Picture: Stock image – As such, the war in Ukraine seems to have brought North Korea and Russia closer, especially as they find themselves under US-imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions, writes the author.
By Dr Sizo Nkala
There has been a marked increase in diplomatic intensity between China, Russia and North Korea in the recent past in response to rapidly shifting geopolitical dynamics.
It began with a symbolical, yet powerful, gesture when the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, sent new year’s cards to the leaders of eight countries including China and Russia in January. In March, China’s President Xi Jinping conducted a state visit to Russia where the two parties committed to stand with each other. They signed a range of economic and security agreements, notably the use of national currencies in trade and China’s oil imports from Russia.
In July, Russia’s Minister of Defence Sergei Shogun and a Chinese member of the all-powerful Communist Party of China who all also serves as the Vice Premier, Li Hongzhong, attended the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War. During their visit, Kim treated them to a military parade showcasing his country’s impressive weapons inventory including unmanned aircraft, sub-marine launched ballistic missiles and strategic cruise missiles.
It is reported that Russia’s Shogun suggested the holding of a naval military exercise involving the three countries (Russia, China and North Korea), ostensibly as a response to the US, Japan and South Korea’s trilateral exercises.
Russia and China also accepted invitations to the 75th anniversary celebrations of the founding of North Korea on September 9. From September 12 to 17, Kim visited Russia. His itinerary included meeting his counterpart, President Vladmir Putin, and touring Russia’s military sites.
A day after Kim concluded his visit in Russia, China’s foreign minister found his way to Russia where he met the Putin and his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. During their meetings, they professed their countries’ commitment to a multipolar world.
Putin is set to visit China for the Belt and Road Forum in October. This after Putin could not attend the BRICS meeting in South Africa in August because of the International Criminal Court’s warrant of arrest for him. This says a lot about China’s willingness to resist calls to isolate Russia. The frequency of the diplomatic interactions has been characterised by many as akin to a reincarnation or a rebirth of the strategic tripartite alliance formed during the Korean War of 1950 to 1953.
The three countries need the alliance to undermine and blunt the US and the West’s hostility towards their respective governments. Since 2018, the US has been engaged in a trade war with China while identifying the country as a strategic threat. In a bid to contain China, the US has been cultivating alliances with Indo-Pacific powers including Australia, the UKand the US, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with India, Japan, Australia and the USm which China contemptuously dismissed as an Asian Nato, and the so-called Camp David commitments with Japan and South Korea to hold trilateral naval exercises in the Indo-Pacific.
Hence, China needs a strong alliance in North-East Asia as counter measure to US efforts to isolate it in the region. North Korea has been reeling under US-instigated UN Security Council sanctions imposed after it refused to abandon its nuclear weapons programme. Without strong regional allies such as China and Russia, Kim’s regime may not be able to hold on to power for much longer. Russia has also come under biting economic and diplomatic sanctions imposed by the US and its Western allies. The support of countries such as China and North Korea is invaluable to Moscow’s attempts to thwart the sanctions.
During his visit to Russia, during which he held a summit with Putin in Russia’s most advanced spaceport, the Vostochny Cosmodrome, in the city of Vladivostok, Kim pledged his support for Russia in its war with Ukraine, He he described the war as Russia’s defence of its security interests.
North Korea has been resolutely consistent in its support for Russia since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in February 2022. The country is one of the four countries, other than Russia, which voted against a March 2022 UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, North Korea is also one of the three UN members, in addition to Russia and Syria, who recognise the newly promulgated Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk whose Russian-speaking populations voted for secession from Ukraine. With Russian support, the two regions had been embroiled in a deadly conflict with the Ukrainian government since 2014 which culminated in their Russian-sponsored secession in 2022.
As such, the war in Ukraine seems to have brought North Korea and Russia closer, especially as they find themselves under US-imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions.
In return for North Korea’s staunch support, Russia, together with China, vetoed a US-sponsored UN Security Council resolution in September 2022 which was intended to strengthen the sanctions against North Korea on account of its frequent intercontinental ballistic missile testing and the continued development of nuclear weapons. Russia and China argued that diplomatic solutions need to take precedence over punitive sanctions to encourage Kim’s government to drop its nuclear programme.
In their summit, Putin and Kim discussed military, economic and humanitarian co-operation. The hosting of the summit in Russia’s most technologically advanced spaceport symbolised Russia’s willingness to assist North Korea with critical military technology which North Korea needs for its weapons development programme. Kim’s regime also needs technical and humanitarian assistance to address food shortages in the country caused by border closures during the Covid-19 pandemic.
On its part, Russia reportedly wants to secure the supply of munitions and artillery from North Korea to sustain its war effort in Ukraine.
As such, it seems the hegemonic policies of the US in Asia have played the mid-wife role in the rebirth of the China-North Korea-Russia axis.
*Dr Sizo Nkala is A Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.