Multipolarity sought by Russia, N. Korea, China could be an exit from new cold war

Posted on : 2023-09-30 08:06 KST Modified on : 2023-09-30 08:06 KST
We’re witnessing the trend of multipolarity manifest in various areas, perhaps more strongly than ever
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits Vladivostok International Airport in Russia. (TASS/Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visits Vladivostok International Airport in Russia. (TASS/Yonhap)

As the world was emerging from the Cold War in the 1990s, the Korean Peninsula was often described as the “last bastion” of the period of tension between the US and the Soviet Union. More precisely, this referred not to the entire peninsula, but only North Korea, which remained in isolation.

South Korea eagerly engaged in globalization while swiftly establishing diplomatic relations with Russia, China and the countries of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, North Korea accelerated efforts to develop nuclear weapons and missiles capable of carrying them amidst the severe famine of the “Arduous March,” as well as diplomatic isolation and security fears.

A few years back, people began talking about a “new” cold war. The Trump administration had initiated a trade war with China, and the Biden administration had doubled down on a policy of containment against China that covered not only the economy but also the military and technology. While it does seem novel that the US’ adversary has shifted from Russia to China, the situation is too different from the past to call that a cold war.

For one thing, the world is not definitively divided between a US camp and a China camp. For another, powerful states and forces are emerging in almost every region. In short, we’re witnessing the trend of multipolarity manifest in various areas, perhaps more strongly than ever.

No urgent need for military cooperation between N. Korea, Russia

It’s on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia that the atmosphere of a new cold war appears to be brewing. South Korea, the US and Japan formed a de facto alliance at their summit at Camp David on Aug. 18. While the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile programs was the primary pretext for the agreement, it effectively provides a key tool for advancing the US’ (and Japan’s) Indo-Pacific strategy in Northeast Asia.

That was sure to provoke a response from North Korea, China and Russia. On Sept. 13, less than one month later, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin held a meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.

Since Kim and Putin didn’t release a joint statement or any other documents at their summit, any assessment of the summit and projections for the future have to rely on the public comments made by the two governments. Prior to the summit, Putin said the reason he was meeting Kim at a spaceport was to help with North Korea’s satellite development and added that “all topics” would be on the table, including cooperation on military technology. The Kremlin also declared that North Korea and Russia would cooperate “in sensitive areas that should not become the subject of public disclosure and announcement.”

Under the current circumstances, North Korea and Russia have presumably traded the things they both need, and military cooperation is probably an important component of that. For example, Russia needs a large number of artillery shells for its war against Ukraine (which Russia calls a “special military operation”), a war for which Kim has pledged his full support. North Korea could provide those shells, and Russia could in turn give North Korea technology related to military spy satellites, nuclear-propelled submarines, aircraft, and missile defense.

Another possibility is North Korea sending troops to the war in Ukraine and workers for postwar reconstruction and Russia providing North Korea with energy and food supplies.

But examined more closely, the proposed areas of military cooperation would be beneficial for the two countries, but hardly any of them are actually urgent or essential.

Since the war in Ukraine remains at a stalemate, it’s very unlikely that Russia would want to use artillery shells in some kind of sudden assault. Russia has already achieved its territorial goals at the current battle lines, and it doesn’t need to invest a large amount of artillery firepower in support of an infantry push.

Furthermore, a Ukrainian counterattack has basically zero chance of vanquishing the Russian regular forces, including its air forces. If Ukraine were to somehow do so, it would mean the outbreak of World War III in Ukraine, an outcome that is completely unacceptable to the US and Europe.

While North Korea is certainly interested in aircraft and missile defense technology, it has already acquired a basic level of strategic deterrence. Therefore, the primary significance of the summit is that it spurred more communication between North Korea and Russia.

In short, it seems more appropriate to say that the two sides reached a broader agreement at the summit on an approach where North Korea may provide artillery assistance as needed to Russia, which will continue providing more advanced military technology to the North, with specifics to be decided over time through working-level discussions.

Pyongyang-Beijing-Moscow ties look different than Seoul-Washington-Tokyo’s

The true significance of Kim and Putin’s summit will need to be considered in a broader perspective and the fullness of time.

The Far East and Arctic Ocean regions are taking on increasing importance in Moscow’s national strategy. As Arctic shipping routes are connected beyond the water of the Kamchatka Peninsula and into the East Sea, this inevitably brings them in contact with the trilateral “alliance” among South Korea, the US and Japan.

North Korea is the only country that borders Russia on its eastern coast. Now it is an “ally” possessing nuclear weapons.

The development of Primorsky Krai and eastern Siberia will require the investment of capital and workers in the areas of infrastructure building, farming and forestry. Thirty years ago, the Tumen River Area Development Programme was created under the leadership of the UN Development Programme — but since then, it has effectively gone up in smoke.

If Russia hopes to start over, North Korea is there. The capital and workforce scales are not large, but an effort would just have to be coordinated over time to the two sides’ needs and capabilities.

From Russia’s standpoint, the risks associated with full-scale development cooperation with China — a country that has long been a rival and has over 100 million people living in its northeast — are considerable. North Korea and Russia could be optimal partners, sharing not only geostrategic interests but also economic ones.

The trilateral cooperative relationship among North Korea, China and Russia is one that leads to checks against the US and a multipolar world by way of China. There is little to support analyses suggesting that Beijing feels marginalized in connection with the North Korea-Russia summit or will want to rein the partnership in.

The talk about “China’s role” that comes up so often in terms of the North Korean nuclear issue stems from a lack of understanding about the alliance between the two, which is rooted in the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance — a stronger framework than the mutual defense treaty between South Korea and the US — and in a history of military cooperation and geostrategic interests.

Indeed, the “China’s role” talk is nearly at the level of superstition and magical thinking. Beijing is very likely to conclude that closeness between Pyongyang and Moscow is beneficial for its own interests. It could reap the benefits of containing the trilateral “alliance” among South Korea, the US and Japan without overtly joining forces with North Korea and Russia, both of which are facing some of the toughest Western sanctions in the world.

Meanwhile, China continues working with China to expand and strengthen the BRICS framework and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It could be that Pyongyang is looking to use participation in this cooperative — a framework with a strong aspect of being geared to containing the US — as a way of gradually including itself among the “normal” states in a multipolar world.

The trilateral relationship among North Korea, China and Russia is different from that of South Korea, the US and Japan. Washington and Tokyo are completely cut off from Pyongyang, whereas Beijing and Russia both have diplomatic relations with Seoul. The US is a guiding force uniting South Korea and Japan, whereas the North Korea-China-Russia relationship has no one country directing it.

China may not like South Korea’s “new cold war” policies, but it isn’t imposing economic sanctions. Indeed, it has actually moved to loosen previous restrictions on tourism to South Korea.

Russia, for its part, has indicated that it will not restrict the activities of South Korean business in Moscow if Seoul provides Ukraine with direct or indirect military support, and it has also said it will provide a detailed explanation of its summit with North Korea if Seoul wants.

At a plenary session of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee in December 2022, Kim Jong-un said that international relations were developing into a “neo-Cold War” system with an accelerating multipolar trend.

There is still a chance to break away from the new cold war framework and proceed toward multipolarization. Even if it continues defining North Korea as an “enemy” and viewing China and Russia “antagonistically,” South Korea can avoid becoming an island in a new cold war if it carries on with dialogue.

By Moon Jang-nyeol, former professor at Korea National Defense University

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