Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in June 2022, Russia has strengthened its relations with North Korea. Moscow may be increasingly isolated from the international community, but in September 2023, Kim Jong Un visited Russia, resulting in the strengthening of military relations between the two, in which Pyongyang provides conventional weapons, artillery and missiles to Russia in exchange for food, fuel and other modern technology. 

In March 2024, Russia dismantled the UN expert panel that was established to monitor sanctions against North Korea, thus making it more challenging to effectively enforce sanctions against Pyongyang. Vladimir Putin is currently visiting North Korea and will visit Vietnam later this month. His trip has immense implications for China, as well as Vietnam and Cambodia.

Why should China be concerned?

Traditionally, China has been perceived as having monopolised influence over North Korea, particularly when speaking of denuclearisation. Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang resulted from economic pressure from the international community, which left China the main source of trade and aid to the “Hermit Kingdom”. 

In December 2017, China and Russia sponsored the UN Security Council (UNSC) to reinforce the sanctions, resulting in the repatriation of North Korean workers and the closing of North Korean businesses in foreign countries, although some of the businesses continued to operate in secrecy. While North Korea viewed China and Russia’s action as a betrayal, China strengthened its economic influence over North Korea. 

The UN resolution led to a 37.2 per cent drop in Korean exports in 2017 and deprived the regime of more than $1.4 billion in annual revenue. 

China, however, continued to trade with and support North Korea, largely due its strategic significance, at least as a buffer zone to the threat from the US and its allies. This probably explains why Russia, who had deep ties with North Korea during the cold war, did not provide any support after the 2017 sanctions. A clear indication of this was when Kim visited Russia in 2019, it was believed that Pyongyang requested food support and asked Russia to relieve the sanctions. However, the summit did not produce any fruitful results, as at the time Pyongyang was not strategically important for Russia.

On the contrary, China was willing to provide economic support to North Korea even as it faced an economic crisis because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

China plays an important role in sustaining North Korea’s economy. Beijing shared 90 per cent of Pyongyang’s total trade, making its role critical for North Korea’s economic development as well as for the Kim family to maintain its control over the country.

This allowed China to have a strong influence, especially over North Korea’s provocative actions and nuclear programme. In fact, China has enjoyed being perceived as having influence over North Korea, a Hermit Kingdom which does not care about international laws and norms. 

However, the status quo is changing. The strengthening of relations between North Korea and Russia will enable North Korea to reduce its dependency on China. At least, it does not need to care as much about China as it did in the past. 

North Korean soldiers work near the border with South Korea, in a photograph released by the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff. ANN

In late 2023, Russia provided livestock to North Korea. Within the first five months of this year, it exported more than 1,270 tonnes of wheat and around 1,000 tonnes of corn. Similarly, in March of 2024, Russia supplied over 165,000 of refined petroleum to North Korea, in a clear violation of international sanctions. According to the UN, North Korea is not allowed to import more than 500,000 barrels of petroleum. Such tremendous support is nowhere to be found from China. In September 2017, China announced it would limit its petroleum exports and banned the import of textile products from North Korea.

Russia’s unusual support is due to Moscow becoming increasingly isolated from the international community, and its seeking of arms support from Pyongyang. This generosity will cease to exist when Russia’s war in Ukraine is over.

Russia’s increasing engagement with North Korea has reduced China’s influence on the regime. 

One of the most apparent examples was when North Korea fired 10 short-range ballistic missiles as Chinese Premier Li Qiang was in Seoul, participating in a summit with South Korea and Japan. North Korea’s actions embarrassed China in front of South Korea and Japan. The missile tests could be seen as an indicator that Beijing does not have the leverage to deal with North Korea’s nuclear programme.

China’s inability to manage North Korea may raise doubts about Beijing's role in managing and maintaining the global order. This could be a fatal blow for China as the country has been trying to increase its role and influence in the region such as providing mediator roles between Iran and Pakistan, as well as between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Now, some commentators believe China cannot even maintain stability in its own backyard.

China is indeed displeased with North Korea’s actions. China’s disappointment can be seen in the removal of the “Footprint Tribute”, erected to commemorate the meeting between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un in 2018. It is believed that the removal could not have happened without a direct order from Xi.

Vietnam in the spotlight

Putin's announcement of a follow-up visit to Vietnam highlights the fact that Russia classifies North Korea and Vietnam in the same group. In fact, the two are very different. While North Korea is known as the most secretive and repressive country on the planet, Vietnam is on a different level. Despite its communist system, the Vietnamese people enjoy similar freedoms to many other democratic countries in Southeast Asia.

While Vietnam cannot refuse Putin’s visit to Hanoi, it could have implications for Hanoi’s foreign policy. On one hand, Vietnam is a comprehensive strategic partner of China, South Korea and Japan. The three countries do not view Russian-North Korean relations positively and are concerned about Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

On the other hand, many will assume that the visit is part of Russian efforts to enhance relations with Vietnam and North Korea, enhancing cooperation on specific security cooperation. This kind of cooperation would sow suspicions and doubt among its allies and countries in the region, including Singapore, China, South Korea, Japan and the US.

What’s in it for Cambodia?

 It is easy to jump to the conclusion that the visit will not have any implications for Cambodia. On the contrary, it concerns Cambodia as much as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an action which was seen as weakening international laws and norms. 

Putin’s visit to North Korea could weaken international law and especially the effectiveness of UN sanctions.

Cambodia has thus far respected international law and complies with the UN’s sanctions. The Cambodian government has shut down many North Korean businesses in Cambodia, including a million-dollar museum in Siem Reap Province, as well as the Blue Flower Restaurant and the Kantai Cabinet physical therapy centre in Phnom Penh.

Putin’s visit may raise concerns about the effectiveness of the UN resolutions as well as international law, an instrument which is vital for the security of small states like Cambodia.

Sokvy Rim is a research fellow at the Cambodian Center for Regional Studies (CCRS). His research interests focus on Cambodia’s foreign policy and its engagement with Southeast and East Asian countries. The views expressed are his own.