As China, Russia drill, North Korea left on the sidelines

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SEOUL, South Korea — While Chinese and Russian warships conduct joint drills in what looks like a counter to tightening cooperation between the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies, North Korea’s forces remain back at the base.

It’s a puzzling paradigm, particularly given the value Pyongyang could contribute to a coalition of anti-U.S. powers in the region.

The isolated state commands a strategic location in Northeast Asia and deploys a constant stream of harsh rhetoric toward the United States and its allies. It fields weapons of mass destruction and a million-strong military.

Yet it has joined none of the land, air and naval drills conducted in recent years by China and Russia on the Eurasian landmass, or in the Sea of Japan or the South China Sea.

North Korea’s odd-man-out status looks even more unlikely when viewed historically: Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang were all aligned against U.S.-led forces during the 1950-53 Korean War, a fight whose end is marking its 70th anniversary this year.

While North Korea hangs back, 2023 is proving a golden year for U.S.-led initiatives to rally allies in the region against the increasingly assertive China and Russia.

Enabled by conservative administrations in Manila, Seoul and Tokyo, and galvanized by Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in 2022, Washington is overseeing a tightening web of alliances and strategic basing structures. The latter range from northern Australia and western South Korea to Japan’s Ryukyu chain and the Philippines’ northern region of Luzon.

Just in recent days, a U.S. nuclear-capable submarine docked in South Korea, the first such port call in decades, while the two allies held the inaugural meeting of their Nuclear Consultative Group, created following a bilateral summit in Washington in April.

Given this, the ever-bristling, risk-tolerant Pyongyang might appear a perfect regional partner for an anti-U.S. alliance. But experts say there are diplomatic, military and even reputational reasons why China and Russia keep North Korea at arm’s length.

“The North Koreans don’t have the capability [to join the drills]. That is the practical reason,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korean watcher at Seoul’s Asan Institute. “The other reason is that North Korea is toxic: If China or Russia develop the perception that they have influence over it, they would be held responsible for its behavior.”

For its part, North Korea, traditionally jealous of its strategic autonomy, has reasons for standing alone.

Undeclared alliance, missing partner

Beijing and Moscow have no formal alliance, but they say their partnership has no limits. And though the bulk of Moscow’s forces are bogged down in Ukraine, that partnership is visible in the Indo-Pacific, as forces in the Russian Far East, notably those based in Vladivostok, drill with Chinese counterparts.

Chinese and Russian vessels are conducting “Northern Interaction 2023” this month in the Sea of Japan. Three Russian destroyers and a corvette are exercising with two Chinese destroyers, two frigates and a supply ship.

These follow a range of drills — from the massive-scale “Vostok 18” land drills in 2018, which were joined by Chinese army units, to regular joint warplane flights over waters separating South Korea and Japan.

Despite its own hostility to Washington, North Korea participated in none of the exercises, despite some seeming overtures on both sides. 

Since the war in Ukraine started, China and Russia have extended diplomatic assistance to North Korea by blocking U.S.-led efforts to add international sanctions on the regime for its ongoing missile-testing program. 

The Biden administration has also charged that North Korea is supplying ammunition to Russia to help in the Ukraine operation — allegations denied by Pyongyang.

And statements by Russian media personalities that North Korea could send labor, or even combat troops, to the war zone have not been borne out.

Odd man out

Given the need for allies, it would seem North Korea would be a useful — if eccentric — partner for an anti-Western coalition of allies. One reason it’s not happening is diplomatic. Even authoritarian states such as China and Russia are leery of dealing with a brutal and mercurial leader like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

“Open military cooperation with a rogue state would have a bad impact on the reputation of both China and Russia as North Korea is an open challenge to the U.N.-designated world system,” said Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on North Korea who teaches at Seoul’s Kookmin University.

China, he said, “positions itself as a protector of multilateralism against U.S. hegemony, while Russia understands that its seat on the UN Security Council is one of its most important foreign policy assets and doesn’t want to change it.”

Another reason relates to national prejudices.

“There is a tradition of despising North Korea in China, and especially in Russia,” Mr. Lankov continued. “You are not going to please [Russian President Vladimir] Putin by comparing him to Kim. For generations of Russians, North Korea was seen as a bizarre, comical and highly unpleasant dictatorship.”

Mr. Lankov suggested that Russians’ traditional view of North Korea is similar to Americans’ views of Latin American dictatorships in the decades after World War II. 

While the Seoul-Washington relationship has had ups and downs, the public is grateful for U.S. support during the Korean War. That is visible in the excellent treatment offered to visiting veterans, and in the high degree of public support for the current alliance with Washington despite a number of bilateral irritants.

While American GIs remain in South Korea to this day, Chinese units withdrew from North Korea in 1958. That reflects Pyongyang’s differing stance toward its erstwhile allies.

“For North Korea, it was a quid pro quo relationship: They look at the support from the Chinese and Soviets as a larger pursuit of Communist goals, so to them, it was only natural that these nations should have supported them,” said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general. “And North Korea also promotes the idea that during the [Chinese Civil War], many Koreans fought for the Communists, so it was a balance.”

Yet another reason relates to North Korea’s forces. While China and Russia boast modern warships and aircraft, struggling Pyongyang has focused on a few key asymmetric assets — assets that do not complement the conventional forces China and Russia deploy.

“North Korea concentrates on what matters: nuclear arms, ballistic missiles and light infantry/special forces,” said Mr. Lankov. Its naval and air forces, by contrast, are given inferior equipment and “don’t have the fuel to operate over longer distances.”

North Korea under Mr. Kim has increasingly isolated itself, while pursuing a policy of maximum strategic autonomy relying on no ally to protect it. That approach has been strained by its extensive economic reliance on China — a reliance resented by Pyongyang’s leadership.

“North Korea understands that too much influence from Russia or China threatens their supreme leader,” Mr. Chun said. “So they try to keep a good distance.”

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