Biden’s trip to Korea: North Korea-China relations pose a challenge for the United States

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SEOUL — In December 2017, the UN Security Council agreed that the next time North Korea tests a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States, it would impose new fuel sanctions to put pressure on its leader, Kim Jong Un.

In March, when North Korea finally tested such a missile capable of reaching Washington, the Security Council did not carry out its threat, largely due to objections from two countries: China and Russia. .

As President Biden makes his first presidential trip to South Korea and Japan next week, he faces changing dynamics in Northeast Asia that pose serious challenges to US efforts to strengthen alliances to counter the rising in power of China. A major challenge is the thawing of North Korea’s relations with China and Russia, aimed at reducing American influence in the region.

In particular, China’s strategic opening to North Korea since the collapse of diplomatic talks between the United States and North Korea in 2019 has brought the two countries closer. With tensions rising over US-China competition and a new conservative South Korean government vowing to take a tougher line on North Korea and China, Beijing has more incentive to keep Pyongyang close, experts say.

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The United States wants to strengthen its relationship with South Korea and Japan to tackle pressing regional issues, including North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, China’s supply chain dominance and the possibility of conflict in Taiwan. But it will not be an easy task, especially with the deterioration of relations between Japan and South Korea and South Korea’s economic dependence on China.

“The overall security and economic situation, the landscape, doesn’t look very bright,” said Ahn Ho-young, former South Korean ambassador to the United States. “Because of all these challenges, this visit that President Biden is planning is even more important.”

North Korea has a long and difficult relationship with China. But in recent years, Beijing has stepped up its diplomacy with Pyongyang and grown to account for more than 90% of its foreign trade activity. While this trade has fallen sharply during North Korea’s lockdown, Beijing remains its main lifeline.

The two countries have become more cooperative in recent years out of political convenience in the face of U.S.-China competition, said Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean studies at Kookmin University and a leading scholar on North Korean issues.

“The main game-changer is the confrontation with the United States. … This means that the strategic value of North Korea from the Chinese point of view has increased significantly,” Lankov said. “For North Korea, the Sino-American rivalry is a kind of heaven-sent gift. This gives them essentially unconditional Chinese support – something in the past they couldn’t even dream of.

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North Korea and Russia have also had a complicated relationship, but Pyongyang became a strong supporter of Moscow in the aftermath of the war, even becoming one of five countries that refused to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. . Russian companies have continued to employ North Korean workers, despite UN sanctions barring countries from taking in workers who earn hard currency for the Kim regime.

Notably, China and Russia shielded North Korea from further international sanctions despite Kim’s ambitious pursuit of its nuclear program, consistently advocating a rollback of sanctions.

“China, Russia and North Korea will continue to cooperate to safeguard regional peace and stability, regardless of pressures and impacts that may come from the United States,” wrote the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper. , in 2021.

More recently, when the United States last week called for new UN sanctions against North Korea over its missile and nuclear programs, China and Russia vetoed the move.

China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun Accused the United States to be “superstitiously enamored with the magic power of sanctions” and urged Washington to play a more active role in resuming talks with Pyongyang. Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Anna Evstigneeva, said “it is absolutely unrealistic” to expect North Korea to disarm under the threat of sanctions.

“Russia would like to see Americans distracted by some sort of development elsewhere. So right now they don’t mind North Korea’s nuclear adventurism — although in the long run Russia isn’t very happy with a nuclear North Korea, like China,” Lankov said. .

North Korea’s Kim is determined to show he is on the right track with his five-year weapons development program and has conducted an unprecedented number of missile tests this year. It appears to be preparing for an imminent seventh nuclear test, according to US and South Korean officials.

But China and Russia are unlikely to support additional sanctions against Kim even if he conducts a nuclear test, given China’s “two-track” approach to engaging North Korea despite its nuclear ambitions, and Russia’s opposition to international sanctions following the war in Ukraine. .

The international community’s confused response to China and Russia has encouraged North Korea to develop a range of nuclear-capable weapons with impunity, including weapons aimed at South Korea, Ahn said. , the former South Korean ambassador. Ahn noted that North Korean leader Kim last month threatened nuclear retaliation if provoked.

“We have to deal with objective developments: North Korean missile technology is advancing all the time, and then North Korea actually has a declared intention to use these tactical nuclear weapons,” Ahn said. “I think that would be the time when we should justify what we mean by strong deterrence.”

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South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has vowed to work with the United States to cooperate on regional efforts to counter China, such as Quad and Biden’s new economic proposal named the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

But doing so would risk crippling Beijing’s economic retaliation, bringing North Korea closer to China and further destabilizing inter-Korean relations, said Chung Jae-hung, a China expert and researcher at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. .

In 2017, for example, when the United States deployed the ground-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea, Beijing economically retaliated in Seoul. China is now watching to see if the Yoon government’s rhetoric turns into action, Chung said.

“It’s hard to be optimistic,” Chung said. “If North Korea conducts a nuclear test and Russia and China refuse to pursue additional UN sanctions, what does South Korea do?”