About the loneliness of the three: the rapprochement of Russia, China, and North Korea

North Korea’s ceremonies and international implications

Last week, ceremonies were held in North Korea to commemorate the “victory” in the Korean War of 1950-1953. The extravagance of the celebrations fully matched the absurdity of the event. North Korea, which invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, lost 3,900 square kilometers of territory as a result of the war but considers it a triumph. The rest of the world reasonably views the end of the war, which claimed over three million lives, as the establishment of a ceasefire on July 27, 1953. North and South Korea remain technically at war to this day, separated by a demilitarized zone surrounded by highly militarized areas. Numerous attempts to ease the exceptionally tense situation on the Korean Peninsula have proven futile. North Korea rapidly develops its missile and nuclear programs, openly threatening South Korea, Japan, and the USA while staunchly supporting Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

Only two delegations arrived in Pyongyang to participate in the ceremonies. The visit of the Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, marked the first such visit by the head of the Russian defense agency since 1991. The Chinese delegation was led by a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo, Li Hongzhong. This visit also became the first since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic when North Korea closed all borders with China. The guests participated in all the ceremonies, including the military equipment parade.

Considering North Korea’s status as an international outcast under UN sanctions since 2006, the participation of delegations from two permanent UN Security Council member states not only demonstrated the unity of the “trio’s” interests but also delivered another blow to international law. The sanctions prohibit North Korea from developing ballistic missiles, yet their latest models were showcased to the guests during the parade. Those responsible for enforcing UN decisions observed how these decisions were being violated. Russia and China are the ones blocking further sanctions against North Korea, which has displayed an unprecedented level of activity in conducting missile tests in recent years, including those that Pyongyang claims could reach the USA.

During the ceremonies, Shoigu delivered a welcoming speech from Putin, addressed to Kim Jong Un, in which the Russian President thanked the North Korean leader for his support in conducting a “special military operation in Ukraine.” Moreover, Shoigu was so impressed with what he saw and heard that he referred to the North Korean army as the “most powerful in the world.” While he did not specify the ranking of his own army, it is evident from this statement that Russia has a significant interest in North Korean weapons. The United States has repeatedly stated that North Korea provides military assistance to Russia in the war against Ukraine, which is generally considered an obvious fact, despite denials from Moscow and Pyongyang. There is practically no doubt that Russia provides food and technology to North Korea in exchange for arms supplies and maintaining tension in the region, especially concerning the closest US allies, South Korea and Japan. The logic is simple: the more Washington is focused on Asia, the less time and resources it has to support Ukraine in the European theater of operations.

Trilateral summit and regional security cooperation

Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington understand this. To counter North Korea and the strengthening China-Russia alliance, on August 18, the leaders of the Republic of Korea and Japan will arrive in the United States for a trilateral summit in Camp David. Japan and South Korea, which have a complicated history of bilateral relations, have recently taken decisive steps to normalize political dialogue, particularly regarding security issues. The increasing threat from Pyongyang is no longer a theory but a fully formed reality. From this perspective, trilateral cooperation with the United States is critical.

During the celebrations in North Korea, the Japanese Ministry of Defense presented its annual report to the government, known as the White paper, in which it referred to Russia as the “most serious and direct threat to Europe.” According to Japanese military officials, Russia’s foreign policy activities “undermine the foundations of the international order.” The White paper also emphasizes the need to have the capability to counterattack since the country is facing the most serious and complex security environment since the end of World War II. The document highlights China as a source of serious concern for Japan and the international community due to China’s active activities in unmanned aerial vehicles and several joint actions between Chinese and Russian forces. In the White paper, it is stated that Japan will significantly enhance its defense potential, focusing on potential adversaries’ capabilities and new forms of warfare. It particularly stresses that the ability to counterattack against ballistic missile launchers will be crucial in deterring aggression against Japan. In light of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the North Korean missile program’s intensification, Tokyo decided to acquire such capabilities for the first time since the establishment of the Japan Self-Defense Forces.

Russia’s provocations and elections influence

However, provocative actions towards North Korea and military maneuvers with China are not the only steps Putin has taken to increase tension in regions crucial to US interests. His ultimate goal is to destabilize the coalition of democratic states that support Ukraine, create divisions within NATO and the EU, allowing Russia and China to dictate their own terms of peace and war. For this reason, in Europe, for several months now, there have been consistent efforts to provoke NATO countries. The Grain Initiative raises the question of whether Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania can counter the aggressive actions of the Russian military in the Black Sea.

The escalation of rhetoric against Poland and the Baltic countries, the publication of “analysts” who support Putin’s provocative thesis about the artificial nature of their borders and question their sovereignty, the relocation of nuclear weapons to Belarus, and the presence of Wagner Group mercenaries closer to Poland’s borders no longer seem like innocent coincidences. After all, Putin has vowed to remind Poland who gave them their modern borders. What if the next step involves Wagner Group provocations on Polish territory, involving mass migration and sabotage groups, all without declaring war and under the cover of a massive propaganda campaign like “Poland wants to annex Western Ukraine”? Will NATO invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty? Against whom — Prigozhin or Lukashenko? It seems that the hesitation of Ukrainian allies regarding medium and long-range missiles, F-16s, the situation in the Black Sea, and the overpowering fear of the theoretical use of Russian nuclear weapons act as triggers for the Kremlin. Simultaneous provocations from Russia and its allies in the West and East could create an extremely challenging situation, undermining the unity between those who are willing but reluctant to engage in warfare and those who are ready to defend but lack sufficient strength.

Another factor that the Kremlin undoubtedly takes into account is elections, both its own and those of other countries. Even under the total dictatorship in Russia, there is still a need to create the appearance of democracy, and conducting elections in the occupied territories of Ukraine is part of the plan. Meanwhile, in the United States, the primaries are starting in the fall, and even the currently positive results for Ukraine in both opposing camps can change if sufficient efforts are made to misinform the US population about Ukraine. There is no doubt that such campaigns are being developed, bot farms are being prepared, and roles for spokespersons are being outlined. The only force capable of countering all this is the highest level of diplomacy, the heroism of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, success on the battlefield and in the production of Ukrainian military equipment, deep dialogue with allies, and consistent persuasion of those who hesitate that Ukraine’s interests in this war are shared. Unfortunately, a not insignificant part of the population, even in countries that support Ukraine, still does not fully understand what is at stake — not only Ukraine’s sovereignty but also the global world order, and that the cancerous growth of the last of the empires will not resolve itself.

By provoking NATO countries, Russia also takes into account China’s interests, as China is not fond of the idea of collective security penetrating the Indo-Pacific region. Japan has heard a lot of angry remarks regarding the idea of opening a NATO information office in Tokyo! Even some important members of the Alliance are concerned about not needlessly irritating Beijing. From this same “basket,” there’s the announcement of establishing strategic relations between China and Georgia, a candidate for NATO membership. Of course, it’s not just the name but the substance of the “cooperation” that matters, but declaring “strategic relations” with a state that has clearly challenged the US is not a wise move.

Despite all the tension, the current situation differs from that of February last year. Putin is no longer trusted, his intentions are being calculated, political provocations are being curtailed, and military preparations are being met with countermeasures. There is no reason to believe that the democratic community has wavered or retreated. Unity may have been hard-won, but it is incomparably stronger than the loneliness of the trio that seems to have fully formed in Pyongyang.

Originally posted by Sergiy Korsunsky (Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine to Japan) on Zn.ua. Translated and edited by the UaPosition – Ukrainian news and analytics website

See also: The factor of North and South Korea in the Russian-Ukrainian war

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