Search All Site Content

Total Index: 6428 publications.

Subscribe to our Mailing List!

Sign up for our mailing list to keep up to date on all the latest developments.

The Peninsula

A Tale of Three Triangles: The Complicated Geopolitics of Northeast Asia

Published June 20, 2024
Category: North Korea

The highly orchestrated imagery of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin standing next to his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong Un, on the reviewing stand in Pyongyang’s main parade square is bound to evoke disturbing thoughts of the past. It reminds us of the historical turning point when Joseph Stalin, with Mao Zedong’s support, gave the green light to Kim’s grandfather to invade South Korea.

This time, China’s Xi Jinping was not present, as the Chinese have kept a distance from this recreation of the Cold War past. But China remains the principal backer of North Korea and echoes Russia’s embrace of the regime as a common victim of Western pressure and US hegemony. Perhaps uncomfortably, China is drawn again – as it was in 1950 – to backing Russia’s strategic miscalculations.

The one-day visit unveiled a new agreement to form a “comprehensive strategic partnership” between North Korea and Russia that includes a range of economic and cultural ties but, importantly, offers a pledge of “mutual aid” in the event of aggression. The new treaty replicates the language – in an even more detailed fashion – of the 1961 Soviet-North Korean treaty, creating an alignment that goes beyond anything seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“In the event that either party falls into a state of war due to armed aggression from an individual state or multiple states, the other party shall immediately provide military and other assistance by all means available,” Article 4 of the treaty states, according to the text carried by the Korean Central News Agency.

The North Korea-Russia-China triangle faces off against another echo of the start of the Cold War in Korea – the tightening partnership between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. Following up on the Camp David Summit last year, the three countries have tried to institutionalize their security cooperation. This summer, the three militaries will carry out a joint multi-dimensional exercise codenamed “Freedom Edge,” a level of integration that would have been unthinkable even a year ago. The leaders of Japan and South Korea will attend the NATO Summit in July, perhaps offering their own version of collective security.

The sense of a looming confrontation, with echoes of 1950, has been embraced in the rhetoric of some expert observers. The Kim-Putin summit presents “the greatest threat to U.S. national security since the Korean War,” wrote Georgetown University professor and former national security official Victor Cha.

South Korean commentary has also warned of the possible dark consequences of this, even tying it to the possible return to power of Donald Trump. “A meeting between Kim and Putin – who both seek to break the status quo through instability, chaos, and disorder – is dangerous,” editorialized Donga Ilbo on June 18. “For the two leaders, the return of Donald Trump, who hit it off with them, is a golden opportunity.”

The imminence of a collision that might lead to war cannot be dismissed. But it ignores other dynamics in the region that reveal a far more complicated reality. Alongside these two triangles, there is also a third triangle – one between China, Japan, and South Korea – animated by an increasingly urgent search for stability rather than conflict.

In May, the three Asian neighbors convened a trilateral summit meeting in Seoul, the first leader-level gathering of this grouping since before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. While Kim and Putin were meeting in Pyongyang, a South Korea-China diplomatic and security dialogue was being held in Seoul for the first time since 2015.

Both these events took place after China dropped its resistance to resuming these dialogues, clearly reflecting its newfound desire to restore communication and even cooperation with Japan and South Korea. This is widely seen in part as a Chinese effort to drive wedges between its neighbors and the United States. But it also reflects a shared concern about the drift toward confrontation, driven also by economic warfare, that could undermine all three countries.

The Chinese have signaled their unease with the Kim-Putin embrace in small but significant ways. The trilateral summit in Seoul issued a joint declaration that notably included a common interest and responsibility to maintain “peace, stability, and prosperity” in Northeast Asia and referred to the positions on the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” This drew an unusually public rebuke from the North Korean regime.

The Kim-Putin summit is not an entirely happy event for Beijing. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Putin had hoped to visit North Korea on the heels of a visit to Beijing last month, but the Chinese nixed that idea, apparently wary of the image of a trilateral alliance at work. “The picture that emerges is less of a neat authoritarian axis and more of a messy love triangle,” wrote The Economist.

As Putin made clear in his press statement in Pyongyang, Russia is eager to get US attention and rattle Western support for Ukraine, even opening the door to North Korean soldiers joining the fighting there. For Putin, the goal is to divide and limit Western support for Ukraine, and by heightening inter-Korean confrontation, they may push South Korea to limit its indirect military flows to Ukraine.

But looking more closely at the Kim-Putin public display of affection, there are also reasons to question its depth and even durability beyond the imperative created by the Ukraine war. Rather than a declaration of shared hatred for the United States – though that clearly exists –  this is a desperate pact among two deeply isolated regimes.

The North Korean regime sits atop an impoverished populace that suffers from malnutrition and economic malaise, siphons off vital resources into an expensive nuclear and missile program, and creates showcase projects to maintain loyalty among its elite.

Russia, despite the tenuous recent success of its invasion forces, has become a military economy, funneling a large portion of its state-run economy into its defense buildup. And while Russia can claim some pockets of support – or at least neutrality – in the Global South, even China is wary of offering open backing for their war of aggression and clings to a mythical status as a potential peacemaker.

For Russia, the open support from Pyongyang is a rare exception. “We highly value North Korea’s unwavering support for Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, its solidarity with us on key international issues, and its willingness to uphold our shared priorities and views at the United Nations,” Putin wrote in an op-ed published in the North Korean communist party daily, Rodong Sinmun, just ahead of his arrival.

North Korea also offered something more concrete. As Russia’s stocks of ammunition dwindled last year and its defense industry was not able to ramp up production, the North Koreans emptied vast stores of artillery ammunition and short-range rockets, many of which are decades old and of questionable utility. US officials estimate some 10,000 containers of munitions flowed from the North’s caves to the frontlines, amounting to millions of rounds of shells.

In return, Kim Jong Un got similar gifts, not least a moment in the sun that broke his isolation. The Russians also offered means to crack the UN sanctions regime, from a move to dismantle the international body that monitors sanctions against North Korea to opening the taps on the flow of oil and other inputs and allowing North Koreans to be used as cheap labor in Russia (and in China). The North Koreans are being merged into Russia’s sanctions-evasion system, including financial settlements that hide their transactions.

Perhaps more ominously, the Russians have almost abandoned their previous commitment to non-proliferation and denuclearization. Russian diplomats used to be staunch guardians of these principles, all during the years of the Six-Party talks. Now, they are providing active help to North Korea’s long-range missile development, thinly clothed as aiding satellite launches but in reality allowing Pyongyang to threaten the continental United States with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

This is a serious shift and one with potentially dangerous consequences, as the South Korean editorial pointed out. But it should also be understood that the Russians – and their Chinese partners – are contemptuous of the North Korean regime, something this writer has heard in no uncertain terms in visits to Russia before the war. In conversations with Russian experts on the region, they made fun of the regime, seeing it as an extreme throwback to the worst days of Stalin’s personality cult and an unreliable actor.

There may be limits to their cooperation, though for now, this is a bargain that meets the needs of both. Beijing, uneasy as it may be, is not ready to block it.

For the US-Japan-South Korea triangle, the challenge will be to offer each other enhanced security and reassurance against the threat of conflict while being supportive of the efforts, fragile as they may be, of the South Korea-Japan-China triangle to avoid war.

Daniel Sneider is a Lecturer of International Policy and East Asian Studies at Stanford University and a Non-Resident Distinguished Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Office of the President of Russia.

Return to the Peninsula

Stay Informed
Register to receive updates from KEI