Great power games are in full swing in Northeast Asia, as exhibited by the sudden and steep increase of intense geopolitical activity surrounding North Korea.
This round began when the sequestered North Korean leader Kim Jong-un began his ‘outreach program’ with the first-ever declared foreign visit to Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in March 2018.
The declaration made by the official Xinhua news agency that China “will, as always, play a unique role in resolving the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula” emits three distinct signals to the region and the world.
One, China successfully demonstrated who calls the shots when it comes to North Korea. Two, in the backdrop of the upcoming summit meeting between North Korea and the United States, Xi Jinping signaled that China cannot be marginalized and outshined in its own backyard, especially when it comes to its client state, Pyongyang. Three, that China is determined to remain the pivot on which the Northeast Asian security situation will hinge.
The last point can also be contextualized in terms of the political objectives that drive Sino-North Korean ties.
Days after Kim Jong-un’s China visit, Director of U.S. National Intelligence Dan Coats was quoted saying that Kim Jong-un had received an invitation to visit Moscow. This was corroborated by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s announcement that North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho was invited to visit Moscow on April 9–11 for a foreign ministers’ meeting. Most palpably, Kim Jong-un’s Russia visit would be the top agenda item.
Although it has been debated as to whether Pyongyang’s equation with key benefactor Beijing has been fermenting over the past few years, an equally reinforcing reality is that Chinese economic aid and political support is keeping the Kim regime afloat—and ensuring the survival of North Korea as a nation-state. Beijing’s predicament is that if it completely withdraws support from Pyongyang, the regime’s survival is near to impossible, and Beijing’s current leverage to wield influence in Pyongyang would stand at risk.
The opacity of the Sino-North Korean relationship can be judged by the fact that Beijing provides almost all aid directly to Pyongyang, sidestepping the role of the United Nations, and is known for its laxity in enforcing UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions, including the latest Resolution 2375.
President Donald Trump has highlighted this in no uncertain terms, citing China’s illegal transfer of oil to Pyongyang. With North Korea’s reliance on imported fuel—central to keeping its troubled economy running—Chinese aid and Beijing’s political role remain the spine of Kim Jong-un’s prohibited nuclear and missile activities. (RELATED ARTICLE: 3 Reasons China Can’t Stop Exporting Oil to North Korea)
Fuel transfers and trade on the Yellow Sea, oil smuggled onto North Korean vessels, and China’s role as Pyongyang’s main sponsor and patron, are facets that have long been known and debated. China supplies almost all the North’s aviation fuel. Its food and oil aid, along with industrial machinery, have been instrumental in keeping the nation alive for decades. The economic assistance provided to North Korea accounts for nearly half of China’s overall foreign aid, and it remains the largest foreign direct investor in North Korea, accounting for more than 92.5% of North Korea’s total trade. (RELATED ARTICLE: Steve Bannon: North Korea is ‘China’s Responsibility’)
Containment measures, such as UN sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear weapons and missile programs, have no doubt been biting the Kim regime. However, what keeps these successive and continuing sanctions from being fully effective is the clandestine support provided by Beijing—and Moscow—both politically and economically. By shutting off oil supplies, sealing the borders, and blocking investments into the North, the Sino-Russian combine could bring Pyongyang to its knees within few weeks. However, what has been going on is completely the opposite.
It is a misnomer that Russian ties to the North are merely political in nature. The Far East Development Ministry created in 2012 set a target of US$1 billion in direct trade with North Korea by 2020, mostly attributed to imports from Russia. Further, owing to Sino-Russian clandestine assistance, there are ample statistics to back the Russian claim that economic sanctions imposed by the UN on North Korea have been rather ineffectual. Statistics reveal that Russia is Pyongyang’s second most prominent economic partner and the only other nation besides China which maintains overland ties with the DPRK including air, rail, sea, and Internet linkages.
Although the Putin administration supported UN Resolution 2270 as part of its efforts to prevent WMD proliferation, it managed to secure the exemption of a key bilateral economic project from the sanctions aiding North Korea immensely. This has allowed the shipping of coal and iron ore (produced in Siberia and Mongolia) from the port of Rajin near the Russian Far East, and continued fueling of North Korean civil aircraft. (RELATED ARTICLE: Stay Vigilant, as Russia Welcomes North Korean Ship Banned by Japan)
North Korea’s northeastern-most district is Rajin-guyok along the Sea of Japan. North of Rajin lies the North Korea-Russia border. This region has been the central focus of the Kim Jong-un regime’s economic policy of increasing the number of special economic zones to attract Chinese and Russian investments. As part of the endeavor, Russia remains heavily engaged in the Rason Special Economic Zone Development Project.
The Khasan-Rajin railway project connecting the port of Rajin with Russia’s Khasan on the Tumen River, which creates a natural border between North Korea and Russia, has been termed as the single biggest foreign direct investment project in North Korea. Besides, the Rajin port project directly places Moscow at the strategically located junction of the North Korean, Russian, and Chinese borders.
The state-owned Russian Railways has invested approximately US$300 million, or nearly 70% of the total construction cost, to replace a 54-km stretch of narrow-gauge with broad-gauge rails connecting Khasan in the Russian Far East with the port of Rajin in North Korea. This railway line further connects to the Trans-Siberian Railway, and Moscow is expected to use it to export Siberian coal from Rajin to China and other countries.
In 2014, the Russian company Mostovik came into the spotlight when the Yonhap news agency cited a Russian broadcaster’s report of a decision to invest US$25 billion to modernize North Korean railroads. The prospective plan, per reports, was to upgrade 3,500 km of the North Korean railroads, accounting for more than half of its railroad grid.
Russia also has not halted its activities in transporting Siberian-made coal by rail and exporting it to China, mainly via the port of Rajin. Russian companies were reported to be moving coal, even as Moscow managed to secure an exemption for the Raijin-based RasonKon Trans’ operations from the provisions of the UNSC Resolution 2375 (September 2017) which imposed a general ban on coal exports from North Korea. Besides, a new Russian-North Korean terminal was commissioned in Rajin, providing for magnetic coal cleaning and separation in addition to cargo transshipment and storage.
North Korea’s principal imports from Russia are oil supplies and fuel, with Mazut heavy oil produced in Russia transported to the port of Vladivostok and thereafter shipped to the port of Rajin. According to data provided by the Russian Ministry of Economic Development, Russian-origin oil supplies, gasoline, and diesel fuel are estimated to be within the range of 200,000-300,000 tons per year. China happens to play a vital role in this process. Russian Customs declares that the products’ delivery destination is in China—however, they end up in the DPRK. Moscow exports about 100,000 tons of diesel oil annually to North Hamgyong province in North Korea, and the export of crude oil to the North has risen by almost 60%.
Strategic considerations surrounding North Korea seem to have outweighed economic interests alone in the great power games currently underway in Asia. Unquestionably, it is the Sino–Russian axis that remains the plank on which North Korea continues to survive and hold on to its nuclear brinkmanship. Russian support for Pyongyang is often overshadowed by the mammoth assistance provided by China to the cloistered Northeast Asian country that has gained the reputation of being an enigma surrounded by secrecy. But Moscow’s role in North Korea cannot be taken lightly.
Since the time of Kim Jong-il—Kim Jong-un’s father—North Korea’s behavior has shown a greater propensity for aggressive military actions based on Pyongyang’s pursuit for weapons of mass destruction. The result constitutes a long-standing, aggressive military threat to its Northeast Asian neighbors, and to the international order at large.
Dr. Monika Chansoria is a Senior Visiting Fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. She is the author of five books, which includes her latest work, China, Japan, and Senkaku Islands: Conflict in the East China Sea amid an American Shadow (© 2017). Follow her on Twitter @MonikaChansoria.