Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of increasingly advanced nuclear weapons and ballistic missile platforms has not only led to military tensions on and around the Korean peninsula, but continued diplomatic tensions within international bodies like the United Nations. The United States, which has taken on the primary role in enforcing the UN resolutions barring Kim’s development of further nukes, has found itself pitted against two other military powers in the Pacific: China and Russia.
As SOFREP has discussed in the past, both Russia and China have a vested interest in maintaining a stable North Korea, as the humanitarian fallout of open war on the peninsula would undoubtedly result in porous borders and a mass exodus of millions of people seeking a better life beyond the oppressive regime’s boundaries. Russia, as well, sees North Korean markets, particular the third party market created by visitors from the few other nations with friendly ties to Kim’s state like China and Malaysia, as a valuable source of revenue for the struggling Russian economy. In short, Russia and China each have clearly defined interests in keeping Kim comfortable and in power… but that’s not all that’s at play here.
While China and Russia would likely continue to throw their thinly veiled support behind North Korea in global platforms like the UN without American interventionalism manifesting in the form of aircraft carriers, the stakes for both of these nations became higher when it was America that took a stand against Kim’s behavior.
China’s claims over the majority of the South China Sea are continually called into question by America’s Navy, as U.S. ships conduct freedom of navigation operations through contested waters and couple those trips with diplomatic pressure and increasing its alliances with local nations like Vietnam, who China bullied out of oil platforms within the past few months over claims of sovereignty over the waters just beyond Vietnam’s shores.
Russia sees the United States as its primary military and diplomatic competitor, with both states backing different groups in the fight for Syria, and America providing the brunt of NATO’s military power in Europe, where Russia’s expansion (by way of military annexation) in Crimea has many fearing war.
“It’s a road to nowhere. Whipping up military hysteria — this will lead to no good,” Putin said this week about U.S. military exercises on the Korean peninsula. “It could cause a global catastrophe and an enormous loss of life.” Of course, he only means that in the neighborhood of North Korea, seeing as the Russian military is expected to place upwards of 90,000 troops in Belarus for a massive joint military exercise on NATO doormat later this month. Certainly placing an invasion force near the Baltics could be seen as a similar ‘road,’ if Putin were interested in objective reality, rather than shaping perceptions.
These conflict zones around the world are not isolated pockets of tension, but rather the parts of the fabric of global society where the fabric of diplomacy has worn thin. Russia and China are both diametrically opposed to American influence around the globe, meaning even if they didn’t have a lot to lose in a U.S./North Korean war, it would still make logical sense for them to use this conflict as a means to degrade perceptions of America on the world’s stage.
Effectively, both Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi see tensions with North Korea as a prime opportunity to attack what is effectively America’s character. Like China claiming U.S. Navy ships have become a “hazard” to commercial vessels in the Pacific due to the recent rash of collisions, the prospect of America finding itself in yet another conflict has given both of these leaders the chance to paint America as an imperialist aggressor.
America’s intentions on the Korean Peninsula don’t actually matter in the game of public perception – what does is how China, Russia, and North Korea are able to present the situation by way of global media; and of course, thanks to the American president’s lack of popularity both home and abroad in many circles, the target becomes that much softer. “Of course America is a threat to global stability,” Chinese and Russian PR efforts can posit, “look at what’s happening inside America’s borders – they’re rioting in the streets.”
Like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan allotted foreign Islamist terrorists with a legitimate theater to take the fight to the West, North Korea is drawing anti-American powers like a street light draws moths. China and Russia see an opportunity to weaken global support for the United States by painting America as the aggressor, rather than the peacekeeper, and if they’re successful, the result is another anti-American nuclear power in the Pacific and increased economic prosperity.
Image courtesy of the Kremlin