Moscow’s policies toward North Korean denuclearization does not mean they are pursuing similar bilateral relations with North Korea. China, for its part, remains a grudging partner of the DPRK. In contrast Moscow, reeling from the demise of its influence in the Korean Peninsula nearly three decades ago, has been eager to raise its profile in Pyongyang once again.

Even as Kim Jong Un and Xi Jinping have held two bilateral summits (with no such meeting between Kim and Vladimir Putin having yet occurred at time of writing), the Sino-North Korean relationship over the past five years or so has been notably fraught. Both Chinese and North Korean domestic as well as foreign policy imperatives have factored into the current thorny season of Beijing-Pyongyang ties. China’s economic rise has spurred concepts such as the “Chinese dream,” which essentially comprises the pursuit of building up a powerful middle class, as well as an overall push to transform China into a global power. In order for China to raise its standing in the world, it cannot afford to be seen as supporting a reckless DPRK.1)See: Shin Jong-ho, “최근 북중관계 분석 및 2015 년 전망 [An Analysis of Recent Sino-North Korea Relations and Forecast for 2015],” Korean Institute of National Unification, January 15, 2015. At the same time, however, violence on the Korean Peninsula carries grave economic risk for China, in part explaining Beijing’s grudging tolerance of and support for Pyongyang.

From the North Korean side, instances such as the 2013 execution of pro-Chinese Jang Song-taek and the continued nuclear and missile tests under Kim Jong Un have frustrated Beijing.2)Ibid. Furthermore, on the foreign policy front, the DPRK has begun to see the negative effects of excessive reliance on Beijing for protection. In the short-term, Pyongyang needs China to balance against the United States. Doing so for a prolonged period, however risks yielding a disproportionate amount of influence over North Korean affairs to China.

One potential method for the DPRK to balance between both China and the United States could be to shore up ties with Russia, a country that would only be too happy to expand its influence in Korea at the expense of both Beijing and Washington. Indeed, Russia has engaged in a perceptible buildup in its ties with the DPRK. The two countries marked 2015 as a “Year of Friendship,” and took steps to advance their bilateral military relationship. Relations between the two countries have since continued to develop apace, with meetings between defense and economic officials comprising a staple of DPRK-Russia ties.

This past April, DPRK-Russia ties received a new boost with a state-level Russian delegation’s visit to Pyongyang. To Kim Jong Un’s right stands Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, to Kim’s left stands deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov. To Morgulov’s left is Russian’s ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora. | Image: KCNA

Military cooperation and security policy convergence aside, the idea that Pyongyang may approach Moscow with a mind to balance against China is rooted in wishful thinking rather than viable policy. In so many aspects of its relationship with the DPRK (economic ties, security influence, etc.) China far outstrips Russia. Thus, at present, the best the DPRK could hope to do in terms of balancing is trying to bluff China into thinking that Pyongyang will sidle up to Russia and distance itself from the PRC in Cold War fashion. Yet given Russia’s dependence on China to advance its foreign policy in Northeast Asia overall, Beijing would likely see right through this.

The current states of China and Russia’s relationships with North Korea — frustration with provocations and a keen desire to shore up ties, respectively — reflect the ways that Beijing and Moscow perceive the North Korean threat to regional security. China in particular seems to have taken a much dimmer view of North Korea’s capabilities and intentions than Russia has. Chinese analysts have tended to downplay concerns that the DPRK’s nuclear doctrine potentially includes provisions for a first strike. Nevertheless, Beijing has expressed fears that North Korea has plans to include its nuclear capabilities in its military’s strategic and operational planning.

As for the Russia’s position on North Korea’s nuclear arms development, it condemns the DPRK’s provocative behavior, yet assigns blame over the current state of affairs to a lack of ironclad security guarantees for Pyongyang. Russia’s military doctrine, in its detailing of national security threats to Russia, does not specifically mention North Korea.3)Current Russian military doctrine does not tend to mention specific countries in its threat assessment. It does however mention NATO, which of course is the main vehicle for collective security between the United States and its European allies. It does cite a variety of threats that could apply to the Korean situation, including the risk of armed violence on Russia’s borders and the proliferation of missile technology. Yet these threats are, for Russia at least, issues that could plausibly apply to many other regions, including Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

For Russian officials, rather the threat perception vis-à-vis North Korea appears to stem largely from the potential risk to Russia that conflict on the Korean Peninsula carries, rather than a direct North Korean threat toward Russia in its own right. In 2017 Anton Morozov, a Russian MP and member of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Duma (parliament’s lower house), visited North Korea with a delegation of lawmakers. He reported that DPRK officials informed him of their intention of developing the range of their missile systems so that they could strike the United States. Following this, Vladimir Shamanov, head of the Duma‘s defense committee, warned that missiles launched in an exchange between North Korea and the US could land on either Chinese or Russian territory.

Differences remain, but so does the Sino-Russian partnership | As long as the United States continues its track of maintaining pressure on the Pyongyang regime, both China and Russia will likely remain in sync over their policies toward the Korea crisis. Neither Beijing nor Moscow wants to see North Korea collapse. Furthermore, the PRC and Russia remain insistent on a non-violent course of action for seeing the current standoff’s final resolution.

Certain policy alignments between China and the Kremlin over North Korea notwithstanding, Beijing and Moscow n hold rather different views of North Korea. After experiencing nearly three decades of growth in both its domestic wealth as well as influence in Northeast Asia, China has come to see the DPRK as more of a liability than an asset. In contrast, a Russian Federation that has from its inception never enjoyed any notable influence in Korea (or East Asia as a whole) is happy to strengthen its ties to Pyongyang. For Russia, there is more to lose by not being a friend of the DPRK.


1 See: Shin Jong-ho, “최근 북중관계 분석 및 2015 년 전망 [An Analysis of Recent Sino-North Korea Relations and Forecast for 2015],” Korean Institute of National Unification, January 15, 2015.
2 Ibid.
3 Current Russian military doctrine does not tend to mention specific countries in its threat assessment. It does however mention NATO, which of course is the main vehicle for collective security between the United States and its European allies.

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