Russia-North Korea pact is the price of China’s ‘strategic patience’

Could China have foreseen that North Korea’s advanced nuclear weapons and proliferation efforts would intensify to become a critical factor in global insecurity, affecting not only the Korean peninsula and East Asia but also the Indo-Pacific and further?

Could China have foreseen that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and weapons production would become a pivotal external factor in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, severely undermining China’s global security strategy?

Could China have predicted the fundamental changes to East Asia’s security structure after North Korea agreed to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Russia?

Unlikely. Focused on North Korea’s strategic value as a buffer state, China has consistently shown a lack of ability and willingness to deter or dismantle Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities. This stance, a Chinese adaptation of “strategic patience”, has had a severely adverse impact on China’s interests.

The six-party talks of the 2000s, which tried to negotiate the end of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, ultimately collapsed due to conflicting interests, Pyongyang’s deception and strategic mistrust among the other five: South Korea, the US, Japan, China and Russia.

The strategic patience of the major global powers allowed North Korea to become a de facto nuclear-weapons state in the 2010s. Throughout, China merely observed.

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Raising the stakes: How North Korea became a nuclear state

Raising the stakes: How North Korea became a nuclear state

It neither leveraged North Korea in its so-called hegemonic competition with the United States nor infringed upon its sovereignty. Despite the other four parties’ desire to deter or dismantle North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, they were as ineffective as China.

But Russia’s new strategic perspective on North Korea’s nuclear capabilities has opened a Pandora’s box. The shift became evident when reports emerged of North Korea making large-scale exports of conventional arms to Russia for use on the Ukrainian front. Moscow and Pyongyang have denied this.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that North Korea “has its own nuclear umbrella”. Russia has already reportedly provided North Korea with help related to missile delivery systems, and could potentially provide Pyongyang with nuclear-powered submarines, hypersonic missiles and fifth-generation fighter jets as well as assistance with its nuclear programme.

With this shift, Russia is no longer aligned with China, particularly in this critical area of security strategy. Reports suggest Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Putin not to visit North Korea right after his China visit in May, because China wanted to avoid being seen as aligned with North Korea or part of a bloc with the two states. Putin went to Pyongyang a month later; evidently, China could not further influence Russia.

Economically and in terms of security interests, China is far more important to North Korea, but to Pyongyang, Russia has become crucial to its nuclear ambitions.

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Putin, Kim sign ‘strongest ever’ defence treaty amid growing tensions with the West

Putin, Kim sign ‘strongest ever’ defence treaty amid growing tensions with the West

Of the remaining four parties of the six-party talks, South Korea and Japan differ in their positions from the US and China, highlighting the divide between the nuclear and non-nuclear weapon states.

In South Korea, public opinion is near boiling point as people demand domestic nuclear armament, driven by the growing North Korean nuclear threat.

This escalation is partly due to Russia’s defence treaty with North Korea, which essentially provides a nuclear shield and implies a substantial nuclear umbrella, posing a threat to not just South Korea but also Japan. It creates conditions North Korea sees as favourable to advancing its intercontinental ballistic missile systems, and possibly even attempting a seventh nuclear test.

For all we know, Pyongyang and Moscow may attempt to sway the US presidential election in November while leveraging their nuclear capabilities against the US, South Korea, Japan and China. In any case, Northeast Asia’s nuclear equilibrium has been utterly disrupted. South Korea is under intense pressure to take assertive action, as is Japan.

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Tokyo residents take part in evacuation drills as North Korea steps up missile launches

Tokyo residents take part in evacuation drills as North Korea steps up missile launches

The situation cannot be managed by the occasional deployment of US strategic assets and the questionable deterrence provided by the newly set up nuclear consultative group. The prospect of a domino effect of nuclear proliferation represents one of the gravest global security threats, with China at the epicentre.

The security convergence between the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions is becoming a reality. South Korea, which has said it could consider providing lethal weapons to Ukraine, already plays a key role in bolstering Nato’s military capabilities against Russia through significant sales of advanced conventional weapons. Japan is likely to intensify its anti-Russia policies.

The possibility of a Nato-like security arrangement in East Asia or the Indo-Pacific, which China vehemently opposes, is now viewed as increasingly plausible and justifiable. China is caught in this security dilemma with no clear way out.

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North Korea’s Kim Jong-un guides country’s 1st ‘nuclear trigger’ simulation drills

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un guides country’s 1st ‘nuclear trigger’ simulation drills

It seems naive that China could have failed to anticipate how North Korea’s nuclear capabilities would become a key variable in the instability of not just Northeast Asia but the Indo-Pacific region, and even globally. This oversight, which is inflicting substantial damage on China’s global security strategy, marks yet another failure of strategic prediction.

The damage extends beyond the impact of North Korea’s nuclear tests on China’s northeastern provinces. China, which previously considered North Korea a junior security partner or even a vassal state, now finds itself unable to militarily attack it, even in the worst-case scenario. At the same time, the notion of a nuclear war breaking out in East Asia has suddenly become less inconceivable.

A pseudo-alliance between North Korea and Russia has emerged, further complicating the regional security landscape. Instead of achieving the grand unification of mainland China and Taiwan, Beijing’s security strategy is increasingly in jeopardy. Far from expanding, China is scrambling to defend itself.

Now, what will China do?

Wooyeal Paik is a professor in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, deputy director of the Yonsei Institute of North Korean Studies, and director of the Center for Security Strategy, Aerospace Strategy & Technology Institute, at Yonsei University, Seoul

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