With President Biden on his first presidential visit to South Korea and Japan next week, he is facing changing dynamics in Northeast Asia that has posed a tough challenge to US efforts to build alliances to counter China’s rise. A key challenge is North Korea’s strained relations with China and Russia, aimed at reducing US influence in the region.
In particular, China’s strategic overreach to North Korea since the collapse of US-North Korea diplomatic talks in 2019 has drawn the two countries closer. Tensions are rising over US-China competition and a new South Korean conservative government that has vowed to take a tougher stance against North Korea and China has more incentive for Beijing to keep Pyongyang close, experts say.
South Korea’s new president has been sworn in, urging the North to disarm
The United States seeks to strengthen ties with South Korea and Japan to address urgent regional issues, including North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, China’s dominance of the supply chain and the possibility of a conflict in Taiwan. But it will not be an easy task, especially given Japan-South Korea relations and South Korea’s economic dependence on China.
“The overall security and economic situation, the landscape, does not look very bright,” said Ahn Ho-young, South Korea’s former ambassador to the United States. “Because of all these challenges, the visit that President Biden is planning is even more important.”
North Korea has a longstanding relationship with China. But in recent years, Beijing has stepped up its diplomacy with Pyongyang and has been responsible for more than 90 percent of its foreign trade activity. Although that trade plummeted during North Korea’s Kovid lockdown, Beijing remained its main lifeline.
Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean studies at Kukmin University and a leading scholar on North Korean issues, says the two countries have become more cooperative in recent years, in the face of US-China competition and political advantage.
“The main game changer is the conflict with the United States. That means that from a Chinese point of view, North Korea’s strategic value has increased dramatically, “Lankov said. “For North Korea, Sino-US enmity is a gift from heaven. It gives them unconditional Chinese support – something they have never dreamed of in the past. “
North Korea tests new, massive missile capable of reaching Washington
North Korea and Russia also had a complicated relationship, but in the wake of the Pyongyang war, Moscow’s voice has become a supporter, even becoming one of five countries that refuse to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Despite UN sanctions, Russian companies continue to employ North Korean workers, who have been banned from hosting foreign-funded workers for the Kim government.
Significantly, China and Russia have shielded North Korea from further international sanctions, despite Kim’s ambitious pursuit of its nuclear program, in favor of consistently lifting sanctions.
“China, Russia and North Korea will continue to work together to maintain regional peace and stability, regardless of pressure or influence from the United States,” the Chinese state-run Global Times wrote in 2021.
Most recently, when the United States last week pushed for a new UN sanctions on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, China and Russia vetoed the move.
Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the UN, has been blamed The United States has called on Washington to take a more proactive role in “resolving the magic power of sanctions” and resuming talks with Pyongyang. Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, Anna Ivstigneva, said it was “absolutely unrealistic” to expect North Korea to disarm in the face of sanctions.
“Russia wants to see Americans be distracted by some kind of development elsewhere,” he said. So for now, they don’t care about North Korea’s nuclear adventure – although in the long run, Russia is not as happy with a nuclear North Korea as China is, “Lankov said.
North Korea’s Kim is determined to show that he is on track with his five-year weapons-development schedule and has conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests this year. U.S. and South Korean officials say he appears to be preparing for the upcoming seventh nuclear test.
But despite Kim’s nuclear ambitions, China’s “dual-track” approach to annexing North Korea, and Russia’s opposition to international sanctions in the wake of the Ukraine war, China and Russia may not support additional sanctions if Kim conducts a nuclear test. .
Ahan, a former South Korean ambassador, said the confusing response of the international community to China and Russia has prompted North Korea to acquire a nuclear-capable weapon with impunity, including weapons aimed at South Korea. Ahn noted that North Korean leader Kim had threatened nuclear retaliation if provoked last month.
“We have to deal with purposeful development: North Korea’s missile technology is advancing all the time, and since then North Korea has indeed come up with a declared intention to use those strategic nuclear weapons,” Ahn said. “I think this is the time when we must prove what we mean by strong resistance.”
South Korean President-elect Eun Sook-eol has unveiled a foreign policy goal
South Korea’s new president, Eun Sook-eol, has pledged to work with the United States to cooperate in regional efforts to tackle China, such as the Quad and Biden’s new economic proposal, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
But doing so risks taking economic revenge from Beijing and pushing North Korea closer to China and further destabilizing inter-Korean relations, said Chung Jae-hong, a Chinese scholar and research fellow at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
In 2017, for example, when the United States deployed a ground-based missile defense system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea, Beijing hit Seoul economically. China is now watching to see if the Yunnan government’s rhetoric turns into action, Chung said.
“It’s hard to be optimistic,” Chung said. “If North Korea conducts a nuclear test, and Russia and China refuse to comply with additional UN sanctions, what will South Korea do?”