During the period leading up to the turn toward diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula that began in 2018, China and Russia achieved close cooperation in addressing the North Korean nuclear crisis. This cooperation was one of the most striking examples of the increasingly close relationship that China and Russia have forged in recent years amid a downturn in both countries’ relations with the United States.1 It also reflected the close similarity in the two countries’ understandings of their respective security interests on the Korean Peninsula.
As the crisis on the peninsula intensified, China and Russia expressed similar views regarding the underlying reasons for the conflict and diplomatic paths for resolving it. They professed their opposition to the presence of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and supported increasingly tough sanctions against North Korea following its repeated nuclear and missile tests. However, they remained united in their efforts to limit pressure on the North Korean regime, aiming to prevent its collapse. Above all, China and Russia were determined to limit and ultimately reduce the U.S. military presence in Northeast Asia, including the deployment of U.S. missile defense systems.
China and Russia welcomed the turn toward diplomacy that began in 2018, which essentially followed their preferred course of a moratorium on North Korean nuclear and missile tests and a corresponding pause in the conduct of large-scale U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises. The two countries nevertheless remained skeptical about the prospects for resolving the crisis, given the large gap between the positions of North Korea and the United States. They sought to coordinate their diplomatic efforts closely with those of the North Korean leadership, though China proved more successful in this respect than Russia because of the much greater influence that it now wields on the Korean Peninsula. China and Russia may also have intensified their discussions of security coordination. Russia’s large-scale Vostok-2018 military exercises, in which Chinese forces participated for the first time in this quadrennial series, may have served as a demonstration of Russian and Chinese military power in Northeast Asia in advance of the possible outbreak of armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. The security interests of China and Russia on the peninsula are not identical, especially regarding the long-term prospects for reunification, but their interests are likely to remain largely aligned for the foreseeable future. Close cooperation between China and Russia on the Korean Peninsula’s security issues is, therefore, likely to continue.