North Korea: Just a Vassal State of China and Russia?

North Korea Kim Jong-un
December 30, 2023 Topic: North Korea Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: KoreaSouth KoreaAsiaHwasong-18ICBMRussiaChina

North Korea: Just a Vassal State of China and Russia?

Forget looking at what North Korea's Kim Jong Un is doing or plans to do. He’s out of Juche. Look instead to what Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have in store for him.

North Korea is about to lose its ability to influence developments in East Asia. That, I think, will become evident in 2024.

At the moment, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea looks like it’s in control. It is, for instance, launching missiles at a fast clip, this month testing the Hwasong-18, the intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach any part of the United States. Kim Jong Un is spewing dire threats with impunity. He is selling weapons in violation of U.N. sanctions—artillery shells to Russia for instance—and nobody is stopping him. In the Security Council, China and Russia protect the DPRK, as the North Koreans call their regime, at every turn.

The protection comes with a cost, however. Kim in an indirect way, acknowledged this as he spoke on the 27th of this month to the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. Then, he said the Party’s “independent principle” is “to expand and develop the relations of strategic cooperation with the anti-imperialist independent countries and dynamically wage the anti-imperialist joint action and struggle on an international scale under the rapidly changing world geo-political situation.”

Yes, much of what Kim says is bombastic, repetitive, and unserious, but the mention of “joint action,” which implies the loss of independence, looks significant. If there is action taken jointly, Beijing and Moscow—not Pyongyang—will be calling the shots. “Change is coming that hasn’t happened in 100 years,” Xi Jinping said on March 22 of this year to Vladimir Putin in Moscow while bidding farewell after their 40th in-person meeting. “And we are driving this change together.”

Notice that Xi said the drivers of events are China’s and Russia’s rulers, not North Korea’s.

The North’s main sponsors, China and Russia, are fast destabilizing the world in Ukraine, North Africa, and the Middle East. If they also choose war in East Asia, Beijing and Moscow are not about to let their North Korean client state remain a bystander.

The North is not going to be able to resist Xi and Putin because the Kim regime continues to need support. As Daily NK reports, the latest crisis for the long-oppressed and suffering North Korean people is the lack of firewood, used to heat homes, as temperatures drop to 20 degrees below zero Celsius. A source in North Hamgyong province told the news site this month that people’s “hellish lives” have gotten worse because there’s “not enough to eat, and now they can’t even put together enough kindling.” So the Kim regime will need aid more than ever, at least since the great famine of the mid-1990s.

That support will come at a price. Up to now, the Kim rulers have been able to play China and Russia off against each other, thereby maintaining freedom of action despite taking handouts. Yet with Xi and Putin increasingly coordinating moves, that game for the North Koreans is just about over. Kim Jong Un should expect to start receiving coordinated demands from Beijing and Moscow.

The consequent loss of the North’s freedom of action is ironic, because, since shortly after the Korean War armistice, the Kim rulers have touted their Juche philosophy. “Juche” literally means “master of one’s self” or self-reliance.

So what will happen in North Korea in 2024?

Forget looking at what Kim Jong Un is doing or plans to do. He’s out of Juche. Look instead to what Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have in store for him.

Kim Jong Un, in short, is about to learn what it means to be a vassal.

About the Author: Gordon Chang 

Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World, and the recently released China Is Going to War. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @GordonGChang.

Image Credit: Creative Commons.