Putin’s trip to North Korea underscores growing relationship – but China will be watching


Anytime President Vladimir Putin leaves Russia, it is significant because he rarely gets out.

But this trip – visiting the secretive and closed-off country of North Korea for the first time in 24 years – underscores just how important the relationship between these countries has become.

Russia and North Korea have signed a strategic partnership to upgrade their relationship.

While it’s light on detail, this deal will be closely watched in Asia, especially here in China.

China shares a long border with North Korea. It has been the hermit kingdom’s main supporter and is responsible for 90% of North Korea’s trade.

Chinese President Xi Jinping also has a strong relationship with Russia, buying its oil and gas and sending so-called “dual use” machinery and semi-conductors to Russia, which the West says Russia uses in its war in Ukraine.

China does not want to see Russia muscling in on its traditional area of influence in North Korea.

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Just yesterday, senior officials from China and South Korea held talks in Seoul, where China said “maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula is in the common interest of all parties”.

However, Chinese president Xi Jinping does agree with Russia and North Korea on one point, that there should be a new world order, a “multi-polar” world, rather than the US-dominated international system.

The problem is, China wants to be at the centre of this alternative order and seen as a responsible global leader.

Pic: AP

It risks reputational damage if the multi-polar bloc appears to be largely comprised of countries the West regards as pariah states, like Russia, North Korea, and Iran.

South Korea is also anxious about Putin’s trip to Pyongyang.

It could embolden North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to have a strongman by his side at a time when tension on the Korean Peninsula is high.

Pic: Reuters

Read more:
Latest updates – Putin and Kim sign new deal
Putin will delight in the disquiet his visit is causing

Both North and South Korea have stepped up their campaigns of cross-border harassment in recent weeks.

The North has been sending balloons with rubbish across the border, and activists in the South have sent balloons with propaganda leaflets.

Putin next heads to Vietnam. A different set of issues there.

Vietnam is emblematic of a south-east Asian country trying to stay close to the US, Russia, and China. It doesn’t want to be forced to make a choice.

But in this fractured international environment, divided between the West and developing countries of the “Global South”, Vietnam and its neighbour may find that eventually they will have to pick a side.

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