Flanking North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the podium in Pyongyang several weeks ago, top Russian and Chinese officials watched a show of the country’s assembled missile forces and surveillance drones. Kim wanted the world to know that North Korea, China and Russia would stand shoulder-to-shoulder against the revived United States-South Korea-Japan trilateral coalition, and that his weapons program has the backing of Russia and China.
Hosting Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and vice chairman of the Chinese National People’s Congress Standing Committee Li Hongzhong held an echo of 1961. Back then, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung successfully convinced Russia and China to sign two separate alliance treaties with North Korea mere days apart, allowing him to codify the military backing of two communist giants against a renewed US-Japan alliance in 1960. Kim Il-sung capitalised on the Sino-Soviet Split, during which Moscow and Beijing went to great lengths to court Pyongyang at each other’s expense. The Split effectively gave Kim the leverage at any bilateral negotiations with Russia and China that he had not had in 1950, when China and Russia rejected his idea of an alliance treaty out of fear of being entrapped into Kim’s military adventures in the days before the beginning of the Korean War.
Younger Kim has drawn on his grandfather’s playbook. Although Kim Jong-un welcomed both the Russian and the Chinese delegations to the anniversary, he offered the Russians a better reception, introducing them to the parade ahead of his Chinese guests. North Korean media also focused more on the Russian delegation, highlighting the four separate events between Kim and Shoigu. Shoigu also delivered a letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin during a mass meeting, a rare move by a foreign delegation. Kim toured Shoigu around his intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) amid speculation that North Korea would soon boost its arms trade with Russia. (There are signs that North Korea’s ICBM technology came from Russia, although some scholars dispute this claim.)
Even though the Chinese delegation was not the centre of attention in Pyongyang, China is more important to North Korea than Russia. North Korea and China share a 1,350-kilometre border and China bore much of the fighting during the Korean War – and is expected to come to North Korea’s aid under the 1961 alliance treaty should the war resume. North Korea’s rapprochement with China since 2018 has helped it undermine international sanctions over its nuclear and long-range missile tests. And while having met China’s President Xi Jinping five times in 2018 and 2019, Kim only met Vladimir Putin once in 2019.
Still, North Korea wants an alternative option to lessen its dependence on China. Playing Russia off against China is a chance to get the best deals from both, just as North Korea did under Kim Il-sung in 1961. Exploiting Russia’s isolation and desperation because of its invasion of Ukraine will give Kim further leverage, which possibly includes access to weapons technologies that China would not be comfortable transferring to North Korea.
But Kim Jong-un will not have it easy like his grandfather did. The reason Kim Il-sung succeeded in manipulating Russia and China was due to the then poor state of Sino-Soviet relations. Things are different now between Russia and China. The “no limits partnership” sees the two countries uniting, instead of diverging, in opposition to the United States and its allies. Neither Beijing nor Moscow wants to compete for influence in North Korea, which is the most important condition for a successful North Korean exploitation of China-Russia differences.
Importantly, China can better exploit Russia’s weakness than North Korea. In this triangular relationship, China is the greater power, economically and with fast-growing military strength. Unlike during the Split, neither Russia nor North Korea can or want to form an alliance directed against China.
Kim will be able to procure advanced military technologies from Russia, but he will have to gauge China’s possible reaction before any radical steps, such as deciding to test a nuclear device. The revived United States-South Korea-Japan trilateral alliance will consolidate the China-North Korea-Russia security bloc. However, that does not mean Kim will get to do whatever he wants. It’s not quite 1961 all over again.