Russia and China call for easing DPRK sanctions, undermining US strategy

China North Korea RussiaBy: Connor Lewis, China-Russia Relations Analyst
Analytical Question: What is the current and projected status of Russian-Chinese relations?

Talks between Russia, China, and North Korea have resulted in a tripartite call for the gradual relief of sanctions on North Korea. This may indicate that Russia and China are looking to exert their influence on Pyongyang’s denuclearization negotiations, and in doing so undermine the United States’ strategy of maximum pressure.

Denuclearization talks between the U.S. and North Korea have not seen substantial progress since the meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean Premier Kim Jong-un meeting in June of 2018 (Anon. 2018). This prompted the Trump Administration to send US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Pyongyang with hopes of negotiating the terms of another summit. Prior to the North’s meeting with Pompeo, Premier Kim sent his Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui to both Beijing and Moscow to discuss possible negotiation strategies ahead of Pompeo’s visit in early October (Jeong-ho 2018). Son-hui is responsible for negotiating North Korea’s denuclearization talks with the Washington.

Following Sec. Pompeo’s visit, Kong Xuangyou and Igor Morgulov —both top diplomats representing Russia and China— met with Son-hui in Moscow to discuss bilateral support amid the ongoing denuclearization talks (Jeong-ho 2018). According to the Washington Examiner, the meeting resulted in Russia and China calling upon the United Nations Security Council to adjust sanctions imposed on the North for their nuclear weapons program (Gehrke 2018). China and Russia also announced their support for what they call “phased and synchronized measures,” (Gehrke 2018) meaning that sanction relief would come gradually as the North denuclearizes on a step by step basis. This is the alternative to the US’ hardline approach, —which is to keep sanctions in place until the North has completely dismantled its nuclear program (고병준 2018).

Russia and China’s recent show of support for the Kim regime has come at a time when relations between the US and China, as well as Russia, are in decline. Vasily Kashin, a Russian scholar at the National Research University in Moscow, told the South China Morning Post: “Russia-US relations have already been destroyed, and Sino-US relations are being destroyed. It is a great opportunity for North Korea to deepen its relations with Moscow and Beijing” (Jeong-ho 2018). The Chinese and Russians likely see the rift in talks between the U.S. and North Korea as an opportunity to pursue their policy objectives in the region. An article published in the Asian Times speculates that the US may be losing its position in the negotiations, stating that the “the U.S. is becoming the odd man out […] the initiative will be in the hands of the Chinese and the Russians with the two Koreas on their side” (Lintner 2018).

This begs the question: who will be the party that assists in dismantling and receiving the North’s nuclear warhead arsenal? According to Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, “North Korea may prefer to transfer them to China or Russia, rather than to the US or UK […] it may prefer to have China and Russia as monitoring nations during the verification process as they are showing some understanding of North Korea’s position” (Jeong-ho 2018). This possibility brings to light the idea that Russia and China may be attempting to subvert the US’s role by directly overseeing the North’s denuclearization.

Given recent reports covering Russia and China’s calls for sanction relief, it is estimated with high confidence that Russia and China will continue to work together in supporting the North’s position during their denuclearization talks with the US. However, due to the lack of detailed statements by Russian or Chinese officials, it can be assessed with only moderate confidence that Russia and China are trying to undermine the US during the negotiations.


Bibliography of References Cited

Anonymous (2018) “North Korea Tells U.S. Denuclearization Talks May Fall Apart”, US News & World Report, 29 August, accessed October 14, 2018.

Gehrke, Joel. (2018) “Russia to Huddle with North Korea, China after Pompeo Trip”, Washington Examiner, 6 October, accessed 10 October 2018.

Jeong-ho, Lee. (2018) “China, Russia, North Korea Call for Adjusted Sanctions Ahead of Denuclearisation”, South China Morning Post, 11 October, accessed 12 October 2018.

Jeong-ho, Lee. (2018) “North Korea Looks to Get China, Russia on Side before Denuclearisation Talks with US”, South China Morning Post, 5 October, accessed 10 October 2018.

Lintner, Bertil. (2018) “Is the US the Odd Man out on the Korean Peninsula?”, Asia Times, 12 October, accessed on 13 October 2018.

고병준. (2018) “N. Korea, China, Russia Call for ‘corresponding’ Measures in Denuclearization Talks”, Yonhap News Agency, 11 October, accessed on 14 October 2018.