The Russia-China-DPRK Strategic Triangle: Phantom Threat or Geopolitical Reality?

Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to meet with North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Putin’s trip to Pyongyang, which is expected to occur later this month, has been greeted with enthusiasm in North Korea. On Russia’s National Day on June 12, Kim Jong Un described North Korea as an “invincible comrade-in-arms” with Russia and claimed that his meeting with Putin last year elevated the “century-old strategic relationship” between Russia and North Korea.

When Putin visits Pyongyang, both Russia and North Korea will be closely monitoring China’s perceptions of the trip. Speculation has been brewing about the creation of a Russia-China-North Korea strategic triangle; but does it have substantive foundations?

On March 28, Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution that would have extended the activities of the UN Panel of Experts sanctions committee on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) for twelve months. China abstained from this resolution, while the remainder of the UNSC voted to extend the committee’s mandate. The US responded by condemning Russia’s vote and critically arguing that China’s abstention “once again showed the Council where it stands on curbing Pyongyang’s proliferation.”

Russia and China’s complementary UNSC votes on the UN Panel of Experts intensified fears in Washington about a Russia-China-DPRK trilateral axis in Northeast Asia. The pillars of this trilateral pact are a shared desire to overstretch the US’s military capabilities, joint support for Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and an inclination to enhance the combat readiness of their military-technical equipment. The shared revanchist ambitions of Russia, China and North Korea, which include disrespect for state sovereignty, add another strategic layer to this trilateral axis. Alongside Iran, Andrea-Kendall Taylor and Richard Fontaine compellingly argue that Russia, China and North Korea have formed an “Axis of Upheaval” that seeks to reshape the global order.

While Russia’s synchronous expansion of cooperation with China and North Korea is cause for concern, the trilateral dimension should not be exaggerated. In contrast to the solidity of Cold War-era alliance blocs, however, neither Moscow nor Beijing is willing to firmly acknowledge the existence of a trilateral axis with Pyongyang. The complex dynamics between Russia, China and the DPRK reflect different strategic interests, historical tensions, and divergent perspectives of regional security. These contradictions challenge the narrative of a unified trilateral axis, but do not preclude sweeping changes to the global order.

Russian and Chinese Perspectives of the Russia-China-DPRK Strategic Triangle

Aside from Sino-Soviet cooperation during the 1950-1953 Korean War, trilateral cooperation between the Soviet Union, China and North Korea proved illusory during the Cold War. North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Il Sung’s vacillating relationships with his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev and Chinese counterpart Mao Zedong thwarted the formation of a trilateral axis, and the late 1950s Sino-Soviet Split prevented strategic cooperation between the three countries on Northeast Asian security.

Even as relations between Moscow and Beijing thawed, Russian reticence prevented the formation of a strategic triangle with North Korea. During the early 1990s, many Russian elites were scathingly opposed to North Korea’s Stalinist system and believed that North Korea would descend into violent chaos after Kim Il Sung’s death. Russian ultranationalists saw North Korea as a battleground against Chinese influence, while Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) simultaneously embraced closer ties with North Korea and Taiwan. Fascist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin predicted that a Russia-Japan axis would merge with North Korea, the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) and Vietnam, and counter China in Eurasia.

As Russia and China’s relations with the West deteriorated in recent years, both countries have viewed the US’s security footprint in the Indo-Pacific with alarm. In 2023, Alexander Vorontsov, the main Korea expert at Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies, warned that the US-ROK-Japan trilateral partnership could mesh with AUKUS and the QUAD to create a “system of new military-political structures in Asia.” Chinese media outlets have similarly warned of the dire security implications of “NATO-ization” of the Indo-Pacific region.

Many Russian experts view the creation of a Russia-China-DPRK axis as an inevitable consequence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) expanding footprint in the Indo-Pacific region. In September 2022, Kirill Kotkov, the head of the Center for the Study of Far Eastern Countries in St. Petersburg, predicted that “The DPRK, together with China and Russia, will create some kind of alliance as a counterweight to the Western world.” In August 2023, Vitaly Sovin, an expert at Moscow’s Valdai Discussion Club, argued that AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States), the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Washington Declaration between the US and South Korea created a Russia-China-DPRK strategic triangle. Sovin claimed that this triangle could exist even without Russian security guarantees for Pyongyang, as North Korea has the military capabilities to defend its sovereignty.

Despite this narrative’s proliferation, it is not universally accepted in Moscow and is even less popular in Beijing. Konstantin Asmolov, a researcher at the Institute of China and Modern Asia’s Center for Korean Studies, argues that the Russia-China-DPRK axis narrative is based on fabrications and seeks to justify the creation of an Asian NATO. Asmolov also maintains that Russia’s courtship of North Korean military equipment was simply a warning shot against South Korea’s munitions deliveries to Ukraine.

Chinese commentator Zhao Long argues that a trilateral axis conflicts with China’s opposition to binary “friend and enemy thinking.” Long contends that all three countries simply have a common desire to prevent the targeting of specific countries and combat the West’s “Cold War mentality.” While Long’s contentions mirror long-standing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talking points, they underscore the limits of China’s alignment with Russia and North Korea.

The Limited Foundations of Russia-China-DPRK Trilateral Cooperation

Since North Korea’s arms shipments to Russia commenced in the second half of 2023, China has resisted US pressure to curb Pyongyang’s arms transfers and provided small-scale logistical assistance to these exports. In October 2023, US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Sung Kim raised the issue of DPRK-Russia military cooperation with his Chinese counterpart Liu Xiaoming. China was unmoved by the US’s pleas for Beijing to exert leverage over North Korea’s conduct. The sanctioned Russian vessel Angara, which has moved thousands of containers of North Korean munitions into Russian ports, has been stationed at a shipyard in eastern Zhejiang Province since February 2024.

China’s enabling role in DPRK-Russia trade is not just driven by anti-Americanism; it also has potentially noteworthy strategic drivers. Ahead of Putin’s May 2024 meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing, the constraining role of the Russia-DPRK border on China’s access to the Sea of Japan gained attention. A May 2024 article co-authored by four experts from Dalian Maritime University argued that Sea of Japan (East Sea) access would enhance China’s Arctic trade and further its vision for a Polar Silk Road. The article claimed that the development of these trade routes could revitalize Northeast China’s economy, which has been declining since 2015.

To rectify this problem, both Russia and China agreed to hold “constructive dialogue” with North Korea on allowing Chinese vessels to navigate from the Tumen River to the Sea of Japan. China’s request has a legal grounding, as its access to the Tumen River was codified by the 1991 Sino-Soviet Border Agreement. For China to follow through on its legal rights, it will have to engage in extensive dredging of the Tumen River. North Korea fears the costs of this dredging process and the potential for Tumen River navigation to restrict Chinese investment in its ports. China’s indirect support for Pyongyang’s arms transfers to Russia, which has resulted in an influx of agricultural products and oil into North Korea, could make it more open to a compromise on this thorny issue.

The Sources of Friction in the Russia-China-DPRK Trilateral Axis

Notwithstanding the ongoing expansion of Sino-Russian bilateral cooperation, the divergences in Russia and China’s views on Indo-Pacific security have sharpened. The Sino-Russian cleavage over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is especially pronounced. On the one hand, China has dismissed the notion that North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling is unilaterally aggressive and attributed the crisis on the Korean Peninsula to the breakdown of diplomatic relations between external stakeholders. On the other hand, China regards North Korea’s escalatory actions as a catalyst for the US to deploy additional strategic nuclear-capable assets to the Indo-Pacific region.

Russia has no such qualms about North Korea’s nuclear program. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), which has an ultranationalist ideological bent, has supported North Korea’s right to pursue a nuclear deterrent for years. In November 2017, CPRF leader Gennady Zyuganov declared, “The North Koreans will not give up their nuclear program. Why should they do this? Will the Americans give up threats and blackmail? The nuclear program is a form of protection.” During the August 2023 Moscow Security Conference, the CPRF’s views were ensconced into mainstream Kremlin thinking. GRU chief Igor Kostyukov argued that North Korea saw nuclear weapons as “the only guarantee” of its security from US aggression.

Due to these divergences, the expansion of North Korea’s security cooperation with Russia is unlikely to correspond with the rapid growth of Pyongyang’s military-technical cooperation with China. While the Kremlin has openly discussed Russia-China-DPRK drills, Russian experts believe North Korea’s security cooperation with China will remain limited. Artyom Lukin, an expert on Indo-Pacific security at Vladivostok’s Far Eastern University, states that in the security sphere, “Russia now acts as a political equal and, therefore, a more comfortable partner for North Korea.”

Lukin cited North Korea’s mistrust of China’s imperial past and Beijing’s desire to avoid the expansion of US-Japan-ROK cooperation as limiting factors. Building on this logic, the head of Russia’s Council of Foreign and Defense Policy, Sergei Karaganov, views Russia’s relationship with the two Koreas as a “friendly balancing” of ties with China and maintains that Moscow can play a lead role in preventing Washington from instigating war on the Korean Peninsula.

Despite the intensification of Russia-China cooperation and the drastic expansion of Russia-DPRK security collaboration, a trilateral axis between the three countries remains illusory. In fact, Russia and China’s geopolitical interests might be best suited if their cooperation with North Korea continues along independent tracks.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea