Every few years it seems, North Korea gets restless and starts making wild threats and proclamations. Mostlyt (and this is my own personal assessement) all the chest-beating and attention they get from countries with legimate international power is simply just to make ruling class feel important and good about themselves. Recently, North Korea has gone off on another round of showmanship; however, this time the rhetoric has been escalating to the point where in the past month they have threatened a pre-emptive nuclear war on the U.S., nullified the joint declaration of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and nullified the 1953 Armistice that ended the Korean War. Just today, they threatened to restart nuclear reactors and facilities in an effort to expand their nuclear arsenal.
As the threats from North Korea have escalated, the U.S. has been forced to recognize them and respond. For that reason, the Navy has moved a destroyer (USS McCain, capable of intercepting missiles) off the Korean Peninsula, and four F-22 stealth fighters have been deployed for joint exercises with South Korea, in addition to the B-2 stealth bombers previously deployed. Given these threats, and the U.S. response, one has to wonder if Kim Jong Un is serious about his rhetoric, or given the timing of these threats, if there is something more going on.
Given the current unrest in the Middle East, specifically Iran’s nuclear ambitions and aggression towards Israel, and the ongoing attempts to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria, could North Korea’s actions be merely a smokescreen designed to drawn American interest (and military attention) away from that area? To answer the question, one has to examine the relations between these countries and their connections to Russia and China.
First, the relationship between Iran and China Has been well documented. According to a Rand Corporation analysis:
- The Iranian regime views China as a potential ally against the United States, and Beijing views Iran as a potential partner for limiting U.S. influence in the Middle East.
- The foundations of the economic partnership between Iran and China are Iran’s abundant energy resources and China’s growing energy needs, but China is not overwhelmingly dependent on the Islamic Republic for its energy needs; in contrast, the Iranian regime now depends on China as its chief diplomatic protector.
In addition, as noted in the Stratfor video below, China and North Korea may be openly working together, or have a tacit agreement regarding recent actions, and that if Beijing was truly concerned, it could bring a great deal more concrete pressure down on Pyongyang:
“China’s Role in North Korea’s Nuclear Strategy is republished with permission of Stratfor.”
Regarding the other link in this chain of nations, the Syrian-Russian relationship is just as well documented as that between China and Iran., and with a shrinking list of allies, Syria represents Russia’s only influence in the region. It’s no wonder, then that Russia would want to limit U. S. involvement in Syria, much like China would like to limit U. S. involvement with Iran; any U. S. involement would be seen limiting their regional influence.
That being said, is there enough of a relationship between Russia and both North Korea and China to provide for collusion against the United States?
Regarding North Korea, it is important to note that there is a historical connection dating back to the Soviet era and the Cold War:
After the Korean War, the USSR emerged as the main trading partner and sponsor of North Korea. Ninety three North Korean factories were built with Russian technical assistance, forging the country’s heavy-industrial backbone. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans were educated in the USSR.
After a somewhat rocky relationship through the late Gorbachev years and then the post-soviet years of the late 1980s and 90s, the relationship has once again warmed and been strengthened:
It is commonly perceived by international media outlets that China is the only state able to persuade Pyongyang to participate in the multilateral talks. Of course, there are grounds for such an assertion. However, this perception is also a result of Washington’s multi-sided strategy, which is aimed at drawing Beijing to its side and away from Pyongyang, while simultaneously attempting to push the Russian Federation out of Korean affairs. Western media sources often ignore the fact that the strength and intensity of high-level Russian-North Korean dialogue is unmatched by any other country’s influence in Pyongyang.
So, how does that impact Russia’s current stance on the North Korean threats? According to the Brookings Institute paper:
Above all, it should be stressed that Moscow’s policies toward the Korean peninsula are determined by Russia’s serious and legitimate strategic interests in Korea. The fundamental goal of the preservation of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula defines Russia’s policy toward Korea, and by extension its position on any settlement of the North Korean nuclear crisis. Russia stands firmly behind a peaceful resolution of the crisis, achieved through diplomacy and negotiation.
Russia has sunk considerable amounts of capital in to numerous large-scale, long-term international infrastructure projects involving the Korean peninsula, such as oil and gas pipelines and Trans-Korean and Trans-Siberian railroads junctions. These projects are of crucial importance to the economic revitalization of the Russian Far East. Needless to say, in the case of a new Korean War, these projects—and Russian economic interests—would be severely damaged.
Therefore, one could conclude that if the current threats out of Pyonyang of a new Korean War were serious, there would be more pressure placed on North Korea by the Russians. Since that hasn’t been the case, it appears that much as with China, Russia doesn’t see the current rhetoric as a substantial threat. It is therefore not a wild leap in logic to infer that there may be some tacit level of cooperation between the two countries in regards to North Korea’s actions.
Now that a relationship has been established between China and the minor players as well as between Russia and thos countries, the final issue is whether there is enough of a relationship between the two major players (Russia and China) to indicate that such collusion is likely, or even possible. In that vein, it is important to note that Russia and China formed a “strategic cooperative partnership” in 1996, and signed the Treaty of Good-Neighbourliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001. These two pacts indicate that despite many obstacles to their relationship both countries recognize the importance of working together to spread their influence, and oppose a U. S. dominated globe. According to a paper by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the relationship is built upon several convergent interests:
Neither China nor Russia wants an international order dominated by the USA alone. On a number of significant global issues, Chinese and Russian diplomats cooperate in opposition to US positions. However, both insist that their partnership is not anti-US but rather a move towards a multipolar world.
Both China and Russia oppose expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which Russia views as encroaching on its sphere of influence. Chinese opposition to NATO expansion is partly out of solidarity for what is viewed as a major strategic interest of Russia but is also driven by its own fundamental security concerns. Some in China believe that NATO expansion isemblematic of a broader US strategy to contain rivals through alliances, including with Japan and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).
China and Russia also hold similar positions on international initiatives to curb the spread of WMD. Both view non-proliferation efforts as important, but China and Russia do not share what they perceive as ‘Westerners’ obsession’ with nonproliferation.
China and Russia maintain and assert the right of a sovereign state to determine its own political system. For example, China and Russia dismiss any criticism of their human rights records as meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. They view Western governments’ concern with social and political liberties in other countries as ‘an intrusion at best, an ideological offensive at worst’.
Given the above similarity of interests between Russia and China, and how they apply to the current conflict in the Middle East, it certainly seems possible that at least one of the two has made an agreement with Kim Jong Un to create a distraction for the United States, drawing our attention away from Syria and Iran so that events (both regime change and nuclear capability) can play out and be influenced by their world views, rather that that of the U. S. Of course, both Russia and China would have to be aware of the plan (which could explain why neither is putting more pressure on Pyonyang as of late).
It seems likely (at least hopefully) that the administration and military is aware of this possibility, and while they cannot simply ignore North Korea, it may be best not to divert too many resources to the peninsula and lose sight of what is happening in the Middle East (especially considering that the North Korean regime is little more than a shell that would collapse if it ever faced a serious military threat).