North Korean leader Kim Jong-un insisted on making a high-profile trip to Russia to meet with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, despite repeated hints or warnings from Washington. In the event, the consensus reached by the two sides was impressive, with Russia continuing to provide assistance to North Korea in defence and satellite technology, and the North Korean side reportedly providing munitions support to Russia amid the protracted Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Just these two points alone may have a profound impact on the situation in the region, with Washington losing room for strategic manoeuvring in the Korean peninsula.
A video released by ACTV, the Atlantic Council’s new video channel, commented that the meeting between Kim and Putin “marks a step toward a new axis of authoritarianism between Russia, North Korea and China” and “means that the level of cooperation between these three authoritarian states could pose a whole new level of challenge to the international order”.
... the Biden administration’s policy in the Korean peninsula has become more and more Cold War in nature.
US leading the world into a new Cold War?
Amid these developments, the US has been seeking to shape a new “regional order” in the Northeast Asian region, which has long been part of the “international order” favoured by the US and the West.
Biden’s Asia policy, for instance with regard to getting tough on China, has essentially been inherited from Donald Trump’s time, even though the Biden administration has not been able to pull off Trump’s out-of-the-box manoeuvring and idiosyncratic maverick approach, such as unexpectedly crossing the 38th parallel for a historic handshake with Kim Jong-un.
Biden’s “old-school” decision-making style and wait-and-see attitude on North Korea have limited the US government’s policy options in that region. Therefore, from the promotion of NATO’s entry into Asia to the establishment of the trilateral “quasi-alliance” between the US, Japan and South Korea, as seen in the 18 August “historic trilateral summit at Camp David” involving the US, Japan and the ROK, the Biden administration’s policy in the Korean peninsula has become more and more Cold War in nature.
Meanwhile, South Korea has made inroads in cultivating arms sales relationships with NATO members. For example, a Reuters article pointed out that an arms deal with Poland in 2022 included hundreds of rocket launchers, K2 tanks, K9 self-propelled howitzers, and FA-50 fighter aircraft, and that “the deal’s value and the number of weapons involved made it stand out even among the world’s biggest defence players”. A New York Times article also notes that South Korea “leveraged its arms industry for exports, winning multibillion-dollar contracts to sell tanks, howitzers, warplanes, missiles and armoured vehicles to help feed the demand, driven in part, by the war in Ukraine”.
This is not a bad development for Washington — at the very least it helps to solidify relations between US traditional allies. But signs of fire often appear in your own backyard.
Doubts in the US and West
As the domestic political situation, especially the electoral situation, escalates in the US, more Americans are tired and even weary of protracted aid to Ukraine. According to a new CNN poll conducted by an independent research company, “most Americans oppose Congress authorising additional funding to support Ukraine in its war with Russia”. A NPR article also notes that more and more conservative families, especially those in rural communities, want military and financial aid to Ukraine to end.
There are also concerns in Europe, with some populations expressing weariness with the long-drawn war and what impact this will have on their lives and economies. In Germany for instance, while a European parliament report in March 2023 pointed out that Germany’s military support for Ukraine is supported by a relative majority of 47%, debate in Germany has been rife in government and within society on the extent of Germany’s commitment. Thus, on issues where the unity of the Western world is at stake, key US allies will have their own considerations.
This is not a good sign for the unique and unchallengeable US leadership in Western society and the world that the Biden administration seeks to revert to. A sound logic is that Russia is the enemy, the US is the leader, and we need to act in unison at all times. But even the most loyal allies ultimately have their own priorities and concerns.
... Washington is exhausting all resources and means to encircle China but ultimately may find the alliance less solid than expected, and there could be repercussions.
Little control over the situation
In fact, there are many indications that the US and the West do not necessarily have a very complete and sustainable advantage on issues concerning Russia, the Russo-Ukrainian war, and the so-called “Russia-China-DPRK axis”. Going back to Northeast Asia, the extremely complicated historical disputes between South Korea and Japan can never be completely resolved by a government with a conservative stance, merely by snapping your fingers. Also, South Korea and Japan, no matter how much they “diversify” their overseas investments and markets, will not be able to completely ignore China, the world’s second-largest economy.
But at this moment, Washington is still showing great enthusiasm for encircling China. Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once made a famous point: when you surround an army, leave an outlet free, and do not press a desperate foe too hard (围师必阙). Now, Washington is exhausting all resources and means to encircle China but ultimately may find the alliance less solid than expected, and there could be repercussions. For example, the Biden administration is trying to pull together Japan and South Korea to limit China’s semiconductor chip industry, but the US manufacturers at home are also suffering. Quoting a US industry group, a Wall Street Journal article noted that restricting chip sales to China could backfire on the US.
Achieving the opposite effect?
Still, the Biden administration is blowing its trumpet very loudly: striking Russia, restricting China, isolating the DPRK, and at the same time creating a new Cold War situation in the Korean peninsula in which the US, Japan and the ROK (or even expanding to the United Nations and the international community) are duelling with Russia, China and the DPRK, and attributing the root cause of all this to the new formation of the “axis” between Russia-China-DPRK.
Still, China and Russia are by no means "allies" with treaty-based responsibilities and obligations towards each other, let alone an "axis of evil" that would launch attacks against a "common enemy".
To a certain extent, this is in fact a geopolitical imagination. Non-alignment is one of the basic principles of Chinese diplomacy, and China itself is, in fact, well aware of the limitations and costs of "alliance". Although the relationship between China and the DPRK contains some historical as well as political party ties, there is more than enough evidence (e.g., DPRK's insistence on developing nuclear weapons despite opposition from all sides, including China, and its withdrawal from the Six-Party Talks, which China had worked so hard to build, etc.) to prove that the China-DPRK relationship is not what the US and the West call an "alliance" relationship, let alone an "axis of evil".
Likewise, the Sino-Russian relationship is the so-called "China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era", which means that the two countries collaborate on several strategic issues. Still, China and Russia are by no means "allies" with treaty-based responsibilities and obligations towards each other, let alone an "axis of evil" that would launch attacks against a "common enemy".
The real danger is that of sleepwalking into another unintended war “at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy”. Former US Defence Secretary William Perry did warn the public in 2017 that “we’re sleepwalking into a nuclear war”. Importantly, the overall inconsistency in Washington’s North Korea policies since the 1990s, which continues in Washington under the Biden administration, may generate further unexpected outcomes.
Related: Why Kim Jong-un’s first trip after the pandemic was not to China, but Russia | Instead of seeking support from others, Xi and Biden must meet again | A China-North Korea summit may be good for the world | The world is no longer safe from a nuclear war