Less isolated and destitute, a changed North Korea plots a new path forward

Posted on : 2023-09-28 09:04 KST Modified on : 2023-09-28 09:04 KST
The antagonistic competition among the US, China and Russia has widened North Korea's strategic position
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East on Sept. 13. (KCNA/Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East on Sept. 13. (KCNA/Yonhap)

The specific outcome of the summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin that took place on Sept. 13 still remains a mystery. As the two leaders neither held a press conference nor released a joint statement or agreement following their meeting, there has only been speculation afterward, and nothing has been confirmed.

The arms deal that was allegedly struck between the two countries remains a big question mark in particular. Rumors that North Korea would provide conventional weapons to Russia in return for receiving food aid and assistance with strategic arms development abounded before and after the summit, but uncertainty persists regarding whether this transaction actually came to pass.

During this process, changes in Pyongyang’s attitude became apparent time and time again. Governments, news outlets and experts around the world believed North Korea would ask for food aid from Russia in order to alleviate its severe food shortage, projecting that Russia would accept this request. Such predictions were based on claims made by the Yoon Suk-yeol administration during the first half of 2023 that the food shortage in North Korea was so severe that many in the country were dying of starvation.

However, it was confirmed that Pyongyang declined Moscow’s offer of food assistance at the recent summit. According to a report by Russia’s TASS news agency on Sept. 17, Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, told the news outlet that North Korea said that “now everything is OK,” politely declining Russia’s offer citing a “good harvest” this year.

This corresponds with information the Hankyoreh obtained from a source in China in mid-May. At the time, the source said that there was no news of people dying of starvation coming out of North Korea, where the food situation was actually improving.

This is a notable case in point. Outsiders are used to the perception that North Korea starves its residents while the Kim regime obsesses over nuclear advancement despite the suffering economy. Moreover, they have warned that the more North Korea insists on arming itself with nuclear weapons, the faster its international isolation will accelerate.

However, the above case indicates that North Korea is no longer the country it used to be, with its food and economic situations improving and likely to continue to improve moving forward. After announcing its “parallel development” policy in 2013, North Korea spurred self-rehabilitation and self-sufficiency efforts, especially following its eighth Workers’ Party of Korea Congress in 2021. Later this year, the country will open its borders once again and launch trade and economic cooperation with China and with Russia in full swing. North Korea’s internal competence and external environment are both vastly improving.

North Korea’s supposed “international isolation” should also be seen in a different light. Abandoning efforts to improve relations with countries of the West, such as South Korea, Japan and the US is a choice the Kim regime made voluntarily. North Korea’s dismissals of and non-responses to attempts at dialogue made by South Korea, the US and Japan demonstrate this well.

Meanwhile, the country’s relations with China and Russia are at their best since the early 1990s. The situation has shifted greatly from the past, when China and Russia would join in on sanctions against North Korea when the country test-launched ballistic missiles.

How was this possible? As luck would have it, North Korea opted for a “new path” just when strategic competition between the US and China was intensifying, war broke out between Russia and Ukraine, and cooperation tightened among South Korea, the US and Japan.

Then, China and Russia shifted their policy toward overlooking North Korean nuclear weapons from the standpoint of “power balance” rather than nuclear non-proliferation, judging that their ally’s nuclear armament would have the effect of holding the US and its allies in check. Likewise, North Korea took advantage of hostile competition among world powers, volunteering as the world’s strongest supporter of China and Russia when it comes to Taiwan, an issue at the forefront of strategic competition between the US and China, and the war between Russia and Ukraine, which is turning into a veritable proxy war.

Hence, it is more accurate to assess that North Korea chose to cut off its ties with South Korea, the US and Japan while bolstering its relations with China and Russia than to say the country is facing international isolation.

While this may be hard to understand or accept, North Korea is emerging as a formidable player on the international stage. The summit between Kim Jong-un and Putin that drew international attention was the launch site of this new North Korea, demonstrated by the fact that mere estimations that the country would provide conventional weapons to Russia caused such a huge stir, which indicates that the longer the war between Russia and Ukraine drags on, the fiercer strategic competition between the US and China becomes, and the more relations among South Korea, the US and Japan turn into a de facto military alliance, the stronger North Korea’s strategic position will become.

How China will proceed following the North Korea-Russia summit is also drawing interest, as the country’s decision to draw closer with North Korea and Russia just like South Korea, the US and Japan may have significant repercussions.

Conscious of this fact, the US administration of Joe Biden is concentrating its efforts on enhancing communication with China while emphasizing that the country is different from Russia. The Yoon administration is also toning down its censure and criticism of China while working hard to arrange a South Korea-China-Japan summit.

China is maintaining its distance from North Korea and Russia, calling the summit between Kim and Putin a matter “between the two countries” — meaning Beijing is not interested in closer trilateral cooperation with Pyongyang and Moscow yet, even though it still deems bilateral relations with each country important.

How should such a position from China be understood? First of all, it should be noted that one of China’s foreign policy keynotes is “opposition to a new cold war.” This is why the country has been fiercely pushing back against closer military ties among South Korea, the US and Japan, which it believes is bringing about a new cold war. So, if China pursues closer ties with North Korea and Russia, it would increase the risk of the new cold war becoming more entrenched, which China supposedly opposes.

Moreover, China is concerned with the possibility that drawing closer to North Korea and Russia would destabilize the situation on the Korean Peninsula even more by prompting South Korea, the US and Japan to draw even more closer.

There appears to be one more thing China is secretly worried about. If an arms deal between North Korea and Russia becomes reality, the matter would be discussed at the UN Security Council (UNSC). As an arms deal between the two countries would directly violate UNSC resolutions, its materialization would require a response from the UNSC. As Russia has the power of veto, the likelihood of a sanctions resolution passing is nil, but other council members including the US would evidently pressure China regarding its position.

Condemning North Korea and Russia’s weapons transaction would put China in an awkward position regarding its relations with the two countries, but overlooking it would potentially worsen China’s international reputation and relations with the West. Hence, it seems likely that China will express its opposition to an arms deal between North Korea and Russia behind closed doors.

Although China hasn’t shown interest in trilateral solidarity with North Korea and Russia yet, the Taiwan issue, which the country has called its “core of the core interests,” may serve as a significant variable. Stating that they oppose “unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force,” South Korea, the US and Japan have been drawing closer in order to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait by force.

If, at this juncture, the Democratic Progressive Party manages to reclaim power at the Taiwanese presidential election scheduled for January next year, this outcome may greatly influence China’s calculations. While the chances of Taiwan declaring independence and the US recognizing this are close to none, there is a chance of Taiwan continuing efforts toward independence and the US supporting such efforts. China may deem that this would eliminate the possibility of peaceful reunification and shake the foundations of the “one China” principle.

Incidentally, North Korea and Russia are the strongest supporters of China when it comes to the Taiwan issue. This suggests that the more the US rallies its allies to pressure and blockade China, the greater the chance of China making a choice unlike those it has made so far.

By Cheong Wook-Sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles