counter easy hit

Asia faces stark choices as the Kim-Putin bromance blossoms

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The bromance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is deepening. Kim’s recent trip to the space port at the vast Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East was a tactical Russian invitation guaranteed to annoy the US.
Russia’s scheduling was perfect: the meeting came after it hosted the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, which Kim attended, and the G20 summit in New Delhi, which Putin skipped.
On this rare foreign trip, Kim made an unequivocal declaration of North Korean support for Russia’s stance against the West, calling it a “ sacred fight” against “hegemonic forces”. Kim also said relations with Russia would be his “number one priority”. Putin responded that “an old friend is better than two new ones”.
Moscow was telegraphing the formation of a new Northeast Asian grouping of Russia, China and North Korea, which would be part of a multipolar, economically integrated region. Its military power threatens US bases in South Korea, Okinawa in Japan, Guam, the Philippines and Hawaii, especially if war were to break out over Taiwan and the US or Nato sought to turn it into a regional conflict.
The bloc challenges that of the United States, Japan and South Korea. It also compliments the grouping of Russia, China and Iran in West Asia, whose members are part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Brics. It will force a recalibration of US moves in the Western Pacific and South China Sea.

Russia, China and North Korea are nuclear-armed, with large conventional forces. All are known to have cyberwarfare capabilities that can be coordinated, distributed and delegated in an asymmetric war against the US.

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All have immense sanctions-evading capability. Kim’s history of opacity, artful belligerence, nuclear tests, missile and rocket launches, combined with the measured diplomatic statements of China and Russia, mirror the US policy of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast, Russia, on September 13. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Russia adopted its “look east” policy in 2012 and has pursued this even more aggressively since attracting Western sanctions over Ukraine. North Korea is low-hanging fruit since there is a history of trade across their shared border. North Korean migrant workers have been in Russia for years, remitting funds to their families, and North Korea is opening six trade offices in Russia.

Kim is looking to dramatically upgrade trade ties, not just to alleviate food and petrol shortages but crucially for technology transfer, mindful of the semiconductor war the US has unleashed on China. Thus, Kim’s visit to the Vostochny Cosmodrome was both symbolic and significant.
North Korea’s missile tests and rocket launches are well documented. And, while no formal agreements were concluded at the Kim-Putin meeting, the potential for Russian rockets carrying joint venture technology payloads, such as satellites, would put North Korea on the road to becoming a space power. This would alarm the West, South Korea and Japan.

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In this context, it is possible to understand the gravity and dry wit of Putin’s remark to Kim: “We are proud of the development of our space industry, and this facility is new for us. I hope that you and your colleagues are interested in it.”

03:45

Kim Jong-un returns home with gifts of drones and bulletproof vest after week-long Russia tour

Kim Jong-un returns home with gifts of drones and bulletproof vest after week-long Russia tour

Putin does not appear to have ruled out military cooperation with Pyongyang. That has triggered speculation that Kim’s massive stockpile of artillery and Soviet-era munitions could end up in Ukraine, in defiance of US sanctions on both countries, and UN sanctions on North Korea. Both countries are driven by economic and geopolitical expediency. It’s unclear what further action the US could take against either nation and, at this stage, neither appears to care.

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Western policy towards Russia, China and North Korea has been preventive, prohibitory and punitive. The Northeast Asia grouping will flip this to pragmatic, permissive (within the context of UN sanctions against North Korea) and proportional.

While China regards North Korea as a client state, it will have to adjust to Russian moves, given the economic opportunities in the Russian Far East, its understanding of Russia’s position in Ukraine, and the interconnections between the SCO, the Brics-plus grouping and Eurasian Economic Union, in which Russia is also a dominant player.

01:28

Putin says ties with China have reached an ‘unprecedented level’

Putin says ties with China have reached an ‘unprecedented level’

At the Eastern Economic Forum earlier this month, Putin declared that ties with China had reached an unprecedented level. Yet neither Russia nor North Korea wish to be too dependent on Chinese support.

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China may well have been briefed about Russia’s developing stance on North Korea and might welcome someone else co-managing Kim’s more flamboyant episodes. Russia is known to be very careful about sharing its military technology, even with China.

North Korea fits well with Russia’s polar strategy as year-round Arctic sea lanes open from Northeast Asia via the Bering Strait. For those fixated on the developed economies of South Korea and Japan, the notion that Vladivostok and Pyongyang could become trade and logistical centres transacting in roubles and yuan might sound far-fetched.
But this ignores the potential interconnections with the rest of Asia, the feed into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the prospect of North Korea initially having a preferential trade agreement and, later, a free-trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. This would be similar to Russian ally Iran steadily gaining influence in the non-Western world.

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For Asian governments and businesses, the choice is becoming stark. Either bend to US sanctions and the obvious Nato forum-shopping for an Asian conflict, or shape a new Asian paradigm from the Strait of Malacca to the Bering Strait.

Sanjeev Aaron Williams is a Hong Kong-based lawyer who writes on geopolitics and the digital economy

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