The arguments against this triangle taking shape are essentially three-fold. First, North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons and will not accept a secondary role in relation to China. Thus, the tensions between the two will persist. Second, as Sergey Radchenko argues, Russia has too little to gain from strengthening its ties to North Korea in a “Cold War” fashion, lacking the geopolitical and geo-economic case as well as the ideological rationale for reverting to Soviet sponsorship of the regime. Third, China’s regional priorities lie elsewhere, leading it to marginalize North Korea or to keep South Korea guessing rather than to commit itself to a regime that would put China in a bad light and reduce its leverage. There is merit to all of these claims, but there are counter-arguments that should also be seriously considered. They are based on the prospect of a transitional process, falling short of denuclearization.
While Pyongyang is determined to remain a nuclear state, the diplomacy inclusive of the goal of denuclearization without actually having to undertake the final step, may be enticing for the rewards it could extract and for the enthusiasm it could generate in Beijing and Moscow. Below, I suggest how the deal with Iran could be interpreted in Pyongyang in a manner conducive to closer ties with Beijing and Moscow during the course of talks. Moreover, while Moscow is unlikely to bear the heavy burden of support for North Korea, there are possibilities for enlisting South Korea and/or China in joint projects at the same time as ties to North Korea do grow closer. In consideration of South Korea’s status as a bridge between maritime and continental regionalism and ambivalence about assisting North Korea in its transition, we would be well advised to recognize its continued openness to working with Russia, even as Moscow draws closer to Pyongyang. Finally, China’s priority for using North Korea to impact South Korea and to reshape a region of unparalleled strategic significance should not be overlooked. Finding a joint strategy with Russia, after the two claim to have aligned the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt as well as to have strengthened the SCO as a kind of umbrella organization, would dangle a carrot in front of North Korea to escape its isolation, while putting South Korea to the test of giving its support or becoming isolated from continental regionalism.
The Impact of the Iranian Nuclear Deal
At one extreme in assessing prospects for diplomacy with North Korea, one finds critics of President Obama who think it is a fool’s errand to continue to look for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis. Mostly opposed to Obama’s “bad deal” with Iran, they think that if the United States—together with others in the Six-Party Talks process—were to seek to build on that precedent with redoubled outreach to North Korea, it would be compounding a tragic mistake. That is not the reasoning coming from Moscow and Beijing. At the other extreme, with optimistic views of proceeding from the Iran deal to a burst of diplomacy with North Korea, are Russian authors. This follows from what they have been writing about the prospects for diplomacy with Pyongyang as well as the euphoria expressed over the Iran deal. While Chinese are more prone to acknowledging Pyongyang’s refusal to negotiate on abandoning its nuclear program, they mostly share the Russian view that Iran provides a strong precedent for multilateral engagement with more emphasis on carrots than sticks.
Russian and Chinese appeals for Pyongyang to engage in diplomacy and be offered far-reaching incentives prior to denuclearization are similar. Writers in both states mostly appear eager to welcome North Korea without regard to its human rights transgressions, inclination to belligerent rhetoric, and refusal to go forward with South Korean overtures of “trustpolitik.” Rather, what matters most is a decision to become part of a process of great power maneuvering over regional security and multi-stage transformation of the Korean Peninsula in geostrategic negotiating.
Beijing and Moscow profess to seek denuclearization, but this goal is qualified by the priority each places on other goals, by the sequence they postulate for realizing the abandonment of nuclear weapons, and by the blame they cast on failure to date. The reasoning of each state is rooted in thinking surviving from the Cold War era.
The end of the Cold War plus the isolation of Pyongyang and the normalization of relations between Seoul and both Moscow and Beijing left the prospect of a renewal of the Northern Triangle in what seemed the dustbin of history. Even as recently as the mid-2000s, claims that the Six-Party Talks have a line-up of five versus one were taken very seriously. Chinese pressure against Kim Jong-un and Russian insistence that improved ties to him prioritize denuclearization have left most observers focused on Pyongyang’s isolation and the possibility of collapse, not on its prospects for revival within a regional grouping. Yet, there are close parallels to the Cold War era.
Four main themes figured in their Cold War reasoning on Northeast Asia with North Korea at its core, all of which regained traction by the 2000s. First, the North Korean regime is a bulwark against a civilizational threat, represented by South Korea as the leading edge in the spread of an incompatible system. Second, North Korea has a vital place in the balance of power, bolstering Beijing or Moscow’s presence in the broader Northeast Asian region. Third, North Korea is a longstanding partner, for whose protection vast amounts of blood and money have been sacrificed. Finally, it is potentially a bargaining chip, to be used in concessions in realizing other valued objectives. Moscow faulted itself for discarding this logic for a time, and Beijing was aware that some of its specialists were wavering about it. As the two countries drew closer together from the second half of the 1990s, they reinforced each other’s views. In the mid-2010s, there are still occasional voices in Moscow and Beijing who point to North Korea as an embarrassment, but the mainstream narrative rests on revival of the four themes steeped in Cold War thinking, insisting on support for the North.i
Putin’s strategy, the logical extrapolation of reasoning articulated in Russia from the mid-1990s, relies on North Korean belligerence as well as defiance to threaten South Korea. Russia had fixated on North Korea as its gateway to East Asia at a time it remained wary of overdependence on China, but even as Russia found itself more willing to rely on China, it came to value North Korea more highly as the place where great power maneuvering had the greatest potential. Xi Jinping is playing a more nuanced game, using North Korea as a lure to keep Obama interested in a “new type of major power relations” and Park Geun-hye enticed by the prospect of Chinese support for the “bonanza” of reunification. Yet, it would be delusional to overlook Xi’s recollection of the “great and just” Korean War, Chinese suspicions of South Korea as under the spell of Western civilization and the Cold War mentality of the ROK-US alliance, and Xi’s message to Kim Jong-un that while China will keep his regime from falling even if he fails to coordinate with China, Xi will apply pressure.
Denuclearization of North Korea is desired in Moscow and Beijing, but it is normally treated as a secondary goal, not the priority, or more as a consequence of realizing other objectives than a precondition for pursuing them. This reasoning was already evident during the first years of the Six-Party Talks, when publications emphasized the regional security framework and the process of reunification of the peninsula no less than the path to denuclearization. During the Cold War era, North Korea’s acts of provocation were not commended, but they took a back seat to arguments about regional and peninsular transformation, which rationalized the absence of pressure to cause an ally to change course. As the big picture again dominates the narratives in China and Russia, North Korea, however much it may be scorned in private, has resumed its rightful place in the competition between two systems for supremacy.
Should Pyongyang shift to a diplomatic track, Beijing and Moscow both decide that a stronger clash with Washington is in their interest, or Washington and Seoul step up deterrence and pressure against Pyongyang unilaterally, then the actual nature of each state’s support for Pyongyang is more likely to come into the open. They would not be jockeying with each other over future corridors and projects of reunification, but clashing with Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo over the regional security system and over the balance between North and South Korea in what is likely to be a long and tortuous path to reunification. Given the similarity in Chinese and Russian reasoning today and during the Cold War about the significance of North Korea, we can expect that they will, at a minimum, revive the virtual triangle that survived until the end of the Cold War. Should Sino-Russian relations continue to strengthen as tensions with the United States intensify, stronger support for North Korea is likely to follow. Kim Jong-un has set back this process by his utter disregard for the diplomatic track, but the current course is unsustainable. Moscow’s “good cop” and Beijing’s “bad cop” approach to get him to change are aimed at eliciting a change of course, but not in the direction sought by Seoul or Washington. Their objective is a drawn-out transition with ample room for revival of a sort of Northern Triangle.
Kim Jong-un has begun his tenure with little interest in diplomacy, drawing back from tentative indications of overtures to the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Russia. As long as he proceeds in this fashion, especially by snubbing any moves by China to restart the Six-Party Talks with the possibility of denuclearization, then the Northern Triangle is likely to be kept on hold. An isolated North Korea faces a severe environment, in which it could expect absorption by South Korea as the upshot from overtures to Seoul, Washington, or Tokyo or support for regime survival from ties to Beijing and Moscow that lead to Six-Party Talks. The latter option is far more likely.
i. See the coverage in “Country Report: Russia” and “Country Report: China” updated bi-monthly in The Asan Forum.