Korea Emerges As Nuclear Front Line in U.S. Rivalry with China and Russia

As the United States' rivalry with China and Russia simmers across the globe, an old flashpoint threatens to erupt on the Korean peninsula, where unresolved tensions have re-emerged and the specter of nuclear war remains ever-present.

Since North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, the United Nations Security Council, including permanent members China, Russia and the U.S., has unanimously adopted 10 resolutions condemning such military activities and supporting international sanctions against the country officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). This unity was shattered for the first time on May 26 when Beijing and Moscow vetoed Washington's proposal to punish Pyongyang for recent missile tests.

The stalemate mirrored the recent failed attempts by the U.S. and its allies at the U.N. to condemn Russia for the war it launched on Ukraine three months earlier. President Joe Biden's administration has attempted to sway China away from Russia, but an even bigger geopolitical competition between Beijing and Washington has only served to reinforce the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two top rivals of the U.S.

The result has been a breakdown of decades of diplomacy seeking to bring peace to one of the first, deadliest conflicts of the Cold War, with factions forming along familiar lines — a "Northern Triangle" consisting of China, North Korea and Russia on the one hand, and a "Southern Triangle" made up of Japan, South Korea and the United States on the other.

A South Korean official, speaking to Newsweek on the condition of anonymity, said strained ties between the U.S. and China "always have a negative impact on inter-Korean rapprochement and also the denuclearization issue," but that recent events reveal that an even deeper crisis has arisen.

"Very clearly, we see the U.N. Security Council doesn't work after Ukraine, and China doesn't support any more sanctions against the DPRK," the South Korean official said. "That's a huge disaster for the DPRK nuclear issue and even inter-Korean relations."

And while ridding North Korea of its prized nuclear weapons remains the official aim of the U.S. and South Korea, the South Korean official worried that war in Europe and a worsening geopolitical struggle for influence in Asia may have set this goal back irreversibly, especially as Russia's incursion came nearly three decades after Kyiv agreed to return Soviet-era nuclear weapons deployed on Ukrainian soil in exchange for security assurances from Moscow.

"Definitely, from the Ukraine situation, we fear North Korea will never give up their nuclear weapons," the official said. "And then also it caused some Chinese calculations when the U.S. put more pressure on China on economic, security and national sovereignty issues."

While much attention has been given to the question of Taiwan, the South Korean official argued that when it comes to security concerns, Beijing may view the neighboring Korean peninsula in a similar fashion as Moscow does its western flank in Eastern Europe, saying that there is "some kind of situation like Ukraine and Russia" as the U.S. gets more involved.

So if tensions continue to escalate, the official said, "China has more willingness to take some control over the Korean peninsula."

US, South, Korea, launch, missiles
A missile is fired during a joint training between the United States and South Korea on June 6 along South Korea's east coast as part of a response to North Korea's missile launches a day earlier. Getty Images/Dong-A Daily/South Korean Ministry of National Defense

North Korea has always maintained unique relationships with China and Russia, the two nations who supported it during the 1950s Korean War against South Korea, which received support from the U.S. and the U.N. The conflict was among the first to test the viability of the U.N. less than two years after it came into existence, and saw the first direct fighting between U.S. troops and those of the newly-established People's Republic of China (PRC) in a three-year war that ended without peace for the two Koreas.

Washington and Beijing would overcome tensions to establish diplomatic relations in 1979, and with the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the conflict became seen as frozen to observers across the globe, even if it remained vivid to residents of the peninsula.

Any complacency that may have been generated collapsed when North Korea demonstrated its nuclear prowess against the wishes of even China and Russia. Repeated attempts at denuclearization-for-peace dialogue repeatedly unraveled, as recently as two years ago. Then-President Donald Trump and then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in made historic inroads with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, but Pyongyang reverted to hostility after talks ultimately broke down, leaving little room for engagement.

"We've tried to knock on North Korea's door. We don't have any hidden agenda, just saying, 'Let's talk,'" another South Korean official, who also asked not to be named, told Newsweek. "Even after the recent missile fire, which of course we condemn in the strongest terms, we have never shut the door for diplomacy and dialogue."

While conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office in May, has sought to break with his liberal predecessor's peace-first approach to inter-Korean ties, the new administration has continued to seek talks and offer assistance without conditions, according to both South Korean officials.

"North Korea should really think this through and take up our offer for dialogue," the second South Korean official said. "War is not an option; the only way forward is diplomacy."

But in the absence of any breakthrough, Seoul is investing in its own national defense capabilities like never before. These include new missile systems that South Korean troops have showcased, sometimes in joint maneuvers with the U.S., in response to North Korea's recent uptick in missile activity that both U.S. and South Korean officials suspect to be the prelude to a seventh nuclear test.

There has even been discussion in South Korea about the country obtaining its own nuclear weapons, or at least deploying those of the U.S., as was the case throughout much of the Cold War. Popular support for obtaining such weapons of mass destruction has steadily increased in recent years, hitting some 71% in a poll published by the Chicago Council on February 21, three days before Russia's attack on Ukraine.

Though the issue remains a topic of debate for Seoul, there is a consensus on the threat posed by Pyongyang's own increasingly advanced arsenal, especially as Kim set out to develop not only larger platforms, but smaller, tactical ones that could pose an even more immediate danger to South Korea.

"The North Korea nuclear threat is imminent; it's there at our doorstep," the second South Korean official said. "We really want to deal with this."

And while that official said it may be South Koreans who are most "directly affected" by the issue, the official argued that, "at the same time, it is also everyone's problem."

"It's China's problem, it's Russia's problem," the second official added. "That's what we try to convey to our neighbors, to the international community."

Should Beijing and Moscow continue this trend of blocking the U.S.-led push for even more stringent measures against Pyongyang, the second South Korean official said he felt that they "will feel the pressure from other countries involved with the issue."

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North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un walks flanked by top officials in front of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile ahead of his country's fourth and latest ICBM test on March 24. Korean Central News Agency

But China and Russia have long resisted outside pressure to change their stance, and the divisive state of international affairs that has emerged since the war in Ukraine began has only forced Western and Eastern blocs further apart. Both two countries see an impending end of an era in which the U.S. could impose its dominance over the international security order.

This schism, however, has not stopped the U.S. from appealing to China for support in attempting to denuclearize North Korea.

"We have repeatedly made clear that we will cooperate with the PRC where we can," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek, "and we remain committed to seeking cooperation with the PRC on DPRK issues."

Amid a flurry of engagements between top officials from Beijing and Washington this year, Chinese special representative on Korean peninsula affairs Liu Xiaoming met with U.S. special representative for North Korea Sung Kim on April 5 in Washington. In this meeting, the State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. side "emphasized that the United States and the PRC have a very important shared interest in maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula."

"Beijing shares the goal of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," the spokesperson added, "and S/R Kim looks forward to working with Liu and his colleagues in Beijing to make progress toward that goal."

Hopes for cooperation between the two leading world powers in this area were also conveyed by White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan during his meeting last month in Geneva with Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi. A senior Biden administration official told reporters at the time that Sullivan "made very clear that we believe this is an area where the United States and China should be able to work together."

But the senior administration official also said the U.S. side "raised concerns" regarding China's recent voting record on the issue at the U.N., and these concerns were echoed by the State Department spokesperson with whom Newsweek spoke.

"The DPRK's ballistic missile launches are a clear violation of UNSCRs prohibiting the DPRK's ballistic missile development," the spokesperson said. "The unprecedented number of DPRK ballistic missile launches this year and the instability they bring to the Korean Peninsula are in no one's interest."

"We continue to urge the PRC and Russia to fully and completely fulfill their obligations under the DPRK UN Security Council resolutions that the UN Security Council unanimously adopted," the spokesperson added.

The Biden administration was also pushing for China to crack down on other areas of its relationship with North Korea.

"Beijing can also do more to combat the DPRK's sanctions evasion efforts in PRC coastal waters, to repatriate North Korean laborers earning income in its territory, and to shut down procurement networks," the spokesperson said.

For China, it remains paramount to maintain security along the border across which the People's Liberation Army fought the largest war in the country's history under Communist Party rule.

And Chinese officials see this as a mutual goal among nations.

"China always believes that to maintain peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and achieve denuclearization on the Peninsula is in the shared interest of all parties and the international community," Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, told Newsweek.

"We hope all parties concerned will stay calm, work in the same direction, refrain from moves or rhetoric that may be perceived as provocative, and jointly advance the process of political settlement of the issues on the Korean Peninsula," Liu Pengyu added.

China, Russia, joint, Pacific, navy, drill
Chinese Type 055-class destroyer Nanchang is seen bearing the flags of the People's Republic of China and the People's Liberation Army Navy on its port side and the flag of the Russian Federation on its starboard side, as Type 052D-class destroyer Kunming and Type 054A-class frigate Binzhou follow during a joint patrol with the Russian Navy in the western Pacific Ocean in a photo published October 26. Russian Ministry of Defense

Both China and Russia have called on the U.S. to ease sanctions on North Korea, rather than tighten them. Since 2019, as U.S.-North Korea peace talks began to fall apart, the two powers have put forth a draft resolution of their own, one would that would remove bans preventing North Korea from exporting goods such as statues, seafood and textiles, and would raise a cap on importing refined petroleum.

These measures were billed as necessary to ease the burden on North Korean civilians at a time when the country was going through severe economic hardships that have been noted by Kim in high-profile speeches and meetings.

With the U.N. at a standstill, however, Beijing and Moscow have also shored up their military cooperation, including most recently a series of joint drills in the Pacific, just two days before their Security Council veto in May, and just as Biden was in the region on a visit to meet the leaders of South Korea and Japan.

The U.S. and its allies sought to rally efforts to counter China and Russia during recent summits held by the G7 and NATO, where the threat posed by North Korea was also discussed among member states.

In a statement issued last week, the North Korean Foreign Ministry dismissed the display as an "anti-DPRK row of the hostile forces" that coincided "with the start of the RIMPAC joint military exercises, the U.S.-led multinational naval combined exercises, and south Korea's military lunacy to destroy peace and stability in the Korean peninsula as well as the Asia-Pacific region through the largest-ever scale dispatch of its naval force."

The statement also detailed an alleged plot to open two fronts against China and Russia, echoing language used by the two countries, who regularly accuse the U.S. of destabilizing the international order through military expansion and the formation of powerful alliances.

"The recent NATO summit more clearly proves that the U.S. pursues a plan to contain Russia and China at the same time by realizing the 'militarization' of Europe and forming a military alliance like NATO in the Asia-Pacific region," the statement said, "and keeps the U.S.-Japan-south Korea tripartite military alliance as an important means for materializing the plan."

The ministry also warned that the "reckless actions of the U.S. and its vassal forces" had created a "dangerous situation, in which a nuclear war might break out simultaneously in Europe and the Asia-Pacific region."

"World peace and security came to be placed in the most critical condition after the end of the Cold War," the statement added.

A more recent article published Monday by the North Korean Foreign Ministry tied the threat directly to trilateral security cooperation between the U.S., South Korea and Japan, who agreed last month to resume joint exercises, and held another session of talks Sunday, just as South Korea's military reported a new salvo of artillery fire from North Korea.

Ri Ji Song, a researcher at North Korea's Society for International Politics Study, warned in the article that, "if the large-scale joint military exercises are to be conducted defiantly on the Korean peninsula and in its vicinity with nuclear strategic assets of the U.S. being involved, it will trigger off due countermeasures of ours."

"And this will, in turn," Ri added, "create a touch-and-go situation in which even a small conflict can [lead] to a nuclear war easily."