China and Russia Disagree on North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

China and Russia Disagree on North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons

Beijing and Moscow have different perspectives on – and different appetites for – Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

China and Russia Disagree on North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons
Credit: Depositphotos

China has been ambivalent about North Korea and its strategic behaviors for the last few decades, leading scholars in China to describe North Korea as both “strategic asset” and “strategic liability.” North Korea, China’s sole military ally with an official treaty, the Sino-North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, signed in 1961, has proved tough to handle, if not outright volatile, for its security and economic patron.

Nonetheless, North Korea’s geopolitical importance to China as a buffer state against the United States and its East Asian allies (South Korea and Japan) has not lessened. Even in the era of high-tech weapons such as missiles, military satellites, nuclear submarines, and fifth-generation fighter jets, all of which serve to reduce the strategic value of physical buffer zones, it is still effective and valuable for China not to confront the mighty hostile power, the United States, on its immediate land border. Ground forces are still the ultimate military presence, and sharing a border with a U.S. allied, unified Korea would also come at a psychological cost for China.

Beyond its role as a buffer state, North Korea’s value as leverage or a bargaining chip for China in Beijing’s relations with South Korea and the United States has been well recognized. In 2024, however, China may consider adding another layer to this leverage by supporting North Korea’s nuclear program, as Russia has done. 

North Korea is a de facto nuclear state with a set of viable delivery mechanisms including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). This nuclear element of the Kim regime has been regarded as the quintessential reason for an ever-growing regional security instability in Northeast Asia and beyond. 

For China, North Korea – and particularly its nuclear program – is a strategic liability. China prioritizes stability in its neighborhood, but North Korea purposefully pursues instability right next to China. This conflict of interests between the treaty allies exacerbates Chinese national security concerns, particularly regarding the United States and its hub-and-spoke system in the Indo-Pacific area. 

In response to North Korea’s rapid nuclear and missile developments, the United States has significantly ramped up its military presence on and around the Korean Peninsula, in consultation with its ally, South Korea. That includes the regular deployment of strategic (i.e., nuclear-capable) U.S. assets to the region, something China is not comfortable with.

Russia, however, takes a different view. Over the past year, Moscow has shifted its strategic approach to North Korea’s nuclear capability and provocations, from viewing them as a nuisance that disrupts the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime to a tactical countermeasure against the United States. From Russia’s perspective, distracting the U.S. – the primary military and economic presence as the NATO leader – is a goal unto itself, as Washington is a major obstacle to Russia’s desire to conquer Ukraine and influence the post-Soviet Central and Eastern Europe. 

Russia has been importing North Korean weapons – 152 mm artillery ammunition,122 mm multiple rocket launcher ammunition, and other conventional weapons – for use against Ukraine. In return, it’s widely believed that North Korea receives Russia’s technical assistance for the research and development of advanced space and weapons technologies: nuclear-powered submarines, cruise and ballistic missiles, military reconnaissance satellites. North Korea also receives food and energy in addition to rare international support for its pariah regime. 

Russia actively endorses North Korea as a nuclear state and supports its “legitimate” use of nuclear weapons for its self-defense and beyond. As Kim Jong Un embraces a lower nuclear threshold, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his ruling elites have also expressed their willingness to employ low-yield tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine and European NATO countries. 

Thus, North Korea has evolved into a double-layered tool for Russia, acting as both a buffer state and a nuclear threat against the United States in Northeast Asia and Europe. This accelerates the convergence of security between Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions.

Despite Russia’s high-profile advances with North Korea, China is still thought to be the only nation with significant influence over Pyongyang. China’s leaders repeat that they have little influence; it is more accurate to say that they do not use their leverage. One strain of thought holds that the United States’ military power may be compromised and dispersed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons, which could benefit China in its rivalry with Washington. North Korean nukes distract the U.S. and its allies – South Korea and Japan – by monopolizing their military strategy and operation planning in Northeast Asia and the Western Pacific. 

Can North Korea’s nuclear weapons be a viable “card” for China to play in its competition with the United States? No – because China is not Russia. 

China’s primary security interest is in the Indo-Pacific area, whereas Russia’s is in the Euro-Atlantic. China certainly wants to utilize North Korea as a physical and symbolic buffer state and a form of leverage, which is largely accepted by all the key stakeholders in Northeast Asia. However, having a runaway nuclear weapons state as a neighbor will grossly compromise China’s regional security. 

First, when it comes to nuclear threats, provocations, and eventually using its “treasured sword,” North Korea will not bow to Chinese command and control. Although North Korea’s nuclear weapons now target the United States, South Korea, and Japan, it would not be to China’s benefit if a bloody war is sparked on its doorstep. Plus, Pyongyang’s rulers do not rule out using force to retaliate militarily against China if needed; they are bitter allies at most.

Second, in the context of the hegemonic conflict with the United States, China’s security interests are actually jeopardized by North Korea’s nuclear buildup. The U.S. now has a ready justification to gather its friends in the shape of a burgeoning (although still informal) trilateral alliance between Japan, South Korea, and the United States And by now, it’s abundantly clear that the alliance’s main goal transcends just limiting North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. 

China is thus subject to increased “integrated deterrence” as a result of its junior security partner’s development of nuclear weapons, which pose an existential threat to South Korea and even the United States itself. In response, the U.S. deploys more and more strategic assets in and near the Korean Peninsula, which also will have implications for the deteriorating Taiwan Strait situation. 

An East Asian version of NATO – China’s greatest fear – might emerge if Beijing seriously attempts to use North Korea’s nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip in the same way as Russia. Japan’s deliberations on joining AUKUS Pillar II, along with maybe South Korea, demonstrates how the Chinese security climate has deteriorated. 

Of course, such a strategic maneuvering of the nuclear pawn would also increase the odds of another nightmare scenario of instability: a feared domino effect of nuclearization through South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and other countries across the world. 

Third, China’s use of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities as a bargaining chip could result in the country being further alienated from Western nations. Despite Beijing’s negative rhetoric on Western imperialism and its recent attempts to lead the “Global South,” China still needs Western countries for its continued economic, technological, and security development in the coming years. If China openly supports North Korea’s military buildup and nuclear proliferation, more developed countries in Europe and East Asia will keep their distance from and monitor China more closely. Russia has little to lose in this regard, due to its ongoing security struggles in Ukraine. However, China has a lot at stake.

For the first time, China and Russia are beginning to diverge in the payoff structure of the North Korean nuclearization game. Russia sees some positive (despite extremely risky) sides of stockpiling nuclear weapons in North Korea. At the same time, China is damaged by this instability-inducing security environment. 

There have been some signs of trilateral security alignment among North Korea, Russia, and China against that of South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Nevertheless, China seems unwilling to take the leadership of such a trilateral security alliance as it tries to evade the stigma of being Russia’s top military ally. Many seem to exaggerate China’s strategic willingness to form a formal security alignment in Northeast Asia. 

Such a complicated logical flow leads us to a hard riddle to work out in this nuclear game: Who actually has leverage over whom? China or Russia or North Korea or the United States? China, at the very least, does not now appear to be winning.

One caveat to keep in mind, however, is that China may view North Korea’s nuclear weapons as helpful in the context of a military takeover of Taiwan, which will need to be carefully watched in the upcoming years.