It has been no secret that Russia and China have both worked diligently to present the façade of working toward a denuclearized Korean peninsula, while simultaneously bolstering support for Kim Jong un’s North Korean regime in the face of what both nations construe as American geopolitical bullying.  While both Russia and China likely do favor a non-nuclear North Korea, concerns about the stability of Kim’s regime, and in turn, the physical and financial stability of the region, have placed both nations in the precarious position of having to support Kim through often unofficial channels.

More than a month ago, the United States issued a series of sanctions against organizations and individuals that were guilty of siphoning money into Kim Jong un’s regime despite a number of U.S. and UN levied sanctions.  To no one’s surprise, the vast majority of those measures were taken against people and companies inside Russia and China, despite their formal government’s claims of support for a new round of UN sanctions.  China and Russia have both seen an uptick in non-military trade with North Korea since tensions between Kim’s Regime and Trump’s administration have started to boil over, and even North Korea’s new Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missiles have been seen being transported around the nation on new, Chinese sourced timber trucks that China promises they thought would only be used to ship wood.

Not to be outdone, bilateral trade between North Korea and Russia nearly doubled in the first quarter of 2017, now accounting for $31.4 million, which, to be fair, is still a drop in the bucket compared to bilateral trade with China, which accounts for 90% of North Korea’s import and export markets.  Russia has also refused to send tens of thousands of North Korean laborers home; workers whose pay is sent back to North Korea by way of Kim’s government, and accounts for a valuable influx of cash for Kim’s pet projects.

China recently announced that they were forcing North Korean businesses to close their doors on Chinese soil, a move intended to project China’s support for UN sanctions designed to financially strangle Kim’s nuclear ambitions, but that move did nothing to bar North Korean goods from being sold within Chinese based businesses, which likely accounts for a larger portion of overall export trade coming from North Korea.

China hopes to avoid a North Korea at war, as a loosening of Kim’s grip on the borders during the chaos could result in millions of refugees fleeing across the Chinese border.  Moreover, both China and Russia see the potential for regime change in North Korea as a legitimate strategic concern for their own security.  Russia is already bucking against the growing NATO military presence on their western flank, intended to prevent another military annexation like the one that took place in Crimea in 2014, and China has made frequent public complaints about the presence of American defenses in South Korea for similar reasons.  THAAD launchers, for instance, not only serve as an important part of America’s trifold missile defense infrastructure, but the powerful radar arrays used to locate and track missiles can also be used to locate and track Chinese heavy equipment within their borders.  A unified Korea, or west-friendly North Korean regime, could further reduce the cushion between both China and Russia, and American military assets.

The Kremlin really believes the North Korean leadership should get additional assurances and confidence that the United States is not in the regime change business,” Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a think-tank close to the Russian Foreign Ministry, told Reuters. “The prospect of regime change is a serious concern. The Kremlin understands that (U.S. President Donald) Trump is unpredictable. They felt more secure with Barack Obama that he would not take any action that would explode the situation, but with Trump they don’t know.”

A Russian company, TransTeleCom, recently provided Kim’s regime with a new internet connection, which could provide North Korea with a valuable lifeline in the event their current Chinese provider chooses to sever ties with North Korea, but it seems possible that this could indeed be by design.  China can continue to pressure North Korea in areas that serve as a great public display, while that pressure is alleviated through other channels.

“This new link means two companies would have to cut business to cut the country off,” said Martyn Williams, who wrote about the news for 38 North and runs the website North Korea Tech. “As TransTeleCom just started under the current situation, it’s presumably not too worried about doing business.”

Tensions continue to rise between North Korea and the United States in the meantime, as President Trump has made public statements seemingly insinuating that the time for diplomacy is over between the two nations, while senior cabinet officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, seem to suggest otherwise.  War with North Korea remains a possibility, not a foregone conclusion, but with Chinese and Russian efforts appearing to undermine UN-led efforts to bring about a diplomatic end to this conflict, war may be the result of Chinese and Russian self-interest, rather that the bravado of North Korea’s or even America’s outspoken leaders.


Image courtesy of the Associated Press