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North Korea turns to Russia, China as Asia enters 'Cold War 2.0'


Nov 4, 2011
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North Korea turns to Russia, China as Asia enters 'Cold War 2.0'


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visit a North Korean exhibition of military equipment in this image released by official media on July 27, the 70th anniversary of the Korean War armistice. (KCNA via Reuters)
GABRIELA BERNAL, Contributing writerJuly 30, 2023 18:30 JST

SEOUL -- For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic started, North Korea has invited foreign visitors to the country. The occasion was the 70th anniversary of the armistice agreement that ended combat in the Korean War, and the visitors were representatives of North Korea's wartime allies.

North Korean state media reported Friday on a massive military parade staged in Pyongyang with a Russian delegation led by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and a Chinese delegation led by Li Hongzhong, vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People's Congress, in attendance.

The North's decision to invite the Russian and Chinese delegations highlights the strengthening of this trilateral bloc while South Korea makes parallel moves to strengthen military cooperation with the U.S.

The increasingly aggressive posture and lack of interest in partnerships other than those with China and Russia also leave the North with few options for trade or aid to address growing food shortages exacerbated by international sanctions. South Korea's central bank also announced recently that the North's economy shrank in 2022 for the third consecutive year.

According to North Korean media, Shoigu gave Kim a signed "warm and good letter" from President Vladimir Putin, and discussions with his North Korean counterparts served to boost "the strategic and tactical collaboration and cooperation between the two countries."

Kim and Shoigu also visited a weaponry exhibition that included nuclear-capable missiles and new military drones. At a reception held for the Russian delegation, Shoigu said the North Korean army "has become the strongest army in the world" and expressed "the will of the Russian Federation to boost many-sided cooperation with D.P.R.K." -- the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.


Chinese Communist Party politburo member Li Hongzhong speaks with Kim in this image released by the Korean Central News Agency on July 27. (KCNA via Reuters)

Kim also met with Li, who delivered a personal letter from Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Kim said Xi's decision to send a delegation "showed the general secretary's will to attach great importance to the D.P.R.K-China friendship." China's Foreign Ministry echoed the sentiment at a news conference the same day.

Closer relations between Pyongyang and Beijing are not surprising given deepening U.S.-South Korean ties, says Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University. "From the strategic perspective, a strong China-DPRK relationship can help both countries to deflect pressure from the U.S.," Zhu said. "Both North Korea and China view the expanding U.S. presence in the region and beefed-up U.S. alliances with South Korea and Japan as a security threat."

Pyongyang's relations with Moscow also seem to be deepening as the latter suffers increasing isolation due to the fallout from its invasion of Ukraine. According to Russian news agency TASS, Russia's "Defense Ministry expects the visit to help strengthen military ties between Russia and the D.P.R.K. and be a milestone in the development of cooperation between the two countries."

Washington responded to the visits, with the deputy spokesperson for the State Department saying China and Russia "have a role to play in encouraging the D.P.R.K. to return to the negotiating table."

Pyongyang has shown little inclination toward talks, however, demanding instead the withdrawal of "hostile policy" by Washington and Seoul.

Frank Aum, a senior expert on Northeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says North Korea is likely biding its time given the current policy direction of the U.S. and South Korea.

"Because the United States and South Korea appear to be adopting a hard-line position, including through a lackluster interest in engaging and an enhanced campaign to build up its own deterrence posture, I think Pyongyang has decided to wait until the November 2024 U.S. presidential elections to see if a more accommodating interlocutor emerges," Aum told Nikkei Asia.


South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol salutes during a July 26 repatriation ceremony at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam to receive the remains of South Korean soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War. (Pool photo via Reuters)

With South Korea strengthening ties with the U.S. and Japan on the one hand, and North Korea deepening its longtime relations with China and Russia on the other, a return to diplomacy seems unlikely for the time being.

"The apparent existence of the two blocs does not bode well for peace on the peninsula and in East Asia in general," Zhu said. "The security landscape in East Asia is like Cold War 2.0 now."

With the two Koreas choosing starkly different paths and diplomacy deadlocked, the chances of the 70-year-long armistice turning into a peace treaty anytime soon are slim.

"We're not an inch closer [to a peace treaty] than 1953. In fact, we're probably even further away given how North Korea has nuclear weapons now and the U.S. has adopted a more militaristic, deterrence-heavy perspective," Aum argued.

With neither side showing signs of a change in strategy, military provocations and heightened tensions on the peninsula are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Aum said that although the chances of an all-out conflict breaking out are low, "All it takes is one misperception or miscommunication to trigger an inflammatory action, which could then spiral into a bigger catastrophe."


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