Kim Jong Un waving

A New China, Russia, North Korea Alliance?

by Matt Collins

China, Russia, North Korea.

Three countries that have frequently been at odds with Western governments and diplomacy. And yet, these countries have never truly joined forces.

Even during the Cold War, when China and Russia stood as the world’s two primary communist powers, the two nations remained separated by a massive gulf in culture and politics. At any point over the last century, these two world powers could’ve potentially tipped the scales of power by joining forces.

But beyond being the enemy of each other’s enemy, they never quite saw eye to eye.

Until recently, that is…

Because now, in the wake of aggressive US sanctions against Russia and an ongoing trade war against China, these two global powers have found cause to expand their relationships far beyond historical precedent.

When combined with North Korea, the three countries could soon make up a force to be reckoned with economically, militarily, and politically.

This represents a potentially massive paradigm shift in the balance of global power.

Could it be enough to trigger a second Cold War?

And how will it ultimately impact life here in America?

Soviet and Chinese leaders

(Image courtesy of War Room)

Today, we will answer those questions by evaluating the history of Sino-Soviet relations, their evolution over the last century, and what today’s latest developments say about the future of China-Russia-North Korea cooperation.

Let’s get started.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    A Complex Dance: A Historical Analysis of Sino-Soviet Relations

  • 02

    Fast Forward to Today

  • 03

    A Microcosm of China Russia North Korea Relations in 2023

  • 04

    Open Military Cooperation

  • 05

    The Bottom Line

  • 06

    Gearing Up for A Changing World

  • 07

    New Asian Alliance: Benefit… or a Hazard?

A Complex Dance: A Historical Analysis of Sino-Soviet Relations

In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong.

At the time, the Soviet Union was nearly a quarter-century old. It had rapidly revolutionized Imperial Russia and played an instrumental role in the hard-won victory of World War II. Because both China and the USSR shared a common ideology of Marxism-Leninism, Stalin quickly recognized and supported the new Chinese government.

The Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, signed on February 14th, 1950, was the first formal agreement between the two nations.

It pledged military and economic support, highlighting their close ties. However, this apparent unity masked underlying tensions that would come to the forefront in the years to come.

The first crack in China’s relationship with Russia came with the Korean War (1950-1953).

North Korea’s invasion of South Korea prompted a response from the United Nations, with the U.S. and its allies supporting South Korea. North Korea, meanwhile, was a satellite state for China–both then and now. As such, China–backed by the Soviet Union–sent troops to aid North Korea.

On the surface, this alliance worked out well—with Soviet MiG fighter jets suddenly showing up in the skies over Korea. However, the two countries could never entirely agree on strategy, nor China’s role in the conflict. China, for its part, wanted to be more aggressive in its defense of North Korea, while Kruschev urged his ally to back off and avoid escalating tensions further.

Cuban and Russian leaders

The Cuban Missile Crisis proved the US and USSR could make peace (Image courtesy of American University)

By the late 1950s, these differences had become too great to bear—leading to what we now call “The Sino-Soviet Split.”

Following the death of Stalin in 1963, China had become increasingly critical of Russia’s application of Marxism. Accordingly, the country embarked on its own “Mao Zedong Thought path,” emphasizing self-reliance and rural-based revolution. Internal politics, it should be noted, likely motivated this as much as any true ideological objection.

Ultimately, the conflict between these two countries wasn’t about culture or communist philosophy. It was about power, and who would become the more dominant force in world politics.

Important to note, too, is that Soviet officials were locked in a massive nuclear standoff with the United States at the time–and they were acutely aware of what might happen if things started to escalate. Meanwhile, China’s status was still growing in the world. And their hardline communist leadership believed in a more direct, aggressive approach with the United States.

But then, on February 21st, 1972, something happened that no one had expected.

US President Nixon visited China.

What followed was a rapid thawing in relations between the US and China. Indeed, the partnership was arguably one of the most brilliant political moves in Chinese history—paving the way for decades of massive economic growth. But it deeply alienated their Cold War ally.

The relationship finally disintegrated when China aligned itself with the West in opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 1979. Thus, the United States and China found themselves on the same side of the Cold War divide, dealing a final blow to the Sino-Soviet alliance.

Fast Forward to Today

Since 1991, the global balance of power has become far more complicated.

Within this new context, China capitalized massively on its relationship with the United States, growing its economy by 9% annually since 1978 and lifting some 800 million people out of poverty.

The massive growth in China’s economy has consequently expanded its power on the world stage. As such, the country figures large in global politics, exercising substantial power in far-flung regions like Africa.

But all of this success hinges on one thing.

Americans. Buying cheap crap off of Amazon.

China’s entire empire, after all, is based on being the lowest-cost producer of plastic products and household goods that we buy daily. That means that if foreign consumers suddenly lose their appetite for China’s products, their economy will dry up instantly.

All of this is to say—China really can’t challenge the U.S. directly.

That’s part of the reason why they shrank from the idea of providing Russians with weapons to fight their War in Ukraine. China doesn’t want a direct conflict with the U.S., because it would be bad for business.

Chinese president Xi Jingping

China banned Winnie the Pooh after people compared him to President Xi. So obviously we share the image every chance we get. (Image courtesy of Opinda)

Russia, meanwhile, had a challenging decade following the end of the Soviet Union. During this time, the country’s nascent capitalist government struggled to find its footing and get the economy under control before relative stability settled in.

Granted, Russia isn’t necessarily the largest economic power these days. But they are still the world’s largest nuclear power—with the single largest stockpile of active warheads anywhere in the world.

Meanwhile, North Korea has rapidly evolved its fledgling nuclear program over the last few decades, developing sophisticated weapons systems and showing a substantial disregard for sanctions or diplomacy efforts from the West.

All in all, each country has a massive asset they could bring to bear on a potential partnership. China’s massive economy, Russia’s giant nuclear stockpile, and North Korea's role as a proxy state between the two.

Nowhere was this more evident than North Korea’s recent seventy-fifth anniversary parade…

A Microcosm of China Russia North Korea Relations in 2023

For the perfect snapshot of today’s complex China-Russia-North Korea relationship, look no further than the seventy-fifth anniversary parade for the founding of North Korea.

It was held at midnight on September 9th, 2023…

Kim Jong Un looking jolly

Who in the world holds a midnight military parade? Oh right, this guy.  (Image courtesy of UPI )

In Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square—complete with trumpets blaring and soldiers marching in lockstep as their dear leader, Kim Jong Un, gleefully watched on. He was flanked by Russian and Chinese diplomats.

This wasn’t just any parade, either. It featured paramilitary forces in full combat dress. And it didn’t showcase the country’s truly advanced weaponry like intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The event was primarily led by the Worker-Peasant Red Guards, a civil defense organization with approximately 5.7 million members.

Following the celebrations, Kim met with a Chinese delegation led by Liu Guozhong, vice-premier of the State Council. This was the second visit by top Chinese officials to North Korea in six weeks.

Russian diplomats and a Russian military song-and-dance ensemble that had arrived in Pyongyang to commemorate the occasion also attended the event. Kim and Liu discussed intensifying coordination and cooperation between their countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin even sent Kim a personal message congratulating him on the anniversary, emphasizing the need to expand bilateral ties.

A day before the parade, Kim had taken Russian Shoigu on a tour of a domestic arms exhibition, raising suspicions that North Korea might be willing to supply arms to Russia for its involvement in Ukraine.

That kind of arms deal would make sense. After all, China providing arms directly to the Russians could be considered too aggressive for their own good.

But if their old friend North Korea could provide the weapons, the result would be the same. At the same time, North Korea is eager to cement its relationship with a country like Russia—whose expertise with nuclear weapons is among the best in the world. So it’s a win-win-win.

And if there was any doubt about the potential for a growing partnership here, it was quashed with the announcement of potential joint naval exercises between the three countries…

Open Military Cooperation

Russia has reportedly proposed the idea of North Korea participating in three-way naval exercises with China, according to information shared during a closed-door briefing attended by a South Korean lawmaker who spoke with the director of South Korea’s top spy agency.

Adding to the unease, the briefing occurred shortly after Russia’s Ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, mentioned in Russian media that involving North Korea in joint military drills between Russia and China seemed “appropriate.” (Matsegora clarified that this was his personal viewpoint, and he was unaware of any preparations for such exercises.)

Joint Chinese-Russian naval exercises

Potential naval exercises a cause for concern.  (Image courtesy of Radio Free Asia)

According to South Korean National Intelligence Service Director Kim Kyou-hyun, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu likely proposed holding trilateral naval exercises involving North Korea, China, and Russia when he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in July.

In the wake of this intrigue, the United States has expressed concerns that this cooperation between North Korea and Russia could involve North Korean supplies of artillery and ammunition to support Russia’s war against Ukraine. Last week, in fact, the White House mentioned that Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin had exchanged letters, further highlighting the growing ties between the two countries.

Kim Jong Un, for his part, has been actively seeking to enhance his partnerships with Moscow and Beijing to break out of diplomatic isolation and form a united front against the United States, especially in the face of deepening nuclear tensions involving Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo.

Significantly, diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington has remained at a standstill since 2019 due to disputes over U.S.-led sanctions against North Korea and the North’s lack of progress in dismantling its nuclear weapons and missiles program.

One of the most notable things about these joint military tests—according to South Korean intelligence director Kim Kyou-hyun—is North Korea’s obvious reliance on tactical nuclear weapons for its warplanes.

This is of particular concern for South Koreans, since it implies that their North Korean neighbors would aim for a swift and merciless victory in the event of another war. They could do little to answer something as devastating as a tactical nuclear weapon, after all.

This means that Kim Jong In has arguably been the biggest winner of the Ukraine war so far.

He’s leveraged the global distraction of war in Europe to rapidly escalate his weapons demonstrations—launching over one hundred missiles since the beginning of 2022. These launches have often been accompanied by stinging threats from a leader President Donald Trump once called “little rocket man.”

With all this in mind, we’re left to wonder what the real-world threat of a new China-Russia-North Korea Alliance would mean for 2024 and beyond…

The Bottom Line

North Korea benefits the most from aligning with comparatively more modernized militaries like China and Russia.

That’s really the whole story here.

The Indo-Pacific region has become a hotspot for security concerns, with China expanding its influence and military power in neighboring areas and nuclearization concerns around the Korean peninsula due to North Korea’s missile testing and aggressive rhetoric.

While involving North Korea in joint exercises with China and Russia raises concerns, observers suggest that the risks to neighboring states would be minimal.

Kim Jong Un, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jingping

A complex power play from North Korea? (Image courtesy of CNN)

Such drills, after all, would more closely resemble diplomatic signals of a counter-alliance in the Indo-Pacific than preparations for actual warfare.

Granted, the proposal could move the region closer to establishing a formal united front against the U.S. and its allies. Experts argue, however, that this counter-alliance might stabilize each party by acting as a check on each of the three, preventing unilateral conflict initiation.

For example, Russia and China share some alignment on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula, potentially reducing support for North Korea’s nuclear threats. And while North Korea may be a partner due to strategic interests, there may not be a consensus on what North Korea should do among the three nations.

Additionally, joint drills among these nations would primarily have “peacetime utility” since geographical limitations would prevent them from accurately simulating combat scenarios. Exercises would likely occur near the coasts of the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan.

Nevertheless, a China-Russia-North Korea partnership in the style of NATO would still dramatically affect global security.

Gearing Up for A Changing World

The true international threat of an alliance like this would be supercharging North Korea’s fast-growing nuclear program.

Note that North Korea has spent decades growing and developing its nuclear arsenal, and Kim Jong-un has been even more successful than his father at developing weapons like these. A partnership with Russia, which controls the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, could serve to fast-track that development.

Remember, too, that North Korea is already reported to have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching nearly any city in the United States. But this partnership could help to expand their arsenal further—with larger payloads, further reach, or even hypersonic capabilities like some Russian missiles.

So, while the likelihood of North Korean missiles hitting American shores might still be very low… the potential damage of an attack like that would still be cataclysmic.

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New Asian Alliance: Benefit … or a Hazard?

Seen from one perspective, a new China-Russia-North Korea alliance could ultimately lead to lasting world peace.

It might, for example, temper the attitude of each member nation, leaning to gradual denuclearization in North Korea and more stability throughout the hemisphere.

After all, there’s plenty to be gained through peaceful growth. Remember that when China decided to mend fences with the US in 1972, their economic fortunes immediately improved. And their aggressive stance against Western powers instantly softened.

North Korean missiles

(Image courtesy of Council on Foreign Relations)

So it’s possible that a partnership between North Korea Russia China would likewise tamp down on today’s hostilities, paving the way for a whole new generation of Asian prosperity.

But… it might not.

Seen from a different perspective, this new alliance could fast-track North Korea’s alarming nuclear weapons program, as well as provide China with a back-channel to flow weapons through to Russia.

The truth is, we don’t know how this will play out yet.

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