What China’s North Korea Policy Reveals About Its Stance on Russia’s War in Ukraine

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What China’s North Korea Policy Reveals About Its Stance on Russia’s War in Ukraine

Those who expect Beijing to agree on tough measures that would put its partnership with Moscow at risk will surely be disappointed. 

What China’s North Korea Policy Reveals About Its Stance on Russia’s War in Ukraine
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

One year into Russia’s invasion, various European politicians have called on China to use its influence on Russia to end the war in Ukraine. Such calls for China to do more to solve an international conflict sound quite familiar: For years the international community, particularly the United States, has put much hope in the possibility of China helping bring about a solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. Although the conflict on the Korean Peninsula and the war in Ukraine are two very different conflicts, it is worth taking a closer look at China’s role in both contexts, as they reveal quite similar patterns of behavior in Chinese foreign policymaking. 

In comparison to the Ukraine war, China has faced much international pressure to do more to alleviate the North Korean nuclear crisis. During the second nuclear crisis in 2002, Beijing engaged in a number of diplomatic efforts to bring Washington and Pyongyang to the negotiating table, which eventually developed into the Six Party Talks (SPT) including Japan, South Korea, and Russia. China sought to position itself as an honest broker in the North Korean talks. Similarly, Beijing now tries to present itself as a neutral peace broker in the Russia-Ukraine conflict by putting forward a 12-point position paper on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

In both cases, China is anything but a neutral party. 

First, North Korea and China are nominally allies due to an “alliance treaty” signed in 1961, which includes a mutual defense clause, committing each country to come to the aid of the other in case one of the parties is attacked by a third state. The treaty was renewed in 2021 for another 20 years. Although there have been periods of great strain between the two communist countries, the Chinese government consistently supports the Kim regime economically and politically. In fact, Beijing provides an economic lifeline to Pyongyang, as North Korea is heavily sanctioned by Washington and the United Nations for its missile program and nuclear tests. 

Similarly, as Russia faces unprecedented sanctions from the West and has been increasingly isolated from the global economy following its invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese leadership has offered Russian President Vladimir Putin much-needed economic support. China has ramped up its purchases of Russian oil and gas while supplying the Russians with dual-use goods bolstering the Kremlin’s military and intelligence capabilities. Moreover, there is speculation about Beijing’s potential willingness to provide Moscow with lethal weapons in Ukraine.

China has also provided strong rhetorical backing to Russia. The Chinese government has neither publicly condemned nor criticized Russia’s invasion while amplifying Russian narratives and disinformation about the war in Ukraine. It instantly endorsed Russia’s position that U.S.-led NATO expansionism are to blame for provoking the Kremlin and thus pushing the Russia-Ukraine tension to a “breaking point.”

On the Korean Peninsula, China has likewise aligned with North Korea’s narrative and blames the United States for the nuclear conflict. It claims that the Kim regime has been left no choice but to pursue nuclear weapons due to the “hostile” policy of the United States toward North Korea. Washington has not only been portrayed as the root problem but also as the main obstacle in finding a common peaceful solution on the peninsula. Chinese analysts believe that the United States has steadily pursued a policy that deliberately delayed any progress toward settlement to legitimize the expansion of its military presence, the deployment of missile defense systems, and the reinforcement of its regional alliances. Beijing accused Washington of using the North Korea crisis as a pretext serving its overall foreign policy strategy in Asia to balance China’s rising influence. 

Such a line of thinking can also be found in China’s stance toward the war in Ukraine. Beijing clearly sides with Moscow and hence regards Washington as the main instigator of the war in Ukraine, blaming the United States for escalating the conflict by continuing to send weapons to Ukraine. A statement made by China’s top diplomat Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference suggests that China believes the United States has a geopolitical interest in the war being prolonged and hence has no real intent for finding a settlement to end the war. This assessment was reiterated by China’s current foreign minister, Qin Gang, when he stated that the “invisible hand” is “using the Ukraine crisis to serve certain geopolitical agendas” without directly referring to the United States. 

China’s 12-point position plan to end war in Ukraine offers nothing new to its stance on the Russia-Ukraine conflict but resembles much of Beijing’s long-standing position on the North Korean nuclear crisis. China has repeatedly demanded that the legitimate security concerns of all parties, both regarding the nuclear and Russia-Ukraine conflict, be addressed. This phrase clearly indicates that Beijing views the behavior of both Pyongyang and Moscow as warranted and primarily driven by U.S. “flip-flop policies.” Hence, it is not surprising that China often expresses great sympathy for the positions of both North Korea and Russia as it shares their views of being victims of U.S. “hostile” policy – just as China is. 

In both instances, China has called for the resumption of dialogue and negotiation as the only viable way to solve conflicts rather than exerting unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure. Between 2006 and 2017 Beijing supported U.N. sanctions against North Korea to display its dissatisfaction with Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. From the Chinese perspective, sanctions solely serve as means, not ends, namely tools for preventing North Korea from further provocations and bringing North Korea back to negotiation table. Thus, Beijing never intended to exert maximum pressure and was concerned that too harsh of sanctions could induce regime collapse. Similarly, China is worried that the continuing harsh sanctions regime imposed on Moscow could drastically harm Russia’s economy and domestic stability. For similar reasons as in the North Korean case, China seeks to deepen economic ties with an isolated Russia.

Ensuring North Korea’s and Russia’s survival is essential to China’s national interest, especially as China-U.S. geostrategic rivalry deepens. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to strengthen the U.S.-led deterrence and alliance architectures both in Europe and Asia, which is perceived in Beijing as an attempt to build an anti-China coalition. For the Chinese leadership, supporting North Korea is crucial as the Kim regime remains a key bulwark against a growing encirclement by the United States and its allies in China’s immediate neighborhood.

This same rationale has also been the primary driver for China upgrading its strategic partnership with Russia over the years, which culminated in a joint statement in 2022 that declared their “no-limit” partnership. For China, Russia is an important ally in its effort to push back a U.S.-led world order that has turned increasingly hostile and unfavorable to it. Hence, although Beijing’s “pro Russia neutrality” has come at a high cost, deeply antagonizing and damaging its relationship with the “West,” it is very unlikely that the Chinese leadership will undermine its partnership with Moscow anytime soon. 

The launch of China’s 12-point document comes at a time when Russia faces major setbacks and huge battlefield losses and while Western countries are stepping up their military assistance to Ukraine, including sending tanks and (in Poland’s case) fighter jets to the frontline. Unsurprisingly, the paper did not offer any concrete proposals on how to reach a settlement between Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, it cannot be overlooked that China continues to adopt a pro-Russia stance. The very fact that China continues to refer to the “Ukraine crisis” rather than calling it a “war” underscores the Chinese reluctance to condemn Russia’s invasion. 

While some voices have emphasized the importance of China sending a clear message to Russia by expressing its opposition to the threat or use of nuclear weapons, such a statement only reiterates Beijing’s own longstanding position. Therefore, it neither can be viewed as a direct criticism of Putin’s invasion nor necessarily means China would turn its back on Moscow in case Putin decides to use a nuclear weapon. Regarding the North Korean issue, China has always openly opposed the development of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, let alone its nuclear testing next to the China-Korean border. And although China reacted furiously toward the six nuclear tests conducted by the Kim regime, its economic and political support of North Korea did not wane. 

Accordingly, those who still expect Beijing to agree on tough measures that would put its partnership with Moscow at risk will surely be disappointed. The bottom line is that China’s foreign policy is first and foremost informed by its strategic competition with the United States. 

As the Chinese leadership believes Washington is leading a campaign of “encirclement, containment and suppression” of China, there is not much incentive for Beijing to side with the United States on the war in Ukraine — or on North Korea. European politicians should therefore not put too much hope on China to help them solving the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.