North Korea Using Ties With Russia to Boost Standing With China

north korea using ties with russia to boost standing with china 1

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is using his renewed diplomatic engagement and arms dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin to enhance his position with China as the three socialist countries move to counter the U.S., according to analysts.

North Korea vowed Tuesday to continue its military cooperation with Russia despite international objections voiced at meetings on conventional weapons at the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

“The DPRK will further develop traditional relations of friendship and cooperation with the Russian Federation and other independent sovereign countries,” said North Korea’s U.N. Representative Kim In Chul. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is North Korea’s official name.

At the U.N. meeting continuing Wednesday, U.S. Representative to the Conference on Disarmament Bruce Turner said the U.S. assessed that North Korea’s delivery of more than 1,000 containers filled with weapons to Russia for its war Ukraine will destabilize international security.

The White House said on Oct. 13 that North Korea made shipments of military equipment and munitions to Russia.

In return, the White House said, Pyongyang expects to obtain military hardware including fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, armored vehicles and other advanced weapon technologies.

On Thursday, Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo issued a joint statement condemning North Korea for transferring arms to Russia.

According to the U.S., the shipments that North Korea delivered are thought to be a result of arms deals that Kim and Putin made at their summit in Russia on Sept. 16. Before then, Kim last met with Putin in 2019.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in Pyongyang on Oct. 18. The next day, Lavrov met with Kim, who stressed the two countries should “faithfully” implement unspecified agreements he made at the summit with Putin, according to North Korea’s state-run KCNA the following day.

Lavrov said Moscow wants to hold regular security talks with Pyongyang as well as with Beijing over “intensifying” military activities by the U.S., Japan and South Korea, according to an Oct. 20 report from the Russian state news agency, Tass.

Putin has accepted an invitation from Kim to visit North Korea. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Oct. 11 the details of Putin’s trip to Pyongyang were yet to be worked out.

Chinese Embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told VOA Korean Service on Thursday, “As far as China is concerned, we will maintain the continuity and stability of neighborhood diplomacy, seek more friendly political relations, stronger economic ties, deepening security cooperation and closer people-to-people exchange with our neighbors and build with them a community with a shared future.”

VOA Korean contacted the North Korean Mission to the U.N. seeking comments on how its relations with Moscow affect its ties with Beijing but did not receive a response.

Daniel Russel, who served as the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs in the Obama administration, told VOA Korean that Kim is using his renewed ties with Moscow to boost Pyongyang’s standing with Beijing in a similar way that “China is using its leverage with Russia as a political tool against the United States.”

“Pyongyang is signaling to Beijing that it has other friends and other options as a way to strengthen its hand … in the very lopsided power dynamics between the PRC and the DPRK,” said Russel, now the vice president for International Security and Diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

China’s official name is the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Although historically close, North Korea and Russia became distant after the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991 and Moscow reduced financial support for Pyongyang.

Since then, Beijing has been North Korea’s primary economic backer, and Pyongyang continues to depend heavily on China, its top trading partner, especially for assistance in the face of global sanctions that have left it isolated.

According to Ken Gause, director of CNA’s Special Projects for Strategy and Policy Analysis Program and an expert on North Korean leadership, Pyongyang has been looking for ways to reduce its reliance on its northern neighbor, and Moscow provided an option.

“It is using Russia as a counterweight to China,” said Gause. Moscow is giving Kim “a second source of funding and supplies, especially for military technology that he is not getting from China.”

Gause said even if Beijing were to support international sanctions on North Korea, Pyongyang knows that Russia, also heavily sanctioned for invading Ukraine in 2022, will block any U.N. resolutions.

China, Russia and the U.S. are permanent U.N. Security Council members with veto power, a set-up that prevented the passage of repeated U.S.-proposed sanctions on North Korea over its ballistic missile launches over the past two years.

Although North Korea is economically dependent on China, it does not fully trust Beijing, especially when it comes to military support, according to Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, in a commentary published in September.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries soured after Kim took power in 2011.

China was wary of then 27-year-old Kim taking control of the regime, and according to Bennett in his September article, Beijing felt betrayed when Kim executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek, a high-ranking official close to China.

Jang was executed for treason. He wanted Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, to be the new leader, according to NHK, the Japanese broadcaster.

was assassinated in Malaysia in 2017.

Kim visited Beijing in 2018 at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who was engaged in trade disputes with Washington.

They met three times that year followed by two summits in 2019. Xi’s outreach is seen as an attempt to match a diplomatic breakthrough between Pyongyang and Washington during the Trump administration that resulted in two summits and an impromptu meeting from 2018 to 2019 but failed to produce results on denuclearization.

Evans Revere, a former State Department official with extensive experience negotiating with North Korea, said Pyongyang is keeping Beijing close as its main source of food, fuel and other assistance while propping up the military leg of its national security with Moscow.

“North Korea is focusing on improving relations with Russia not as an alternative to improve ties with the PRC, but in order to establish an additional pillar of support,” Revere said.

“Pyongyang seeks an opportunity to greatly improve relations with Russia and secure additional support from Moscow for its military, as well as its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Pyongyang’s goal is not to move away from Beijing or Moscow. Rather, the goal is to grow closer to both.”

Kim rejected food aid Moscow offered when he met Putin in September, said Russian Ambassador to North Korea Alexander Matsegora in an interview with a Russian TV program on Sept. 17.

Voice of America

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