The Reported Russian-North Korean Military Deal Is All About Geostrategic Balancing

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Yves here. Even though much of the content of a Russia-North Korea military cooperation agreement is certain to be secret, Andrew Korybko’s thesis below makes sense. Putin would not be entering into an agreement, particularly likely involving arms and technology exchanges, in China’s back yard without running it by Xi and getting his consent.

By Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst who specializes in the global systemic transition to multipolarity in the New Cold War. He has a PhD from MGIMO, which is under the umbrella of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Originally published at his website

Russia and North Korea’s complementary balancing acts at the global and national levels vis-a-vis China coupled with China’s reluctance to burn all bridges with the West as it begins building alternative global institutions are the real driving forces behind the first two’s reported military deal.

Many observers believe that Russia and North Korea have decided to strengthen their military ties due to shared threats from the West. Reports claim that they’re exploring a swap whereby Russia would share hypersonic, nuclear, satellite, and submarine technology with North Korea in exchange for Soviet-era ammunition and artillery. The first part of this deal would balance the emerging US-South Korean-Japanese trianglewhile the second would keep Russia’s special operation going into next year.

There’s likely a lot of truth to this assessment since it makes sense for them to help each other against their shared opponents in the New Cold War, but there’s more to it than just that. For starters, the preceding report about their impending swap doesn’t account for Russia’s growing edge in its “race of logistics”/“war of attrition” with NATO that’s responsible for defeating Kiev’s counteroffensive. Even without North Korea’s Soviet-era supplies, Russia is still impressively holding its own against all of NATO.

This proves that Russia’s military-industrial complex (MIC) already meets its needs in the present and beyond, thus raising the question of why Russia would countenance a military deal with North Korea in the first place, let alone such a seemingly lopsided one. A cogent explanation is that Russia’s MIC might struggle in that scenario to meet its military-technical obligations to third parties, ergo the need to purchase lower-quality supplies so that production facilities can prioritize higher-quality exports.

Even if that’s the case, then it doesn’t answer the question of why Russia would be willing to share such potentially game-changing military technology with North Korea for these supplies instead of simply paying for them with hard currency, nor why it either can’t or won’t try to get them from China. Likewise, one might also wonder why North Korea can’t receive the aforesaid military technology from China and would have to request it from Russia as part of their reported swap.

The answer to those three questions concerns China’s reluctance to burn all bridges with the West as well as Russia and North Korea’s shared interests in preemptively averting potentially disproportionate dependence on the People’s Republic. Beginning with the first balancing act, while President Xi arguably envisages China leading the creation of alternative global institutions as strongly suggested by his decision to skip last weekend’s G20 Summit in Delhi, he’d prefer for this to be a smooth process.

Any abrupt bifurcation/”decoupling” would destabilize the global economy and therefore sabotage his country’s export-driven growth, but the US might force this scenario in response to China’s large-scale arming of Russia and/or transfer of game-changing military technology to North Korea. For that reason, President Xi likely wouldn’t agree to either of those two deals except if they were urgently required to prevent their defeat by the West, but neither is facing that threat so China won’t risk the consequences.

As for the second part of this balancing act, even if President Xi offered to meet Russia’s and North Korea’s military needs, those two would still probably prefer to rely on one another for them instead of China in order to not become disproportionately dependent on the People’s Republic. Both regard that country as one of the top strategic partners anywhere in the world, but each would feel uncomfortable if they entered into relationship where Beijing plays too big of a role in ensuring their national security.

From Russia’s perspective, it’s a matter of principle to never become disproportionately dependent on any given partner since such ties could curtail the Kremlin’s foreign policy sovereignty even if its counterpart doesn’t have any nefarious intent. In the Chinese context, relations of that nature might make some policymakers less interested in maintaining their country’s balancing act between China and India, thus leading to them subconsciously favoring Beijing and pushing Delhi closer to Washington.

Should that happen, then the global systemic transition to multipolarity would revert back towards bipolarity (or rather bi-multipolarity) as Russia turbocharges China’s superpower trajectory in parallel with India helping the US retain its declining hegemony. The result would be that only those two superpowers would enjoy genuine sovereignty while everyone else’s would be greatly limited by the natural dynamics of their competition. Russia obviously wants to avoid this scenario at all costs.

Unlike Russia’s global interests, North Korea’s are purely national, but they’re still complementary to Moscow’s. Pyongyang had been disproportionately dependent on Beijing since the end of the Old Cold War after the USSR collapsed, but China later leveraged this relationship to expand ties with the West by approving UNSC sanctions against North Korea. Russia did the same for identical reasons, but North Korea wasn’t dependent on Russia so Pyongyang didn’t hold a grudge against Moscow like it did Beijing.

It was this growing distrust of China that inspired Kim Jong Un to seriously explore Trump’s ultimately unsuccessful de-nuclearization proposal in order to rebalance his country’s relations with the People’s Republic. The same motivation was why Myanmar agreed to a rapprochement with the US under Obama that also ultimately failed. Both countries felt that their disproportionate dependence on China was disadvantageous and accordingly sought to rectify it by rebalancing ties with the US.

Since the American dimension of their balancing acts didn’t bear any fruit and is no longer viable, each is now looking towards Russia to play that same role in helping them relieve their disproportionate dependence on China. Russian-Myanmarese relations were explained here while Russian-North Korean ones will now be elaborated on a bit more. From Pyongyang’s perspective, even if Beijing gave it game-changing military technology, this could always be cut off one day if China reached a deal with the US.

In fact, China probably wouldn’t consider giving North Korea such technology anyhow since that could make it more difficult for Beijing to ever leverage its influence over Pyongyang again in pursuit of such a deal with Washington, thus limiting China’s own foreign policy sovereignty. The likelihood of Russia reaching a major deal with the US anytime soon is close to nil after all that’s unfolded over the past 18 months, so North Korea believes that Russia will be a much more reliable long-term military partner.

Russia and North Korea’s complementary balancing acts at the global and national levels vis-a-vis China coupled with China’s reluctance to burn all bridges with the West as it begins building alternative global institutions are the real driving forces behind the first two’s reported military deal. This grand strategic insight enables one to better understand the true state of relations between these countries and therefore helps objective observers produce more accurate analyses about them going forward.

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  1. Freethinker

    It makes sense, in keeping with Russia’s recent hard pivot to the East – having given up on civilised interaction with the dying Western empire. Securing it’s back door by strengthening allied neighbours also reminds the West’s Asian vassals how life could get worse for them if they kowtow too hard to their puppet master’s wishes. Whatever they do, they still can’t get past N. Korea’s nuclear ability & if conventional weaponry is bettered too, then the deterrent is complete …..should Japan or S. Korea decide on some ‘Ukrainianato roulette’ (5 live rounds to 1 blank in the chamber)

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      Sorry to quibble — and then I go ahead and quibble — but your use of the expression “pivot to the East” sounds too much like Obama’s slogan which I have come to abhor. Why not “turn to the East” instead? That way someone reading your comment does not have to recall the idiocy of Obama’s policy. It would still be clear that Russia’s move reflects and works to counter the u.s. moves without having to remember Obama.

      1. Freethinker

        No worries, that’s fine, actually I was crushed with how Obama turned out; because for once I had let go my cynicism & hoped he’d be different, a human not a politician …….so I overlooked [the bad omen of] him being just another lawyer, like Tony B.liar.

  2. Lex

    US statements focus solely on some sort of military deal, but we should consider the source. There’s no clear indication that Russia needs military assistance. (Though I suspect that artillery shells would be helpful because nobody was making them in quantities the Ukrainian conflict has demanded.) Space seems to be one of the, if not the most, significant aspects of the visit and the meeting. That’s a comfortable dual use technology.

    Putin’s statements on the visit indicate that he’s not willing to go back on his legalism and the UNSC decisions. At least not yet or not brazenly. But diplomatically this visit is a bombshell. I agree with the author that Putin wouldn’t do this without Xi being onboard. So what we’re seeing is Russia and China bringing the DPRK in from the cold. Their previous position was essentially a friendly (if incomplete) gesture to the US. So this one is an unfriendly gesture.

    Of course the DPRK seriously limits US military potential either for Taiwan or a European redeployment. The US needs an isolated and weakened DPRK for maximum pacific flexibility. The US cannot prosecute a ground war in Korea and everything stationed in Japan is threatened by the DPRK.

    More prosaically, I expect Russia will give Kim as much food and agricultural input material as the DPRK needs. That’s humanitarian but also undermines US strategy of keeping the DPRK barely able to survive. For example, consistently planning exercises for planting or harvesting seasons. Both Putin and Xi may have some misgivings about giving Kim too long a leash but those are outweighed by the geostrategic benefit of a stronger DPRK.

    1. sausage factory

      What could be of interest to Russia from the DPRK in terms of weapons, assuming that they are planning significant purchases from them?

      Shells of 100-152 mm caliber, of course, will never hurt, no matter how many of them you have, there will never be enough.
      In terms of technology, the North Korean heavy MLRS and operational-tactical missile systems are of interest, especially the 600-mm KN-25 systems, which could well be a response to the possible appearance of American ATACMS. The range reaches 380 km, and the accuracy when using the satellite navigation system, which is believed to be equipped with this system, will be no less than that of the Iskander.

      Also interesting would be the Hwasong-5 and modernized Hwasong-6 missile systems – Korean versions of the R-17 Elbrus OTRK, which Russia have long since run out of – the last combat launches of these missiles in our country took place during the second Chechen war. Their main advantage. – a heavy warhead, weighing about a ton. The Koreans also increased the accuracy of these missiles, and their use against Ukrainian strategic infrastructure could be very effective.
      Sometimes the 170-mm Koksan artillery system is mentioned, but this is hardly advisable: problems with the range of domestic artillery must be solved by increasing the production of ammunition for the Hyacinth, Malka, and new types of shells for the Msta. All this is there, and it’s easier to do than to master and maintain an extra artillery system with an extra caliber. Plenty Russia could use, maybe as part of trade swaps. We are reaching the now brutal ending of Ukrainian counter offensive where it becomes easier to just bomb an entire village/settlement into oblivion than waste troops in direct fighting.

    2. Jeremy Grimm

      I believe the North Koreans have a historic mistrust of China. I also believe the Koreas and many nations in the East remember all too well the many hostile incursions by the Japanese. The u.s. has long threatened North Korea. Russia is threatened by NATO on its Western front as Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” makes an effort to threaten Russia and China from the East. Is it any wonder Russia and North Korea can see the benefits of establishing closer military ties … but also economic ties. I believe you are correct in suggesting that the “US statements focus solely on some sort of military deal” also overlooks and deliberately ignores other economic and purely practical arrangements between Russia and North Korea that may be in the works. I have no evidence of such arrangements — just feelings about what is taking place and the possibly broader sense of it.

      1. Al

        The only reason DPRK exists is thanks to China. And the DPRK aren’t exactly a easy ally to live with. Highly volatile and unpredictable.

        That being said, relations remain strong and have improve considerably since President Xi came to power (those sanctions approval came about before he came to power). They also still have s mutual defense treaty. I think this is more of a reply to the growing US-South Korea-Japan axis. So now we have a Russia-China-DPRK alliance.

    3. Greg

      I’ve been told, but haven’t had the opportunity to investigate its authenticity, that North Korean construction workers are very active outside the country. Including in helping with reconstruction of such interesting cities as Mariupol.
      So there could be fert-for-workers trades going on, as well shells-for-rockets.

      1. Polar Socialist

        In the mid-2010 there was about 30,000 North Korean migrant workers annually in Russia, but UN sanctions in 2017 blocked them, afaik.

        In autumn 2022, when Donetsk was still a renegade People’s Republic, the leader, Pushilin, did indeed say that DNR was negotiating with NK about help. After the annexation the Russian responsible for reconstruction, Marat Khusnullin, replied to a question that Russia will not block any help NK might provide, although there were already 28,000 construction workers on the job.

        A South Korean source claimed early this year that NK had ordered a detachment of a few hundred men to Donbass, but it was not clear for what purpose. According to the news they were from military owned construction company, and more likely security people than construction workers. And yet an agreement between North Korea and Russia specifically forbids using North Korean citizen for military tasks in Russia. They may have as well gone there to study the Ukrainian fortifications for their own purposes, for all we know. And nobody from Russia has ever confirmed anything, I think.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Putin has just throw a massive spanner into US geopolitical plans for the IndoPacific and this would be in coordination with China. The venue where they had a meeting was very significant – at the Cosmodrome in Russia’s far east. The one thing that North Korea does which drives certain nations nuts is when Kim fires off a coupla missiles into the sea. And this is in spite of a brutal sanctions regime. So now the worry is that Putin may give Kim, say, a USB stick with all sorts of technical plans and blueprints for making more reliable missiles with Russian tech. Not the sort to make hypersonic missiles but just to make what the North Koreans better. Now those nations have to worry that Kim will now start deploying more reliable missiles with perhaps longer ranges and better targeting software. There could also be a lot of trade between the two. By allying more closely with Russia as much as China, they may no longer have to worry about massive food shortages like they did in the past and perhaps the same with medical supplies as well. As payment, Russia could get more artillery rounds and who knows what else. But perhaps the long term plan will be, as Lex above says, is to bring North Korea in from the cold. North Korea could be a wealthy country if they could develop all those mineral deposits that they have. And Russia and China could be good customers. And right now, what is the US going to do? Sanction Russia and North Korea? Those two countries are the most heavily sanctioned countries on the planet by the west. And for China, they can just say that it is nothing to do with them and it is a private deal between Russia and North Korea.

    1. Candide

      The reality, “missiles with perhaps longer ranges” has now erupted into a full blown lesson for US strategists who have been content to let the arrogant and belligerent war games continue in Korean waters. Are those strategists able to look beyond short term power exercises like sacrificing Ukraine?

      Legendary MIT weapons analyst emeritus Theodore Postol has run the numbers on the July 12 missile launch by N Korea and found it capable of reaching Washington DC or any other NATO capital.
      Don’t miss the trajectory chart down the page of the article.

      Decades of threat and provocation and the tactic of preventing an actual end to the Korean War have now convinced Russia and North Korea to help meet each others’ needs. Might this be compared to the flocking of countries into BRICS and SCO?

    2. Keith Newman

      @The Rev Kev, 8:19 am
      In an interview a few days ago on Judge Napolitano’s youtube channel Ray McGovern said that Russia has agreed to supply North Korea with ICBM technology allowing NK to hit pretty well any target on the planet. The agreement was announced 6 or 7 weeks ago but not reported in the mainstream media as the US tries to figure out how to respond.
      (Sorry, don’t have the link)

  4. Louis Fyne

    South Korea has no one to blame but its President Yoon, Yoon pivoted to 100% full-blown “America full spectrum dominance F-yeah”with his foreign policy and rhetoric…versus trying to juggle 4 plates in the air between the US, japan, China, Russia.

    And with Russia so demonized in the West, it makes that NK and Russia stick together..which conveniently allows Xi to wash his hands of helping NK.

    a net win for China, NK. A very big net loss for South Korea.

  5. Aurelien

    The Chinese have been involved in a balancing act over North Korea for some time. On the one hand, they are obliged to North Korea, partly since Mao’s Army took refuge there at one point in the Civil War, but mostly because NK is a useful buffer state, preventing US troops from being deployed on their frontier, and incidentally creating a neighbouring nuclear power aligned with the US. On the other hand, they seek good, or at least acceptable, relations with the West for commercial reasons. So it makes sense from their point of view to allow the Russians to develop this relationship. Inasmuch as anyone has influence over NK it’s the Chinese, and the arrival of another influential power can only be good for stability in the region. The Chinese are in effect sub-contracting part of the management of the NK problem to the Russians.

    1. hk

      I don’t think Mao’s army was ever in NK during the Chinese Civil War, except, possibly, some small detachments here and there for short durations. The geography is not suitable, after all. But there were a large number of Korean (and ethnic Korean) communists who formed a sizable part of the Chinese communist army–up to 100,000 or more. Some 30,000 veterans among them would form the core of the NKPA at the time of the Korean War.

      1. in between work

        This is probably the most compelling biographical record from that history. By Helen Foster Snow, spouse of Edgar Snow of the Red Star Over China fame.

        The subject of the bio was later framed by Kang Sheng, China’s Beria, and executed. He was rehabilitated in 1983. Also, his revolutionary Korean colleagues from Yan’an would end up mostly purged from North Korean political life.

        Just tragedy all around across all of Korea’s political spectrum.

        1. hk

          To be fair, it did not make sense for North Korean leadership to tolerate them in important roles: They were not Kim Il Sung’s people and were suspected of being Beijing’s agents–probably not wrongly… Not saying that they “deserved” it, but revolutionary politics is bloody.

          1. in between work

            That’s the way things go, I guess. Yet the sadness and irony that the people who fought the hardest against the Japanese got shoved aside or worse.

            Likewise for the earlier events in South Korea where the patriots who were desperately trying to stop the division of the country, Kim Gu of the right and Lyuh Woon-hyung of the moderate left, were assassinated by the people on the side of the megalomanic Syngman Rhee, with implicit understandings with the US military government.

            So my last sentence above.

    2. Polar Socialist

      In the light of the Russian Deputy Prime Minister for Defence and Space Industry, Denis Manturov, stating a few months ago that Russian is now producing over 12 times more ammunition than last year, while not having reached the full capacity yet (due to lack of 12,000 skilled workers) of the existing facilities, I’d agree that this meeting was not really about trading in weapons.

      Even Western analysts admit today that Russian ammunition production capability is at least twice of what they estimated earlier. And the brand new “correction module” for the FAB-1500 aerial bombs gives the Russian air force a lot of very cheap “cruise missiles”, which for many sectors is likely to lessen the need of the old school artillery ammunition. One of them is likely to be enough to stop any of these current platoon sized Ukrainian attacks – and Su-34 can carry 2-3.

  6. hk

    I think Korybko’s observations are most astute. NK and China are frenemies rather than allies, as Korea and China have been for well over a thousand years. Beneath the appearance of cordiality, there are persistent attempts by China to control the goings on in NK, to keep it from causing problems for China, at least, and the matching attempts by NK to maintain their autonomy. My understanding is that KJU purged his uncle and his faction mostly because the latter was basically Beijing’s man in Pyongyang, although how much of an actual conspiracy there was, no one knows. Russia, being distant and relatively uninterested in Korean affairs, had been a better ally for Koreans, both at the end of 19th century (for the old Korean kingdom), in late 1940’s (for the North), and 1990’s and 2000’s (for the South). This has not generally turned out well for the Russians, though, in the medium to long run….

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I have referenced this Korean proverb before: “Eat Chinese mustard and cry.” It succinctly captures what I believe is how Koreans view the Chinese. I suspect some similar proverb may be fashioned in the future about the u.s.

      1. Louis Fyne

        Eat American burgers and get the runs.

        The US (and Japan) is going to fight China to the last Taiwanese. And when the Taiwan well runs dry, to the last South Korean.

      2. hk

        I don’t think I ever came across that before
        I wonder if it’s poor translation: what is it in original Korean? There are, however, already proverbs about not trusting Chinese, Russians, Japanese, and Americans (all of whom are referred to in, eh, not politically correct lingo.)

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          I do not have the Hangul for the proverb. It was one of the proverbs in a book of Korean Proverbs printed by Tuttle Publishing company in Vermont. I left the book with a Korean friend I met in Seoul several decades ago. I think I remembered the proverb because I had been eating so much hot Korean food on my visit.

      3. in between work

        The translation should be “Crying while eating mustard” and refers to unpleasantries while having to do something necessary, or being forced to do it. Not about China.

        Current attitudes of Korea towards China are simple. It is one of the most Sinophobic nations on earth. Much of that is on Chinese heavy-handedness on various matters, some not very sober Korean reactions, historical understandings bent towards Korea’s status as a part of The West, and a media that blares anti-China day-in and day-out. One feels there is some external massaging of the message.

        Geopolitically there hasn’t been an invasion by a Han-led China since the 7th century. All other invasions from the continent since then have been by proto-Sinic dynasties ruled by steppe peoples. The Khitan, the Jurchen, the Mongols, and latter-day Jurchens known as the Manchus. The tribute system was unequal, occasionally tense, but China usually left Korea alone and the tributary trade was decidedly tilted towards Korea’s favor. So much so that the last Korean dynasty negotiated increased tribute missions.

        There was an admiration of China as the source of high culture, which Koreans adopted and developed to a superb level of refinement, w/ Korean characteristics, and a deep gratitude for helping Korea repel the Japanese in the great war of 16th century. Then there was a downgrading of Korean perceptions of China in the 17th century when that country was overrun by a semi-steppe horde and the light of Confucian civilization in its purity seemed to be carried alone by Korea.

        So it’s a mixed and nuanced picture.

        Of course, Korean right-wingers like to go on about China as the enemy of half a ten thousand years, while worshipping the US and, to a surprising extent, being warmly disposed towards Japan. But, admittedly, the general mood toward China is not favorable either.

        BTW, here is a trailer for a good movie about Korea’s dilemma during the Ming-Manchu Qing transition, for the most part factual aside from some dramatic elements. It probably speaks to many contemporary parties trying to balance between superpowers. Much of Korea’s great victories and tragedies, and current division, had to do with tensions between great powers. From Koryeo stuck between the Song and the Khitan Liao, to the Cold War, and currently between the US and China. It’s some kind of refrain in Korean history.

        The beginning of this clip shows the Manchu Khan looking on bemusedly as the Koreans do memorial rites for the Ming emperor who had sent Chinese armies to aid Korea against the Japanese. The debate at the latter part of the clip is intelligible with English captions on, and shows the dilemma between the Ming and the Manchu Qing. One of Korea’s greatest humiliations resulted from this standoff because Koreans decided to honor their debt to China, or at least to the extent that they could.

        The relationship between the two countries is not simple, no matter how much the US would like for modern Koreans, with the help of Korean right-wingers, to misunderstand the history. And I write as someone with various qualms about Chinese actions in the recent past.

        1. in between work

          Correction. I confused the New Year’s Greetings ceremony to the living Ming emperor in the clip above with the memorial service for the Wanli Emperor of the Imjin War.

          One more note. Modern Koreans are overwhelmingly negative towards the stand-by-the-Ming policy of the court that led to one of the greatest national humiliations and then the kidnapping of, according to records, 300,000 Koreans to Qing China. Modern historiography is skeptical of that number, but it must have been a great number to impress as that many.

          The event is viewed as a premier teaching moment for realism. It’s impressive the movie treats both sides of the court debate with sympathy.

          1. hk

            While the 300,000 figure was probably exaggerated, it doubtlessly included a large number of elites, including both princes. Personally, I always thought Koreans lost a big opportunity to open their eyes: the crown prince made acquaintance of the Jesuit priests who earned respect of Qing emperor’s and played important roles at the imperial court. The apocryphal story of his demise (he brought “foreign” books and objects back from China while his brother brought back other Korean hostages taken by Qing invaders and this disparity enraged his father–who, incidentally seized power in a coup that prompted the Manchu invasion–he had the crown prince killed–some (and better known) tales have the crown prince returning with fine writing instruments and the king throwing the inkstone at his son’s head…but the story is probably not factually true anyways.) always struck me as a big “what if” moment.

            1. in between work

              I checked the numbers online and actually the records show 500 to 600 thousand. Certainly an exaggeration but still there must have been a great deal of misery and shame underlying those numbers.

              I don’t know if one or a few open-minded people could’ve changed the course of things. Certainly, the Chinese were aware of Western developments but still could not better prepare themselves for what came afterwards.

              As for Korea it was a Neo-Confucian state where even Wang Yang-ming, popular in Ming China, was treated as heresy in order to uphold the Zhu Xi orthodoxy. It did have its ideological factional struggles, but within a framework set by the orthodoxy. And then there were the later persecutions of Catholics.

              On top of that I don’t think Koreans were in a mood to learn from what they perceived as the barbarian Qing, especially as they found themselves as the last true defenders of The Way of Heaven.

              I’m only a few generations removed from the annexation of Korea by Japan. I view it partly as a collapse of a society from within. For centuries the dynasty had sophisticated debates about things like land reform that ultimately failed to fix things. Like Tolstoy agonizing over “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, and then to ultimately have the old order washed away in a revolution. Openness to the West or not, old Korea was a declining society ruled by an elite that was impervious to needed reforms, and sadly I get similar vibes from my adopted home the US.

              Korea got some wonderfully intricate texts with discussions philosophical, sociological, and political out of those years. The US, whether it declines further or revives, will bequeath even more cultural wealth for posterity.

          1. in between work

            To be fair the OP wrote “Chinese mustard”.

            Also, native informants can misinterpret their own culture for the political winds of the day. Knowing current Korean Sinophobia I wouldn’t be surprised it the OP’s source – text or person – went extra to convey some prejudice.

        2. hk

          You forgot one era: 1880 and 90s, stuck between China and Japan. After China was beaten in 1895 and the empress was “assassinated” (not so much assassination as much as a mob of ronin assaulting the palace and massacring people), Russia offered a “Third Way” for Korea. That, in a decade’s time, ended badly for everyone, though…

          1. in between work

            It was just a random listing. Too many to list. There were the three Khitan invasions. I think there were about five Jurchen and about ten Mongol invasions.

            Late Joseon diplomacy looks kind of like the post-Han interregnum with its many actors that the Korean, or proto-Korean, states had to juggle. The many, often ephemeral barbarian states of the steppes and northern China, the many, often ephemeral Han-Chinese states to their south, the Japanese Yamato state, and then throw in the Turks and the Tibetans to get a confusing era. And then there were three Korean states competing with each other.

            So late Joseon was facing a breakdown of the Sinic world-order and had to navigate between China, Japan, America, Russia, and, more distantly, Great Britain. The competing factions in Korea itself were a lot more stark in their differences than Neo-Confucians arguing over land reform and the metaphysical relationship between principle versus material force. The split you see now between north and south were already there, arguably even earlier.

            The current stark duality between China and the US harks back to traditional China versus the northern nations situations, with China now ironically playing the role of the northern nations and the US being the new China. The source of the basic terms of civilization and high culture.

            1. Jeremy Grimm

              Thank you for your insights about Korea. I believe I read my own prejudices into interpreting the proverb I referenced — nothing I recall that could pass blame on text in the Tuttle book of sayings I read. I also recall reading that Korea had the moniker “Hermit Kingdom”. That was very suggestive to me of country that had had several unpleasant dealings with outside influences. After visiting several tourist visited Buddhist shrines outside Seoul, I got the impression that Koreans well remembered many of the past Japanese incursions.

              I also fondly recall and enjoyed the relative friendliness of Koreans to Americans, especially on my first visit there in the mid 1980s. On a later visit I rapidly felt the sea change of cooling toward Americans that couple of decades of u.s. occupation produced. I recall visiting a National Art Museum located right above the U.S. Army base at the time, located in Yongsan, Seoul — which I believe had been a Japanese base before World War II. The art museum I visited had an impressively large picture window overlooking the Youngsan Army base — directly above and looking down on the golf course. I got the message, assuming there were a message to get.

              [From what I can tell, most of the Yongsan base has largely moved South of Seoul to Camp Casey, though the the Dragon Hill Lodge military resort hotel remains. As embedded, embedded aside — the Dragon Hill Lodge is a great place to stay … though I am not sure what their policy is for stays by non-military persons.]

              1. in between work

                I checked on the origin of the term just now and Korea was crowned the Hermit Kingdom by a 19th century American educator and minister who, at the time of writing his book on Korea, was residing in Japan and had not stepped foot on Korea yet.


                BTW, although the missionaries to Asia were burdened with Orientalism and a “Let us bring the light of True Religion to the heathens” attitudes – and that monicker has that feel – many were impressive people. The schools and hospitals they set up, the translation of the Bible into Korean using Hangeul, the admittedly amateur but useful anthropological and linguistic studies they wrote, and the sheer effort they put into their work despite adversities convey to me the educational and personal standards for men of the cloth were quite high back then. Certainly Homer B. Hulbert and Horace G. Underwood (and his descendants) are highly appreciated by Koreans. That they can be viewed as spear tips of Western empire building, in the big picture, does not detract from their personal merits.

                Missionary writings on Korea, not to mention the communist-friendly book I linked to above, mention the natural friendliness and frankness of Koreans. The authors would arrive at the “Hermit Kingdom”, flanked by the reserved Chinese and the formal Japanese, and find a people who, to their surprise, relate well to Westerners.

                You’re right about the unpleasant dealings with outsiders. Poland and Armenia were similarly affected by the stuck-between-superpowers syndrome. Either Korean diplomacy was defter or we were just luckier to have avoided the prolonged national extinguishments that they experienced. Which is why the Japanese experience is so jarring to many. Whatever unpleasant things the Mongols and the Manchus subjected us to they did not try to wipe out our statehood, and identity as well. And this was on top of the memories of the devastating war in the 16th century.

                Anti-Americanism is pretty much a thing of the past. US worship by the right and nuanced appreciation by liberals is the mainstream now. You’ll have to go very left – and the left is much diminished compared to before – to see the sentiments of the 80s. The flip side of that is ugly levels of China-hate. (So your “prejudices” about current Korean attitudes are correct, while I was just pointing out the historical ambivalence.)

                I’m in the minority of those who find this situation unpleasant. For everything Koreans find fault with China for, one can find similar or even worse with the US. But nothing the US does sticks in the popular mind. Just the unfairness of the sentiments, and the feel of something like racism behind them, is disturbing to me. Some of the reasons for the phenomenon are conjectured here by this writer, a naturalized Russian Jew who’s also a prominent commentator in the Korean left.


                I’ll add that slavishness to the US is not just a Korean thing. Europe also seems to have lost stomach for taking critical stances towards the US, if you compare its responses to the US drive for the invasion of Iraq and current US policies in Ukraine. After Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis, stock for the US is higher than it ever was. Go figure.

                The move to Camp Humphreys should’ve been done a long time ago. A foreign army stationed smack in the middle of the capital is not a good look. Especially as it inherited the premises from the Japanese who used them for the same purpose. Now we have that right-wing US worshipping toady sitting on it in the new presidential building, away from the previous presidential building the Blue House. Something about the place seems to manifest colonialism.

  7. cousinAdam

    I ain’t no spring chicken, so time keeps on slipping, slipping at an alarmingly faster pace. How long ago did the phrase “not agreement capable” (sure wish I could understand the Russian original ;^) enter our conversation? As ye sow, ……

    1. Polar Socialist

      It’s almost 10 years now, I believe. Russians started using it after Obama’s regime broke the cease-fire in Syria by bombing Syrian Arab Army defense positions.

      The original (недоговороспособны, nye-dogovoro-sposobnyi) literally means not-agreement-capable – with the emphasis on holding to an agreement, not just reaching one.

      1. cousinAdam

        Much obliged!! Especially the pronunciation….a bit more practice and……(tba)
        10 years huh? Yikes!……..

  8. steven t johnson

    PR China doesn’t enforce the siege of DPR Korea to the degree that would suit the US, which is to say, aiming at the rapid destruction of the state regardless of the damage to the society/people. But it does appear to be committed to removing the Kims (possibly stemming from capitalist restorationist appetites in segments of the political and economic leadership—-foreign policy is a continuation of domestic policy.) In that sense China is not a friend of the Korean people, not at all. Russia since Yeltsin/Putin has consistently favored a condominium with the US. Thus it too has joined in the blockade. It has been the US that isn’t willing to negotiate.

    The game changing aspect I think would be Russia breaking the blockade, not least in food supplies. The theory there are “game-changing” weapons to my eyes has always been a dubious one, more an artifact of weapsons manufacturers than a real thing. Or of hysteria-mongers hyping the threat to US poor citizens from wicked dictators like Kim and Putin.

  9. Tom K-ski

    One overlooked aspect of NK/RU relationship is Russia’s growing need for workers and NK used to supply about 20K temporary migrant workers for Russia’s far east agri-businesses. Imagine what 500K skilled migrant workers from North Korea could do for for Russian factories and farm enterprises. Perfect match for everybody involved.

    1. Louis Fyne

      Yes. if the Russian army is like every other army around the world, the enlisted ranks are made up of a higher than base percentage of rural young men.

      If the Russian army is going to be at a permanently higher plateau for at least 10 years, that’s >100,000 men taken out of the labor force

  10. Kooshy

    All good but as Yves mentioned non would have happened without China’s blessing. Both Russia and NK (bad cops) are fully sanctioned and no hope to mend relations with west, China not preventing the military / space exchanges puts the pressure on various US military/ security architectures. US,SK and Japan , US, UK, Australia etc. So china (good cop) without getting it’s hand dirty is cleverly putting pressure on US’s various security guarantees in pacific just by letting NK to have more accurate ICBM’s with Russian proven technology. Basically threatening US’s mainland

  11. Kooshy

    All good but as Yves mentioned non would have happened without China’s blessing. Both Russia and NK (bad cops) are fully sanctioned and no hope to mend relations with west, China not preventing the military / space exchanges puts the pressure on various US military/ security architectures. US,SK and Japan , US, UK, Australia etc. So china (good cop) without getting it’s hand dirty is cleverly putting pressure on US’s various security guarantees in pacific just by letting NK to have more accurate ICBM’s with Russian proven technology. Basically threatening US’s mainland

  12. Willow

    Whole Russia-NK-China dynamic is about who’s being wedged. China is trying to get SK onside and trying to drive a wedge between SK & Japan. Russia is trying to get Japan onside (neutral resources wise) and teaching Japan a lesson for siding with US too overtly. Hence it makes more sense for Russia to take the lead with helping NK than China. A stronger NK also provides Russia with more strategic advantages than China by putting Japan’s northern flank under pressure. While China focuses on the South China Sea.

    Japan’s overt siding with the US over Ukraine and sanctioning Russia has become a monumental strategic blunder. Japan role should’ve been to ‘neutralise’ Russia in Asia by maintaining cordial relations. But now Russia faces no costs in aggravating Japan’s (& West’s) security risks as Japan has already meted maximum punishment over Ukraine. Which makes the West’s ability to support Ukraine more difficult by anchoring resources in Asia. A cost to the West of far greater value than cost of Japan’s sanction to Russia. Especially now given West’s sanctions have only made Russia economically stronger.

    Kishida gets a 5 clown rating for this.

    1. SocalJimObjects

      Did you know that Japan managed to get an exemption from the US and they are still buying oil from Russia, pretty sure I read that here in NC. Japan’s bark is worse than its bite.

      1. Willow

        Yes. Ostensibly to maintain its investment in the Sakhalin oil & gas field. Kishida would have been under very significant pressure from Japanese corporations not to exit.

  13. SocalJimObjects

    Did you know that Japan managed to get an exemption from the US and they are still buying oil from Russia, pretty sure I read that here in NC. Japan’s bark is worse than its bite.

  14. Debi

    Interesting comments above

    Russia strengthening NK punishes both Japan and SK for supporting the West on Ukraine. The key wedge for Russia to place is between these two and the US. Naturally China is on board with that.

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