After a historic meeting between representatives of the Russian, Chinese and DPRK (North Korean) governments in Moscow, China and Russia have formally urged their United Nations Security Council colleagues to lower existing sanctions against Pyongyang. According to a joint statement signed by Chinese diplomat Kong Xuanyou, Russian diplomat Igor Morgulov and DPRK diplomat Choe Son-hui,
“Taking into account the important steps taken by North Korea toward de-nuclearisation, the sides consider it necessary to start a timely revision of the sanctions against North Korea by the UN Security Council. The sides also reaffirmed their position against unilateral sanctions.
…The sides unanimously agreed that there was no alternative to a peaceful political and diplomatic settlement of the whole range of problems of the Korean Peninsula. They also commended the efforts taken by the countries involved in promoting dialogue in the interests of such a settlement. The sides expressed their support for negotiations between North Korea and the United States, North and South Korea in order to alleviate mutual concerns and improve relations”.
This statement is a clear challenge to the present US policy that sanctions will not be dropped in any form until the de-nuclearisation process in the DPRK is completed in totality. That being said, while the US position of unilateral hostility towards the DPRK as recently as 2017 appeared to be unshakeable, a joint Sino-Russian proposal for a “double-freeze” on nuclear/missile activity in the DPRK as well as a cessation of US/South Korean joint military drills that was introduced in 2017 has in fact become the manifest reality in Korea in the context of the current peace process. While the US has never admitted and likely never will admit that the peace process has progressed along the lines that China and Russia suggested at the height of international tensions between Washington and Pyongyang last year, the facts tend to speak louder than words in this respect.
Thus, while there exists a precedent for the US to tacitly adopt Sino-Russian proposals without acknowledging them as such, there are also further incentives for the US to at the very minimum, meet its Chinese and Russian rivals half way on the matter of the DPRK, even if the US would not characterise its position as such.
During yesterday’s surprise announcement of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s resignation, Donald Trump confirmed that he has been receiving calls from potential investors into the DPRK who have a positive outlook on the future of an economically open North Korea. Trump further stated that he shares these views regarding the DPRK becoming a future economic powerhouse along with existing economic powerhouses of the region including China, South Korea and Japan.
Trump’s remarks should not be viewed as novel nor surprising. During the historic Singapore Summit with Kim Jong-un, Trump played the DPRK leader a video whose premise was one that clearly stated that through making a peace deal involving the United States, the DPRK economy would flourish.
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 lame duck 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.
While the US may well rebuff Sino-Russian statements regarding the dropping of some anti-Pyongyang sanctions, the US itself might well move to boost its own erstwhile non-existent economic relations with Pyongyang in an effort to beat China and Russia to the proverbial finishing line. The reality is that all thee superpowers want to do business with an economically open DPRK. It is now just a matter of which superpower will get there first and by what means.