Russia and China are sending a message through their state-controlled media that they have reached their limit cooperating with the U.S.-led pressure campaign against North Korea.
President Donald Trump said new sanctions against the North Korean regime would come soon, but efforts to get Russia and China to participate look unlikely.
So too does any escalation of United Nations Security Council sanctions, based on the positions Russia and China are broadcasting.
And if that is the case, Trump’s recent signals that his administration is prepared to take decisive unilateral action on the Korean Peninsula looks all the more serious.
Global Times, one of the official papers of China’s ruling Communist Party, staked out the Chinese regime’s position in a recent editorial titled “US, NK should not make China scapegoat.”
“When tensions on the Korean Peninsula reach a new height, a large portion of the pressure is transferred to China. But the U.S. and North Korea must shoulder their own responsibility without making China the scapegoat,” it reads.
The article states an oft-repeated position of the Chinese regime: that despite its overwhelming share of North Korea’s total foreign trade, China can do little to affect the regime; nor should China be pushed to do more than what is set out in the earlier U.N. Security Council sanctions, which the Chinese regime worked to weaken before they were passed.
The Chinese regime has negotiated a careful balance. It has pushed North Korea enough to appear a credible participant in international efforts to isolate and pressure Kim Jong Un’s regime, but not so much as to materially threaten its stability.
The editorial says the United States and North Korea should solve the problem themselves without bringing further pressure on China. Another Global Times editorial says China will not issue any unilateral sanctions.
It also rejects a key U.S. demand to cut off oil supplies to North Korea. The United States had advocated for an oil embargo earlier at the U.N. when the Security Council passed a resolution in September that paved the way for the current sanctions.
Rather than cut off oil exports to North Korea, China agreed to the current cap, essentially giving Kim a predictable but reduced supply of oil.
Russia has taken a similar tack, largely echoing China’s positions.
But because China accounts for 75 to 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade, China’s adherence to even watered-down sanctions has been significant. Russia, however, has used China’s trade restrictions as a way to increase leverage with the Kim regime.
Russia, which shares a short land border with North Korea, has been accused of skirting the sanctions and stepping in as China steps out. Russia’s state-run media have been particularly critical of U.S. policies on the Korean Peninsula.
Trump addressed Russia’s role in late October during an interview on Fox News.
“China is helping us, and maybe Russia’s going through the other way and hurting what we’re getting,” Trump said, adding, “When I say ‘maybe,’ I know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Sputnik, one of Russia’s outward facing state-run news outlets responsible for conveying the views and narratives of the Russian government, has taken a particularly dim view of the U.S. effort to deter Kim’s nuclear missile program.
The outlet has frequently overlooked Kim’s bombastic statements, instead focusing on dissecting the United States’ position in the conflict.
Now it looks like Russia is prepared to concede the effort to keep North Korea from gaining nuclear weapons.
In recent days, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that further sanctions are useless.
“We have repeatedly stressed that the sanctions pressure is essentially exhausted,” he said, reported Sputnik News.
He has also warned that Russia won’t abandon North Korea if the United States takes military action against the regime, saying they “will do everything to prevent this from happening, and promote solving the issue exclusively by peaceful political and diplomatic means,” reported Sputnik News.
North Korea’s Sponsors
Russia and China are more than North Korea’s most essential allies—they are its progenitors.
Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, was appointed to run the country by the Soviet Union in 1948 after the peninsula was split between the Soviets and Americans following World War II.
When the elder Kim decided to invade South Korea in 1950 with his Soviet-supplied army, he nearly conquered the entire peninsula. But once U.N. forces rallied and swept North, they began to overwhelm the North Korean regime. That was when China sent troops to push U.N. forces back to the current border.
Later, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Soviet aid suddenly stopped flowing to North Korea, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost due to famine. China then became the regime’s lifeline.
The North Korean regime’s dependency on Russia and China is a dynamic that continues to this day.
China and Russia signaled very early on that they would not implement the kind of sanctions that would force Kim to the negotiating table. While Trump has tried to convince them to do more, that position hasn’t changed.
This is likely why U.S. officials have been signaling that the United States is prepared to take unilateral steps to end the current crisis.
It’s a message meant as much for Russia and China as it is for North Korea.
On Saturday, White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said North Korea represents “the greatest immediate threat to the United States,” during an event at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California.
McMaster also said the possibility of war was growing.
“I think it’s increasing every day, which means that we are in a race, really, we are in a race to be able to solve this problem,” McMaster said.
Trump is prepared to go to war to keep Kim Jong Un from getting a nuclear-armed ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States, republican senator Lindsey Graham told CNN last week.
While Russian and Chinese state media have denounced U.S. military drills in the region and Trump’s strong statements toward the North Korean regime, Russia and China also know that limited sanctions were unlikely to stop Kim from pursuing nuclear weapons.
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