On January 26, 2024, I attended the last internal seminar on international policy before Chinese lunar new year. The seminar was a large one, attended by virtually all of China’s leading international scholars, with representatives from China’s intelligence agencies, so its content can be considered representative of China’s “real view”. It focused on two themes: an assessment of the continuing deepening of diplomatic relations between Russia and North Korea, and an assessment of the rapid resumption of relations between Iran and Pakistan after their mutual air strikes. I’m still organizing my notes on the latter, but here’s what was said on the first topic:

North Korea was one of the very few countries to support Russia “decisively” “swiftly” and “comprehensively” after the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian War. As Kim Jong-un stated in his message on Russia’s National Day in 2022, “Justice will prevail, the Russian people add further luster to their history of victory“. North Korea makes no secret of its support for Russia (both moral and material), which is mainly based on:

1. A national narrative whose logic corresponds to that of Russia

Unlike other countries, whicht support Russia in the hope of obtaining “tangible benefits“, North Korea and Russia are highly aligned on an ideological level. North Korea firmly believes that it is “regional divisions and conflicts” created by U.S. geopolitical machinations that have led to its current predicament.

Vladimir Putin’s televised speech of February 24, 2022, included the claim that U.S.-led NATO had “pressed hard“, causing Russia to “fight back“. In the eyes of North Korea, such a statement reinforces the “correctness and foresight” of its own national narrative logic, that is, the West, led by the United States, is the “black hand” behind all evils. Thus, North Korea’s support for Russia is “sincere“, and Russian victory considered a victory in the “proxy war of imperialism”.

2. Both Russia and North Korea strongly need to escape their isolation

Subjected to strong sanctions by the West, both countries desire increased economic and military proximity in order to ease this imposed isolation. And since both are subject to Western sanctions, their “cooperation” will not be subject to “any international law” (one of the negative effects of the U.S. comprehensive sanctions).

3. Rebalancing Russian diplomacy on the peninsula

Russia has long practiced “equidistant diplomacy” with North and South Korea, not supporting North Korea too much to avoid irritating South Korea, in the hope to gain economic benefit from South Korea. But South Korean President Yoon Seok-yul’s unconditional “defection” to the U.S. has destroyed this “political equilibrium”. In 2022, Russia redefined South Korea as an “unfriendly country”, eliminating any obstacle to Russia arming and reinforcing the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA).

4. Reverse geopolitical balance

Attendees considered the Russo-Ukrainian war “a masterpiece” of the US proxy war, successful in destabilizing Russia’s geopolitical security balance and weakening Russian power. But Russia too has options for geopolitical rebalancing in other regions, where the US is “unwilling” to, or “incapable” of, responding. The Korean Peninsula is one clear example, and Iran (via the Houthis) in the Middle East is another. Russia can counter U.S. influence in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa through deeper alliances with North Korea and Iran. This has turned out to represent the largest set of by-products of the Russia-Ukraine war.

The nature of Russia’s behavior needs to be understood in the context of this logic: “Declining powers sow disorder.” When a power such as Russia, whose strong military and political influence greatly exceed its “geopolitical and economic clout,” is faced with a geopolitical dilemma, military adventure, using “hard power” in defense of core interests, almost always represent the best policy option. The Soviet Union during the Cold War was essentially the same, in which “ideological confrontation” was superimposed on “geo-military confrontation” above all other factors. North Korea has learned this game through the Russo-Ukrainian War, gaining real political benefits through its active participation.

“A sense of impunity” now describes North Korea’s behavior very appropriately. The larger the scale of the Russia-Ukraine war, the more difficult it becomes for the U.S. and its allies to punish North Korea for small infractions (launching missiles, military satellites, and advancing deployment of nuclear weapons). Indeed, to a certain extent, they will be incapable of this.

What will it really mean for the United States to confront a North Korea equipped with modern military equipment and nuclear weapons, and no longer facing energy and material shortages? And will this make the “regional cage” strategy that the U.S. wishes to pursue safer or more dangerous? In the long run, the United States will likely have to swallow the bitter fruit of recognizing North Korea’s nuclear capability. Especially with U.S. presidential election uncertainties increasing, despite its claim to be the “best trader and negotiator”, the U.S. can only sit on the sidelines, quietly watching as North Korea continues to stack up “chips”.

As “as guarantor of Pyongyang’s security”, without paying too much in terms of real money, by simply providing of limited amounts of military technology and knowhow, Russia can significantly increase the pressure on the security costs of Japan and South Korea, U.S. allies in East Asia, forcing the U.S. to increase the security spending on their behalf. This is greatly disturbing to the ability of the U.S. to focus and concentrate resources on dealing with “U.S.-China competition”, which is far more critical.

In conclusion, Russia has diplomatic strategies and methods for undermining U.S. global strategy in genuinely unwanted and unexpected ways.

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