North Korea’s tactical shift in the Indo-Pacific

The concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’ is gaining traction. More countries in and beyond the Indo-Pacific region are building closer relations—in opposition to China. Abhishek Sharma argues that North Korea sees opportunity in the region's changing power dynamics to position itself as China's ally

Originally propagated by Japan's former Prime minister Shinzo Abe, the concept of the Indo-Pacific is attracting much attention. The Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Dialogue (or ‘Quad’) is Australia, India, Japan and the United States. These four like-minded countries seek to uphold the Free, Open, and Inclusive Indo-Pacific.

The concept has gained currency, in the region and beyond. Canada and the EU have also come up with their own Indo-Pacific strategies. It's an idea that has also attracted the attention of North Korea, as it attempts to harness the changing geopolitical power alignments for its benefit.

Indo-Pacific and Asia-Pacific

Indo-Pacific is a maritime concept that emphasises the security aspect of the region, in conventional and non-conventional security terms. Its geography comprises the confluence of the Pacific and Indian oceans. Asia-Pacific used to be the dominant term, but it was largely an economic concept focused on Northeast, East, and Southeast Asia and the Oceanic region. It signifies the economic might of the region, placing China at the centre of regional politics. Indo-Pacific, by contrast, places the US, its allies and partners at the centre, thus shaping the region's geopolitics.

In contrast with the previously used Asia-Pacific, Indo-Pacific places the US, its allies and partners at the centre of the region, thus shaping its geopolitics

North Korea and the Indo-Pacific

North Korea has recently become much more interested in the concept of the Indo-Pacific, not that it hopes to grant any legitimacy to it. But it does hope to use the Indo-Pacific to consolidate its relations with China and Russia. This is because China has been opposed to the idea of the Indo-Pacific, and Russia is suspicious of it:

North Korea wants to align itself with the opposition to the United States. The country therefore takes particular note of how both China and Russia are reacting to the Indo-Pacific concept. Associating itself with China and Russia helps project the politics of the region in binary terms. It also helps rekindle a new phase of relations with the two countries.

North Korea wants to align itself with the opposition to the United States. It therefore takes particular note of how both China and Russia are reacting to the Indo-Pacific concept

North Korea sees the region becoming more polarised, and wants to piggyback on opposition to the Indo-Pacific concept. It does not recognise the Indo-Pacific region; instead, it focuses on the Asia-Pacific region with the centrality of ASEAN. North Korea views itself as a potential beneficiary of geopolitical polarisation, which would help build its conventional and non-conventional military capabilities.

We can trace this changing alignment through Russia and China's opposition to the US. After 15 years of continued support for sanctions, China and Russia recently vetoed new UN sanctions on North Korea. North Korea’s resolve to challenge what has been perceived as acceptable, with a record number of ballistic and cruise missile tests, has only been strengthened by US neglect of the matter.

North Korea recognises the changing power alignments and has taken steps to benefit from them. The Kremlin reciprocated its immediate recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk's independence, for example, with a permit for North Koreans to work in the region. Thus, Russia is helping Pyongyang bypass sanctions while also rebuilding war-torn eastern Ukraine.

North Korean rhetoric

We can see rising rhetoric in statements from Pyongyang. North Korea claimed Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan would ‘further escalate the already tense situation’ in the ‘region’. Similarly, North Korea views the formation of AUKUS and Quad as ‘undermining peace and stability’ in the Indo-Pacific. It deemed the US Indo-Pacific strategy ‘aggressive and hegemonic’, particularly for the Korean peninsula.

Pyongyang consistently links any Indo-Pacific strategy with a policy of containment of or opposition to China

The consistent pattern is to link any Indo-Pacific strategy with the policy of containment of/opposition to China. When Canada released its Indo-Pacific strategy, North Korea denounced it as a ‘US version of Indo-Pacific Strategy’ focusing on containing China. The emphasis, it argued, remained on projecting dependence on the US, targeting China, and ‘aggravating [the] situation in [the] Asia-Pacific region.’ North Korea perceives the term ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ as a means of containing China.

For North Korea, all bilateral agreements between US allies and partners in the region seem to move towards institutionalising a security architecture that works in consonance with AUKUS (a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States), and Quad, all under the leadership of the US. It condemned the recent meeting of Japan and France's leaders as an effort to bring the EU states and NATO into the Asia-Pacific. Pyongyang claimed the meeting brought 'dark clouds of instability to the Asia-Pacific region’.

A China-Russia-North Korea axis?

However, this does not mean that the axis of China-Russia-North Korea will always agree. We have already seen the difference in how China perceives the Indo-Pacific strategies of other countries. The recent release of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy mentions China as ‘a key partner for achieving prosperity and peace’. China's subsequent expression of ‘hope the ROK [Republic of Korea] will work with China’ for ‘regional peace, stability, development and prosperity’ signals how this perception varies.

Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy projected China as a ‘strategic challenge’ and an ‘increasingly disruptive power’. This resulted in a strong statement from China warning Canada to ‘not overestimate itself and act recklessly’. Interestingly, China's reaction to Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy was followed by a stronger rhetorical statement from North Korea. But North Korea has not yet reacted to the South Korean Indo-Pacific strategy that explicitly mentions North Korea's nuclear and ballistic capabilities as a ‘threat to peace and stability' in the Indo-Pacific region. This suggests that for North Korea, opposition to the concept is more about aligning itself with China and Russia than simply opposing the US.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Abhishek Sharma
Abhishek Sharma
PhD Candidate in Korean Studies, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi / Non-Resident Kelly Fellow, Pacific Forum

Abhishek's research focuses on the intersection between new emerging technologies and the geopolitics of East Asia.

He holds a first-class master’s degree in international relations from South Asian University.

In 2022, he was selected for the Quadmin Emerging Leaders dialogue, and as NCAFP Emerging Leader, where he contributed a policy brief on North Korea's cyber strategy.

Abhishek's research interests include South and North Korea's foreign policy, Indo-Pacific power dynamics, and India's Act East Policy.

His work has featured in publications including the website of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, and The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region.

He has also contributed to South Korea Pro, 9Dashline, South Asian Voices, Eurasia Review, ORCA, and WION.

Since 2020, Abhishek has worked with organisations such as OGIP, UNOY, and Global Peace Hub, advocating for the Women, Peace and Security Agenda and for the Youth, Peace and Security Agenda at regional and international level.

He tweets @Aviral96

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