Pyongyang has abandoned any rapprochement with Washington.
This week, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Uzbekistan. Xi’s trip, which includes both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, will be his first time outside of China’s borders since the COVID-19 pandemic started two and a half years ago—a sign of confidence that his absence won’t mean trouble ahead of the upcoming 20th Party Congress, and perhaps also a convenient excuse for frank words with Putin. The meeting will be their first face-to-face encounter since they declared an “no limits” partnership just before Russia invaded Ukraine, a rhetorical arrangement that has largely backfired for China in the face of global anger and Russian military catastrophes.
But while attention has focused on China’s reaction to the Ukraine war, the partnership has another major security implication: North Korea’s decision to draw closer to both countries as Pyongyang categorically rules out negotiating with Washington over its nuclear weapons program.
On Aug. 15, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a message to Putin to mark the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Kim hailed what he described as the growing “strategic and tactical cooperation, support and solidarity” between the two nations.
Two weeks earlier, on Aug. 1, as China celebrated the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, North Korean Defense Minister Ri Yong Gil had sent a message to his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe. According to Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency, “the message stressed that the Korean People’s Army would closely wage strategic and tactic coordinated operations with the [Chinese military].”
The language in both cases was striking. It marked the first time that Pyongyang had used the phrase “strategic and tactical” (emphasis added) cooperation to describe its security relations with Moscow and Beijing.
“We haven’t seen anything like this,” noted one former American intelligence official with long experience following North Korea, who asked for anonymity given the sensitivity of their work. “I am afraid this is a forewarning of what may be coming.”
Now, according to a U.S. intelligence finding, Russia is in the process of buying millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea for its ongoing war in Ukraine. While media coverage of the development has focused on what it means for Moscow’s ability—or inability—to supply its own armed forces, the broader implication is the prospect of enhanced military ties among North Korea, Russia, and China, with potentially significant consequences for security in Northeast Asia.
The two statements and the news of the arms supply deal were the latest in a series of North Korean moves to draw even closer to the two countries that were already its best friends. The crucial turning point appears to have been Putin and Xi’s February declaration of the “no limits” partnership.
The declaration highlighted a changing geopolitical landscape, in which Moscow and Beijing appeared more willing than ever to join forces, particularly to challenge the United States, which China increasingly views as a declining power in Asia. For Kim, it was a moment to double down on his already close ties with both nations. In the process, the North Korean leader abandoned altogether what little hope he may have still held of improving relations with the United States.
For all North Korea’s anti-American rhetoric, going back to Kim’s grandfather Kim Il Sung, it had long seen a rapprochement—a deal to trade its nuclear program in return for diplomatic and economic ties—with Washington as a means to reduce the country’s dependence on its two giant neighbors. This dynamic reached a climax with Kim’s two summit meetings with then-U.S. President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019. Now, however, as former State Department Korea expert Evans Revere told me, “With the bromance gone, Kim Jong Un has written the U.S. off.”
North Korea has never acknowledged the possibility of surrendering its nuclear weapons, but the language against such an option has grown stronger in recent months. On Sept. 8, Kim announced that Pyongyang would “never give up nuclear weapons … and there is absolutely no denuclearization, no negotiation, and no bargaining chip to trade in the process.” He also outlined conditions under which North Korea would actually use its weapons and raised the possibility of preemptive use if his regime felt under threat.
This development came after months in which North Korea has gone overboard in its already fulsome support for Moscow and Beijing. It was one of only five nations to vote at the United Nations against a motion condemning the invasion of Ukraine, although many abstained, and its support for Russia has become increasingly vociferous. In July, it became the only nation apart from Russia and Syria to recognize the two so-called republics Russia has created in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
And while the prospect of Pyongyang deploying military personnel to help the Russians in Ukraine still seems far-fetched, officials in the so-called republics and in Moscow have openly speculated about North Korean laborers being sent to help restore facilities damaged in the fighting, a step that would also provide Pyongyang with badly needed income.
Meanwhile, North Korea vociferously denounced U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan as “unforgivable,” and voiced support for “all the strong, just and legitimate steps taken by the Chinese army and government to resolutely repel the U.S. arbitrariness … and achieve the cause of China’s reunification.”
China and Russia have reciprocated, blocking new U.N. sanctions against North Korea for its continuing missile tests, calling for the lifting of some sanctions already in place, and pledging enhanced economic and security cooperation. For his part, Xi has declared that Beijing is prepared to “develop the China-DPRK relations of friendship and cooperation” under a “new situation,” while Putin, in response to Kim’s Aug. 15 message, said he was ready to “expand comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations.”
News of the North’s arms shipments to Moscow, which would be a violation of U.N. resolutions that ban the country from exporting weapons to or importing them from other nations, provided one indication of what the new rhetorical formulation of “tactical cooperation” may mean in practice. Given North Korea’s long-standing policy of juche, or self-reliance, it is difficult to imagine Pyongyang granting access to its airfields and ports, even to close allies—but, in a sign of how much the geopolitical landscape has changed, knowledgeable observers say that possibility can no longer be completely ruled out.
“Anyone who thinks it’s going to stop at a supply of ammunition needs to have their head examined,” the former U.S. intelligence analyst said. “The North Koreans are up to their necks in this anti-U.S. struggle. That suggests to me it won’t be too much of a step for them to open their territory to Russian military. I’d guess they are already talking about it.”
Certainly Moscow and Beijing have stepped up their own joint military exercises in the Asia-Pacific, including flying bombers close to Japan and South Korea during a visit by U.S. President Joe Biden in May, forcing both countries to scramble fighter jets in response. Moreover, in late August, Russian warplanes entered South Korea’s air defense identification zone, leading Seoul to deploy F-16 fighter jets to shadow the Russian aircraft.
Short of that, as Revere pointed out, “it is easy to see North Korea trying to figure out how to attach itself to some kind of Chinese-Russian military exercise or broader strategic cooperation.”
For Pyongyang, such enhanced cooperation could bring immediate and urgently needed benefits, including supplies of food, fuel, spare parts—and possibly even COVID-19 vaccines. As former Pentagon Asia expert Drew Thompson, now at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, observed, the new rhetorical formulation “is completely necessary for the implementation phase of whatever they are agreeing. They need that political framework at the highest levels to accomplish these tasks.”
With Washington seeking to beef up its own alliances in Asia as relations with Moscow and Beijing deteriorate, it is hardly surprising that both countries would seek to enlist North Korea as an even more active strategic asset to challenge the American position in the Pacific. It may not yet be a new “axis of evil,” but it is a worrisome trend in a volatile part of the world. /foreignpolicy.com