14:53 GMT +321 April 2018
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    In a recent article for Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao newspaper, Chahar Institute associate Ding Tung argued that China must do more to improve relations with North Korea in order to avoid becoming second fiddle to Russia on the Korean peninsula. Photo: Chinese-North Korean Border in eastern China's Jilian province.

    Has Russia Replaced China as North Korea's Best Friend?

    © AP Photo / Ng Han Guan, File
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    In a recent article for Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao newspaper, Chahar Institute associate Ding Tung argued that China must do more to improve relations with North Korea in order to avoid becoming second fiddle to Russia on the Korean peninsula.

    Citing the much-discussed Russian invitation of Kim Jong-un to Moscow for this year's Victory Day celebrations in May, Ding noted that the North Korean press has been very active recently in playing up the warming of relations between Moscow and Pyongyang. The expert added that press statements about Kim's successes in the international arena, together with growing recollections of his grandfather Kim Il Sung's visit to Moscow and the countries of the Eastern Bloc in the 1980s, are signs that the leader is planning to go through with the planned visit.

    The expert noted that the improvement of relations with Russia have been Pyongyang's only major foreign policy success in a large-scale, multi-vector diplomatic initiative launched last year aimed at improving relations with the outside world following the cooling of relations with China. Ding states that amid the crisis in Ukraine, for which Russia has been blamed by Western nations, Russia too has shown a growing interest toward improving relations with North Korea.

    Chinese-North Korean relations are widely reported to have cooled over the past several years, with China showing signs of frustration over the security situation on the Korean peninsula, as continuing tensions between the DPRK and the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies have led to new US military initiatives (including a planned ABM shield in South Korea), Japanese rearmament, and talks of South Korean-Japanese military cooperation, all of which threaten China. Beijing has supported Security Council sanctions initiatives against the country and frozen high-level diplomatic contacts over the DPRK's continuing nuclear and missile testing activities, which North Korea says are a response to US provocations.

    Ding believes that last year's November visit to Moscow by senior North Korean politician Choe Ryong-hae "signified the beginning of the 'honeymoon'" in relations between Russia and the DPRK. He notes that following this visit, Russia invited Kim Jong-un to the Victory Day celebrations, and talks on economic and security cooperation have deepened and intensified.

    Ding is not incorrect in his estimations. In January, North Korean officials held economic talks with their Russian counterparts on expanding economic cooperation. Rumors have circulated about possible multibillion dollar projects aimed at rebuilding and revitalizing North Korea's electricity transmission infrastructure, modeled on the large-scale railway infrastructure modernization projects being carried out with Russia's help since 2008. North Korean officials have also shown interest in purchasing excess electricity from the regions of Russia's Far East. It was reported last month that Russia's RAO Energy System East has plans to supply energy to North Korea beginning as early as next year.

    For their part, Russian businesses have demonstrated a growing interest in investing in the Kaesong Special Economic Zone, and last month Russian, North Korean and Chinese officials intensified discussions over the creation of a visa-free tourism zone and resort community in a border territory outside the city of Hunchun, China.

    Moreover, Russia has also showed signs of interest in hiring North Korean workers for its ambitious economic development projects in the Russian Far East, and in the purchase of North Korean rare earth minerals in exchange for assistance on North Korea's infrastructure development projects. Last year officials even discussed the possibility of establishing a visa-free regime between the two countries.

    In the area of potential military cooperation, much was made last month of Russian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov's comments that the Russian military had entered into preliminary negotiations on the potential for joint military exercises with countries including North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam and Brazil.

    Citing improved relations between Russia and the DPRK on the diplomatic, economic and military fronts, Ding argued that "Russia's influence in this situation is already too high," and, given that relations are only improving further, "questions arise about whether China-DPRK relations can return to the levels they were at previously, and whether Beijing will be able to strengthen its geopolitical influence over North Korea."

    Implausibly, Ding believes that Russia's involvement in North Korea could even lead to increasing geopolitical tensions in the region, citing as an example the potential for Russia-DPRK exercises without China's participation. In his view, China must do more to mend relations with North Korea, lest its' diplomatic and geopolitical influence is to fall not just in North Korea, but around the world. He notes that "a multitude of signals should have opened Beijing's eyes by now on the necessity to change its strategy and foreign policy."

    Russian-Korean-Chinese Diplomacy Is Not a Zero Sum Game

    Despite the expert's ominous warnings, Russian officials and experts do not believe that improved relations with North Korea will in any way hinder the DPRK's historically close ties with China or in any way threaten stability in the region. Last year, following meetings with his North Korean counterparts, Alexander Galushka, Minister for Development of the Far East, noted that Russian-North Korean economic and trade cooperation depends to a great extent on political and military stability in the Korean Peninsula, adding that increased economic and trade cooperation with the DPRK would itself provide for the strengthening of such stability.

    Dismissing the idea that there is anything extraordinary about the North Korean leader's presence in Moscow for Victory Day, Russian media have noted that Kim is to be one of more than two dozen world leaders set to attend the celebrations, with Russia having invited dozens more leaders, including South Korean President Park Geun-hye. While it is believed that Park will not attend due to pressure from Washington, Russia has long held the view that Koreans' documented history of heroic partisan resistance to Japanese militarism during the war entitled them participate in the victory celebrations. Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping himself is also set to be present, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry showed nothing but approval earlier this year for Kim's possible visit to Moscow, stating that "such engagement between the two countries is conducive to regional peace and stability."

    Finally, despite the significant warming of relations between Russia and North Korea in recent months, all serious experts note that China remains North Korea's closest economic, geopolitical and military partner. The country accounts for 67 percent of North Korea's exports and 62 percent of its imports, provides the DPRK with most of its oil and gas supplies, and sends nearly half of all Chinese foreign aid to the DPRK. Moreover, the two countries have a treaty on the provision of military assistance in the event of an attack on North Korea, renewed in 2001 and valid through to 2021. Given Russia's own warm relations with China, which have themselves risen to new heights in the past year, Russian diplomatic and economic initiatives in North Korea should be seen not as a threat to China, but as a reorientation toward Russia's historical friendships with its neighbors following the worsening of relations with its Western partners.

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    Tags:
    South Korea, Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPRK), trade relations, bilateral relations, relations, bilateral ties, economic cooperation, diplomatic relations, Park Geun-hye, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un, Kim Il-sung, China, Japan, United States, Russia, Korean Peninsula
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