In triangular relationship with China and Russia, N. Korea’s geopolitical value is on the rise, says expert

Posted on : 2024-02-28 17:10 KST Modified on : 2024-02-28 17:10 KST
Experts tackled questions about the resilience of the North Korea-China-Russia triangular relationship, and whether it will become one of trilateral partnership
Kim Yeon-chul, a former unification minister, speaks at a panel debate on the triangular relationship between North Korea, Russia and China co-hosted by Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Yong-sun and Korea Peace Forum at the Changbi Publishers building in Seoul’s Mapo District on Feb. 27, 2024. (Jang Ye-ji/The Hankyoreh)
Kim Yeon-chul, a former unification minister, speaks at a panel debate on the triangular relationship between North Korea, Russia and China co-hosted by Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Yong-sun and Korea Peace Forum at the Changbi Publishers building in Seoul’s Mapo District on Feb. 27, 2024. (Jang Ye-ji/The Hankyoreh)

Amid the strategic rivalry between the US and China and the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, many experts have concluded that both China and Russia are starting to reappraise the geopolitical value of North Korea as a “buffer zone” to counter the US. 

That was the topic of the night at a debate forum co-hosted by Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Yong-sun and the Korea Peace Forum, on Tuesday. Organized under the title “The North Korea-China-Russia Triangle and the Future of the Korean Peninsula,” Tuesday’s forum took place at the Changbi Publishers’ building in Seoul. 

At the forum, Kim Yeon-chul, the chair of the Korea Peace Forum and a former unification minister, said that China and Russia acted as mediators in conflicts between the US and North Korea in the past. Now, however, Russia and China are in a clear triangular relationship with North Korea and are responding jointly.

“In this triangular relationship, the geopolitical value of North Korea is directly tied to US-China relations,” Kim said. 

“Unlike the Cold War era, the current virtuous cycle in relations [between China-Russia, North Korea-China, North Korea-Russia] could benefit the diplomatic autonomy of North Korea,” Kim added. 

“The development of bilateral relations within the triangle is naturally progressing toward more trilateral cooperation — militarily, economically and diplomatically,” Kim said.   

In the future, we may see the formation of an exclusive northern economic region comprising areas where the three countries share borders, such as northeastern China and Russia’s Far East. We may also see North Korea actively join China-Russia military cooperation and joint exercises. 

“China and Russia are increasingly viewing North Korea’s nuclear capacity as a balancer of power on the Korean Peninsula. The potential for Beijing and Moscow to act as mediators in North Korea’s denuclearization is now gone,” Kim added. 

There are skeptics regarding the resilience of the supposed triangular relationship, however.

“There are still questions regarding the ossification of a ‘new cold war’ structure that pits the US, South Korea, and Japan against North Korea, China, and Russia,” said Lee Hee-ok, the director of the Sungkyun Institute of China Studies.

“While there are signs that North Korea and China have fortified their relations, there are also several cracks. China does not want multiple fronts in its strategic competition with the US, so Beijing is still hesitant to openly increase its cooperation with Pyongyang, as that would cause unnecessary friction in talks with Washington,” Lee added.

“North Korea has an inherent distrust of China in its DNA,” said Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

“North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is still likely susceptible to this DNA. Kim is extremely practical and realistic in his approach. And realistically, North Korea ultimately needs to be accepted by the US and the West in order to develop economically,” Chang added. 

“We need to evaluate the current state of relations between North Korea, China and Russia from a strategic perspective,” said Baek Jun-kee, the president of the National Institute for Unification Education.

“During the Cold War, their relationship was based on ideology, but now it’s based on geopolitical factors, which may actually solidify its strategic stability,” Baek added.

Regarding the concept of China, Russia, and North Korea adopting a trilateral axis along the lines of the trilateral alliance of South Korea, the US, and Japan, Baek asserted that “China, regardless of its aims, cannot help but adopt a strategic approach, as have Russia and North Korea, amid the current international order.” 

Going on, Baek said that there “is no established ideological showdown at the moment, and the globe certainly can’t be split down the middle into two distinct systems.”  

“If we look at the current moment through a new cold war structure, we’ll be considerably limited when it comes to normal diplomatic relations vis-à-vis Russia and China,” he added. 

By Jang Ye-ji, staff reporter

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