Choosing between Two Evils
No. 3 2017 July/September
Konstantin V. Asmolov

PhD in History
Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia
Korean Studies Center
Leading Research Fellow


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The Crisis over North Korea Benefits No One

On September 3, 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, that of a hydrogen bomb, which can be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile. Pyongyang’s statements that it has completed the development of nuclear weapons have put an end to a period of uncertainty, when the great powers thought that the North Korean nuclear issue could simply be wished away.

Each of the serious players now has to make an inevitable and unpleasant choice between “bad” and “very bad,” not even knowing which of the choices has less dangerous consequences.


At first glance, the regional problems are rooted in the North Korean missile and nuclear program. However, Pyongyang’s actions are not proactive, but reactive. North Korea sees itself “surrounded by enemies” and has good reason for that, even though many people outside North Korea see it differently.

From South Korea’s point of view, codified in the country’s constitution and some other laws, the territory of the Republic of Korea consists of the Korean Peninsula and its adjacent islands, but the northern part is controlled by an “anti-state organization.” Nevertheless, the Republic of Korea formally exercises administration in the occupied territories through the so-called Committee for the Five Northern Korean Provinces, whose officials will take their seats as soon as the order is restored. South Korea’s official strategy towards the North is “absorption,” and over the past ten years a unified country has been understood only as “the Greater Republic of Korea.” This position is reflected in statements by politicians and regular large-scale military exercises, in which troops practice not defensive but offensive tactics.

In addition, North Korea has for years been a target for consistent demonization by the United States and its allies. Even the most insane information about it—including stories about executions by dogs, or about workers force-fed methamphetamines to speed up construction projects, or an outright false story quoting an alleged official report about sending a North Korean astronaut to the Sun—will find its audience, even after an official denial.

Add to this a distorted view of the balance between the military potentials of the North and the South. North Korea ranks fourth in the world in terms of army strength, but a large part of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) consists mainly of a universal/mobilization reserve rather than combat units. Meanwhile, the South Korean armed forces rank sixth, and the country’s defense budget is 25 times bigger than that of North Korea, which reflects its advantage over the North in military high technologies and makes North Korea’s attempts to catch up with the South in this field futile. In addition, under the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States is obligated to come to South Korea’s rescue in the event of North Korean aggression. Pyongyang has no such allies.

Moreover, the sad experience of Iraq, Syria and Libya tells the North Korean leadership that any concessions to external pressure may spell trouble and that even the slightest decline in defense capabilities (especially denuclearization) in exchange for various kinds of external security guarantees (which may prove unreliable) will inevitably lead to the fall of the regime and the loss of sovereignty. Nor can North Korea appeal to institutions of international law, which have discredited themselves since the invasion of Yugoslavia.

The Iran scenario cannot be applied to North Korea. In the case of Iran, it did not have to choose between renouncing its nuclear weapons and facing the liquidation of its regime. Iran wanted to increase its gas and oil exports and improve its well-being. But the main distinction from North Korea is that Tehran’s nuclear program had not been completed when the negotiations began, and it could give it up in exchange for the lifting of sanctions without losing anything. Secondly, the export of strategic resources is not vital to North Korea; the structure of its economic relations is different. Thirdly, given the attitude of many officials in the new U.S. administration to the Iran deal, I do not rule out a sudden revision of its terms, and it will then repeat the fate of fuel oil supplies under the Agreed Framework signed by Pyongyang and Washington.

This situation leaves Pyongyang no choice. Its strategy is to make maximum investment in its nuclear missile potential and achieve a level of “reliable deterrence,” where an attempt to resolve the North Korean issue by force will definitely meet with a nuclear response that will nullify any success of the enemy, or where a high likelihood of such a response will cool hot heads. Pyongyang expects that the U.S. will have to negotiate with it and that relations between the two countries will follow the model of confrontation between two nuclear powers. However, this strategy is very risky.

Firstly, Pyongyang’s actions are a serious blow to the existing security architecture as they disregard UN Security Council resolutions which, albeit formally, are legally binding. Secondly, North Korea’s desire to declare itself a nuclear power undermines the world order model, in which only members of the UN Security Council’s standing committee can have nuclear status. Worse yet, if North Korea sets a bad example, other major regional players may follow suit and start developing nuclear weapons to ensure their security. In Northeast Asia, these may be South Korea (it already developed a nuclear program of its own in the 1970s but stopped it under U.S. pressure), Japan and, in the future, Taiwan, which would ruin the “one China” concept.

In addition, North Korea’s activity is creating a security dilemma, accelerating the regional arms race. This is evidenced by the gradual remilitarization of Japan, and the use of the North Korean threat for a whole range of actions aimed at strengthening U.S. strategic positions in the region. The most illustrative example is the deployment of the U.S. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system in South Korea, raising concern in China.


The United States began to discuss a strategy towards the North Korean nuclear program long before Donald Trump came to power, but the choice is between two options: to recognize the nuclear status of North Korea in one way or another, or seek to change the regime, which will inevitably lead to an open confrontation.

The toughening of the sanctions policy does not produce the required results: North Korea has learned to exist under sanctions, partially bypassing them and partially using import substitution. But if the sanctions are turned into a full-scale financial, trade and transport blockade, this will be an attempt to change the regime.

Preemptive strikes against nuclear facilities are also impossible, because they cannot go off smoothly in North Korea, and if they do, they will not go unpunished. But if attacks target not only nuclear facilities but also retaliatory weapons, this will already be a large-scale military operation. Another option—to rock the boat and replace the regime without much bloodshed—is not feasible, either. There are simply no prerequisites, let alone infrastructure, for a hypothetical color revolution. Meanwhile, the window of opportunity for an effective military solution is narrowing as time is rather on Pyongyang’s side.

If North Korea’s nuclear status is recognized, unpleasant consequences of this move can be summarized as follows:

• This will be a serious blow to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. In addition, recognition of North Korea’s nuclear status may lead, at the least, to a regional nuclear arms race.

• The collapse of the non-proliferation regime will undermine America’s capability as a world leader—the existing world order is largely built on the United States’ dominance due to its nuclear potential. Perhaps, a new world order will hit Russia or China harder, but it will be much more difficult for the U.S. to play the role of a world policeman.

• Special attention should be given to internal political/reputational consequences. Given the demonization of North Korea and the influence in the United States of those branches of Protestantism that view the atheistic collectivism in North Korea as an absolute evil, Washington’s decision to give up confrontation with such a state would be seen as a “deal with the devil,” which would be hard to explain to the American public. There will be many opponents to this position.

• There is no guarantee that the “North Korean threat to peace” will not increase after North Korea’s nuclear status is recognized: many people in the United States are confident that, if concessions are made to Pyongyang, it will continue to blackmail the international community, or start selling nuclear technologies to international terrorists, or even attack the South.

But if the United States chooses confrontation with the North, it may face the following consequences:

• There is a high risk of being involved in a protracted war with serious losses, instead of an Iraq-style blitzkrieg. It is not without reason that many members of the U.S. military, even those with hawkish views, believe that a military operation against North Korea may prove to be as harsh a conflict as the Korean War of 1950-1953 was.

• A regional conflict may well evolve into something bigger. Moscow and Beijing will hardly support a conflict initiated by the North. But what will happen if war is started by Washington?

• Even a victory of the United States and its allies will not immediately bring order and democracy. The restoration of a war-ravaged country, refugee problems, and even greater difficulties in ensuring loyalty of the North Korean population—all these factors will make the process of postwar “stabilization” long, expensive and difficult.

• Add to this consequences of possible North Korean strikes against Japan and South Korea: attacks on nuclear power plants may cause an environmental disaster that will be even more dangerous than Chernobyl or Fukushima.

Where will the balance tilt in this situation? It is hard to tell, but a pro-war approach has more arguments in its favor than dialogue, and there are several reasons for that:

• A personal factor stemming from the dependence of politicians on public opinion. From the point of view of psychological and reputational consequences, this decision is even more difficult than the one taken by John F. Kennedy to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis.

• An incorrect assessment of the situation. America has no way of competently gathering information about the state of affairs in North Korea. At best, it has technical intelligence data which require interpretation (the U.S. is only now creating a human intelligence unit for gathering intelligence on North Korea). Meanwhile, the Americans have to use data gathered by the South Korean intelligence, which tend to represent the northern neighbor as a colossus with feet of clay that is in a permanent economic and political crisis and that is about to collapse from internal strains. In this situation, incorrect data may lead to a wrong conclusion, namely that a “preemptive strike” will not involve much bloodshed and/or will provoke a collapse of the regime.

• An illusion of security created by missile defense achievements. Politicians, not the military, may believe that Americans will watch the conflict only on TV.

It is important to note that this tendency towards using force does not directly stem from the change of power in the White House. Trump’s presidency has only catalyzed the process. The reason is different.

Firstly, it may be insufficient expert advice to the presidential administration in the decision-making process. The administration has not yet been fully formed, which means that the likelihood of arbitrary ad hoc decisions in such a situation increases.

Secondly, the political situation in the U.S. reduces Trump’s room for maneuver. If he soft-pedals his position on North Korea, public reaction will be unanimous: “Trump has surrendered!” But a reaction to a military solution to the North Korea problem will not be that unequivocal.

It is understandable that the U.S. administration does not want to make a difficult choice and, while announcing the collapse of the policy of “strategic patience,” it still continues it but in a different wrapping. This time, the emphasis is made on secondary boycott when any country or company doing business with North Korea will have to take sides. Such pressure is being exerted primarily on China.


Beijing, too, seems to understand that there is no good solution to this problem. Calls for a political/diplomatic solution would be merely empty talk. Restoration of the six-party talks requires at least answering the question “What is there to discuss now?” Denuclearization is possible only after changing the regime, which has codified the country’s nuclear status in the constitution. Finally, actions of the North Korean leadership are dictated not by the ill-will of Kim Jong-un but a geopolitical trend, changing which would be as difficult as persuading Pyongyang to change its position.

So, China’s difficult choice is not to “fight or negotiate” but to choose the right side.

Unequivocal support for the North against the United States may have the following consequences:

• Using the North Korean threat as a pretext, Washington will seek to strengthen its positions in the region and build up its military infrastructure, directed not so much against North Korea, as against China. In this context, THAAD may only be the beginning.

• Relations between the two countries can develop into an open conflict, with sanctions extended to China. U.S.-China trade relations will be jeopardized, and the formation of an anti-China coalition will go faster.

• According to some Chinese experts I have talked to, China is not yet ready to openly challenge America. Theoretically, time is on China’s side, but the sooner a military conflict begins, the less chance Beijing will have for success in it.

• Finally, China occupies a significant place in the existing world order, and it is highly questionable whether Beijing will benefit more from a new world order where a nuclear North Korea will be followed by a nuclear Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Therefore, the main risk for China in this situation is getting involved in a conflict in a disadvantageous position or having its beneficial status quo destroyed in exchange for uncertainty.

One would think that there are enough reasons for China to deny support to the North. However, there is no guarantee that, if China does that, Washington will stop criticizing it on other issues. On the other hand, if Beijing starts cooperating with Washington against Pyongyang (which will lead to regime change or, more precisely, to the collapse of North Korea), it may be in for a different set of troubles:

• In the event of a military conflict in the North or its absorption by the South, China will be flooded by refugees. Terrorist organizations will emerge near its borders (or even on its territory) and start “fighting the invaders.” This will be unacceptable to Beijing. Settlement will require much effort and funding, which is more needed at home.

• If South Korea “extends northwards,” North Korea will no longer serve as a buffer territory, and the United States will gain a very convenient political foothold, from which it can effectively threaten Chinese interests in the north-eastern region. I doubt that American troops would immediately leave a unified Korea.

• China, as a regional power, would not like to see a united Korea. Firstly, the loss of a vassal would be an even greater blow to the country’s prestige than an inability to fully control it. Secondly, the ideology of a united Korea will most likely be aggressive nationalism, which may rekindle territorial disputes and claims over the Jiandao area.

• Once North Korea is gone, China will become a regional leader in terms of human rights violations. This will damage its international image still further, as there are already many common myths about China, such as the belief that the Chinese eat babies or that China uses political prisoners as organ donors.

But there is a tricky question here, too: How long will the current opposition to America last? Is the situation really going downhill, or is there still a chance to fix it all?

Let us discuss factors that may lead Beijing to one decision or another.

• The Chinese leadership seems to be better informed about the internal political situation in North Korea and relies less on public opinion when making decisions.

• China’s tactics are rather determined by two trends: confrontation with the United States, in which North Korea may not be an ally but an enemy of an enemy or a buffer space between U.S. troops in South Korea and China’s northeast; and Beijing’s irritation with the actions undertaken by Pyongyang which, while pursuing an independent policy, does not want to take into account China’s interests.

• In addition, although China tries to be proactive, sometimes it has to “be second” by responding to U.S. moves to “resolve the Korean issue”—at its own discretion but still following in the footsteps of Washington’s policy. Therefore, if the U.S. chooses escalation, China will have to take countermeasures.

Like the U.S., the Chinese leadership would not like to choose between two evils, and so far it has only been making stern statements regarding Pyongyang and Washington, while lobbying for a “double freeze” (in which North Korea freezes its nuclear and missile program in exchange for the U.S. and South Korea freezing their joint military exercises and reducing the number of U.S. strategic weapons on the Korean Peninsula).


Meanwhile, on May 9, 2017, Moon Jae-in came to power in South Korea. He represents forces that are commonly viewed as leftist. During his presidential campaign, he announced plans not to deploy THAAD systems and spoke of the need to improve inter-Korean relations. These plans and some other of his initiatives gave rise to certain illusions. However, here we can speak not so much of a choice as an attempt to have a foot in both camps and not damage relations with any of the influential players.

Although Seoul has never been a puppet regime, its foreign policy has always depended on Washington. Consequently, political and economic ties between the two countries are much stronger than any ties between Seoul and Beijing. We see China’s pressure, but if the Moon administration decides to break the existing agreements, the United States will present no less convincing arguments. Even before Moon came to power, Washington began to speak of a revision of some key agreements (including those on free trade) that are too beneficial for Seoul. In this situation, we can expect a fairly simple combination: Americans first whip up a froth about this issue and then propose keeping all former agreements in force.

That is why, although the deployment of THAAD system was suspended on June 8, 2017 pending the completion of a full-scale environmental assessment, already three days later, on June 11, when U.S. diplomats asked whether the assessment was an attempt to give up the project, they were assured that the cooperation would continue and that the agreement would be honored. A similar situation is developing with regard to inter-Korean relations. When Moon Chung-in, a special foreign policy and security adviser to the South Korean president, on June 16, 2017 announced a new strategy, which actually duplicated the ??double freeze idea, the U.S. State Department raised its eyebrows, while the administration of the South Korean president immediately said that Moon had not presented his statement to the government for approval.

In South Korea, loud statements are not identical to their immediate implementation, because a newly elected president spends the initial part of his term purging the government of officials appointed by his predecessor and installing his own protégés to key posts to ensure top-down governance. These efforts take 12 to 18 months, and only then can we speak of full-scale implementation of his policy. However, judging by the opposition that Moon faced when selecting a new prime minister and a foreign minister, appointments to key posts will take much time.

So, even if Moon shows himself as a consistent leftist, the change of power in Seoul will reduce inter-Korean tensions only in the medium term. The rate at which the regional crisis may develop begs the sad question as to whether the new administration in South Korea will have enough time to consolidate its positions and start conducting a new course before the situation enters a critical phase and Seoul has to play by ear.


The security dilemma and growing tensions increase the likelihood of conflict on the peninsula. This conflict may be caused not only by a rational decision but also by irrational factors, such as insufficient awareness, demonization or the impact of the stressful situation.

First of all, the parties do not know each other well, and even the little knowledge they have is often distorted. In North Korea, the number of people allowed to have information about the outside world is small, while the outgoing content is strictly filtered. However, a similar problem exists in the West, too: information lacunae between facts are filled with omissions, while omissions are largely based on the country’s image as interpreted by experts. Because of this, in the event of conflict, the parties may not be properly aware of each other’s problems or may misunderstand certain phenomena.

Add to this the “fog of war:” due to the mutual efforts of the North and the South, all contacts between them have been broken off, and in the event of an incident that may aggravate the situation, the parties may not have enough time or a chance to warn each other. Demonization prevents them from seeing (and wishing to see) the reality: any actions of the opposing side will be interpreted in the wrong way. This means that in the event of conflict a trend towards escalation will prevail over a trend towards de-escalation.

And let’s not forget about the stress experienced by the parties to the conflict, especially the lower echelons, which also increases the likelihood of disproportionate reaction to some incomprehensible or unusual events. In situations like this, after an attack warning, soldiers usually first shoot at any suspicious movement in the bushes and only then check what it was. As Chinese military analyst Jia Xiudong wrote, any accidental shot, misunderstanding or wrong decision can trigger a situation that will become irreversible.


Any serious conflict on the Korean Peninsula will affect Russia, even if no U.S. precision-guided weapon hits Russian territory. There has been no large-scale war near Russia’s borders since the Afghan war, and I am not sure that the existing EMERCOM system in Russia’s Far East is capable of effectively coping with consequences of war, ranging from flows of refugees to an unlikely, yet still possible, contamination of Russian territory as a result of nuclear or conventional attacks on North Korean nuclear or industrial facilities.

Certainly, Russia does not consider North Korea a nuclear power; it condemns its ambitions and strictly adheres to UN Security Council resolutions. At the same time, unilateral sanctions or secondary boycott are unacceptable to Moscow, and so are attempts to deal economic blows not at Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear program but at the living standards of the North Korean population in the hope of “rocking the boat.” Like China, Russia opposes the military presence of extra-regional forces in Northeast Asia and their buildup, including the deployment of the THAAD system, under the pretext of countering North Korea’s missile and nuclear threat.

However, for all the importance of this problem, a Korean settlement is a third-rate issue for Moscow. The main strategic area of Russia’s foreign policy is the post-Soviet space, primarily Ukraine, followed by the Middle East, above all Syria and the fight against Islamic terrorism. And only then come issues related to the Far East, where a Korean settlement occupies a major place.

Russia does not have many levers to influence North Korea. Pyongyang seeks to maintain active and good-neighborly relations with Russia (at least out of a desire to counterbalance China), and the Russian Embassy in Pyongyang now has perhaps the most professional team of specialists in Russian history. Yet, Moscow’s political and economic involvement in North Korean affairs is substantially limited. At the same time, we cannot say that Moscow plays second fiddle to Beijing. The interests of the two countries largely coincide, but there are some differences, too. We can even speak of limited economic rivalry, above all in the Rason free economic zone.

Russian diplomats have offered a road map to settle the North Korean nuclear issue. The road map proposes “advancing in this direction without preconditions, step by step, from simple to more complicated moves, starting with obvious things—showing mutual restraint, refraining from mutual provocations, and starting negotiations on the general principles of relations such as non-aggression, and non-use and non-threat of force.” This proposal was met with support in Beijing and at the 2017 Russian-Chinese summit in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed “to actively promote our common initiative based on Russia’s stage-by-stage plan for a Korean settlement and China’s initiatives for a parallel freeze of nuclear missile activities in North Korea and large-scale military exercises by the United States and the Republic of Korea.” The two countries expressed their intention to “continue developing our foreign policy coordination.”

The essence of the agreement is reflected in a joint statement issued by the Foreign Ministries of Russia and China, which put forward a joint initiative based on Russia’s Korean settlement plan and China’s “double freeze” idea and which pointed out that North Korea’s “justified concerns should be respected.” Other countries should also make efforts to resume negotiations and jointly create an atmosphere of peace and mutual trust. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov held consultations with U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun in Washington on July 6 as part of these efforts.

Russia’s position and active steps may tip the scales towards the most favorable scenario for global security. We cannot say that Russia is doing nothing to settle the situation. It is doing what it can, and this text is in many ways an additional attempt to draw attention to this problem and encourage efforts to solve it.