Kim Jong-un’s red carpet visit to Russia this past week is a disturbing development for peace and stability in Ukraine and Northeast Asia. At the same time, the position of Korea is also strong in diplomatic and security terms and this Russia-North Korea alignment — historic though it may be — is a sign of weakness on the other side that must be put in the proper context. Here are five points to remember while watching Putin’s courtship of Kim.
First, larger geopolitical trends among the major powers do continue to favor Kim Jong-un. Authoritarian Russia and China are moving to pursue alternate power geometries that weaken institutions dominated by the democracies, as Xi’s snub of the G20 meeting in Delhi and China’s push for expansion of the BRICS summit demonstrate. Kim can now count on two permanent UN Security Council members, Russia and China, to oppose moves by the United States, Britain, and France to impose punishments on Pyongyang for violations of previous Security Council resolutions that relate to missiles.
Authoritarian Russia and China are moving to pursue alternate power geometries that weaken institutions dominated by the democracies
Whether Moscow or even Beijing will now be more tolerant of resumed North Korean nuclear testing, we do not know. If Russia becomes desperate because of setbacks in Ukraine, Putin could resort to what is called “horizontal escalation” against the West in other theatres such as the Korean peninsula (that is already happening in Africa). His saber-rattling sidekick Dmitry Medvedev has publicly threatened to open technology spigots to Pyongyang in ways that would enhance the North’s missile and nuclear weapons development.
Medvedev is clearly authorized to make such extreme threats, including warnings of nuclear war with NATO, and Putin would know how dangerous escalation on the Korean peninsula would be, but he has taken dangerous gambles before. How far it goes we do not know, but geopolitical competition is weakening the restraints on Pyongyang.
The second point to emphasise is that while these geopolitical tensions impact the Korean peninsula, they will not be reversed by desperate concessions to Pyongyang or Beijing, by Seoul or Washington. Commentary that the Xi-Putin summit is the result of insufficient engagement of Pyongyang is camouflage for arguments that Seoul and Washington should have surrendered on denuclearisation, an approach that would hardly have made the peninsula safer than it is now.
Fortunately, the Yoon government has moved away from a decade of “strategic ambiguity,” recognising that this only incentivized Beijing to continue pursuing further wedges between Seoul and Washington, and did exactly nothing to incentivise Beijing to restrain Pyongyang. The premise that China has important leverage over North Korea is correct, but the idea that signaling tolerance of Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions would turn that leverage to Seoul’s advantage was a fantasy.
Third, while the emerging China-Russia-Iran-North Korea axis is potentially disruptive for the interests of Korea, the United States, and other democratic allies and partners — it is an authoritarian alignment fraught with distrust. What marks all four countries is a high tolerance for risk and provocation in pursuit of their separate revisionist and irredentist aims, but that is exactly why each will be cautious about making security commitments to the other.
While the emerging China-Russia-Iran-North Korea axis is potentially disruptive for the interests of Korea, the United States, and other democratic allies and partners — it is an authoritarian alignment fraught with distrust.
China does not want to be associated with any Iranian war against Saudi Arabia or Gulf states that provide oil and a possible diplomatic card against the United States. Russia may see some advantage in empowering Kim Jong-un in the pursuit of munitions and diplomatic leverage, but a war on the Korean peninsula would bring chaos to Russia’s Far East and possibly create a new NATO on Moscow’s Eastern flank. Both Beijing and Moscow would fear nuclear proliferation in the event of chaos on the peninsula that could see nuclear weapons materials fall into the hands of radical Muslim separatists who mean them harm.
As a result, the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran-Pyongyang axis will find it much more difficult to mature their security cooperation and mutual commitments the way democratic allies and partners have with the QUAD, Aukus, and the Camp David US-ROK-Japan trilateral summit. The bottom line is that democracies value peace and predictability, and that makes it easier to develop mutual security understandings.
Fourth, the fate of Ukraine and the Korean peninsula are inseparable. There are difficult trade-offs between Europe and Asia for the United States in terms of munitions, diplomatic time spent, and balancing near-term defense spending requirements in Europe against longer-term investments needed to deter China as a peer competitor in Asia. In my view, the Biden administration and Congress should spend more to achieve that balance, but given the resources available have done a reasonable job managing a two-front challenge. Those who argue that the United States and its allies should force a settlement on Zelensky in order to focus on Taiwan and the Korean peninsula fail to understand that appeasement in Europe begets aggression in Asia.
Those who argue that the United States and its allies should force a settlement on Zelensky in order to focus on Taiwan and the Korean peninsula fail to understand that appeasement in Europe begets aggression in Asia.
The fact is that linking Europe and Asian democratic alliances will bring far greater returns than the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran-Pyongyang axis can achieve from their cooperation. Think about it. Putin and Kim may agree on artillery munitions that are a generation old. Moscow and Tehran may be talking about drones that are tactically useful. But in contrast, Korea, the United States, Japan, and Europe are talking about controlling the most advanced semiconductors needed for artificial intelligence while the war in Ukraine has prompted global economic sanctions against Russia — sanctions that would be devastating if European and Asian democracies collaborated in the same way as in a crisis in Asia.
Fifth and finally, it is worth remembering how frail these authoritarian regimes really are. Moscow had a near coup from the Wagner Group and Xi has mysteriously disappeared his foreign and defense ministers in the past few months. Economic growth is slowing for China and disastrous for Moscow. And these are the powerful patrons of Tehran and Pyongyang, which face even more dire economic circumstances.
That weakness is itself dangerous, of course, but all the more reason for patient, vigilant, and firm coordination among democratic allies rather than panic and retreat. Moscow will need to understand that fueling danger on the Korean peninsula will only lead to more isolation and risk for Russia.