If there’s one thing that the leaders of Russia, China and the U.S. can agree on, it’s that North Korea shouldn’t have nukes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean North Korea should be transformed into a pariah state, as witnessed by growing economic linkages with Russia and China.


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un uses binoculars as he guides a live-firing exercise in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang July 15, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Despite their many differences over regional security and other issues, China, Russia, and the United States continue to collaborate to counter the nuclear and missile programs of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), though Moscow and Beijing still evince a reluctance to apply the strong pressure on Pyongyang sought by Washington. 

Both China and Russia have sought to use their influence in Pyongyang to discourage North Korea from conducting more nuclear tests, launching more missiles, or conducting other provocations that worsen regional security dynamics.

Americans see North Korea, unlike China and Russia, as an immediate military threat whose growing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities could present an existential threat to the United States. In their dialogue with the Russians and Chinese, U.S. policy makers make clear that how China and Russia deal with North Korea will have a major impact on their countries’ relations with the United States.

Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping conducted his first state visit to South Korea. During this summit, the two governments issued a joint declaration that restated their opposition to nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and called for resuming the Six-Party Talks. President Xi broke with precedent and became the first Chinese head-of-state to visit South Korea before travelling to the DPRK, which he has shown no interest in doing.

At last week’s sixth U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Beijing and Washington also agreed to cooperate to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization. Nonetheless, China remains North Korea’s main economic partner. Beijing has imposed fewer sanctions on the DPRK than Western countries, and has declined to mention North Korea’s nuclear program explicitly in any joint declarations.

While Beijing’s ties with Pyongyang have been deteriorating during the past few years, Moscow’s relations with the DPRK have been improving. The main reason has been that the North Korean regime has been seeking to compensate for the loss of Chinese support by strengthening its Russian ties.

President Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders have long sought to reverse what they see as the mistaken Northeast Asian policies of the previous Yeltsin administration, which largely ignored North Korea. By strengthening ties with South Korea, Moscow has also been increasing its leverage in Seoul, which is eager to encourage Russian efforts to restrain DPRK provocations and promote regional economic cooperation.

The Russian government has recently accelerated plans to construct pipelines and railroads through the Koreas to establish new connections between Russia and East Asia. For example, the Rajin-Khasan logistics project aims to transform the North Korean port of Rajin into a logistics hub that connects with the Trans-Siberian railway. 

The South Korean government of President Park Geun-hye backs the Russian effort, which supports her "Eurasian Initiative” designed to expand South Korea's economic and other connections with Russia and other Eurasian countries.

To facilitate the renewal of economic ties, the Russian Duma this summer wrote off almost all of North Korea’s large financial debt to Russia, making it possible for the DPRK to again receive Russian credits and other economic assistance. This summer’s Russia-Korea 2014 International Rally is mobilizing Russia’s large ethnic Korean population in support of efforts to strengthen ties between Russia and the two Korean states.

Through the Six-Party Talks and other mechanisms, Russian and Chinese policy makers have tried to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs as well as moderate other DPRK policies in return for security assurances, economic aid, and diplomatic acceptance by the international community. Such integration would decrease the threat of U.S. military intervention in a border state, help avert the prospect of a failed regime on their doorstep, offer regional economic opportunities to China and Russia, and perhaps raise their international prestige and status.

Yet, Beijing’s and Moscow’s willingness to pressure Pyongyang to modify its policies remains limited. Both China and Russia have opposed Western initiatives that could threaten instability on the Korean Peninsula. They want to change Pyongyang’s behavior, not its regime. Chinese and Russians remain more concerned about the potential immediate collapse of the North Korean state than about its government’s intransigence on the nuclear question.

Despite their differences with the Kim dynasty, Russian and Chinese leaders fear that North Korea’s disintegration could disrupt their economies, cause large refugee flows across their frontiers, weaken their influence in both Koreas, and remove a buffer between their borders and the Pentagon. At worst, the DPRK’s collapse could precipitate a military conflict on the peninsula that spills onto Chinese and Russian territory.

Although open to dialogue with Washington and Seoul, and simultaneously exhorting North Korean leaders to change their policies, both the Chinese and Russian governments have resigned themselves for now to dealing with the current DPRK regime while hoping a more accommodating leadership eventually emerges in Pyongyang.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. He would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for supporting his nonproliferation research.