East Asia Compass

Global Upheaval as Opportunity: North Korea Rebuilding Ties with Russia and China

30 Sep, 2022    ·   5832

Dr. Sandip Kumar Mishra explains how Pyongyang is using the Ukraine crisis, US-China contestation, and the pandemic to further renew diplomatic linkages with Moscow and Beijing

The Ukraine crisis, US-China contestation, and COVID-19 pandemic have been challenging for most countries across the globe as it has led to energy and other supply-related issues, and its prolongation is seen as problematic by one and all. However, contrary to others, North Korea finds the crisis a golden opportunity to be better connected with Russia and China and ease its isolation.

In June 2022, there was an exchange of letters between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un in which they expressed their desire to “expand comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations.” In fact, North Korea got an opportunity to reach out to Russia during the Ukraine crisis that began in February 2022. North Korea has openly blamed the “hegemonic policy" and “high-handedness” of the US and European powers for the crisis. It is an attempt to support an increasingly isolated Russia, and in return expect similar support from it in any crisis on the Korean peninsula.

And it seems Russia is already responding. For example, in an interview, the Russian ambassador to North Korea supported the North Korean claim that balloons infected with COVID-19 sent to North Korea from South Korea caused infections. Russia also denounced the joint US-South Korea military exercise in August 2022. Economic contacts between North Korea and Russia that were frozen during the pandemic period are going to be restarted. North Korean Ambassador to Russia, Sin Hong-chol, said that trade via rail route between the two countries would resume in September.

Similarly North Korea has also been using the changing situations in regional and global politics as opportunities to reach out to China. This proximity could be seen on multiple occasions, such as in May 2022 when China and Russia both vetoed a US-led push for new sanctions on North Korea at the UNSC. North Korea has used the friction between the US and China over the visit of the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan on 3 August 2022. It sent a “letter of solidarity” to China. In it, North Korea called the visit an “imprudent interference” in China’s internal affairs. On 21 September 2022, it was reported that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has written a letter to China thanking it for its “constant support and encouragement” against the “heinous isolation” perpetrated by the West through various sanctions . Kim Jong-un’s letter was in response to a letter by Xi Jinping, in which he congratulated the country on its foundation day on 15 September 2022.

Freight train services between China and North Korea, which were suspended since 29 April due to the pandemic, have also reportedly been restored since 26 September. This is considered important as North Korea has been facing chronic food and consumer goods shortages in the recent months. North Korea-China trade has also been gradually picking up, and in August 2022, reached US$ 90.3 million. Even though it is far from the pre-pandemic level, it’s definitely showing a bounce back.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine crisis have given another lease of life to North Korea’s relationship with Russia and China. Moscow and Beijing have, in the changing realities of global politics, found themselves standing contrary to US-led networks, and both have been looking for support. Pyongyang has shown clear intent to provide such support. In material terms, North Korean support won’t make much difference, and any increase in exchanges with North Korea might be seen as violation of the various UN resolutions that put sanctions the country. However, this will definitely be a troubling development for the West as it means a revival of the trilateral quasi-alliance between North Korea, China, and Russia, which will be good for North Korea.


Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian studies, SIS, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.