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Sino-Russian Relations, South Korea, and North Korea
Region: Asia
Published July 29, 2019
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This examination of the relations among these four governments assesses the ever-closer China-Russia relationship featuring stronger strategic alignment against the United States and its interests in many parts of the world, including the Korean Peninsula. It also considers how the Sino-Russian relationship reacted to the major changes in the Korean Peninsula brought on by the string of remarkable developments on the peninsula since 2017. Those developments include: the Donald Trump administration’s heavy pressure against North Korean nuclear weapons development in 2017; North Korea’s abrupt shift away from confrontation and toward negotiations with the U.S. and South Korea in early 2018; the subsequent dramatic shift toward top-level U.S.-North Korea negotiations to ease tensions and improve relations seen in Trump’s meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018 and February 2019; and active, related North Korean summitry with South Korea and China.

In this period, China and Russia in relations with South Korea and North Korea repeatedly worked together to offset U.S. pressures and undermine U.S. influence. Developments over the past two years have seen China emerge as a critically important player with a major role in all aspects of negotiations involving the crisis caused by North Korea’s rapid development and repeated testing of nuclear weapons and related development and testing of ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead as far as the continental U.S.

By contrast, Russia’s role and influence have declined in importance. The failed revival of the Six-Party Talks, in which Russia and Japan played a direct role along with North and South Korea, China, and the U.S. in dealing with the North Korean nuclear weapons crisis, and the current regional dynamic focused on only the four latter powers means that Moscow and Tokyo have been marginalized by recent developments. Such an outcome challenges the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin and its drive to play a prominent role as a leading world power on issues important to Russian interests. Demonstrating new prominence, Putin hosted visiting Kim during a brief summit long sought by Russia in Vladivostok on April 25. The Russian leader said North Korea’s security concerns would be better met with international guarantees involving Russia and China rather than bilateral North Korean agreements with the U.S. Up until this point, Russia had been playing second fiddle to Beijing, repeatedly siding with China in matters regarding the Korean Peninsula. China, for its part, seemed comfortable with close cooperative relations with Russia as it deals with Korean matters. Whatever differences the two may have over Korean issues have been difficult to discern amid their collaboration and cooperation, which focus on weakening the American position in Korea and Northeast Asia.

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