North Korean leader strengthens ties with Russian president, increasing his independence from Beijing

In an article about Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to North Korea, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said the trip must have “ruffled some feathers” in Washington. What the Chinese propaganda outlet naturally omitted was how Putin’s meeting with Kim Jong Un, which sealed a deal on mutual defense assistance, must have angered another major capital: Beijing.

President Xi Jinping has been watching warily for months as two important, if difficult, partners grow closer, with Pyongyang providing Moscow with much-needed ammunition for its invasion of Ukraine in exchange for promises of better military technologies.

Publicly, China has refrained from criticism. But signs of unease are emerging. In April, Xi sent the most senior Chinese Communist Party figure to visit North Korea in five years to reaffirm the “deep friendship” between the two sides.

Analysts believe China is concerned that Kim’s increasingly close ties with Putin could increase his sense of independence from Beijing. If encouraged, the North Korean dictator could carry out more missile tests that would threaten to destabilize an already tense region.

Putin’s latest visit will do nothing to alleviate these concerns. Russian and North Korean leaders signed a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Treaty,” which promises military and other assistance “by all available means” in the event of an attack, according to a translation by NK News.

The problem for China, said Shen Dingli, a Chinese professor of international studies, is that Beijing and Pyongyang have their own mutual defense agreement in the “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance,” first signed in 1961. This would mean that , if Pyongyang felt obliged by the treaty to get involved in one of Russia’s wars — such as the invasion of Ukraine — Moscow’s enemies could attack North Korea. This, in turn, could trigger the mutual defense treaty between Beijing and Pyongyang, putting China in a delicate situation.

“North Korea has unnecessarily put China in a very dangerous situation,” Shen said.

Other scholars are more optimistic, noting that the Sino-North Korean treaty was signed decades ago and Beijing’s interpretation of it has evolved. Ren Xiao, a professor at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, said the pact for China “does not mean automatic military involvement in any conflict on the Korean peninsula.”

The bilateral relationship between China and North Korea has been tense, leading some analysts to call them “bitter allies.” Pyongyang regularly launches military provocations against its neighbors, angering Beijing by disrupting regional stability.

The language of the Russian-North Korean treaty may also have been vague enough to give both sides room for maneuver. During the Soviet era, the two countries also had a mutual defense agreement, but it was never invoked, despite several relevant conflicts, and ended up expiring.

“The caveat is what would constitute assistance,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington. “So it seems like they left that pretty nebulous.”

All of this raises the question of why Kim and Putin, who depend more than ever on Xi, would risk angering their powerful partner. Shen suggested they may feel China hasn’t helped them enough — Putin would like more than just dual-use technology to help his war in Ukraine and wants Beijing to buy more Russian gas. Kim, for his part, may believe that Beijing is not providing enough support against the US and its allies. When Chinese, Japanese and South Korean leaders spoke about denuclearizing the Korean peninsula at a trilateral summit last month, Pyongyang denounced the discussion as a “serious political provocation.”

Kim also called Russia North Korea’s “most honest friend” during Putin’s recent visit — a dig at China that echoes Pyongyang’s ability to play Beijing off against Moscow during the Cold War. Both leaders were eager to demonstrate that they had more friends than just Beijing.

Few expect visible protests from Beijing. China still wants to stay away from some kind of tripartite strategic arrangement with the two rebel nations. In a hint of Beijing’s frustration, Xinhua was dismissive about North Korea’s potential trade contribution to Russia. North Korea “cannot provide a prominent impetus for Russia to emerge from its economic difficulties in the short term,” Xinhua wrote. It was understood that when it came to economic support, China was practically the only option for Putin.

For Xi, who prides himself on his personal relationship with Putin, the episode is a reminder that friendship counts for little in diplomacy, even in a “limitless” partnership like the one China claims to have with Russia.

Via Financial Times.


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