China

North Korea’s shifting satellite allegiance to Russia signals China’s waning influence


According to global TV and radio satellite data intelligence website LyngSat, North Korean state-run broadcasters, such as Korean Central Television, started transmitting its overseas broadcast through a Russian satellite, Ekspress 103, from June 20, leaving ChinaSat 12 satellite by July 1.

A South Korean ministry of unification official announced on Monday that North Korea had switched the transmission of its state TV broadcasts from a Chinese to Russian satellite, complicating the monitoring of Pyongyang’s broadcasts.

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Government agencies and media in Seoul have monitored North Korean state media, which is one of the limited outbound sources of information from the reclusive state.

Kang Jun-young, a professor of Chinese studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said the satellite switch meant science and technology cooperation between North Korea and Russia was intensifying.

“Pyongyang is also sending a message to China that it is inevitable for North Korea to strengthen cooperation with Russia because of Beijing’s lukewarm support of the country.”

Moscow and Pyongyang are both isolated by international sanctions. Their closer relationship has drawn accusations of dealing arms, including that ammunition from North Korea is supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in exchange for Russia providing aid and suspected technological aid for North Korea’s satellite development programme.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Pyongyang in June, where he met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and signed a “treaty on the comprehensive strategic partnership” that calls the other signatory to come to their aid if either is under attack.

Putin’s visit followed Kim’s trip to Russia’s far east in September last year when he visited Russian aerospace and weapons facilities.

Cho Han-bum, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said Russia and North Korea’s new treaty on comprehensive strategic partnership was “quite a burden” for China.

“Because, until now, North Korea’s only ally was China and, in fact, only China had been able to intervene in North Korea in times of emergency. However, after this treaty, which is evaluated as a paramilitary alliance treaty … Russia can now intervene,” Cho said.

“So, it is true that China’s exclusive influence over North Korea has been reduced. And given that North Korea’s dependence on China is almost 95 per cent in terms of trade volume, as North Korea-Russia trade and North Korea-Russia relations expand, North Korea will have more relative autonomy in terms of diplomacy and security from China.”

According to Cho, North Korea’s switching out satellite channels from entirely Chinese to Russian will weaken its dependence and “symbolically represents weakening dependence on China”.

Beijing has remained mostly silent over the Moscow-Pyongyang military ties. On the new treaty between the two countries, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian said the summit was a bilateral exchange between Russia and North Korea, but did not elaborate further.

While Chinese President Xi Jinping has met Putin several times since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Beijing has said it is not supplying arms and dual-use components to support the Russian military.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un walk during Xi’s visit to Pyongyang on June 21, 2019. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Xi’s last meeting with Kim was in June 2019 when he visited North Korea.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an international relations professor at King’s College London, said North Korea had traditionally played the Soviet Union and China against each other, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, China had the “upper hand” over Russia in terms of influence over North Korea.

“But it seems that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the situation, since for the first time Russia is in need of something that North Korea is willing to offer: munitions and weapons,” Pacheco Pardo said.

“Thus, I think that Kim Jong-un will play this to his country’s advantage, seeking to extract as much from Moscow as possible while showing to China that, at least for now, its relationship with Russia is stronger.”

Pacheco Pardo said while China would try to maintain a degree of influence over North Korea, Beijing will not “go overboard” in the face of closer ties between Moscow and Pyongyang.

“China doesn’t seem to be comfortable in being portrayed as the leader of an axis also including Russia, North Korea or Iran,” Pacheco Pardo said. “Beijing probably thinks that the relationship between Moscow and Pyongyang is based on mutual, short-term interests that will weaken once Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is over.”

Cho echoed the view that the close relations between North Korea and Russia could be “temporary” because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has become an unlimited war of attrition.

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He said China would view the close ties between the two countries as “uncomfortable” but it would need Russia to contain Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Cho said Beijing would hope to recover its influence over Pyongyang after the Ukraine war ended.

“Because North Korea has been preparing for an all-out war for a long time, it has an ammunition inventory and production system in place. So, the reason Russia signed a de facto paramilitary alliance with North Korea is because of Russia’s urgency,” he said.

“China has the industrial potential that North Korea needs, not Russia. So, despite the close ties between North Korea and Russia, the need for North Korea-China relations still remains for North Korea. China also needs to manage North Korea as a strategic asset.”

David Maxwell, vice-president of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Strategy, said North Korea would continue to try to improve relations with Russia but the ties would remain “transactional” – and would result in strengthening another alliance.

“All of these activities have the opposite effect of what North Korea and Russia, and even China, are trying to do because their activities drive the US, the ROK [Republic of Korea] and Japan closer together,” said Maxwell, who is a retired US Special Forces colonel.

“And so I think that rather than weaken the alliances, it just makes them stronger.”

Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said although North Korea and China were trying to avoid exposing each other’s disharmony to the outside world, their recent actions “clearly” exposed differences in their positions.

“China doesn’t want to directly intervene in the war in Ukraine, and in an intensifying strategic competition with the US, the relationship with European countries is important,” Park said. “For those European countries, the war in Ukraine poses an existential threat.

“China is trying to distance itself from North Korea and Russia, and so, China has [said it is] resolutely opposed to the so-called new cold-war structure.

“North Korea, on the other hand, disagrees. Kim Jong-un himself has said more than once that a new cold war has arrived in order to continue building a camp based on the solidarity between North Korea, China and Russia. In such a situation, China’s support is not at the desired level.”



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