Home Asia China Cautious as Russia and North Korea Strengthen Ties

China Cautious as Russia and North Korea Strengthen Ties


On Wednesday, Chinese officials observed from the sidelines as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un engaged in discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Pyongyang. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lin Jian described the summit as a bilateral exchange between Russia and North Korea but did not elaborate further.

“China has certain reservations regarding North Korea’s deepening military cooperation with Russia, which could undermine Beijing’s near monopoly of geopolitical influence over Pyongyang,” stated Tong Zhao of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He added that China is cautious not to create the perception of an alliance among Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang, as this would hinder China’s cooperation with key Western countries.

Geopolitical Dynamics

Since North Korea eased its anti-pandemic border controls last year, trade with China has increased. However, Kim Jong Un’s political engagements have been more focused on Russia. Kim made his first post-pandemic trip to Russia to meet Putin last year, and Putin’s recent visit marks the first by a world leader to North Korea since its borders reopened.

The United States and its allies have accused Russia of using North Korean-made ballistic missiles, banned by UN Security Council resolutions, in Ukraine. While China declared a “no limits” relationship with Russia just before the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Beijing has refrained from supplying weapons and ammunition for the conflict.

China has supported Russia in blocking new sanctions on North Korea at the Security Council but abstained when Moscow vetoed the extension of a panel monitoring sanctions enforcement. Tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang have also been noted over North Korean workers remaining in China in violation of UN resolutions, according to a South Korean government official.

Strategic Calculations

China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and the two nations share a mutual defence treaty dating back to the 1960s. Despite the enduring relationship, Kim Jong Un’s engagement with Putin introduces new uncertainties for China, according to Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.

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Sun noted that closer ties between Russia and North Korea could distract the United States, which might be beneficial for Beijing. However, she cautioned that China must avoid framing the relationship as a trilateral arrangement, which could carry significant liabilities.

Regional And International Concerns

While China frequently clashes with Washington on foreign policy and trade, it remains more integrated into the global community than Russia and North Korea. Beijing’s top trade partners last year included the United States, Japan and South Korea.

North Korea issued a rare public rebuke of China after Chinese Premier Li Qiang discussed the North’s nuclear weapons with the leaders of South Korea and Japan at a summit in May. Coinciding with Putin’s visit to North Korea, senior Chinese foreign and defence officials visited Seoul on Wednesday. During the discussions, South Korea expressed concerns about Putin’s visit, while China expressed hope that exchanges between Russia and North Korea would contribute to regional peace and stability.

Niklas Swanstrom, Director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Sweden, highlighted that China’s primary focus is on trade and economic rebuilding. “China wants to do trade, rebuild its economy; they have other more important concerns,” he said.

With inputs from Reuters