By Gene Choi
In April 2013, China fully financed $350 million to build a new 1.8 mile-long bridge with North Korea, a rare friendly gesture amid deteriorating North Korea-China relations under Kim Jong-un. A year later in October 2014, North Korea postponed the opening ceremony of the bridge indefinitely, refusing to finance the connection of the bridge to its roads and thereby rendering the bridge useless. A couple months later, North Korea announced a joint project with Russia to build a bridge of their own at the border crossing in Hassan Primorsky territory. These profoundly different responses to an almost identical project seem to symbolically and substantively represent North Korea’s shifting relations in Northeast Asia: waning ties with China and stronger ties with Russia.
Since Kim Jong-un assumed power in December 2011, North Korea-China relations have soured. Chinese president Xi Jinping has not met the young leader yet, although Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il held regular meetings with Chinese leaders. Xi has also voiced strong opposition to North Korea’s nuclear programs and allegedly halted crude oil exports to North Korea for the first time ever. Bilateral trade fell by 2.4 percent to $6.39 billion last year, marking the first annual decline since 2009. The major cause of deteriorating relations is likely Kim Jong-un himself. For instance, Kim Jong-un’s sudden execution of Jang Song Thaek, a former number two of North Korea and Kim’s mentor, created a freeze in bilateral relations. Jang had served as a key middleman between Pyongyang and Beijing due to his close association with Kim Jong-il and his support for China-friendly reforms. Likewise, Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and missile programs and purges of close aides have increased perceptions of instability even in the eyes of North Korea’s longtime ally.
In 2014, more North Korean officials visited Russia than China, with North Korea’s formal head of state Kim Yong-nam attending the Sochi Winter Olympics in February 2014 and Choe Ryong-hae, reportedly North Korea’s number two, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 19, 2014. Eventually, Putin and Kim Jong-un jointly declared 2015 as the “year of friendship” between the two countries for the first time in history. Beyond appearances, North Korea gave Russia access to Rason, an economically-important port in the northeast of North Korea, where Russian crude oil and coal exports can be shipped via a route less risky than the Central Asian or Chinese land route.
Kim Jong-un’s outreach to Russia has been reciprocated with President Putin’s friendly gestures as well. In October 2014, Russia’s far east development minister Alexander Galushka announced that a bilateral visa-free program is being considered, and the Russian Duma officially wrote off 90 percent of North Korea’s $11 billion Soviet-era debt to Russia in April 2014. North Korea’s exports to Russia increased 31.9 percent to $10.17 million in 2014, in contrast to the decline in China-bound exports. Russian investors also agreed to invest $25 billion to improve North Korea’s obsolete railway system and basic infrastructure, such as Russian Mostovik’s contract in April 2014 to rebuild North Korea’s power grid. Overall, Russia plans to increase bilateral trade with North Korea to $1 billion by 2020.
In this respect, diversified relations serves as a safety net for North Korea to avoid hedging its fate solely in the hands of a single benefactor. It would not only be better equipped to counter U.S. sanctions and pressure by trading with Russia, but it can also receive developmental aid from a source aside from China, important in implementing Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin strategy and in overcoming its annual drought and food shortage.
Yet North Korea’s economic dependence on China is simply too great to completely break off ties, with 90 percent of North Korean exports still going to China in 2014, to the tune of a $1.25 billion deficit. China also supplies 90 percent of North Korea’s energy imports. Instead of fully turning its back on China, North Korea wants to have one foot in China and its other foot in Russia. Kim Jong-un announced on May 9, 2015 an unprecedented overseas trip to Moscow, even though China has customarily been the first overseas destination for top officials. Although the trip was ultimately cancelled, the plans to do so spoke volumes to how far North Korea-Russia relations have progressed. Kim Jong-un may be trying to emulate what the founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, did so adroitly: creating equidistant relations with both China and Russia. Yet it remains questionable whether his grandson will be capable of such crafty maneuvers. In addition, rather than profit from greater economic relations, Russia is likely seeking to enhance its bargaining position with the United States and western allies by improving ties with a rogue actor.
As China’s purported leverage over North Korea decreases, the utility of U.S. demands for China to help curb North Korea’s aberrant behavior may become less salient. Instead, this presents a rare opportunity for the U.S. to cooperate with China to “manage” North Korea’s growing relations with Russia. Both have important stakes in managing this development—the United States in deterring the North Korean and Russian threat, and the Chinese in retaining strategic influence over its neighbor.
As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, both countries can work together to monitor North Korea and Russia to ensure that they are not violating international standards in secret weapons sales or in human rights. Instead of gathering independent intelligence separately, a coordinated approach could be more efficient in detecting illegal activity. Due to their mutual reluctance to share intelligence, however, limited cooperation may be more feasible to start off. The United States and China could share information solely on the topic of North Korea’s expanding diplomatic efforts to manage them effectively together, thereby strictly compartmentalizing this issue from other looming U.S.-China issues. The United States should also consider raising this issue with Chinese leaders and weigh placing it on the agenda for the Obama-Xi summit in mid-September.
Mr. Gene Choi is a researcher with the Korea Chair at CSIS.