North Korea’s Place in Sino-Russian Relations and Identities


Sino-Russian relations and the attitudes of each toward the Korean Peninsula have drawn close scrutiny of late, including recent writings by me.1 The Asan Forum has carried relevant articles.2 On China’s attitudes toward reunification, Bonnie Glaser and Yun Sun and Cheng Xiaohe have written in detail.3 Yet, as we take a fresh look at Sino-Russian relations in triangular context, the theme of the Special Forum, Vol. 1, No. 3, we would be remiss not to revisit the salience of North Korea to their bilateral relationship. Much has changed in two years: the Sino-Russian relationship clearly is drawing much closer, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are both asserting their national leadership much more forcibly; Kim Jong-un’s thinking is coming unmistakably into focus; and the historical and national identity context is now more vividly in relief in light of the seventieth anniversary commemorations on May 9 in Moscow, on September 3 in Beijing, and on October 10 in Pyongyang. The North Korean situation remains in limbo, as Kim Jong-un largely eschews diplomacy, but, on the basis of the reasoning found in Chinese and Russian sources,4 we have reason to look beyond this impasse. After all, North Korea looms as one of the biggest tests of where their relationship is heading: toward Six-Party multilateral cooperation or three versus three regional polarization.


Northeast Asia was an unlikely focus of great power maneuvering following the end of the Cold War. Indeed, there were much-trumpeted plans for turning it into the centerpiece of great power coordination for a new regional and world order.5 Hopes centered on multilateral energy cooperation in the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia, cross-border regionalism around the Sea of Japan, and, above all, collective security assurances to steer North Korea into a regional framework conducive not only to reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula but also to great power trust. That Pyongyang would balk at such plans—demilitarization, the loss of its ability to play one great power against another, reforms that threatened to shake the legitimacy of a hermit dictatorship afraid to unseal its chamber of horrors, and the Tumen River development project opening the country to transit movement—should have come as no surprise. More unexpectedly, strategies to use North Korea to rekindle splits between great powers rather than to facilitate trust and cooperation defied hopes for putting the Cold War behind this region. While no country’s blueprint for the future of North Korea was realistic, its revival as the nexus of contestation was the predictable outcome of great power reasoning discernible from the early 1990s. In the early 2000s, Chinese and Russian publications left little doubt about this logic.6 The Six-Party Talks kept alive hopes for multilateralism only if one ignored how the two, long-time defenders of Pyongyang were reasoning and reinforcing each other.


Northeast Asia was an unlikely focus of great power maneuvering following the end of the Cold War. Indeed, there were much-trumpeted plans for turning it into the centerpiece of great power coordination for a new regional and world order.5 Hopes centered on multilateral energy cooperation in the Russian Far East and Eastern Siberia, cross-border regionalism around the Sea of Japan, and, above all, collective security assurances to steer North Korea into a regional framework conducive not only to reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula but also to great power trust. That Pyongyang would balk at such plans—demilitarization, the loss of its ability to play one great power against another, reforms that threatened to shake the legitimacy of a hermit dictatorship afraid to unseal its chamber of horrors, and the Tumen River development project opening the country to transit movement—should have come as no surprise. More unexpectedly, strategies to use North Korea to rekindle splits between great powers rather than to facilitate trust and cooperation defied hopes for putting the Cold War behind this region. While no country’s blueprint for the future of North Korea was realistic, its revival as the nexus of contestation was the predictable outcome of great power reasoning discernible from the early 1990s. In the early 2000s, Chinese and Russian publications left little doubt about this logic.6 The Six-Party Talks kept alive hopes for multilateralism only if one ignored how the two, long-time defenders of Pyongyang were reasoning and reinforcing each other.


The recent leadership of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping has brought to fruition the divisive thinking that posits resumption of the Six-Party Talks as the foundation for a regional architecture, claiming that it can promote stability but actually pursuing a far-reaching transformation in what long has guaranteed that stability. A November 2015 article is typical of recent Russian publications that blame the United States or the West for starting a new cold war and appeal for closer Sino-Russian relations as the only way to counter moves to extend US dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.7 In this strategy, North Korea resumes its Cold War role as a bulwark against a shift in the balance of power. Indeed, more circumscribed in its reach and more aware of the perilous state of North Korea, Moscow has even more reason to oppose changes that could lead toward reunification, in line with the views of its vocal experts.8 Xi is playing a more nuanced game, but sending Liu Yunshan to Pyongyang on October 10 can serve as a wake-up call to those who saw his hosting of Park Geun-hye a month earlier and his summit with Barack Obama in the interim as signs of willingness to abandon Kim Jong-un’s regime or even to put increased pressure on it without new provocations. Chinese writings may call for denuclearization, but they are adamant (despite occasional exceptions no longer to be found) about regime preservation. If Kim Jong-un were to be more flexible about negotiations with the ostensible goal of denuclearization, he could count on Chinese and Russian support for other goals. At present, he stubbornly rejects diplomacy, but the logic of his situation and the warm welcome he could expect for this sort of shift, exposing the wide divide among those who have supported UN sanctions, suggest that eventually Kim will come around.


Reimagining the Northern Triangle

US, South Korean, and even Japanese policy have attracted much of the attention in the diplomacy toward North Korea, but their contacts with the regime there pale in comparison to Chinese and Russian high-level interactions. There has been much discussion about coordination between the United States and its two allies, as US interest in increasing triangularity often figures into policy discussions, but talk of triangularity among China, Russia, and North Korea is rarely heard. This missing element in analysis has the potential to skew our understanding of the dynamics of Northeast Asia, excessively raising hopes, especially among South Koreans. As long as the focus is limited to denuclearization, as if it were a simple matter of agreeing on a goal, rather than the complex, diplomatic give-and-take aimed at coexistence on the peninsula and satisfying the security and identity interests of four great powers as well as the two Koreas, we are bound to misjudge the challenge ahead. Ignoring the triangular barrier of the Cold War era as if it were gone likewise is deceptive.


Two triangles have the potential to redefine the contours of Northeast Asia. One is the well recognized, but at times elusive, alliance triangle of the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The other is, arguably, the reviving “Northern Triangle” of China, Russia, and North Korea. Both are taking shape as a result of China’s rise and are testing the “pivot” to Asia of the United States. Changes in one reverberate in the other; Beijing, Washington, and Tokyo are increasingly conscious of the linkages.


Questions last posed about half a century ago are resurfacing in the mid-2010s. Are Moscow and Beijing allies or rivals? Are they competing over Pyongyang in a way that opens the door to diplomacy by others or in a way that reinforces that state’s obstinacy? Do Washington or Tokyo have leverage to split them further apart or are overtures to one or the other more likely to disrupt the US-led alliance system? How do changes in relations between Tokyo and Seoul impact their aspirations to change course with Moscow, Beijing, or Pyongyang? There was a Northern Triangle during the Korean War, and it persisted until the end of the Cold War—lasting four decades in spite of the Sino-Soviet split and the Sino-US normalization. The degree of revival is debatable, as we search for evidence in the reasoning revealed in recent sources.


This article takes a closer look at Chinese and Russian thinking about an old ally and about their bilateral relationship within the changing architecture of Asia with an eye to the prospects for revival of the triangle. It is divided into four parts. First, it takes a long-term historical view of North Korea’s place in the way Moscow and Beijing view Northeast Asia. Then it focuses on recent Chinese and Russian national identity narratives and their implications for thinking about North Korea. Next it turns to how the security situation in 2015 affects policies in these two countries and in the region with regard to North Korea. The conclusion probes the prospects for the reemergence of the “Northern Triangle” in opposition to the US-led alliance triangle, i.e., a “virtual alliance” similar to what long existed after the Korean War.


Accurately Assessing Chinese and Russian Reasoning about North Korea

An enduring source of misunderstanding, the course of international relations in Northeast Asia has been succumbing to the temptation to interpret the outlooks of both China and Russia (the Soviet Union) in accord with theories that pay scant heed to what they are saying in internal discussions and writings while relying on deductive reasoning. Realist theory continues to serve as a crutch to overstate the divide between Moscow and Beijing, while liberal theory long has exaggerated their growing integration into the existing international order. Since the 1970s, decade-by-decade, one or both of these perspectives has caused observers to misjudge what would happen next in this relationship.9 Of late, many realists argue that China and Russia are bound to turn against each other before long because of clashing national interests, as in Central Asia and the Korean Peninsula, while liberal theorists stick to the optimistic outlook of closer ties to the West, given their economic calculations. A wake-up call was slow in coming until the Ukrainian crisis exposed Russian thinking just as Sino-US relations were deteriorating. Sino-Russian rhetoric is being taken more seriously, as realist analysis is recast, liberal thinking is fading, and a case for constructivist convergence in thinking about identity issues is gaining credibility.


The US posture toward North Korea has repeatedly been perceived in Beijing and Moscow as overriding potential bilateral concerns. This was the case for Beijing in 2003 when it feared that the “axis of evil” speech and the invasion of Iraq would be a prelude to a push for regime change in North Korea, and it was true again in the fall of 2005 when unilateral US sanctions against Banco Delta Asia revived the charge that regime change was being aggressively pushed.10 Only when North Korea defied both China and Russia in late 2006 by brazenly testing both a long-range missile and a nuclear weapon did Beijing pressure Pyongyang, resulting in the February 2007 Joint Agreement. Yet, after similar tests in the spring of 2009, Beijing’s response was different, encapsulated in its three euphemisms: “maintaining domestic stability in North Korea, peace on the Korean Peninsula, and social stability in China.” These were invoked in 2009-2010 for “enabling North Korea’s misdeeds,” before China in late 2010 may have restrained the North from military retaliation against planned South Korean military exercises, and they are used to justify putting blame on US aggressiveness more than North Korea’s belligerence, and rather than on China’s passivity, acquiescence, and enablement of the North Korean regime’s conduct.11


Chinese anger over Kim Jong-un’s defiance coupled with invigorated diplomacy with Park Geun-hye and Russia’s rationalizations for overtures toward Kim Jong-un well beyond previous ties with Kim Jong-il should not obscure the logic of their strategic analyses of the overall situation on the Korean Peninsula and what should be done. The United States and South Korea rightly continue to prioritize their cooperation on denuclearization and non-proliferation, crediting Chinese and Russian behavior with a positive contribution to trying to change North Korean views on those issues. Yet, to repeat the mantra of “five versus one” would make us complicit in neglecting and even misunderstanding what China and Russia are trying to achieve on the peninsula and, through negotiations over North Korea, for national interests and national identity.


Recalling Traditional Soviet and Chinese Communist Thinking about Northeast Asia

As the Cold War was beginning, the division of Germany proved contentious, as seen in the Berlin blockade and airlift. The division of Korea was no less so, as Stalin and Mao weighed whether to support Kim Il-sung’s plan to unify the peninsula by force, sending his army into South Korea. Looking back at the Korean War from the record of overall stability (the “cold peace”) of this era, it is easy to overlook the thinking that the “east wind prevails over the west wind” that preceded Khrushchev’s notion of “peaceful coexistence.” Dressing the attack on South Korea in terms of the end justifies the means (lies about who started the war, who was fighting in it, and what was taking place), Soviet and Chinese commentaries set a pattern for narratives on the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia that remained highly distorted through the 1980s. They refused to recognize North Korea’s continued belligerence destabilizing the peninsula. Although after China normalized relations with Japan, it grew silent on some aspects of Japan’s regional role, there was stunning disregard for the very peaceful nature of Japan’s foreign policy. The defensive character of the US alliances with Seoul and Tokyo—no thought being given to any sort of aggressive behavior—was finally acknowledged in China after it found common cause against the Soviet Union. Yet, Beijing’s support for North Korea remained steadfast, as did Moscow’s.


The Cold War stabilized, China welcomed the US-Japan alliance in opposition to the Soviet Union, and South Korea focused on its “economic miracle” with no aggressive intentions toward North Korea. Yet, the Chinese and Soviet narratives in the face of North Korea’s massive bombing in Burma in 1983 and bombing of a South Korean airliner in 1987 refused to blame the North. Relations were finally changing, and the behavior of their ally caused embarrassment in the late 1980s, but their Cold War narrative survived. It was questioned with uncertain consequences for a time in the 1990s, although by the end of the decade there was a backlash indicating that errors in thinking about North Korea after the end of the Cold War needed to be addressed. The justice of the Korean War served as a test case for historical national identity.


Chinese and Russian reasoning in the Cold War regarding North Korea revived in the 2000s. As they boosted civilizational exceptionalism, it was natural to repeat that the North Korean regime also faces a civilizational threat, implying that South Korea poses such a threat, i.e., a color revolution, despite shared Koreanness. Also, North Korea’s critical position in the regional balance of power drew attention once more. The fact that North Korea was long the object of considerable sacrifice raised its salience too, as not only an object of sunk costs but also as a product of the status quo settlement at the end of the war, which must not be overturned. This logic has far outweighed the occasional voices in Russia and China demurring. Censorship has tightened, as seen in the articles that have been paraphrased in The Asan Forum.12


One does not have to question the sincerity of calls for denuclearization in Beijing and Moscow, as reported from diplomatic meetings as well as official statements, to recognize that it is one of several goals and often regarded as not the first one to be realized. For over a decade there has been considerable consistency in articles that consider denuclearization resolvable only within the regional security framework. When China did not denounce North Korea’s acts of aggression in 2010, it reminded veteran observers of failure to condemn such acts during the Cold War. The context of regional and peninsular transformation remains critical to the way the general picture is portrayed in Beijing and Moscow in our time as was true thirty years ago. South Korea’s legitimacy in reunification is left in doubt. The case for human rights is left unmentioned. And the value of North Korea ceasing its belligerence is rarely indicated. Instead, North Korea’s role is stressed in future regional transformation.


The Chinese Narrative on North Korea in the 2010s

Dissident voices were heard in 2004 when a journal was shut down for its coverage in 2006 and 2013 after nuclear tests by North Korea,and occasionally at other times as well. Yet, the prevailing tone was in sharp contrast to what these voices had to say. In 2002-2003, when Pyongyang broke away from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regime set by the Joint Agreement, again in 2008-2009, when it abandoned the Agreed Framework set by the Six-Party Talks, in 2010, when North Korea twice attacked South Korea, and finally in 2014-2015, when many thought China’s dissatisfaction with Kim Jong-un meant a sharp shift in policy, Chinese publications overwhelmingly reaffirmed a narrative of little comfort to those arguing for five versus one or for reunification led by South Korea.


The Special Forum article in June 2015 of Cheng Xiaohe characterizes China’s stance toward the Korean Peninsula as a “drawn-out competition,” in which China is taking an increasing interest to the point it may tip the balance on the peninsula, which has been tilting toward South Korea. Treating North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as a means to reverse the trend and South Korea’s prospect of achieving unification on its own terms as very unlikely, Cheng calls for resuming the Six-Party Talks as a way to change North Korea’s calculus. His perspective draws equivalence between the North and the South, treats the standoff as a struggle over the security interests of the great powers, and assumes that balance between North and South and among the great powers is the pathway to unification. To persist in South Korea’s current approach to unification as a “bonanza’ is an illusion, he adds, neglecting only to note directly that China does not view this outcome as in its interest. Without praising the North’s nuclear program, Cheng credits it with helping Pyongyang turn the tables in its competition with Seoul. Thus, it makes China’s goal of pursuing a path to reunification based on equality easier. He argues that whether Seoul can go forward with efforts aimed at reunification depends heavily on China’s cooperation, which, in turn, depends on Seoul not supporting the US rebalance targeted against China. The obvious conclusion is that Seoul faces a zero-sum great power clash, and its ties to Pyongyang, as influenced by Beijing, depend on how it balances the two powers. Deterrence and trust building are at odds. China can help with the latter, but efforts to bolster the former that play into the US rebalancing will not win China’s support.


While many in Seoul have taken comfort in the troubled relationship of Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un and in the “honeymoon” closeness of Xi and Park Geun-hye, they have paid little attention to China’s strategy. This has led to over-optimism about China’s support for unification, the possibility of South Korea taking the lead in a new regional security format called the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), and a win-win situation of balancing ties to the United States with a strengthened alliance and ties to China with coordination on North Korea. In the Special Forum of June, I questioned the high hopes Koreans are pinning on middle power diplomacy, centering on China and the United States. Cheng’s article in English is but the tip of the iceberg of Chinese writings insisting that Seoul must abandon its current strategy and change course for reunification.


China appears to be seeking regime reorientation as the path to domestic stability in North Korea. This means its readiness to work with China on diplomacy, economic reform, and regime revitalization. China also seems to be in pursuit of peace on the peninsula through a balance of North and South security concerns with input from China and other powers, but there is reason to expect that China’s input will carry the greatest weight, given its likely impact on the North and the South’s awareness that China has far more levers to shape the process than any other country. Finally, success as the host of the reconvened Six-Party Talks and the protector of the North would give a boost to the legitimacy and stability of the Communist Party in China.


When Liu Yunshan represented China at the October 10 Pyongyang military parade he delivered a letter from Xi Jinping, which was widely interpreted as reaffirming that “stability” takes priority over denuclearization and that Xi is not tilting toward Park, as South Koreans had asserted.13 Misperceptions were corrected, but the word “stability” continued to give the wrong impression. It made China’s aims seem quite modest, as if it were a status quo power, ignoring demands on the United States and South Korea for changes that allegedly would be conducive to peninsular stability.


The Russian Narrative on North Korea in the 2010s

The Russian narrative on the Korean Peninsula closely parallels the rhetoric found in China. In the December 2014 Special Forum, I analyzed the Russian “turn to the East,” emphasizing China’s central role, but North Korea’s salience also needs to be emphasized, as reported in “Country Report: Russia” in February 2015 where the views of Valerii Denisov, former ambassador to North Korea, are noted. Blaming the United States for trying to destroy the regime in North Korea while also finding merit in the argument that the September 19, 2005 agreement was violated by the United States, South Korea, and Japan, provoking North Korea to resume its nuclear activity, Denisov suggests that the real danger to peace in the region comes from the US-ROK alliance, not North Korea. He justifies Russia’s warming to North Korea, mentioning the souring of Sino-North Korean relations without putting much blame on either party. The burden is placed instead on Washington and Seoul to win the confidence of Pyongyang, leading to the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, notably of the fifth working group headed by Russia to address a regional security framework, which Denisov puts foremost in his analysis of what is needed to resolve the crisis.


A strong China and a close Sino-Russian partnership are decisive factors in reaching the kind of arrangement Denisov and most other Russian writers on the peninsula are seeking for the Korean Peninsula. They are focused on reassuring North Korea, bolstering the regime, transforming the US-ROK alliance, and developing a regional economic program for a north-south corridor from Russia through South Korea. In light of the expected hesitation of Seoul to embrace this agenda, Russians lean more to pressure than persuasion. Strengthening bilateral ties to North Korea both makes the North a more viable force and puts Russia in a less marginal position. Behind the facade of cooperative Russo-ROK relations—Park Geun-hye’s Eurasian Initiative is still being pursued—, Park offended Putin by not attending the 2014 Sochi Olympics ceremonies and the May 9, 2014 celebration of the seventieth anniversary of victory on Red Square. Relations have cooled, as high officials visit less often, and South Korea is joining in the sanctions imposed on Russia. Yet, discretely Seoul strives to sustain relations, recognizing that it needs Russia to manage North Korea. As long as Russia affirms its support for the non-proliferation treaty and denuclearization of North Korea and suspicions are not confirmed that it is, through official or unofficial ties, assisting the North’s missile programs, Seoul is likely to avoid giving further offense. In these circumstances, Russia has considerable room to boost ties with Pyongyang, using the possibility of closer military ties and arms transfers as a kind of blackmail.


Georgy Toloraya noted in his June 11, 2015 paper for the Korean Economic Institute that Russia “is increasingly less interested in a momentous Korean unification under the ROK’s guidance which would result in a sudden shift of balance of power in the region.”14 He added that the nuclear issue is less urgent now. What really matters are security guarantees to North Korea, and for Washington and Seoul to do what is necessary, the regime must be more resilient. Russian support for economic projects and appeals for Seoul to lift sanctions and back trilateral projects are means to that end. Neither Moscow nor Pyongyang would accept any deterioration in the strategic balance, which leaves Seoul in the position of no prospects for unification unless it defies Washington, puts aside denuclearization for the distant future, and engages Pyongyang as well as Moscow and Beijing on a massive economic program treated as the foundation of reconciliation, while simultaneously refocusing away from the US alliance and security ties with Japan in order to forge the kind of power balance in Northeast Asia conducive to diplomacy and regime reassurance, Toloraya says.


Russia could be marginalized by China and wants to capitalize on arguments aimed at Pyongyang and Seoul that the only realistic alternative to China’s dominance is a triangular arrangement with it that accommodates China, to a degree. Yet, on both the meaning of peace and stability and the reinforcement of the Pyongyang regime, Moscow is close to Beijing in its posture, albeit with more support for the status quo in the regime and wariness about reform, which could play into Beijing’s strategy. It is no less obsessed with preventing a blow to legitimacy at home from a new “color revolution.” Moscow and Beijing differ somewhat, but their overlap is substantial.


The Sino-Russian-North Korean Triangle

In the Six-Party Talks, Moscow switched in 2004 from trying to act independently as a broker between Pyongyang and the outside world to largely supporting Beijing’s stance. Over the past decade, Chinese and Russian sources have rarely had a critical word to say about each other’s approach to the crisis and to talks over North Korea. There is silence also about the triangular implications of their overlapping logic on the nature of the problem and the steps needed to address it. This serves to conceal prospects for a northern triangle as well as points of contention that are anticipated.


After bolstering Pyongyang to face Seoul from strength and supporting its regional role in a competition among great powers, Moscow and Beijing would have reason to doubt each other’s long-term intentions. Russian sources are prone to describe an ideal partnership of their country and a united Korea, as if Russia were the natural partner. It seeks a north-south corridor, strengthening the Trans-Siberian railway and making Busan the terminus, bypassing the east-west corridor through China. China may well have in mind some sort of sinocentric arrangement about which Koreans should be wary. Filling the void somewhat left by China’s tougher posture toward North Korea in 2014, Russia appeared to be communicating to Kim Jong-un that it is an alternative that allows him to avoid the heavy dependence on China that he fears. In these respects, it is not simply reinforcing China’s approach to the North.


Chinese sources often appear to overlook Russia’s role on the peninsula. China has the stronger presence in North Korea. Its transportation corridors are far ahead of Russia’s with access to much greater funding, independent of what South Korea’s decides to support. The Korean Peninsula is a symbol in China of Tsarist Russia’s imperialist conduct in the 1890s-1900s. Russia situates Korea in the postwar order from 1945 to justify its approach, but China not only has this as its reference point but also has two millennia of what could be called sinocentric reasoning to justify its preferred outcome on the peninsula. The chances are high that developments on the peninsula will lead to unilateral Chinese moves or a focus on a smaller number of actors than the Six-Party Talks comprise, leaving Russia with Japan on the sidelines.


While Sino-Russian coordination is more doubtful in fast-changing circumstances than in today’s slow-moving efforts just to restart diplomacy with North Korea, this does not mean that divergent national interests are likely to negate the prospects for triangularity. As long as unification is perceived as an ideological threat (one more “color revolution”); a historical travesty (reversing the outcome of 1945 if not the harmonious order prior to Western imperialism), a civilizational defeat (the Western approach to democracy and human rights would be boosted); and a loss of equilibrium in the regional balance of power (even a neutral Korea would not be trusted to remain so), China and Russia will agree on supporting North Korea. This is a matter of national identity even more than national interest. Given the shared obsession with the national identity gap with the West, above all the United States, there is little reason to anticipate that Sino-Russian differences will take priority.



In 2015, Kim Jong-un refuses to take the diplomatic track, preferring unilaterally to boost his military might and threaten other states. The focus on finding a path for restarting the Six-Party Talks has centered on putting reaffirmation of the goal of denuclearization in the forefront, however negotiations might proceed once the September 19, 2015 Joint Agreement was revived. South Korea has been stressing reunification led by it, asking for the support of others. China has found it useful to emphasize cooperation with South Korea and the United States, aware that no issue serves this purpose better than the nuclear weapons and missile development of the North. Russia too, however much it views the world through the prism of a new cold war, has repeated its support for abiding by the non-proliferation treaty. All of these circumstances have distracted attention from the way China and Russia are looking at North Korea as a factor in regional security, in a reunification process ahead on the peninsula, and in construction of national identity to serve regime legitimization.


The “Northern Triangle” is latent because Pyongyang prefers an autonomous course for now. Even so, Moscow is more supportive than several years ago, and Beijing has reasserted its refusal to tilt toward Seoul. Should Washington and Seoul decide to step up pressure on their own, they could expect a backlash of renewed backing for Pyongyang from both Moscow and Beijing, whose actions would be influenced by views of the desired regional security balance and the ideal process for shaping the way reunification proceeds or is prevented. Given similar reasoning in Beijing and Moscow today and during the Cold War about the importance of North Korea, we can expect that they will, at a minimum, revive the virtual triangle that had survived until the end of the Cold War. Should Sino-Russian relations continue to strengthen as their tensions with the United States intensify, then even stronger support for North Korea is likely to follow. Countering the US-Japan-ROK alliance triangle could appear, a northern alliance triangle—perhaps, a “virtual triangle” as during the Sino-Soviet split when direct coordination between the two great powers was absent, but, no less likely, an active triangle involving the close consultation of these powers on geostrategic and geo-economic developments along their shared border with a country meaningful for national interests and identities. Secondary clashes in interests and identities should not be exaggerated to obscure the powerful forces driving Beijing and Moscow closer and, eventually, to jointly support Pyongyang.


1. Gilbert Rozman, The Sino-Russian Challenge to the World Order: National Identities, Bilateral Relations, and East vs. West in the 2010s (Washington, DC and Stanford, CA: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2014); Gilbert Rozman, “Asia for the Asians: Why Chinese-Russian Friendship Is Here to Stay,” Foreign Affairs, November 3, 2014; Gilbert Rozman, “The Intersection of Russia’s ‘Turn to the East’ and China’s ‘March to the West,’” Russian Analytical Digest, no. 169 (June 30): 6-8; Gilbert Rozman, “Chinese Views of Chinese-Russian Relations and the U.S. Pivot,” in Stephen Blank, Alexander Lukin, and Gilbert Rozman, Uneasy Triangle: China, Russia, and the United States in the New Global Order (Washington, DC: Center on Global Interests, October 2015), 19-26; Gilbert Rozman, “Russia’s Reassessment of the Korean Peninsula,” International Journal of Korean Unification Studies 24, no. 2 (2015): 41-70.

2. In The Asan Forum 3, no. 4, Alexander Lukin, “Russia, China, and the Emerging Eurasia,” and the continuation of “Alternative Scenarios: the Sino-Russian-North Korean Northern Triangle” by Sergey Radchenko and me.

3. Bonnie S. Glaser and Yun Sun, “Chinese Attitudes toward Korean Reunification,” International Journal of Korean Unification Studies 24, no. 2 (2015): 71-98; Cheng Xiaohe, “Chinese Strategic Thinking Regarding North Korea,” The Asan Forum 1, no. 2 (2013); Cheng Xiaohe, “South Korea’s Foreign Policy Options–Option 4: Resuming the Six-Party Talks,” The Asan Forum 3, no. 3 (2015).

4. See “Country Report: China” and “Country Report: Russia” in successive issues of The Asan Forum, where articles discussing North Korea are regularly presented.

5. Gilbert Rozman, Northeast Asia’s Stunted Regionalism: Bilateral Distrust in the Shadow of Globalization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

6. Gilbert Rozman, Strategic Thinking about the Korean Nuclear Crisis: Four Parties Caught between North Korea and the United States (New York: Palgrave MacmIllan, 2007, rev. ed. 2011).

7. Iurii Belobrov, “Geopoliticheskie ambitsii i intrigi SShA v ATR,” Mezhdunarodnaia zhizn’, November 2015.

8. See writings by Valerii Denisov, Alexander Zhebin, Georgy Toloraya, and Alexander Vorontsov.

9. Gilbert Rozman, Misunderstanding Asia: International Relations Theory and Area Studies over Half a Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

10. Thomas J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.), 227.

11. Ibid., 258, 271-277.

12. See the coverage in “Country Report: Russia” and “Country Report: China” updated bi-monthly in The Asan Forum.

13. Andrea Chen, “China Shifts Focus in North Korea to Regional Stability as Denuclearisation Takes Backseat,” South China Morning Post, October 12, 2015.

14. Georgy Toloraya, “Korean Security and Unification Dilemmas: A Russian Perspective,” Korea Economic Institute of America, Academic Paper Series, June 11, 2015.

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