North Korea has featured prominently in the discourse on Asia-Pacific security in recent months. Its long-range nuclear missile testing efforts, alleged involvement in the Sony hacking incident, and declaration of cyber-war with the United States, have alarmed Western policymakers. Also, North Korea's announcement of a year of friendship with Putin's Russia has increased Russian diplomatic leverage over North Korea at a time when US-Russia relations are at their lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War.
North Korea's unabated nuclear buildup and willingness to jeopardize its alliance with China through rogue actions without Chinese consent have led many Western observers to claim that North Korea is an irrational actor. The prevalence of the "unpredictable North Korea" trope in policy-making circles, and the continued perception of North Korea as a geopolitical client of Russia and/or China, is a dangerous misinterpretation of North Korean foreign policy under Kim Jong-Un. Far from being incoherent, North Korea has put itself forward as a "rational wildcard" on the world stage. It has fuelled its anti-Western crusader image through flagrant defiance of anti-nuclear proliferation watchdogs and UN sanctions on arms exports, while establishing itself as an international free agent through a delicate balancing process between Russia and China.
North Korea's International Identity Under Kim Jong-Un
North Korea's international identity has historically been defined by its anti-Western alignment, but the nature of North Korean hostility towards the West has changed substantially over time. Under Kim-il Sung, North Korea attempted to forge a unique totalitarian model, characterized by an unprecedentedly pervasive cult of personality and dynastic succession process. This model appealed to communist dictators, such as Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania after his visit to Pyongyang in 1971, and North Korea's high economic growth rates in the decades following World War II gave Kim il-Sung's ideology credibility on the world stage.
As North Korea's economic situation deteriorated in the 1980s and communism's appeal waned, North Korea switched from ideological to issue-specific hostility towards the West in order to co-opt trade partners. Perhaps the most salient exercise of this issue-specific hostility was North Korea's missile technology trade partnerships with Syria, Iraq and Libya that were premised on the shared perception of Israel as an illegitimate American imperial satellite.
Since 1991, North Korea's international isolation has forced it to promote a narrative of Western encirclement, advance conspiracy theories relating to US alliances with Japan and South Korea, and insinuate that America has destructive intentions, towards its regime. North Korea's complaint report to the UN on June 12, 2015, relating to a US anthrax war campaign against its regime, is the latest rendition of this ideological trope.
Crucially, North Korea's rhetoric closely resembles Russian perceptions of the West. The Putin regime has frequently expressed fears of NATO encirclement of Russia, and compared the EU involvement in Ukraine to Nazi Germany's assault on Stalingrad during World War II. Rhetorical parallels in official statements by North Korea's, and Russia's leadership regarding a potential US biological weapons campaign are particularly striking. On June 11, 2015, the Russian Foreign Ministry openly criticized Georgia's biohazard research facility and the US shipment of bacteria to South Korea, as evidence of American aggression. The synchronized timing of Russian and North Korean politicizations of this issue exemplifies the tactical collusion and opportunistic ideological convergence with target allies that have characterized North Korean foreign policy for decades.
Balancing Relations with Russia and China
North Korea's apparent pivot towards Russia occurred in the wake of waning Chinese commitment to North Korea. To deter North Korean belligerence, China has declared that it will not necessarily intervene on North Korea's behalf if Kim Jong-un initiates a peninsular war. The US and China have also been united in their opposition to the North Korean Byungjin Line strategy which intends to fuse economic development with a far-reaching nuclear weapons buildup.
Any cooling of China- North Korea bilateral relations should not be overestimated, however, as American policymakers typically view China-North Korea relations from markedly different vantage points than the North Korean regime does. US policymakers have often based their perceptions on a false dichotomy, that North Korea is forced to either be a client of China or a rogue free agent pivoting towards Russia or whichever ally it can find. North Korea's foreign policy strategy is not based on a mutually exclusive choice, but a balance between necessary security linkages to China and free agency.
Chinese support for North Korea has effectively created a moral hazard. The North Korean regime can recklessly pursue an alternative agenda from Beijing, with full knowledge that China will support it should North Korea become a failed state, as China needs to pre-emptively stem a tidal wave of North Korean emigrants. North Korea's strategy is therefore one of outbidding; pivoting in a non-committal way towards Russia for subsidized military equipment, while simultaneously triggering an increase in Chinese investment in North Korea's economy (especially in the sanction-free mining sector), to ensure that North Korea remains in the Chinese sphere.
As Western powers seek to contain North Korea's nuclear program, appealing to the notion that North Korea is an unpredictable rogue regime is an ineffective way to co-opt Russian and Chinese support against North Korea's non-compliance, because this notion lacks credibility in the Kremlin or Beijing. Strengthening bilateral ties between Japan and South Korea to present a united front against North Korea's nuclear buildup, is a much more effective strategy that will cause Russia, China and possibly even the North Koreans themselves to stand up and take note.