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2024 may see China and Russia each trying to court North Korea's affection.
That would leave North Korea "sitting pretty," an expert said, after years of complications.
As it supplies Russia with the ammunition it needs to keep up its war effort in Ukraine, North Korea could find itself in a rather favorable position this year after a difficult time, an expert on the peninsula said recently.
Closer ties with Russia could be a potential concern for China, which guards its influence over the pariah state. The result could be a very fortunate 2024 for North Korea, one in which Russia and China are both chasing after its attention.
In that case, North Korea could be "sitting pretty," a top Korea watcher said last week. It's a situation that could see North Korea leverage its position to gain more of the influence and support it has sought.
That development would be a stark difference from where the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's past few years have taken it, from a disastrous summit with former President Donald Trump to years of strict, isolating COVID-19 lockdowns.
Coming out of that, "North Korea is sitting pretty right now," Victor Cha, the senior vice president for Asia and the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on an episode of the CSIS's "Capital Cable" about what the world could expect for North Korea in 2024.
North Korea has had a rather rough run. "They started out with a spectacular failure in Hanoi with the Trump summits, then they went into COVID lockdown for three years," Cha, the former director for Asian Affairs on the White House's National Security Council, said, explaining that "now they've come out and they're in a fantastic position with the Russians courting them, with the Chinese courting them, and with the US on the sidelines."
Back in September 2023, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit on a potential arms deal between the two nations, one that could get Russia the ammunition it needed to replenish its dwindling stockpiles.
In return, North Korea was expected to get food and petroleum products, but experts and officials questioned what else Kim stood to gain from such a partnership — reporting at the time indicated that advanced Russian technologies, such as capabilities for satellites and its nuclear program, as well as educated personnel to help integrate them into North Korea's plans, were on the table.
It was clear then that something was shifting. The meeting was the first known time Kim had left his so-called "Hermit Kingdom" in more than four years, the last also being to Russia in 2019 regarding North Korea's nuclear program.
It raised very serious questions about what was actually possible between the two nations. Was Russia desperate enough for ammo to burn in Ukraine that it would be willing to either give Kim the capabilities and technologies he wanted, no strings attached, or help North Korea develop them?
At the time of the summit, US officials expressed concern over an arms deal and what it could lead to.
Then, in October 2023, the White House tracked what it identified as more than 1,000 containers of equipment and ammo sent from North Korea and Russia. A month later, South Korean lawmakers estimated there had been 10 such arms transfers since August, resulting in a million shells sent to Russia, beating out the European Union's collective aid to Ukraine since the war began.
Since then, anxieties have only increased.
Ukraine is seeing the consequences of a Putin-Kim alliance in real time as Russia continues to hammer at Ukrainian defenses and burn through astonishing rates of ammo. A sustained partnership between Russia and North Korea could make that a continued battlefield reality, a troubling scenario given that Western aid is in an increasingly worrying state.
North Korea's stockpiles aren't limitless, though, and it's unclear whether its production capabilities can keep up with Russia's burn rate. There are also questions about the quality of the North Korean munitions. But there are opportunities for further cooperation as the two heavily sanctioned nations find ways to fill in the gaps in what is needed to ramp up and sustain wartime production.
The US isn't the only one concerned about Kim and Putin's apparent coziness.
China, too, has reason to keep an eye on the relationship, particularly if Russia can exercise, to some extent, the kind of influence over Kim that Beijing has long enjoyed — and kept guarded.
Cha said that in the coming year, there would be an opportunity for "summitry" between North Korea and China, potentially leading to more public diplomacy and economic assistance as China's leader, Xi Jinping, looks to both exert control and keep North Korea in his sphere of influence.
Xi met with Kim four times from 2018 to 2019, the first just a few months before Trump's first summit with Xi and the last in January 2019, a month before Trump's Hanoi visit. The first summit with Xi was Kim's first known public trip.
The timing is telling. As Kim began meeting with others, such as Trump and later Putin, in April 2019, Xi moved to engage and keep him as close as possible. That could happen again.
There has, at times, been friction between North Korea and China. Kim's missiles and nuclear weapons programs have irked China in the past, as Beijing detests instability in the region and particularly on the peninsula. North Korea, on the other hand, has criticized, sometimes openly, China's disapproval of its testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the two have common interests, particularly economic, and histories that have kept them intertwined.
2024 may be a perfect opportunity for North Korea if it supports Russia's war effort and receives renewed interest from China. In both cases, Kim could find himself able to play his cards as he chooses.
Correction: January 17, 2024 — An earlier version of this story misquoted one of Victor Cha's comments. He said there would be an opportunity for "summitry" between North Korea and China, not "symmetry."
Read the original article on Business Insider