South Korean academic: China must not join the North Korea-Russia alliance

South Korean academic Kang Jun-young notes that North Korea’s recent inclusion of its nuclear weapons policy into its constitution — coupled with its friendliness with Russia — is making the region nervous, and can only raise doubts among its neighbours, including China. However, he cautions against overreacting, as that would in turn escalate the situation further.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un visit the Vostochny Сosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, on 13 September 2023. (Vladimir Smirnov/Sputnik/Pool via Reuters)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un visit the Vostochny Сosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, on 13 September 2023. (Vladimir Smirnov/Sputnik/Pool via Reuters)

At the 9th Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly held on 26-27 September, North Korea amended its constitution to incorporate its nuclear weapons policy. This move seeks to make nuclear capabilities a permanent part of the North Korean regime by expressly enshrining them in the constitution.

Developing nuclear weapons capabilities

In 2012, North Korea's constitution explicitly stated that it was in possession of nuclear weapons. The recent constitutional amendment provides specific goals and directions for nuclear weapons development following the legalisation of its nuclear weapons policy in September last year, and is an unequivocal declaration of North Korea’s commitment to retaining its nuclear arsenal.

The constitution explicitly states that nuclear weapons are a means to safeguard national survival and development, deter war, and maintain regional and global peace and stability. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has called for the exponential expansion of nuclear weapons production and the deployment of various strike capabilities across multiple branches of the military. He has made it clear that North Korea will continue to enhance its nuclear capabilities.

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A man walks past a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul on 13 September 2023. North Korea has fired two short-range ballistic missiles, the South Korean military said on 13 September, with leader Kim Jong-un in Russia ahead of a summit with President Vladimir Putin. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP)

North Korea has in fact made similar statements in the past, so this is nothing new. However, this blind pursuit of nuclear expansion not only affects the Korean peninsula and the broader Northeast Asian situation, but also has adverse implications for global security order. Furthermore, Kim has claimed that the trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan is an “Asian NATO”, thus justifying North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons. 

North Korea is attempting to form a new alliance with Russia, distinct from its relationship with China.

An exchange with Putin

In particular, with the confidence following the successful summit between Russia and North Korea in September, as well as an upcoming visit by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to North Korea in October, if a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to North Korea materialises, it could lead to heightened aggression in North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and external activities. Indeed, this warrants close attention.

Hence, it is necessary to re-evaluate the recent summit between the leaders of North Korea and Russia. After a four-year gap, the summit between Kim and Putin took place at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a symbol of Russia’s independent space exploration capabilities. 

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets Russia's President Vladimir Putin at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Amur Oblast of the Far East Region, Russia, on 13 September 2023 in this image released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. (KCNA via Reuters)

Notably, just before the summit, North Korea launched two short-range ballistic missiles into the East Sea, provoking the international community and displaying a reckless posture of military preparedness even as its leader was abroad.

The purpose of the summit was for Russia to seek weapons supplies from North Korea, including ammunition and shells that Russia is running low on in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Meanwhile, North Korea hopes to obtain advanced military technology related to nuclear, missiles and nuclear submarines, as well as energy support to overcome economic hardship.

During the summit, Kim emphasised that it will support Russia against “imperialism”, while Putin expressed willingness to support North Korea’s military technology and satellite development.

Additionally, both sides may have discussed trade in artillery and rocket technology, as well as cooperation in food, energy support, and various frameworks in diplomatic, economic and military cooperation. If the agreement pans out, it will send clear warning signals, deepening the security crisis on the Korean peninsula.

New North Korea-Russia alliance

North Korea is attempting to form a new alliance with Russia, distinct from its relationship with China. It aims to maximise its perceived interests by strategically aligning with Russia.

Indeed, North Korea’s increasing closeness to Russia through its nuclear programme will affect the duration of the conflict in Ukraine and have profound implications on inter-Korean relations, as well as the conflicts between North Korea on one side and South Korea, the US and Japan on the other side. 

It will also affect the future of relations between South Korea, Russia and China, as well as that between the US and China. North Korea’s choice of Russia as a political and military ally is likely to introduce various uncertainties for South Korea.

North Korea is capitalising on Russia’s plight, in an attempt to obtain advanced military technology from it.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attend a meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, 13 September 2023.  (KCNA via Reuters)
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un attend a meeting at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the far eastern Amur region, Russia, on 13 September 2023. (KCNA via Reuters)

But for North Korea and Russia, there are clear reasons to develop closer relations with each other. Firstly, both countries would benefit from military cooperation.  A summit goes beyond the regular diplomatic level, allowing for an extensive discussion on issues surrounding military cooperation — including a substantial trade on an assortment of ammunition and weapons.

With the Ukraine war turning towards conventional warfare, Russia is looking towards North Korea for a supply of conventional weaponry and other military resources needed in its war against Ukraine. Indeed, North Korea is the only country that can legitimately buy weapons from Russia, which is under international sanctions. North Korea is capitalising on Russia’s plight, in an attempt to obtain advanced military technology from it.

Military cooperation pressuring the US and attracting China

At the Eighth Party Congress held in January 2021, North Korea announced five strategic arms missions to strengthen national defence, which include developing weaponry such as hypersonic missiles, large nuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles (MIRV), ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). It would also advance the miniaturisation and tactical weaponisation of nuclear weapons, as well as push for the research and development of military reconnaissance satellites and unmanned reconnaissance drones.

In order to successfully accomplish these goals by the proposed 2026 deadline, technology transfer from Russia is of key importance. This notably applies to North Korea's attempts, which have already been unsuccessful twice this year, to launch military reconnaissance satellites, as well as to build nuclear-powered submarines and accomplish the atmospheric reentry of ICBMs. The apparent dangers of a North Korea-Russia partnership are indeed worrying.

This is Russia’s two-pronged strategy: indirectly putting pressure on the US while attracting China...

In addition, the closer relationship between North Korea and Russia has great diplomatic significance. North Korea’s attempt to shake off isolation is a show of its unity with China and Russia, and is also a show of force against South Korea, the US and Japan. Of course, it is unclear how the Chinese will show support or solidarity, but it would be preceded by an enhanced North Korea-Russia alliance, to build up unity between the three countries.

North Korea’s actions seem to signal that it is giving up on 30 years of efforts in normalising its relations with the US. Meanwhile, building close cooperative ties with North Korea is significant for Russia as a form of opposition to the South Korea-US-Japan tripartite, as well as a way to put pressure on the US.

Pedestrians walk in front of a sign displayed on the occasion of the 78th founding anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on 10 October 2023. (Kim Won Jin/AFP)
Pedestrians walk in front of a sign displayed on the occasion of the 78th founding anniversary of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on 10 October 2023. (Kim Won Jin/AFP)

This is because reinforced military cooperation between North Korea and Russia might divert attention from the conflict in Ukraine and from US efforts to step up deterrent measures in the Korean peninsula, which would inevitably result in an increase in nuclear tensions in the area.

Putin’s choice of Russia’s Far East as the meeting locale is especially noteworthy, as it emphasises to the rest of the world the significance of a meeting aimed at growing military collaboration with space technology at its core. This is Russia’s two-pronged strategy: indirectly putting pressure on the US while attracting China, and at the same time supporting the strengthening of North Korea’s military might.

A confrontational structure in the making

However, there is no guarantee that such close North Korea-Russia ties would develop in accordance with the wishes of the two countries; it might even become a self-destructive manoeuvre. Even though North Korea is ignoring US sanctions by supplying Russia with weapons, Russia might not give up its highly advanced nuclear submarine and reconnaissance satellite technology. Not only is the transfer of technology a long process, it would also be met with retaliation from the Chinese.

This is because a militarily strong North Korea with advanced technology would pose a direct threat towards its neighbour China, and North Korea could even stop listening to what Beijing has to say.

Russia is a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and has supported UN sanctions against North Korea. However, instead of fulfilling its international responsibilities, Russia is seeking military cooperation with North Korea in exchange for arms.

The pursuit of close ties between North Korea and Russia, both of which are under UN sanctions, could offset the means to deter North Korea from developing weapons of mass destruction, making international sanctions inevitable and thus accelerating the isolation of North Korea and Russia.

...if China joins in, a confrontational structure between South Korea, the US and Japan on one side and North Korea, China and Russia on the other will form. There is a real concern that such a confrontational structure could intensify.

This is Russia’s big mistake. In particular, Russia’s risky bet could pose a direct threat to South Korea. While South Korea-Russia relations are certainly important, if Putin directly provides Kim Jong-un with technologies that could harm South Korea, it will inevitably actively respond on the grounds of national security.

US President Joe Biden holds a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol during the trilateral summit at Camp David near Thurmont, Maryland, on 18 August 2023. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
US President Joe Biden holds a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol during the trilateral summit at Camp David near Thurmont, Maryland, US, 18 August 2023. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

China’s attitude is crucial under such circumstances. As South Korea, the US and Japan strengthened their trilateral relationship during a recent summit at Camp David, North Korea and Russia are building a united front against the West; if China joins in, a confrontational structure between South Korea, the US and Japan on one side and North Korea, China and Russia on the other will form. There is a real concern that such a confrontational structure could intensify.

A new Cold War?

While it is difficult for China to oppose North Korea-Russia interactions, it does not need to get embroiled in this structure or join hands with North Korea and Russia, which have been internationally shunned.

Russia, which is at its wits’ end, has no reason to hide its solidarity with North Korea, and China has no need to build a united front with North Korea and Russia to agitate the US. In particular, if China enters into this military cooperation, its opposition to South Korea-US military drills due to its belief that the drills would escalate the North Korean nuclear crisis would no longer hold water.

North Korea has been hoping to form a new Cold War structure by banding together with China and Russia.

Russia and North Korea are using each other to send a message of resistance to the US and the West. North Korea has been hoping to form a new Cold War structure by banding together with China and Russia. If a new Cold War structure is built, North Korea would be able to continue advancing its nuclear capabilities while relying on its biggest supporters, China and Russia, to make its possession of nuclear weapons a fait accompli.

If such a confrontational structure is formed, the war in Ukraine will most likely be prolonged and North Korea’s security threat to South Korea, the US and Japan will also increase. Ultimately, it could contribute to rising tensions not only on the Korean peninsula but also in East Asia and the world. Indeed, this would also be detrimental to China.

People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea on 13 September 2023. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP)
People watch a television screen showing a news broadcast with file footage of a North Korean missile test, at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea on 13 September 2023. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP)

The security threats facing South Korea are in no way subordinate to US-China or US-Russia relations. South Korea has few options in dealing with the looming security threat of North Korea’s nuclear programme. South Korea suffered the ravages of war and overcame the aftermath 70 years later to become the world’s tenth largest economy and cultural power.

While it still faces the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, it now hopes to establish itself as a model country committed to global values.

It must be reiterated that South Korea considers the South Korea-US-Japan cooperation as a defensive measure against the North Korean nuclear threat. Indeed, as South Korea continues to communicate with China and Russia to express that there is no reason to pursue a new Cold War, it also hopes that China will look at the situation rationally.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “中国没必要加入朝俄结构”.

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