The Greater Evil
No. 4 2017 October/December
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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How Russia Should Behave in the Face of the Korean Peninsula Crisis

The Korean Peninsula crisis is steadily moving towards a potential explosion. The war of words between Washington and Pyongyang is less and less reminiscent of a sandbox scuffle between kids and is threatening to escalate into an armed conflict. What should Moscow do in this case?

Since Russia in Global Affairs published the author’s article about “choosing between two evils” in July 2017, the coverage of the “Korean crisis” has gone through another cycle. After an exchange of bellicose statements, which did not result in any actions, the anxiety began to subside, and headlines such as “Korean Peninsula on the Brink of War!” gave way to “The Crisis Is Over.” However, at the end of August, there came the “traditional autumn aggravation,” caused by an annual military exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, based on the notorious Operational Plan 5015. The exercise’s scenario included the destruction of North Korea’s key infrastructure targets, attacks on nuclear facilities and physical elimination of North Korean leaders.

This time, the exercise involved “only” a little more than 50,000 South Korean and American troops. It is worth recalling here that the recent Belarusian-Russian strategic exercise Zapad 2017 (West 2017), which involved far fewer troops, gave rise to hysterical statements that “Russia is gathering strength and preparing for aggression.” Meanwhile, unlike “Plan 5015” which was openly targeted against North Korea, this exercise included operations against the fictional state of Veyshnoria. But the important thing is not that U.S.-South Korean exercises are held several times a year, making Pyongyang feel a non-illusory sense of threat, and not even that during the latest exercise, on August 24, three South Korean Hyunmoo-2 short-range missiles were launched, which, unlike North Korean missiles, did not cause a media hysteria and demands that these launches be discussed in the UN Security Council. It is North Korea’s response: at first, it launched short-range missiles and then, on August 29, another Hwasong-12 which flew across Japan (for the first time since 2009) and thus showed that North Korean missiles can really reach at least the island of Guam.

On September 3, Kim Jong-un first demonstrated to the world a thermonuclear warhead, which in theory is ready to be installed on ICBMs. On the same day, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, whose estimated yield varied between 50 and 250 kilotons. These figures show that it was a thermonuclear bomb.

I am not sure that Pyongyang had correctly assessed all the consequences. The nuclear test conducted during a BRICS summit and a meeting of the Eastern Economic Forum drew an immediate response. On September 11, 2017, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2375, which tightened sanctions against North Korea. Also, the United States proposed a package of sanctions, which included a fuel embargo, but it failed to receive full support, although the South Korean president actively lobbied for it and had telephone conversations with almost all regional leaders on this issue.

In response, Pyongyang also upped the ante, but not too much—on September 15, it launched another ballistic missile which flew 3,700 kilometers. Considering that the missile flew on a lofted trajectory, the launch proved that North Korea now has a capability to hit an American airbase in Guam and possibly do more than that. In addition, the North Korean leader said that the North would continue its nuclear missile program until it reached parity with the United States.

This move did not go unanswered. In his tweet U.S. President Donald Trump called Kim “rocket man” and later, speaking in the UN on September 19, he openly warned Pyongyang that if it did not stop its nuclear program, which threatened the U.S. and its allies, Washington would “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Two days later, Trump announced new economic sanctions against Pyongyang and countries doing business with it, thus imposing a secondary boycott on third-party businesses.

The answer did not take long. On September 20, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho compared Trump’s words about his readiness to destroy North Korea in the event of a direct threat to “the sound of a dog barking.” Two days later, on September 22, the “Rocket Man” responded in person. And although his invective rhetoric reached a new pitch, its essence (if we put insults aside) is this: The United States’ actions, “instead of frightening me, convinced me that the path I have chosen is correct and that I must follow it to the end.” In conclusion Kim threatened to “tame the mentally-deranged U.S. dotard” with “fire.”

Following this statement, Ri said that “the highest level” of retaliatory action against the U.S., promised by Kim, “could be the most powerful detonation of an H-bomb in the Pacific Ocean.” He noted though that he did not know what measures would be taken because it is Kim that gives orders. Ri described Trump as a “mentally deranged person full of megalomania and complacency” and warned that the U.S. president would be held “totally responsible” if innocent Americans were harmed in a direct conflict between the two countries.

This war of words again gave rise to alarmist headlines in the media. In one of them, Ri’s remark was transformed into “North Korea Threatens to Detonate H-Bomb over Pacific.” In the next round of the presidential battle, Trump described Kim as a “madman” and said that his regime “will be tested like never before!” Pyongyang responded with a video depicting the destruction of a U.S. aircraft carrier, after which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov compared the situation to a “kindergarten fight between children” and proposed looking for “the reasonable and not the emotional approach.”

Indeed, in the eyes of non-professionals the dynamics of the Korean nuclear missile crisis look like a sine wave in which exacerbation peaks (caused by nuclear tests, military exercises, or stern statements of state leaders) are followed by troughs (when experts who previously spoke of an impending war on the peninsula begin to say that the danger is over). In real fact, however, we are witnessing a slow but inevitable increase in the probability of the use of force, which, according to the author’s estimates, stands at about 35 percent and is steadily approaching 40 percent. Of course, these are approximate figures, but the trend towards an aggravation of the situation is still there, and each peak increases its probability.


Looking at the situation from the North Korean point of view, Pyongyang has well-founded suspicions that the United States and its allies will destroy North Korea as a state at the first opportunity. Many factors prove this.

The first one is a consistent refusal to recognize North Korea as a state. The U.S. did not recognize it in the early 1990s (although an informal agreement between Moscow and Washington provided for its cross-recognition) and did not do so later (although the establishment of diplomatic relations with Pyongyang was one of the terms of the U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework of 1994). And now the United States blocks all attempts to conclude any formal agreements with Pyongyang, even if it is just a document intended to put on record the results of the Korean War of 1950-1953.

North Korea is consistently demonized and has in fact the status of a rogue state, which implies that interaction with it is contrary to the moral and ethical standards of “civilized countries.” The North Korean regime is odious and authoritarian, and its history has many dark chapters. However, blaming North Korea of today for what happened in the times of Kim Il-sung or early Kim Jong-il is the same as speaking of today’s Russia as Stalin’s Soviet Union or Russia of the wild 1990s. North Korea is changing, and these changes are evident.

If we leave aside the rhetoric about “self-protective measures in response to provocations,” the level of South Korean-American military activity is as high as that of North Korea or even higher. From March to September 2017 alone, the U.S. and South Korea held fifteen military exercises of various kinds, which included, among other things, missile launches and flights of strategic bombers which simulated attacks on key infrastructure facilities. However, these actions give no rise to international concern, although for Pyongyang flights of U.S. B-1B bombers are as great a threat and provocation as missile launches, especially as targets for bombing are located near the North Korean border.

Unlike Seoul, North Korea does not have allies that could protect it with a nuclear umbrella under a political treaty or that would come to its aid immediately upon request in case of foreign aggression.

In addition, North Korea has learned some direct and indirect lessons, namely that all attempts to reach agreement not from a position of strength are doomed to failure: an agreement will not be fulfilled or will be later revised, or additional clauses will be added to it. This is what happened to the Agreed Framework (anyone interested may find out the fate of two light water reactors that were to be built by 2003). The same fate befell attempts to solve the nuclear problem on the basis of a plan set out in the Joint Statement of the six-party talks in 2005. The fall of the Gaddafi regime finally put an end to the myth of the West’s willingness to reach agreement. The Iran nuclear deal may suffer an unenviable fate, too. Trump has said that Tehran has not “lived up to the spirit” of the agreement and threatened to withdraw from the deal. In the meantime, he is introducing ever new sanctions against Iran.

On the other hand, North Korea may follow the example of Maoist China, which had an equally odious reputation when it was beginning its nuclear program. However, after China became a nuclear power, many options for the solution of the Chinese nuclear problem were removed from the negotiating table.

In this situation, the North Korean leadership follows a simple and understandable way—it seeks to avoid the “window of vulnerability” and reach the minimum possible level of guaranteed nuclear deterrence, which will open the door to the “major league” for Pyongyang. After that, a military solution to the problem will be unacceptable because of exorbitant risks, and North Korea’s enemies will have to enter into negotiations with it. This will help remove, at least partially, the threat of a violent regime change and mitigate the pressure of sanctions imposed due to non-recognition of the country’s nuclear status.

At the moment, Pyongyang is confident that the situation is developing in an advantageous way and that the U.S. administration will not opt for war. Also, Pyongyang has issued no alerts about possible military attacks either in the summer or in the fall, which suggests that North Korea is not engaged in preparations for a conflict. Indeed, its choice between war and negotiations seems obvious. Yet, in Pyongyang’s place I would not be so optimistic. Unfortunately, there are several groups of factors that make Washington’s choice more non-trivial, and that is why in my previous article I called it a choice “between two evils.”

The first group of arguments against recognizing North Korea’s nuclear status can be called “systemic” as they concern not just Northeast Asia but the entire world order. Although many people, including the author, think that the existing world order has been declining for a long time, the acceptance of the North Korean terms by the “international community” would mean not a crack in the wall or the loss of a stucco detail but the collapse of part of the façade, followed by the fall of a couple of supporting columns. Why is this so?

The modern “global security architecture” is based, at least formally, on the authority of the UN as a supra-state organization. If we look at a “peaceful solution” from this angle, it will turn out that for more than a decade the international community has been trying but failed to rein in North Korea. Moreover, now it has had to accept its terms. What is the worth of the UN then? And can it repeat the fate of the League of Nations in case of a serious crisis?

Another important component of the modern world order concerns the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Here we also have a very unpleasant precedent: any country, not necessarily even a rogue state, that has developed its nuclear missile program to the level of a thermonuclear-tipped ICBM receives a completely different status. This is the road to the collapse of the non-proliferation regime, which will be a blow to the interests of the UN Security Council’s standing committee, as it will be much more difficult for it to promote its vision of problems. In addition, according to the law of large numbers, nuclear proliferation will increase the probability of disasters caused by technical malfunction and of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of non-state actors, including terrorist organizations. This is why, from the point of view of many supporters of the existing world order, a new, multi-nuclear world order will be much worse, and the world’s sliding into it should be stopped in any possible way.

The next group of reasons can be called moral/ethical. The level of North Korea’s demonization is so great that negotiations with the rogue state will be taken as a concession to Evil, which will only strengthen from this. The influence of this position is clearly seen in the arguments used by advocates of a military solution in the U.S. and South Korea. They almost never mention the possible destruction of the non-proliferation regime or the decline of the UN’s authority. Instead, they come up with fantastic scenarios, warning that even if a minor concession is made to Pyongyang, it will immediately demand that the South Korean-American mutual defense treaty be abrogated, and then, threatening a nuclear strike on the mainland United States, start “communizing” the South (some foretellers in radical Protestant circles even speak of a possible invasion of Japan). It seems that the authors of such scenarios draw their inspiration from Homefront, a narrowly known video game, yet their audiences, accustomed to perceiving North Korea as a patented “evil state,” readily swallow them. Therefore, a politician who will stoop to negotiations with Pyongyang will have a host of political and reputational problems at home. A Nixon-class president and a Kissinger-class secretary of state could overcome these problems, but the more the state is permeated with populism and effective feedback systems, the more difficult it is for the national leader to take unpopular measures. The difficulties faced by the Trump government now only exacerbate the trend and reduce its room for maneuver. The president has made too many statements like “This will never happen” and “We’ll show them.” Backpedaling on these statements may result in a loss of face.

One more group of factors is connected with insufficient expert support for Trump’s policy. Frequent government reshuffles, the low quality of experts and advisors, and willful decision-making may result in a situation where the picture of the political situation in North Korea, its military capability and the course of a hypothetical military campaign against it, portrayed to Trump by his advisors, will differ fundamentally from the real one.


Special mention should be made of additional cognitive distortions that may arise in analyzing the situation—long-term consequences of North Korea’s demonization have formed a certain discourse for discussing the problem, but it cannot be solved in its framework. Even Russian general experts, who theoretically have more knowledge of North Korea than Western ones, do not go beyond the mainstream discourse and keep using clichés like “nuclear blackmail,” “unpredictable regime” or “the vicious circle of North Korean provocations,” which have nothing to do with reality. Also, people who say that North Korea treacherously violated the Agreed Framework have no idea of its content. They can also state, as a commonly known fact, that “one million North Koreans die of starvation every year.”

Add to this lack of information and the fact that information voids are filled with propaganda clichés.

Let’s take as an example the Institute of American Studies recently established in the framework of the North Korean Academy of Social Sciences. The situation may have improved by now, but in the fall of 2016 it had only three subdivisions. One of them dealt with nuclear matters on the Korean Peninsula; another with North Korean-American relations; and the third one with external relations. As you can see, the institute conducted no studies on American society, culture, politics or the U.S. decision-making system.

However, the level of North Korea studies in the U.S. is not high, either. Until recently, the U.S. used second-hand information, above all, information provided by Japan or South Korea, as well as satellite imagery and stories from North Korean defectors. The U.S. created a human intelligence unit for gathering intelligence on North Korea only in 2017. Unlike Russian experts, many of whom lived in Soviet times and therefore understand the peculiarities of societies of this type, Americans have no idea of the context. For example, they keep making futile attempts to find dissidents among North Korean intellectuals like those that existed in the Soviet Union in its later years, although the North Korean specifics, including the attitude towards the intelligentsia, make the emergence of this group of people totally impossible.

Documents released by WikiLeaks reveal a low level of research into North Korea in the U.S. Many of the documents include texts written by non-professionals who quote the yellow press and other invalid sources. Yet, on the basis of these “analytical notes” political decisions are made.

As a result, both the United States and North Korea develop strategies towards each other that are based not on real America or North Korea but on caricature images born in the minds of propagandists and then taken up by analysts. Naturally, this does not help resolve the issue in a constructive way.


The situation may develop rapidly, and sometimes there is a feeling that it is a matter of days and that scenarios which the author is going to discuss may materialize even before this article is published.

Pyongyang’s enemies or people accustomed to thinking in the “North-Korea-provokes-the-international-community” paradigm accept the possibility that regional tensions may reach the level of 2010 when North Korea bombarded Yeonpyeong Island and when, before that, Seoul had accused Pyongyang of sinking the South Korean corvette Cheonan, although the official statement had some doubtful implications and value judgments. I think that a more likely development will be a long-range missile launch, which will finally answer the question of whether or not North Korea has an ICBM. If the missile is launched towards Guam, the U.S. may interpret it as an act of aggression: “How do we know whether it is a test or combat launch?” After that, the protective reflex will be coupled with other political reasons, and the official version will be like “North Korea was going to attack Guam with missiles, and we had no choice but to launch a preemptive strike.”

Within the framework of the “strategic game,” a full-scale armed conflict may most likely be caused by provoking North Korea into something inappropriate, which could be interpreted as a casus belli. This may be a situation when the North Korean leadership either is cornered or when it considers a military confrontation inevitable. A fuel embargo or other “sanctions,” which in simpler terms are called a blockade, may well serve as such a trigger. Also, a clear manifestation of aggression by Pyongyang will place the responsibility for all the consequences of the conflict on the one who started it. In this case, Russia and China will likely not help North Korea. Every new wave of military anxiety, accompanied by whipped-up emotions, increases the probability of a misinterpretation of a signal or a conflict started not due to malicious intent but as a result of a mistake, nervous strain or a technical malfunction.

How can the situation be changed for the better? Otherwise, if the trends persist, a critical aggravation will be a matter of not “if” but “when.” The Russian-Chinese proposal for a “double freeze” seems to be better than nothing, yet it rather slows down the trends leading to conflict, instead of changing their trajectory.

Among factors that can influence the process, I would single out the following:

  • The new level of the Russian-American or American-Chinese confrontation. Until recently, for all the differences between them on other issues, members of the UN Security Council’s standing committee were unanimous that North Korea’s actions were unacceptable and should be censured, regardless of contentious debates on what this censure should be. A departure from this consensus would mean a very important change in the world order and security architecture. However, neither Moscow, nor Beijing, nor Washington has officially declared yet that the rules of the game have changed.
    Related to this is the issue of whether or not a trade war breaks out between the U.S. and China. It is not ruled out that the talk that China helps the North or that it does not abide by the sanctions is only an excuse to justify the pressure on Beijing.
  • The volume of North Korean reserves. Pyongyang needs to hold out until the sanctions are lifted. There is information that Kim has issued a directive to save oil reserves, but it is believed that the available reserves are equivalent to six months’ worth of supplies. It is not known whether other strategic resources are saved. Depending on their knowledge and partisanship, various experts estimate the time that is left for Kim, if the sanctions are tightened and a blockade against North Korea is established, at several months to two years. The most probable period is one year (plus or minus three months). During this time, Kim needs to try hard to get the United States to make the “right decision,” or tighten the belt, or accept China’s terms (which may be what Beijing wants).

Will South Korea and Japan be able to conduct independent national security policies? What can and should Moscow do in this situation? Probably, it should accept that the old world order has actually collapsed. There is only a façade which creates an illusion but in actual fact we already live in a “divided world” and a “cartoonish” reality which dictates new rules of the game. It is sad, cynical and painful, but in a situation like this the winner is the one who is the quickest to understand that the rules of the game have changed and who adjusts his position at the right moment to be ready to face new challenges. Russia loses the least from a nuclear North Korea. This is why, on the one hand, it should take measures to avoid a conflict, and on the other, pursue a prudent strategy so that a conflict, should it break out, affects Russia less than other geopolitical rivals.

A nuclear North Korea is a lesser evil to Russia than war against it. But on the other hand, does Russia really want the U.S. administration to suffer political or even reputational damage from an unsuccessful involvement in the North Korean conflict? I am not sure about it.

In order to reduce the likelihood of conflict, Moscow should, on the one hand, explain to Pyongyang possible consequences of some of its moves, acting not so much as an intermediary but as a party helping to understand the opponent’s actions better. In this context, the author would propose establishing contact between the above-mentioned Institute of American Studies and Russia’s Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies. Simultaneously, Russia should oppose in every possible way sanctions that may provoke Pyongyang, directly or indirectly, into reckless actions, and seek to reduce reasons for a possible conflict. Naturally, these efforts should be made with Pyongyang’s knowledge.

Also, Russia’s strategy may include consistently explaining to the United States’ regional allies that there are no prospects for a military solution. In fact, neither South Korea nor Japan will gain much from it, even if the conflict results in the disappearance of the North Korean state.

Firstly, both countries will suffer immensely, and it is not ruled out that North Korea may use nuclear weapons against their infrastructure nodes that are important militarily. Secondly, the world will not become better after a victory over the North. South Korea, for example, will have to “digest” the northern territories, which, considering the cultural divergence and residual resistance of pro-Juche forces, will be as long and painful a process as the “establishment of democracy” in Libya and Iraq. It will be accompanied by a decline in the standard of living of ordinary South Koreans, a protracted political crisis, growing social tensions, higher crime rates, more crackdowns, and a decrease in the security index. At the same time, objectively the new state will likely be increasingly dependent on the U.S., which may provoke the growth of petty nationalism presupposing a search for enemies. This means that Japan, which already now occupies a very specific place in the Korean nationalist narrative, will finally be placed in a niche of “damned Japs who killed our queen, raped our women, hammered nails into our land and killed all tigers in order to deprive us of our national spirit of resistance.” The certain level of confidence that exists between Moscow and Tokyo, as well as the desire to establish similar ties between Moscow and Seoul, theoretically makes it possible to convey such a message.

The only thing we need is to “persuade Rockefeller.” Influencing Washington is the most difficult element of the strategy, because Trump catalyzes, but does not initiate, certain processes. The question is how to contrive a way for Trump to sell the idea of ??negotiations, so that they do not look like a deal with the devil and, on the other hand, strengthen his position. This will be similar to what Nixon did when he traded Taiwan for China. Theoretically, Trump could place the entire responsibility on Obama and Clinton, saying that it was their policy of “strategic patience” that brought the situation to a head, and that they are to blame for our having to choose the greater evil. However, judging by Trump’s business strategies, he does not belong to the personality type of politicians who can conduct long and difficult negotiations and look for compromises, especially as Trump was “sold” to the public as a politician who will come and immediately fix everything.

But here the question arises: Suppose Nixon-style negotiations are a success, then what? If North Korea is recognized as a nuclear power, will it join a hypothetical Sino-Russian bloc or will it pursue a neutralist policy? And would this policy meet Russia’s national interests? It is not ruled out that Pyongyang plans to play on American-Chinese differences, like the grandfather of the current North Korean leader played on relations between Beijing and Moscow to preserve his country’s independence.