When Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un declared the “completion of the DPRK’s nuclear forces” after a series of successful of long-range ballistic missile and an apparent hydrogen bomb tests in late 2017, he seemed a winner vis-à-vis the United States. For awhile, the perception of North Korea’s victory seemed justified. In June 2018, the North Korean leader participated in an unprecedented summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore. The outcome of the summit was widely regarded as a win for Pyongyang. Chairman Kim’s hopes apparently culminated in the run-up to the second summit in Hanoi in February 2019. However, Hanoi ended in spectacular failure, with the third “semi-summit” at Panmunjom in June 2019, failing to revive the stalled negotiation process.
No Progress with the United States
No deal favorable to Pyongyang is now in sight. There are no signs that President Trump—for all his avowed “love” for the Supreme Leader—is willing to give Pyongyang what it seeks: the lifting of sanctions and normalization of North Korea’s nuclear status. Chairman Kim miscalculated when he executed an ICBM and thermonuclear breakout in 2017. He expected that Washington—awed by North Korea’s new strategic capabilities—would sue for peace. What Pyongyang got, instead, was President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions, which is still in effect.
The United States might have eventually tolerated North Korea with a limited nuclear and missile arsenal, but it would not accept thermonuclear-armed ICBM capability. Former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, probably understood that, which might explain his relative restraint in nuclear and missile development. A limited nuclear capability that held Japan and the Republic of Korea within range was just enough for deterrence. Unlike his risk-averse father, the younger Kim chose a high-stakes gamble.
The U.S.-led sanctions have made it essentially impossible for the DPRK to interact economically with the outside world. The continued absence of a deal means the United States as well as its allies and partners, including South Korea and Japan, preserve the harsh sanctions regime banning almost all economic contact with Pyongyang. Another neighbor, the Russian Federation, albeit politically friendly toward the North, is unwilling to support it economically.
Stuck in China’s Grasp
These measures leave the DPRK at the mercy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Trade data shows an astonishing level of dependence on Beijing. Since the imposition of harsh sectoral sanctions on North Korea in 2016-2017, China has accounted for 95 percent of the world’s reported merchandise trade with North Korea. It is remarkable that in 2001, the PRC accounted for only 17% of North Korea’s foreign trade, while Japan was the number one economic partner for Pyongyang, accounting for 30% of trade. Besides commercial transactions, Beijing provides direct economic assistance to the North, such as by continuing oil deliveries through a cross-border pipeline and by sending substantial food and fertilizer aid.
Legal and illicit Chinese commerce with the DPRK, such as smuggling and ship-to-ship transfers, has economic and domestic political rationales, helping to sustain many businesses and livelihoods in China’s northeast that have historically depended on cross-border links with North Korea. But its primary purpose is always geopolitical. By providing a lifeline to its socialist and anti-Western neighbor, Beijing ensures the survival of the North Korean state, buys a degree of loyalty from Pyongyang, and possibly seeks to establish maximum geo-economic control over the DPRK.
China’s increasing control over North Korea may not be the worst outcome for the United States, at least in the short term. At present, China is not interested in rocking the boat in Northeast Asia. Beijing also has a vital stake in preventing further deterioration of relations with the United States. Thus, China can be expected to restrain Pyongyang. The coronavirus epidemic, ironically, may become an extra pacifying factor. Distracted by the fight with the virus, the Chinese leadership will be loath to see any military-political complications on the Korean Peninsula and is likely to advise Pyongyang to behave. In fact, probably even more than China, North Korea itself feels extremely vulnerable and threatened by the COVID-2019. Pyongyang is unlikely to mull any escalatory moves until the epidemic is over.
Despite the failure at Hanoi one year ago, there is still a chance of making a deal in the next few years, either during President’s Trump second term or a Democratic president, such as Bernie Sanders, who has already expressed readiness for dialogue with the North Korean leader. Washington will still be unlikely to accept a solution that leaves North Korea with nuclear-armed ICBMs capable of targeting the U.S. homeland, but a compromise deal is not completely out of the question.
Russia: Keeping on the Sidelines
Geopolitics on the Korean Peninsula is, at present, mainly a game of three players: Pyongyang, Washington, and Beijing. Similar to Seoul and Tokyo, Moscow has largely kept on the sidelines. Russian President Vladimir Putin did hold a summit in Vladivostok with Chairman Kim Jong-un in April 2019. By hosting the Supreme Leader, President Putin signaled that Russia has some skin in the North Korea game, but Moscow’s stakes are not as high as those of China and some of the other players.
The Kim-Putin summit, as well as a number of ministerial and other official exchanges that took place between Moscow and Pyongyang last year, did not result in any appreciable increase in economic links between North Korea and Russia. Neither Russia’s government nor its firms are willing to increase trade with North Korea so long as United Nations sanctions remain in place.
Russia used to import North Korean workers. Pre-sanctions, until 2017, Russia had hosted up to 40,000 North Korean workers each year. Moscow has complied with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2397, which bans the use of labor from the DPRK, by stopping the issuance of work permits and sending home North Korean laborers remaining in Russia. As the author of this article can attest, North Korean workers have disappeared from the streets of Vladivostok, which, pre-sanctions, had the biggest concentration of North Korean contract labor in Russia.
Theoretically, to avoid detection, North Korean workers could be sent as loggers into the wilderness of Siberian forests or laborers on remote pig farms. In practice, however, this makes little sense. Russia’s logging industry used to employ many North Koreans, but virtually stopped hiring them in the 2000s when the industry shifted to the use of highly efficient harvester machines. Due to similar technological progress, other Russian industries, such as agriculture or mining, do not have much need for North Korean manual labor. The construction sector remains the only realistic employer, but the potential hassle and costs will deter businesses from hiring North Koreans, even if Russian authorities decided to turn a blind eye. So far, at least, there has been no substantive evidence of Russia continuing to use North Korean labor after the UNSC-mandated December 22, 2019, deadline.
Along with China, Russia is often portrayed as a great-power patron of North Korea that shields it from international pressure and abets its misbehavior. The reality is more complex. Moscow is genuinely concerned by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile advances. Russia is one of the main guarantors of the global non-proliferation regime. If only for the sake of its own security, Russia has no interest in the spread of nuclear weapons, especially so close to its own borders—the same position Russia takes with respect to Iran. North Korea’s acquisition of ICBM and possibly thermonuclear technology should be particularly disconcerting. An arsenal of thermonuclear weapons capable of destroying the world’s only superpower has been post-Soviet Russia’s Holy Grail, one the few pillars of its claim to great-power status. If a small poor country like North Korea gets ICBM capability, then it will devalue Russia’s own, with corresponding diminishment in Russia’s international prestige. Why, then, should the United States treat Russia differently from North Korea if both pose about the same level of military threat to the United States?
Russia is interested in North Korea’s denuclearization (or, more realistically, in the capping and reduction of its existent nuclear and missile capabilities) much more than China. For Beijing, the status-related aspects of nuclear weapons are not nearly as important. Russia’s vital stakes in non-proliferation facilitate its dialogue with Washington on the North Korea nuclear problem. According to Russian and U.S. officials, this is one of the few international issues on which Moscow and Washington maintain normal working contacts.
Trends for 2020
The most likely scenario for the remainder of 2020 is that North Korea will keep its profile low, refraining from provocative moves, such as long-range missile launches. Pyongyang probably understands that the resumption of missile and nuclear tests will toughen Washington’s stance, not force it to make concessions. China, too, will be a restraining influence on North Korea’s behavior. Leaders in China know that should Pyongyang do something egregious, Washington will blame them. Beijing would probably prefer not to open another front in the already strained bilateral relationship. The coronavirus outbreak has become another pacifying factor that will persist for at least the next few months. Beijing is preoccupied with fighting COVID-19 and, then, dealing with its aftermath, whereas Pyongyang is obsessed with keeping the disease out.
As for the United States, North Korea has fallen down the White House’s priority list. President Trump is focused on the election campaign and sees North Korea as irrelevant to his re-election bid.
North Korea is not among Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s, President Trump’s, and President Putin’s top priorities in 2020. The Kremlin is concentrated on the Middle East and Europe. Domestically, Putin will be busy with the constitutional reforms he launched in January as part of the process of the future succession of power in Russia. There is, however, one opening for Russia-North Korea relations in 2020: a potential visit by Chairman Kim to Moscow’s Victory Day celebration in May. That said, with just two months to go before Victory Day and still no response from Pyongyang, the prospects for such a visit to Moscow are not high. It is quite possible, though, that he would pay a visit to Beijing with a show of symbolic support for China’s fight against the coronavirus, just as the leaders of Cambodia and Mongolia, two other countries economically beholden to China, have already done.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.