Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, there has always been a fear, no matter how tenuous and flimsy, that some Asia-Pacific countries might be supportive of the action of President Vladimir Putin.
The finger has often been pointed at China, with The New York Times going as far as to claim that there were telltale signs that China had been providing Russia with the necessary artillery and ammunition to replenish Russia’s diminishing weapons stockpile as of February 2022, a year after the invasion.
These charges did not stick, however, despite the fact that it was India purchase the bulk of discounted Russian oil and gas, by some accounts to the tune of US$64 billion to date. While the sense of collegiality between New Delhi and Moscow could be explained by their long relationship, no one seemed to take a long look at what North Korea might invariably do for Russia’s war efforts and itself.
Once again, the world has been caught flat-footed with the latest development. In fact, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s visit last week to the Russian Far East, the second since 2019, should have been expected from the very beginning, given that Russia’s war efforts have been flailing, not unlike Pyongyang’s conundrum. For decades, North Korea has not been able to remove the proverbial sword of Damocles from the combined military exercises of the United States, Japan and South Korea. If anything, Pyongyang has had to dedicate the largest amount of money per capita to prop up its own military regime, albeit hermetic.
Nor has North Korea’s overtures for a treaty of nonaggression from the US ever been taken seriously in order to cushion the military armistice that has been in place since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Efforts to create a Korean Energy Development Organization (KEDO) in 1995 to assist North Korea’s attempt to use more civilian-based nuclear technology has not been all that helpful. Barely five years after the KEDO started operating, elements pointed to Pyongyang’s systemic cheating, often by not divulging the necessary information on its enriched radioactive materials to the International Energy Atomic Agency (IAEA).
Thus, when President Putin’s foreign policy adventurism in Ukraine came about, and given that in June 2022 he had to conscript up to 300,000 civilian reserves, or one-third of total Russian conscripts, the world assumed that China would come to directly aid Russia’s aid, under the Treaty of Unlimited Cooperation endorsed by Putin and President Xi Jinping on Feb. 3 2021. Yet if Russia’s war in Ukraine is any reflection of the Kremlin mindset, it is simply this: Putin does not have to respect any legal documents anymore than the Group of Seven. Realpolitik, whether conducted on a justifiable or unjustifiable basis, such as the Western invasion of Iraq in Operation Desert Storm in 2003, actually pays no heed to any document that is signed or unsigned.
To be sure, Pyongyang was abandoned by Moscow in 1991, just as Vietnam and Cuba did. But the relationships of these communist regimes with Russia have lingered on, delicately or otherwise.
If anything, authoritarian regimes have a high tolerance of forgiving each other’s indiscretions. For example, prior to the Sino-Russian Treaty of Unlimited Cooperation – which according to China’s foreign ministry is based on the United Nations Charter and a principle that was affirmed by none other than now-ousted foreign minister Qin Gang – the Soviet Union and China had a serious border incident in winter 1967 in northeastern China, known as the Ussuri incident. In fact, both countries raised their nuclear alerts accordingly. It was this event that saw the Soviet Union and China breaking away from one another.
Yet as amazing as it has been, Russia and China have managed to close their ranks in order to challenge the supremacy of the G7. The two behemoths even conducted joint naval exercises in the Tsushima Strait that narrowly separates mainland Japan with Hokkaido. These joint military drills, coupled with the Putin-Xi comradeship, have prompted the world and especially the Asia-Pacific to assume that Russia would have no choice but to ask for help from China, whose economy is 60 times larger than Russia’s.
What is lethal about the Russia-North Korea meeting is that it has opened the way for Russia to also cooperate with Iran, another potential nuclear state – despite the efforts of Saudi Arabia to establish rapprochement under China’s facilitating role in March 2023 to end the two countries’ diplomatic hiatus. No one knows what Russia and North Korea is coming up with behind the stealth of shadow diplomacy. What is certain is that nuclear powers not necessarily averse to G7 and global sanctions are no longer intimidated. The Moscow-Pyongyang axis has opened the way for the Ukraine war to drag on, much to the chagrin of the world including China, since it has invested more than $60 billion in Ukraine over the last decade.
The longer the Ukraine war persists, which it will, the more China’s soft power will be affected, even if Beijing were to dial back any of its support for Russia in order to repair its relationship with the G7. Therein lies the danger of the rapprochement between President Putin and Chairman Kim, which the world is watching intently, albeit belatedly.