January 5, 2024
PHNOM PENH – In SEPTEMBER 2023, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un paid a six-day visit to Russia, which was considered to be his longest foreign visit since he came to power. Kim’s visit was welcomed by top Russian leaders including President Vladimir Putin and Minister of Natural Resources Alexander Kozlov. The meeting between Kim and Putin aimed to enable cooperation between the two countries, particularly on arms exports and the exchange of military technology.
A month after Kim visited Russia, it was reported that North Korea provided “more than 1,000 containers of military equipment and munitions” to Russia in October alone. It was believed that North Korea has transferred two types of munitions to Russia – Soviet-era 122mm howitzer rounds and 122mm Grad rockets. Putin also promised to provide technological know-how and support for North Korea to modernise its military capabilities.
The military cooperation between the two countries has raised concerns among the international community as it could pose a threat to regional peace and stability.
The pact will enable North Korea to increase its military modernisation. Recently, North Korea claimed that it is aiming to launch more military spy satellites, build more military drones and enlarge its nuclear arsenal in 2024. The pact also helps Russia to sustain its invasion of Ukraine.
Who stands to lose most from this military cooperation?
While the US, Japan, South Korea and their allies in the Indo-pacific region have expressed concerns of a North Korea-Russia military pact, China has been staying quiet on the issue. However, it seems that China stands to lose the most from the growing military tie between the two authoritarian states.
In September 13 of 2023, China’s foreign ministry stated that the pact between North Korea and Russia is a matter of bilateral relations between the two countries and that North Korea remains China’s friendly neighbour.
While it is easier to assume that China could be content with a military agreement, as it could strengthen the China-led alliance to resist the West’s dominance of global affairs, China probably stands to lose more than gain from such a military pact, if we look at the three countries’ needs and goals. As mentioned earlier, the pact enables North Korea to get modern military technology support from Russia including military satellite technology and other advanced technology, which is crucial for North Korea’s arms modernisation.
North Korea is also able to replace its old and low-quality munitions and arms, which are being shipped to Russia. In return, Russia is acquiring a large amount of arms and ammunition for its war effort in Ukraine, after the being involved in a war of attribution for nearly two years. Strengthening ties with North Korea demonstrates Russia’s dire need of arms support.
On the contrary, China has different ambitions. While North Korea has been isolated from the international communityand Russia’s influence in the international arena is decreasing.
China is trying to strengthen its role and responsibility on the international stage and thus prefers to be a regional stabiliser and a responsible superpower rather than be perceived as a belligerent state.
This probably explains why China has been trying to play a more positive and constructive role in the region. In March 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Russia and met Putin. China’s foreign minister reiterated at the time that the visit aimed to provide a “constructive role in promoting talks for peace” in the Ukraine conflict. In the following month, Xi had a phone conversation with Ukrainian President
Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during which the Chinese leader raised the prospect of peace talks in the Ukraine conflict. China’s desire to be a peacemaker in the war is showing that it wants to be viewed as a benign superpower.
China successfully brokered a peace deal between countries in the region in March of 2023. It led the negotiation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which led to diplomatic resumption between the two. The deal contributed greatly to China’s image in the region as a potential peacemaker.
In addition, China still stands to gain more from its cooperation with the US and its allies in terms of economic cooperation and technological exchange.
By 2021, the US, Japan and South Korea were China’s key export destinations. China could face another trade war with the US and its allies if viewed as part of an alliance with North Korea and Russia. This is not a good scenario for China, especially while its economy is slowing down.
Finally, the growing military cooperation between North Korea and Russia means that China is gradually losing control over the two authoritarian countries. China prefers to maintain and increase its influence on
North Korea and Russia. North Korea has relied on food and energy imports from China. In the first two months of 2023, it was reported that North Korea’s food imports from China increased 161.5 per cent compared to the previous year.
However, Russia could be another source for North Korea’s imports, including of food and energy. By April 2023, Russia started its first shipment of around 67,300 barrels of refined petroleum to North Korea after being halted since August 2020.
The growing relations between North Korea and Russia could lessen the latter’s dependency on China, which could in turn reduce Chinese influence on the Kremlin. The US’ Office of the Director of National
Intelligence released a report in July 2023 indicating that China has helped to maintain Russia’s economy. The report revealed that Russia’s exports to China reached $114 billion by 2022, estimated to increase 43% compared to the previous year.
China also imported 50 per cent of Russia’s natural gas. The data suggested that Russian exports depend heavily on the Chinese market. Russia’s dependency could be reduced if it can diversify its export destinations.
Overall, it seems that China is the one who is most concerned about the growing military alliance between North Korea and Russia. On one side, China could lose its influence over North Korea and Russia. It could also negatively affect China’s role as a regional stabiliser.