On April 15, 2017, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made an emergency phone call to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the burgeoning security crisis on the Korean peninsula. During their correspondence, Wang Yi requested Russia’s help in preventing a conflict between the United States and North Korea from taking place.
Even though Russia and China are North Korea’s most important international allies, collaboration between Moscow and Beijing on the Korean security crisis has historically been confined to a multilateral rather than a bilateral framework.
The recent upsurge in bilateral cooperation between Moscow and Beijing on North Korea can be explained by two factors. First, both Russia and China stridently oppose a unilateral U.S. military strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities. Second, Russian and Chinese officials believe that Moscow-Pyongyang and Beijing-Pyongyang bilateral diplomacy can pressure Kim Jong-Un to transition towards a more peaceful foreign policy course.
Joint Sino-Russian Opposition to U.S. Unilateralism Against North Korea
Even though Russia and China have rhetorically criticized North Korea’s nuclear tests and ballistic missile program, both countries have consistently opposed a military intervention to disarm North Korea of its nuclear capabilities. As the Trump administration has expressed its willingness to use military force to resolve the Korean peninsula security crisis, Moscow’s and Beijing’s concerns about an imminent U.S. military strike against Pyongyang have become more pronounced than during previous phases of heightened North Korean belligerence.
Cooperation between Russia and China against a unilateral U.S. military strike on North Korea has consisted of systematic violations of international sanctions and military activities aimed at deterring a U.S. military intervention. As the 2003 Iraq War and 2011 Libyan intervention demonstrated Washington’s tendency to use stringent economic isolation as a precursor to forceful regime change, Moscow and Beijing have violated carte blanche UN sanctions against the North Korean economy, and supported more limited punitive measures against the DPRK’s military-industrial complex.
Data released by the Chinese government on April 13 revealed that North Korea’s trade with China grew by 37.4 percent compared to the first quarter of 2016. This increase in trade between Beijing and Pyongyang is a striking repudiation of Trump’s calls for increased Chinese economic pressure against the DPRK, and highlights Beijing’s opposition to what it perceives as U.S. economic warfare against Kim Jong-un’s regime.
Russia’s resistance to the economic isolation of North Korea is equally noteworthy. In March 2017, the director of the Migration Department at the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs traveled to Pyongyang to discuss an expansion of North Korean labor shipments to Russia. As Russia’s economic situation has improved in recent months, the demand for North Korean workers in western Russia and their traditional destinations in Siberia is likely to increase, diluting U.S.-led attempts to economically isolate Pyongyang from global markets.
In addition to systematic non-compliance with UN sanctions, Russian and Chinese policymakers have made military pledges and maneuvers aimed at foiling a potential U.S. strike against Pyongyang. These efforts are likely to be less effective deterrents to US unilateralism than the economic levers that Moscow and Beijing possess. This suggests that policy cohesion between Russia and China on North Korea is largely motivated by a desire to express symbolic solidarity against the Trump administration’s increasingly belligerent policies towards the DPRK.
To highlight Moscow’s opposition to a unilateral strike against North Korea, Russian officials authorized the movement of military personnel to the North Korean border on April 20. Even though leading experts on Russian military strategy, like Brookings Institution non-resident fellow Pavel Baev, believe that a Russian military escalation has little credibility in the Asia-Pacific region, Russia’s military buildup near the DPRK demonstrates its willingness to assist China’s efforts to deter a U.S. military intervention against Pyongyang.
Even though reports that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) plans to amass 150,000 troops near the North Korean border remain unsubstantiated, China’s proposed mobilization of bomber aircraft and live-fire drills near the North Korean coast demonstrate its opposition to a US military assault against the DPRK.
The Chinese government’s willingness to engage in dialogue with the Trump administration on restraining North Korea’s nuclear ambitions differs from Russia’s more confrontational attitude towards Washington’s DPRK strategy. But Beijing’s emphasis on deterring a U.S. military intervention against Kim Jong-Un’s regime has synergy with Russia’s intentions, and tangibly underscores the solidarity against a U.S. military strike on Pyongyang expressed by Wang Yi and Lavrov during their April 15 correspondence.
Bilateral Diplomacy and the Russia-China Axis Against US Unilateralism in North Korea
In addition to implementing complementary economic support and military deterrence strategies, Russian and Chinese policymakers have simultaneously highlighted the effectiveness of bilateral engagement with the DPRK regime in their attempts to defuse the Korean security crisis. Coercive diplomacy employed by Moscow and Beijing towards North Korea has been characterized by two consistent themes which undercut the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s prevailing assumptions about the DPRK.
First, Russian and Chinese policymakers have implicitly rebutted the prevailing notion in Washington that North Korea’s nuclear buildup is an inexorable process. Instead, they have attempted to demonstrate that rhetorical criticisms can change the DPRK’s conduct.
Russia has criticized North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests on a case-by-case basis, but has refrained from overarching condemnations of the North Korean regime. This balanced approach was exemplified by Moscow’s April 19 veto of a UN resolution condemning North Korea’s nuclear tests. The Kremlin’s cautious criticisms of the DPRK can be explained by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belief that constructive engagement with Pyongyang gives Moscow unique leverage over North Korea’s conduct, at a time when China’s commitment to the DPRK is waning and U.S.-North Korea tensions are at unprecedented levels.
China’s rhetorical criticisms of North Korean belligerence directly counter stereotypes about the irrationality of North Korean foreign policy, by appealing to the DPRK regime’s self-preservation instinct. By emphasizing that China’s support for North Korea is conditional on Kim Jong-Un’s conduct, Chinese policymakers are highlighting state collapse and military annihilation as real risks associated with Pyongyang’s nuclear buildup. According to Beijing’s logic, these risks and the prospect of diminished Chinese support could cause North Korea to stall its nuclear buildup and ameliorate tensions with Japan and South Korea.
Second, Russian and Chinese policymakers believe that U.S. attempts to completely isolate North Korea from the global economy create a siege mentality in Pyongyang. This sense of desperation has encouraged Kim Jong-Un to rally pro-regime nationalism around a belligerent foreign policy. To convince North Korea to change course, officials in Moscow and Beijing have advocated targeted, finite sanctions against the DPRK that can be lifted if Kim Jong-Un’s conduct improves.
Russia’s sanctions regime against North Korea has targeted the mining sector, and associated financial institutions. China has also imposed a targeted sanctions policy, by implementing an embargo on critical coal and oil supplies that sustain the North Korean economy. By focusing their efforts on specific sectors and associating sanctions explicitly with North Korean aggression, Russian and Chinese policymakers are attempting to convince Kim Jong-Un that his regime security is bolstered by defusing tensions on the Korean peninsula, rather than escalating them.
Even though Russia and China have different rationales for their alignment with Pyongyang, the recent uptick in policy coordination between Moscow and Beijing on North Korea underscores the alarm both countries feel about the Trump administration’s confrontational approach towards Pyongyang. As diplomatic solutions to the Korean security crisis have been largely unsuccessful and U.S. foreign policy has become increasingly defined by brusque unilateralism, it remains unclear whether the burgeoning Moscow-Beijing axis is able to deter a U.S. military strike against Pyongyang in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.