Russia and North Korea’s complementary balancing acts at the global and national levels vis-a-vis China coupled with China’s reluctance to burn all bridges with the West as it begins building alternative global institutions are the real driving forces behind the first two’s reported military deal.
Many observers believe that Russia and North Korea have decided to strengthen their military ties due to shared threats from the West. Reports claim that they’re exploring a swap whereby Russia would share hypersonic, nuclear, satellite, and submarine technology with North Korea in exchange for Soviet-era ammunition and artillery. The first part of this deal would balance the emerging US-South Korean-Japanese triangle while the second would keep Russia’s special operation going into next year.
There’s likely a lot of truth to this assessment since it makes sense for them to help each other against their shared opponents in the New Cold War, but there’s more to it than just that. For starters, the preceding report about their impending swap doesn’t account for Russia’s growing edge in its “race of logistics”/“war of attrition” with NATO that’s responsible for defeating Kiev’s counteroffensive. Even without North Korea’s Soviet-era supplies, Russia is still impressively holding its own against all of NATO.
This proves that Russia’s military-industrial complex (MIC) already meets its needs in the present and beyond, thus raising the question of why Russia would countenance a military deal with North Korea in the first place, let alone such a seemingly lopsided one. A cogent explanation is that Russia’s MIC might struggle in that scenario to meet its military-technical obligations to third parties, ergo the need to purchase lower-quality supplies so that production facilities can prioritize higher-quality exports.
Even if that’s the case, then it doesn’t answer the question of why Russia would be willing to share such potentially game-changing military technology with North Korea for these supplies instead of simply paying for them with hard currency, nor why it either can’t or won’t try to get them from China. Likewise, one might also wonder why North Korea can’t receive the aforesaid military technology from China and would have to request it from Russia as part of their reported swap.
The answer to those three questions concerns China’s reluctance to burn all bridges with the West as well as Russia and North Korea’s shared interests in preemptively averting potentially disproportionate dependence on the People’s Republic. Beginning with the first balancing act, while President Xi arguably envisages China leading the creation of alternative global institutions as strongly suggested by his decision to skip last weekend’s G20 Summit in Delhi, he’d prefer for this to be a smooth process.
Any abrupt bifurcation/”decoupling” would destabilize the global economy and therefore sabotage his country’s export-driven growth, but the US might force this scenario in response to China’s large-scale arming of Russia and/or transfer of game-changing military technology to North Korea. For that reason, President Xi likely wouldn’t agree to either of those two deals except if they were urgently required to prevent their defeat by the West, but neither is facing that threat so China won’t risk the consequences.
As for the second part of this balancing act, even if President Xi offered to meet Russia’s and North Korea’s military needs, those two would still probably prefer to rely on one another for them instead of China in order to not become disproportionately dependent on the People’s Republic. Both regard that country as one of the top strategic partners anywhere in the world, but each would feel uncomfortable if they entered into relationship where Beijing plays too big of a role in ensuring their national security.
From Russia’s perspective, it’s a matter of principle to never become disproportionately dependent on any given partner since such ties could curtail the Kremlin’s foreign policy sovereignty even if its counterpart doesn’t have any nefarious intent. In the Chinese context, relations of that nature might make some policymakers less interested in maintaining their country’s balancing act between China and India, thus leading to them subconsciously favoring Beijing and pushing Delhi closer to Washington.
Should that happen, then the global systemic transition to multipolarity would revert back towards bipolarity (or rather bi-multipolarity) as Russia turbocharges China’s superpower trajectory in parallel with India helping the US retain its declining hegemony. The result would be that only those two superpowers would enjoy genuine sovereignty while everyone else’s would be greatly limited by the natural dynamics of their competition. Russia obviously wants to avoid this scenario at all costs.
Unlike Russia’s global interests, North Korea’s are purely national, but they’re still complementary to Moscow’s. Pyongyang had been disproportionately dependent on Beijing since the end of the Old Cold War after the USSR collapsed, but China later leveraged this relationship to expand ties with the West by approving UNSC sanctions against North Korea. Russia did the same for identical reasons, but North Korea wasn’t dependent on Russia so Pyongyang didn’t hold a grudge against Moscow like it did Beijing.
It was this growing distrust of China that inspired Kim Jong Un to seriously explore Trump’s ultimately unsuccessful de-nuclearization proposal in order to rebalance his country’s relations with the People’s Republic. The same motivation was why Myanmar agreed to a rapprochement with the US under Obama that also ultimately failed. Both countries felt that their disproportionate dependence on China was disadvantageous and accordingly sought to rectify it by rebalancing ties with the US.
Since the American dimension of their balancing acts didn’t bear any fruit and is no longer viable, each is now looking towards Russia to play that same role in helping them relieve their disproportionate dependence on China. Russian-Myanmarese relations were explained here while Russian-North Korean ones will now be elaborated on a bit more. From Pyongyang’s perspective, even if Beijing gave it game-changing military technology, this could always be cut off one day if China reached a deal with the US.
In fact, China probably wouldn’t consider giving North Korea such technology anyhow since that could make it more difficult for Beijing to ever leverage its influence over Pyongyang again in pursuit of such a deal with Washington, thus limiting China’s own foreign policy sovereignty. The likelihood of Russia reaching a major deal with the US anytime soon is close to nil after all that’s unfolded over the past 18 months, so North Korea believes that Russia will be a much more reliable long-term military partner.
Russia and North Korea’s complementary balancing acts at the global and national levels vis-a-vis China coupled with China’s reluctance to burn all bridges with the West as it begins building alternative global institutions are the real driving forces behind the first two’s reported military deal. This grand strategic insight enables one to better understand the true state of relations between these countries and therefore helps objective observers produce more accurate analyses about them going forward.