The US is currently facing challenges from its adversaries in Northeast Asia: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s military build-up on the Taiwan Strait and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK or North Korea) ongoing testing of advanced missiles.
As military tensions between the US and North Korea’s greatest allies, China and Russia, grow, Pyongyang has unequivocally supported Moscow and Beijing through sharpened criticism of US policy. North Korea, in a commentary on the Foreign Ministry’s website this week, expressed its clear position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the US-China confrontation in the Asia-Pacific region. North Korea defended Russia and blamed the US as the “root cause of the Ukrainian crisis” since the US disregarded “Russia’s reasonable and just demand…for security.” Similarly, North Korea has also lambasted the US for its intention to refurbish its long-term plan to isolate China in the Asia-Pacific region.
Moreover, as strategic competition between the US and China has grown, both countries have sought to recruit ideological allies in their race against each other for global hegemony. Biden’s strategy for deterring China’s military rise has been to strengthen US alliances in Asia. However, the net effect of US efforts to strengthen ties with South Korea and Japan has been a convergence of interests and strengthened cooperation among China, Russia and North Korea. These developments all seem to suggest an emerging strategic triangle aimed at reducing US influence in the region and promoting a multipolar international system.
New Year Strategy Against the US
Few details were reported about the plenary meeting of the Korean Workers’ Party’s Eighth Central Committee meeting, held on December 27-31, 2021. Kim’s speech at that meeting replaced his usual New Year’s Day address, making it impossible to get a real sense of the DPRK’s 2022 foreign policy direction or priorities. The only clues revealed were that “principled issues” and relevant strategic directions to cope with the rapidly changing international political situation were reviewed.
While “principled issues” does not provide much information, the phrase would seem to indicate that Pyongyang will continue with its “frontal breakthrough” and “power for power” approach as its external strategy, in line with Kim’s earlier pledge during the Eighth Party Congress in 2021 to strengthen national military capabilities. However, and more importantly, the DPRK’s foreign policy plans for this year appear to have been recently recalibrated to account for the emergence of new geopolitical realities: confrontation between Russia and the US over Ukraine and between China and the US over Taiwan.
Since the start of this year, North Korea has already exerted pressure on the US by demonstrating its missile capabilities eight different times, and Kim Jong Un has implied the possibility of the DPRK breaking its moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing. For North Korea, the timing couldn’t be better to confront the US through the formation of a united front with Russia and China in order to deter current US policy towards these three countries.
No Sanctions, but Aid
Pyongyang is not singular in its actions to strengthen ties with China and Russia, as both countries also appear to be increasingly supportive of the regime in Pyongyang. On January 20, 2022, China and Russia blocked the United Nations (UN) Security Council from imposing further sanctions against North Korea for its recent missile tests. China told the Security Council it needed more time to study the sanctions, while Russia said more evidence was needed to back the US request. Moreover, in recent years, China and Russia have often pushed the UN to lift international sanctions on North Korea for humanitarian reasons and have encouraged further negotiations.
Meanwhile, the DPRK has loosened its pandemic restrictions and, in January of this year, resumed train operations between Sinuiju and Dandong to receive humanitarian aid from China. On February 7, 2022, Russia and North Korea discussed strengthening bilateral ties and have shown signs of preparing to partially resume trade between these two countries as well.
China and Russia’s vetoing of further sanctions against and sending economic aid to North Korea have served as a driving force for Kim to continue to push forward his WMD development plans. It also means that as long as relations with China and Russia are in good standing, their support will cushion the DPRK against further US punitive measures. As seen in recent months, this support has enabled North Korea to test freely and frequently, as evidenced in January through just prior to the Beijing Olympic Winter Games, advancing its missile capabilities with few repercussions.
However, the question of what strategic benefits China and Russia gain from North Korea’s nuclear weapon development remains unclear. One aim of North Korea’s missile testing appears to be to confirm the vulnerability of US and Republic of Korea (ROK) missile defense systems, including Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), to North Korea’s new ballistic missiles. The data from these tests would also serve as useful references for China and Russia when it comes to upgrading their missile capabilities to overwhelm US defense systems.
Furthermore, China and Russia are always seeking ways to reduce US military influence in Northeast Asia. If US-DPRK talks are resumed in the future, terminating US-ROK military drills and withdrawing US strategic weapons from South Korea could potentially be presented as appropriate corresponding measures to North Korean concessions on the nuclear front—all of which would serve Chinese and Russian interests as well.
Despite China and Russia’s official opposition to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, the continued survival of the regime is of interest to Beijing and Moscow as it can serve as a buffer state against US influence. As North Korea’s WMDs provide a reliable deterrent against a potential US attack on the North Korean regime, it appears to be a cost China and Russia are willing to bear.
Long-Term Survival Strategy
Kim Jong Un clearly stands to benefit from the increasing antagonistic relationships between China and Russia and the US. The current polarized security architecture has created additional challenges for resolving the North Korea nuclear issue. Beijing and Moscow are willing, for now, to make strengthening ties with Pyongyang a higher priority than denuclearization, to deter the expansion of America and its allies in the region. This approach creates problems for the US and its alliances in fomenting an international consensus on the complete denuclearization of North Korea and creates space for Kim Jong Un to continue testing advanced nuclear and missile technologies.
Generally, repeated missile testing by the DPRK has been seen as an effort to increase leverage over the US. However, at this time, North Korea is not just trying to get the United States to resume negotiations, but may be to push the US to first make concessions, such as lifting sanctions and terminating joint military drills. Both of which are actions that China and Russia would also like to see. The success of this will depend on if Kim Jong Un can convince the US to change its fundamental policy, or “hostile policy” toward North Korea before talks could be resumed.
Furthermore, since nuclear weapons are the most useful source for ensuring the regime’s long-term survival, Kim Jong Un is not using them as a bargaining chip anymore. North Korea has learned the importance of possessing nuclear weapons from the experiences of other countries facing long-term threats from the US or other global superpowers. The latest lesson would be Ukraine, now embroiled in conflict with Russia, after having dismantled its nuclear weapons three decades ago.
At its current pace, North Korea is projected to have a significant number of ICBMs over the next few years. If Pyongyang eventually reaches this level of nuclear capacity, the changed power structure in Northeast Asia could undermine regional security and create instability in Seoul and Tokyo.
As North Korea’s nuclear threat to South Korea and Japan continues to grow, the credibility of US extended deterrence also gets called into question. Possible options for the US to offer its allies are the installation of further missile defense systems, the deployment of intermediate-range, nuclear-capable delivery systems and tactical nuclear weapons, and, in extreme circumstances, authorizing indigenous nuclear weapon development. Despite ongoing political debates and public opposition, these options and countermeasures suggest that further advancements and deployments of nuclear arms in South Korea and Japan would not only significantly reduce the impact of North Korea’s nuclear weapons in the region but should undermine the Chinese and Russian nuclear strategies as well.
Given this situation, China and Russia might do well to consider whether they have reason to be concerned about the mid- to longer-term geopolitical implications of an unrestrained North Korean nuclear weapons program. These considerations should compel China, Russia and the US to issue an urgent call for an arms control dialogue in Northeast Asia to prevent nuclear armaments in South Korea and Japan, and encourage nuclear disarmament in North Korea, China and Russia, as well as the cessation of US nuclear arms in the region.
“Answer of Spokesperson for Ministry of Foreign Affairs of DPRK,” KCNA, February 28, 2022.
Also see: “Offensive for Making Frontal Breakthrough—Struggle to Neutralize Sanctions and Pressure by Hostile Forces and Open New Avenue for Socialist Construction,” KASS, March 11, 2020; and “Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory: On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” DPRK Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 9, 2021.