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China asserts ‘deep friendship’ with North Korea as Russian influence grows

Chinese President Xi Jinping has dispatched a senior official to Pyongyang to reassert China’s “deep friendship” with North Korea, as concern rises in Beijing and Washington over Kim Jong Un’s blossoming alliance with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

The visit by Zhao Leji, the third-ranking member of the Chinese Communist party’s leadership group, the politburo standing committee, marks the highest-level meeting between China and North Korea in nearly five years.

China has provided little detail about the aims of Zhao’s three-day visit, which started on Thursday and coincides with the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, but analysts said it signalled discomfort over Russian influence in the Korean peninsula.

Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Center, a think-tank in Washington, said while the Kim-Putin rapprochement posed no immediate threat to China, Beijing would be uneasy about losing long-term influence over North Korea, being perceived as part of a trilateral arrangement with Moscow and Pyongyang and party to any moves by Kim or Putin that heighten military tension in the region.

“Discomfort is a very good characterisation,” she said. “If North Korea receives weapons technology from Russia, North Korea will be equipped with better technology and a better capability to provoke. That represents the most significant potential concern for China.”

Kim met Putin during a visit to the Russian far east in September, and the Russian president is expected to pay a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang this year. Kim last met Xi in 2019.

“This is the first point in time in many years that ties between Moscow and Pyongyang are closer than they are between Beijing and Pyongyang,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a North Korea expert at King’s College London. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second from left, meets Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s far east in September © Korean Central News Agency/Reuters

The Financial Times revealed last month that North Korean vessels had started to make regular journeys to Russia’s far east to collect oil products in defiance of UN sanctions designed to deter Kim’s development of nuclear weapons.

Experts said the oil was supplied in apparent payment for thousands of containers of munitions North Korea had provided to Russia over the past six months for use in Ukraine. At the end of March, Russia vetoed the extension of a UN panel that monitors compliance with the sanctions, while Beijing abstained.

The strengthening of ties between Kim and Putin has raised questions over whether the 40-year-old North Korean dictator intends to play Beijing and Moscow off against each other.

“Kim wants to return to the cold war era, when North Korea had two sponsors it could encourage to compete with each other,” said Park Byung Kwang, director of the Center for International Cooperation at South Korea’s state-affiliated Institute for National Security Strategy. “China will not be happy to see North Korea and Russia strengthening their relations, because it could reduce Beijing’s unrivalled influence over Pyongyang.”

China’s foreign ministry said this week that Zhao’s visit reflected the “deep friendship” between the two countries and the “great importance China attaches to its relations” with North Korea. Chinese officials and experts also blame the US, and its expanding military presence in the region, for heightened tensions between North Korea and the US and its allies.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said Zhao’s standing committee position gave him status “significantly higher than that of foreign ministers” and that China was “aware of the increasingly close relationship between North Korea and Russia”.

But he said Beijing’s relationship with Russia had also become “even closer” despite “certain complexities due to the situation in Ukraine”.

At a meeting in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov reinforced calls for their two countries to work more closely together against “hegemonism”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, centre, meets Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, to his right, in Beijing on Tuesday © Russian Foreign Ministry/AFP/Getty Images

Victor Gao, a former Chinese diplomat and now vice-president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing think-tank, said Russia and North Korea were “both sovereign countries”. “No one has any right to obstruct that or try to interfere because there is no UN resolution prohibiting any country to engage in normal relations with Russia to start with,” he said.

Western diplomats are concerned Russian backing might embolden North Korea to step up weapons testing, possibly conducting its first nuclear test since 2017. “Knowing the UN Security Council is not really going to do anything, Kim may become bolder in that he will be able to conduct tests that maybe in the past, he would have been thinking twice about,” said Pacheco Pardo. “This includes, potentially, a nuclear test.”

Some believe such a test could drive a wedge between China and Russia on North Korea.

But Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said China’s support for the Kim regime had hardened as its relations with the US had deteriorated.

“China sees it as in its vital national interest for the North Korean regime to survive in the long term as a means of keeping the Korean peninsula divided and US troops away from its borders,” said Lankov. “That is not going to change.”

Lankov suggested that Beijing would actually be “quietly satisfied” about North Korea’s weapons deliveries to Russia, which began when Moscow was still on the back foot in Ukraine.

“China doesn’t want to be put in a position where Moscow is getting increasingly desperate and begging for weapons,” Lankov said. “North Korea supplying the weapons instead is a convenient solution.”

Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing

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