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What Did Chinese Analysts Think of the Kim-Putin Summit in Pyongyang?

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What Did Chinese Analysts Think of the Kim-Putin Summit in Pyongyang?

Commentators in China have very different takeaways from the Kim-Putin embrace in Pyongyang than their counterparts in the U.S.

What Did Chinese Analysts Think of the Kim-Putin Summit in Pyongyang?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attend a welcome ceremony for Putin in Pyongyang, North Korea, June 19, 2024.

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

Voices from the United States, South Korea, and Japan claim Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent day-long state visit to North Korea has put Beijing in an awkward position. What did analysts from China think?

Officials in Beijing described the wide-ranging agreements between the two “friendly and close neighbors” as fulfilling the “the legitimate need for exchanges, cooperation and development of relations.” Scholars across China focused largely on Putin and Kim signing a long-awaited agreement on the construction of the Tumen River cross-border bridge – an issue that has largely gone unreported in the global media. 

The only thing the U.S. and its allies on one hand and China on the other hand can agree upon is that Putin’s visit to Pyongyang to revive the decades-long socialist brethren “alliance” between North Korea and Russia (and before that, the Soviet Union) was necessitated by Russia’s geopolitical isolation and weakness – an outcome of the all-out Russian war on Ukraine. As the 28 months since February 2022 have shown, the invasion carries different significance for China, North Korea, and Russia, respectively. Yet the re-alliance between Moscow and Pyongyang is being viewed by many in China as beneficial to the great cause of opposing U.S. hegemony.  

What the U.S. Thinks China Thinks

Within hours of the signing of a new defense treaty between Russia and North Korea, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his South Korean counterpart Cho Tae-yul by telephone that he condemned growing North Korea-Russia military cooperation. A couple of days later, Blinken’s deputy, Kurt Campbell, said that Beijing was “somewhat anxious” over growing military cooperation between Russia and North Korea. “I think it is fair to say that China is somewhat anxious about what’s going on between Russia and North Korea. They have indicated so in some of our interactions, and we can see some tension associated with this,” Campbell said in a keynote address at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Understandably, there are specific reasons for the extraordinary Western attention on Putin’s visit to North Korea and for the heightened concerns in the West regarding military cooperation between “belligerent” Russia and “rogue” North Korea. In China, on the contrary, Beijing has officially not reacted much – neither to express concerns nor to welcome the defense pact. The only official comment came from Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong, who said in a statement: “As friendly neighbors, North Korea and Russia have normal needs for exchanges and relationship development, and their high-level engagement are bilateral arrangements between two sovereign states.”  

Interestingly, it seems the central authorities in Beijing would rather have China’s Russia experts and others belonging to the country’s strategic community chip in and provide China’s perspective. 

Of course, there are quite a few scholars who are apprehensive that Russia’s “go east” policy might force Beijing to be watchful lest the growing Russian presence – not, it should be noted, the new defense treaty specifically – potentially cause “instability” in the situation in the Korean Peninsula. Yet analysts across China, affiliated with a wide spectrum of think tanks and university departments, have been mostly positive in their responses to Putin embracing North Korea, for three reasons: the perfect timing of Putin-Kim summit in Pyongyang; the opportunity for Beijing to improve relations with Brussels; and, most importantly, Putin keeping his word to Beijing by signing an agreement with Kim for early construction of cross-border highway bridge on the Tumen River. 

‘Perfect’ Timing of Putin-Kim Summit

What is most interesting about Putin’s sudden decision to visit North Korea, as noted in several Chinese commentaries, is that Moscow and Pyongyang started negotiating the specific date as recently as a week prior to the visit. This explains why most China watchers globally were literally caught sleeping as Vladimir Putin landed in the North Korean capital in the wee hours at 3 a.m. on Wednesday, June 19. This also means the Russian leader actually was in North Korea just for a day, and not a two-day visit as was mostly reported prior to the trip.  

Why would Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un stay up until three in the morning to personally pick up a visiting foreign leader at the airport? 

Because the foreign leader happened to be the Russian president, whom Kim had earlier hailed as “invincible comrade-in-arms.” The North Korean leader also maintains that his country’s relationship with Putin-led Russia is at the highest point today, even comparable to the heyday of the alliance between North Korea and the former Soviet Union. 

However, if what commentators in China say is true, then Putin had decided to delay his arrival in Pyongyang – without telling Kim. Further, Chinese analysts believe Putin’s decision was taken in order to avoid any adverse impact on the ongoing China-Japan-South Korea tripartite communication on the one hand and more importantly, from Beijing’s point of view, a fresh round of Beijing-Seoul bilateral diplomatic and security dialogue taking place at the same time. 

A commentary on the popular digital platform provided a full account of the supposed background of how Moscow worked out the specific dates of Putin’s Pyongyang in consultation with Beijing. The commentary said that, both in order to avoid Kim and Putin sharing an “embrace” in Pyongyang on June 18 – the same day China and South Korea were to hold their first ever vice-ministerial security and diplomacy 2+2 meeting in Seoul – and to “give face to Kim Jong Un,” Putin made an unscheduled, over 5-hour stop in Yakutsk, the capital of Russia’s Sakha Republic, for an inspection, taking photos and chatting with local people. As a result, he did not arrive in Pyongyang until three in the morning on June 19. 

This delay also helped Beijing avoid explaining to Seoul why China was “silent” over the Russian involvement (along with North Korea) in endangering the security situation on the peninsula, as Putin didn’t begin his visit until after the 2+2 had concluded.  

The Pros and Cons of Putin’s Visit to North Korea for China

While the Russia-North Korea Treaty of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed between Putin and Kim last month is causing concern and drawing global attention – especially in the West and in Japan and in South Korea – the same treaty is being cited by most scholars and experts in China as the reason to welcome the increasing cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang. China’s official Xinhua news agency hailed the treaty as the upgrading of Russia-North Korea relations in a commentary on June 22, and most scholarly accounts of the development have pointed out quite a few advantages for Beijing.

First, Beijing sees the North Korea-Russia treaty as working to its benefit, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, as it is making the United States concerned or even frightened. Analysts approvingly called Russia and North Korea moving closer as a “rational choice.” Second, North Korea providing ammunition to Russia means that China can scale back certain trade with Russia and thereby improve China-EU relations, as European countries have repeatedly raised Chinese exports of dual-use goods to Russia as a major concern. Third, Chinese commentators claim that North Korea’s mass export of ammunition to Russia could actually help improve stability on the Korean Peninsula.

Echoing sentiments of many in China’s strategic affairs community that the Kim-Putin summit was driven by the pressure and aggression of U.S. imperialism and its NATO allies, Wang Junsheng, a research fellow of East Asian studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, said this visit was sure to bring Russia-North Korea relations to new heights. “Due to NATO’s expansion in Europe and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the U.S.-led military alliances in Northeast Asia targeting Pyongyang, the deeper cooperation between Russia and North Korea is no surprise,” Wang noted

Several Chinese scholars expressed the view that the long-standing strategy of the United States and its allies to isolate and suppress Russia and North Korea will automatically push them to work together to deal with the common threat from U.S.-led alliances, whether in Europe or Northeast Asia. 

At another level, it has also been observed that although China, Russia, and North Korea are viewed as sharing a hostility to the U.S.-led international order, Beijing is not only aware but also very careful not to jeopardize the fact that it is less globally ostracized than the other two countries. Hence, as the commentary already mentioned noted, North Korea-Russia rapprochement will help China balance or even improve relations with Europe on one hand, and on the other hand it will deplete North Korea’s arsenal, which in turn will help Beijing’s efforts to maintain peace and stability in Northeast Asia.    

The Significance of a New Bridge on the Tumen River

As mentioned, in China, the signing of an agreement between Putin and Kim for early construction of a cross-border bridge across the Tumen River has been seen as more important news than the Russia-North Korea Comprehensive Strategic Partnership defense treaty. As noted in a Chinese commentary, this reflects Putin’s current high attention to China’s desires. Another Chinese commentary highlighted that “when Putin visited China on May 16, he promised the Chinese leaders to talk to North Korea about the Tumen River estuary. This time he went to Pyongyang to discuss it. The two sides came up with a plan to build a new bridge.”

Currently, the sole link between Russia and North Korea across the Tumen River is an old railway bridge, which is so small that it effectively blocks use of the river by commercial vessels.

The Kim-Putin agreement on building a new bridge over the Tumen River has been trending among the topmost issues on the largest Chinese social media platform, WeChat. However, skeptics have been less than hopeful of an early implementation of the agreement. The reasons, unsurprisingly, have a lot to do with China’s colonial past and the “century of humiliation.” Historically speaking, the area in China’s northeast bordering Russia, North Korea, and the Sea of Japan, had fallen into the hands of Imperial Russia following the Treaty of Peking after the occupation of Beijing by French and British troops in 1860. Today, a sliver of Russian territory separates China from the Sea of Japan – and gives Russia a direct land border with North Korea, marked by the Tumen River.

The China-North Korea-Russia trijunction point, which is along the Tumen River near the Sea of Japan. Map by Voice of America.

The region was deadlocked in China-USSR hostility following the Sino-Soviet split. In the post-Soviet era, both North Korea and Russia remained wary of Chinese hegemony and “expansionism.” But following Chinese market reform and opening up policies, Beijing has been relentlessly pushing for access to the Tumen River and through it to the Sea of Japan. Backed by Russia, Japan, the two Koreas and Mongolia, in 1991 and in 1995, China successfully rallied the United Nations Development Program, leading to the establishment of Tumen River Regional Development Plan (TRRDP) and Tumen River Area Development Program (TRADP), respectively. However, due to internal frictions in Russia and Japanese and South Korean suspicions about the role of North Korea, the TRADP project never really took off.

More recently, China-North Korea announced in 2014 the construction of a new bridge in the Tumen River basin connecting Hunchun in China to Sonbong-guyok in North Korea will be completed by the end of 2015. Work was still ongoing in 2019, before North Korea shut its borders and all related infrastructure projects, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As observed in Japan’s Nikkei Asia, factors such as the “new Cold War,” Pyongyang’s ever-increasing appetite for nuclear weapons, growing friction between the two Koreas, and Japanese “insecurity” vis-à-vis fast expanding Chinese military might all served as obstacles in China’s long cherished desire to access the Sea of Japan through the Russia-North Korea river border.    

Scholars in China might have been excited with the Tumen River cross-border bridge agreement in Pyongyang, but they are unable to forget the disillusionment that has accumulated over the past several decades. Agreement after agreement has been quietly ignored, preventing China from fulfilling its wish to connect China’s northeast to Rajin in North Korea and hence access the Sea of Japan – which is a mere 15 kilometers past the Soviet-era bridge that currently blocks the river. Chinese analysts are thus closely watching North Korea-Russia relations for its potential to achieve three of China’s goals:  improve relations with Europe, deplete North Korea’s arsenal, and bring about the long-awaited construction of a cross-border bridge across the Tumen River.