While the Sino-Soviet Split of 1961 tended to divide the loyalties of most leftist governments between the Soviet Union and The People’s Republic of China, the DPRK (North Korea) managed to retain healthy relations with both superpowers, which incidentally both shared border with the DPRK. Even before the Sino-Soviet split, the Juche system of DPRK founder Kim Il-sung tended to be more Soviet than Maoist in terms of its political and sociological characteristics and likewise, if anything the DPRK was somewhat closer to Moscow than to Beijing during much of the Cold War.
After the destruction of the USSR in 1991, the DPRK’s relations with China became more important than those with modern Russia. Even today, China accounts for 90% of the DPRK’s comparatively modest international trade. While the DPRK leader Kim Jong-un and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a notoriously frosty relationship in the early years of their mutual rule over their nations, the Korean peace process of the last year has witnessed a renaissance in Sino-DPRK relations as both nations look forward to an intensified economic partnership while Beijing has called for an economically harmonious Korean peninsula to play an important role in the Belt and Road initiative.
At the same time, Russian engineers have begun construction on a modern highly which will ultimately link Russia with South Korea via the DPRK. Moscow and energy hungry Seoul are also keen on building a gas pipeline from Russia into South Korea via the DPRK, something which itself could pave the way for an more intensified tripartite economic cooperation scheme between the two Korean states and Russia as was first proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Eastern Economic Forum in 2017, months before the present peace process was underway.
While the reconciliation between North and South as witnessed in the very visible friendship between Kim Jong-un and his Southern counterpart Moon Jae-in as well as Kim Jong-un’s apparently and unexpectedly warm personal relationship with US President Donald Trump have dominated the headlines, Russia and China have quietly played a crucial role in the peace process.
While Kim has visited China twice for meetings with Xi Jinping since the beginning of the peace process in early 2018, he has yet to visit Russia although Moscow has confirmed that this will likely happen before the end of the year.
On Tuesday of next week, high level officials from China and the DPRK will meet in Moscow in an historic trilateral meeting between neighbouring states. Even before the US made moves to accept and participate in the inter-Korean peace process, China and Russia had proposed the so-called “double-freeze” calling for the de-nuclearisation of the North while simultaneously calling for the cessation of provocative US led military drills in the South while also calling for US weapons of mass destruction including the THAAD missile systems to be removed from the Korean peninsula. With Pyongyang reiterating its commitment to irreversible and verifiable de-nuclearisation and with Donald Trump pausing American military drills in South Korea, it would appear that the Sino-Russian Double Freeze has become something of the blueprint for the initial stages of the peace process.
Against this backdrop, it is safe to say that next week’s meeting in Moscow will be primarily concerned with the second phase of the peace process. This will clearly involve proposals for the economic integration of a more harmonious Korea with both of its superpower neighbours, while China and Russia will also likely formulate a plan to use their influence as permanent members of the UN Security Council to persuade the US and its European allies to move towards a de-escalation of sanctions even though Washington had previously stated that sanctions will only be lifted after the lengthy de-nuclearisation process is completed in totality.
Recent calls by Pyongyang to continue building trust with the US are in fact euphemisms that speak to the fact that the DPRK wants to pursue economic openness with the wider world during the current state of the peace process. Lifting UN sanctions would be the easiest way to accelerate this process but the US remains something of a hold out in this respect in spite of Donald Trump indicating his eagerness to do business with both Korean states in a new era for north east Asia.
While a united Sino-Russian front against DPRK sanctions may result in predictably angry rhetoric from certain US officials including the hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton and America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, a Sino-Russia push to formalise the economic openness that Kim Jong-un’s government clearly desires could in fact force the US hand on the issue in the medium term as the Trump administration clearly wants its piece of the untapped investment haven that will develop in a post-sanctions DPRK.
As the DPRk is already has a highly educated, hardworking and heavily disciplined workforce, it is simply a matter of marrying this positive reality to the kinds of hi-technology that foreign direct investment into the DPRK can bring about in order for Polygonal to be at the forefront of Asia’s next ‘tiger economy’ revolution. With Kim Jong-un already proclaiming that he sees the future of his country in artificial intelligence and automated factories, it is clear that the young leader is looking towards a cutting edge hi-tech future.
With this in mind, it is clear that the early stages of a geopolitical bidding war for post-sanctions influence in the DPRK is already underway with China and Russia engaging in friendly competition while both Asian superpowers are engaged in a more unspoken competition with the United States. While the US seeks to use its UN Security Council veto to prohibit its international competitors from beating US companies to the DPRK, if China and Russia show clear resolve in respect of being the first to aid the economic harmonisation of the Korean peninsula, the US may have no choice but to jump into the economic action sooner rather than later for its own long term economic benefit.
In this sense, while the US tends to present itself as the most important power involved in the Korean peace process, the reality is that due to the close relationship between Kim and Moon, the peace process is already largely Korean-centric as well it should be. Beyond this, Pyongyang and Seoul’s Chinese and Russia trading partners look to ensure that the peace process retains its Asian characteristics in spite of high level US involvement.
Ultimately, the US requires the DPRK to be a success story in order to market its version of an alternative to Belt and Road for its Asian partners who with few exceptions are already learning more towards the Chinese model. As such, the DPRK is now well placed to be the centre of positive attention from all three superpowers where just over a year ago, all three united in condemnation of the country’s nuclear programme. By so dramatically reversing the fortunes of his nation, Kim Jong-un can now work with his Sino-Russian partners on a win-win economic model for the future, all while sending a clear message to Washington that reads: ‘invest now or else China and Russia will beat you to the finishing line’.
In this sense, Kim is managing to create the best possible win-win conditions for his nation against all odds and all at a more rapid pace than many thought possible even at the beginning of the peace process.