The G-20 summit hosted recently by India saw the absence of two important leaders, the Chinese and Russian presidents, which highlighted an emerging division in international politics between the West and East. This division is playing out clearly in Northeast Asia. The region is reverting back to its post-Cold War alignments, as Russia and China are again getting cozy with North Korea. All of this is happening amid increasing pressure on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the ongoing war. And China is also feeling the heat of new restrictions related to access to technology.
The realignment currently taking place between China, North Korea, and Russia will have serious implications globally, but especially for South Korea, which lies at the center of politics and geopolitics. Why is the axis between Beijing-Pyongyang-Moscow developing now, and what factors are responsible for it? In addition, how has Seoul reacted to this development?
The China-North Korea-Russia Axis: Why Now?
Before understanding Seoul’s reaction to this development, it is crucial to analyze the factors that are driving China, North Korea, and Russia to come together. The Japan-South Korea-United States trilateral may seem like the trigger motivating closer relations between China, North Korea, and Russia. However, that is not the only reason. The growing relationship between the three countries is rooted in an accumulation of events that have raised security concerns in the respective capitals and acted as triggers simultaneously. Of course, the final nail can certainly be said to have been the Japan-South Korea-United States trilateral partnership announced at Camp David in August.
The first trigger that motivated a renewed relationship between China, North Korea, and Russia can be traced back to when the Indo-Pacific concept was introduced. Beijing and Moscow were furious and suspicious of the concept, which they saw as a new Cold War containment strategy aimed at containing China. North Korea also sided with Beijing and Moscow in their opposition. However, differing perceptions in Beijing stopped it from going all out against the Indo-Pacific Strategy at the beginning. Some in China saw the concept as a temporary part of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy posturing.
The second trigger was the normalization of relations between Seoul and Tokyo earlier this year. Although the focus of the rapprochement was countering the North Korean threat, the shift raised concern about whether the partnership could be a ploy or even a potential platform that could be used against Beijing in the future. Joint defense exercises between the United States and its two Northeast Asia allies strengthened this belief. Growing relations between Japan and South Korea with NATO also added to the notion.
In addition, as enunciated in its National Security Strategy and Defense White paper earlier this year, Japan’s rising military power gave an explicit signal to changing dynamics in Northeast Asia geopolitics. By this time, it was clear in Beijing that the U.S., with its allies, had already formed a broad consensus on the perceived threat emanating from the China-North Korea-Russia axis.
The third and final trigger was the Japan-South Korea-U.S. trilateral summit, which cleared any doubts Beijing had, particularly about where Seoul stood. The trilateral summit saw the three leaders of Japan, South Korea, and the United States meeting at Camp David, where they announced their intention to work together to counter North Korea. In addition, the meeting saw an unprecedented strong condemnation of Chinese action in the South China Sea by all three. But what was most important was the expression of the commitment to consult and the institutionalization of the trilateral; this showed that the alliance was now moving beyond just mutual concern about the threat from North Korea to include converging interests on a range of regional security issues and development of a robust agenda across sectors: the economy, cyber, intelligence, and security.
After the trilateral summit, Beijing reportedly reached out to Pyongyang, de facto taking the lead on heightening the axis. North Korea also wants to increase its security by bandwagoning with Beijing and Moscow in this new partnership. Moscow, for its part, is trying to deepen its cooperation with Beijing. The recent visit of Wang Yi to Russia is a testimony to this relationship. China’s top diplomat said that “in the face of unilateral actions, hegemony, and confrontation, China and Russia should … continue to strengthen strategic cooperation.”
In September, Kim Jong Un visited Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly accepted an invitation to visit Pyongyang.
Although the growing cooperation between China, North Korea, and Russia is an attempt to come together, there will likely be a hedging strategy playing out within Pyongyang. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, and its economic heft puts it in a priority place in Kim Jong Un’s strategic calculus. At the same time, Moscow is looking to expand its influence wherever it can. North Korea is therefore in a geopolitical sweet spot and will likely aim to leverage this opportunity to get benefits in technology and equipment, particularly militarily strategic assets.
There is a catch: The current geopolitics does not give Pyongyang much choice to hedge against Beijing and Moscow. However, such a possibility in the future cannot be ignored.
In the meantime, this axis will affect Seoul, and we can already see tensions rising.
Seoul’s Concern About the New Partnership
The newfound interest by China and Russia to forge a partnership with North Korea has made Seoul anxious. The apprehension has come from the highest political levels. The president of South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, at the recent U.N. General Assembly expressed his discontent with Moscow’s behavior, saying that “it is paradoxical that a permanent member [Russia] of the [U.N. Security Council] entrusted as the ultimate guardian of the world peace would wage war … and receive arms and ammunition from a regime that blatantly violates UN Security Council resolutions.”
He further warned that “if [North Korea] acquires the information and technology necessary to enhance its WMD capabilities … the deal will be a direct provocation threatening the peace and security …. of the Republic of Korea, and [we]… would not stand idly by.”
The day before Yoon’s address at UNGA, the Russian envoy to South Korea was summoned by the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which complained about the prospects of any “arms deals and military cooperation with North Korea.” Even the joint statement released by the U.S. and South Korea following a meeting of the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group enunciated its opposition to the cooperation between Russia and North Korea as inconsistent with U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions and warned of its impact on advancing North Korea’s “illicit nuclear and ballistic weapons program.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shared the sentiment when he said, “We don’t want to see North Korea benefitting from whatever technologies it might get from Russia.”
Seoul Navigating the Path Carefully
Due to the closer cooperation between Beijing, Pyongyang, and Moscow, we may see increasing rhetoric in Seoul against Russia going forward, even while South Korea takes a toned-down approach toward Beijing, pushing for it to play a constructive role.
Seoul’s concerns were communicated during a meeting between the South Korean and Chinese foreign ministers, where South Korea’s Park Jin asked China to abide faithfully by the “UNSC resolutions and international norms.” Even though the perspective toward Beijing’s role has turned quite negative under the Yoon administration, it is still likely that Beijing will not let Pyongyang push things beyond a certain threshold, as it will jeopardize its security.
The China-Japan-South Korea trilateral, expected to meet sometime later this year, is one platform that may help establish some ground rules and understanding between the three.
However, Seoul will not repeat the mistake of trusting Beijing again on North Korea. During South Korea’s National Security Council meeting in August, the NSC members decided to take forward the cooperation with the U.S. and Japan “to block illegal acts such as the exploitation of North Korean workers overseas, cyber hacking, and maritime smuggling, and to cooperate with the international community actively.”
The current situation has put Seoul in a bind, with South Korea seeking ways to increase it security via its alliance with the U.S., and by strengthening ties with Japan. At the same time, Seoul also risks making the peninsula more unstable in pursuit of that security.