The decades-long tug of war on the Korean Peninsula has entered a new and more dangerous round in recent years. North Korea and South Korea both have not recognized the results of the 1950-1953 war and have not made peace. In the 1970s-1980s, North Korea relied on Chinese and Soviet assistance in defending the country, dreaming even of using their assistance in achieving reunification on its own terms. There are no such hopes any more. While some hotheads in Pyongyang may be considering taking over the South using nuclear supremacy, the regime would hardly resort to that. Until recently, tensions on the Korean Peninsula increased and subsided with seasonal regularity. But no one dared to cross the red line as neither side is prepared to start a large war. In fact, there are no goals that could justify such a war.
A PIVOTAL MOMENT
Paradoxically, the Korean Peninsula can hardly be called an unpredictable region since it has a substantial built-in stability. It is different from the Middle East, the conflict-torn regions of Europe, or the CIS. North Korea’s military capabilities and Chinese support in the event of a crisis rule out big conflicts involving leading powers in the future, but not minor local confrontations. This is precisely what the North Korean leadership counts on in order to keep the nation and its allies in a state of alert and to force concessions from the international community.
Nevertheless, the smoldering hotbed of tensions near the Russian border suddenly flared up in 2016. North Korea’s latest nuclear tests and satellite launch precipitated more serious political changes than expected. North Korea’s reckless moves have affected the positions of the key actors and become a sort of bifurcation point in the formation of a new geopolitical landscape on the peninsula. They also changed the pattern of interaction between the centers of power concerned. Moreover, the UN Security Council has imposed unprecedentedly harsh sanctions against North Korea. UN Resolution 2270 bans the export of North Korean coal, iron ore, gold, titanium, vanadium, and rare-earth minerals, which account for a substantial part of the country’s export revenue. Additionally, the Resolution orders the examination of cargoes to and from North Korea, and essentially cuts it off from the global financial system. Coupled with unilateral measures taken by the United States, South Korea, and Japan, this may have an extremely negative impact on the North Korean economy, but will hardly make Pyongyang give up its nuclear and missile programs.
However, North Korea’s relations with the rest of the world, and its main partners and opponents, have changed too. The chance of a negotiated solution has diminished because no one wants to make any deal with the present regime.
The turning point is that North Korea’s opponents and allies have found a common language to exert effective pressure on the “pariah state.” A change in China’s position is a key factor. Beijing has switched from almost unconditional support for North Korea to “teaching a lesson,” drawing strong criticism from Pyongyang. The North Korean issue has become an irritant not only in relations between “continental” and “oceanic” powers, but also within each of the camps and specifically between the United States and South Korea, and Russia and China. Moreover, even the ability and willingness of the United States to ensure the security of its allies have been cast into doubt, thus increasing the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. In fact, South Korea and Japan are eager to obtain nuclear weapons capabilities and technically they can easily do so. Tighter sanctions and growing tensions also serve as a pretext for increasing the U.S. military presence in the region, including possible deployment of THAAD (Theatre High Altitude Area Defense) missile systems in South Korea. This will affect the strategic security and economic interests of China and Russia. The latter’s support for the strong measures taken by other actors may weaken its own positions.
It must be admitted that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has gone too far, antagonizing even non-hostile countries. His repression against members of his “inner circle” has caused some experts to note that both the North Korean elite and its closest allies, including China, would not object to a more moderate leader, provided political stability is not disrupted. In addition, Kim Jong-un’s orders have placed the country under strong sanctions, which the country’s leadership had probably not expected. In fact, these sanctions have a new quality since they can seriously damage the national economy and create new challenges for the North Korean leadership, which will face public discontent over the deteriorating economic situation in the country. This is probably the real purpose of the sanctions.
THE HISTORY OF THE CRISIS
North Korea is constantly blamed as the main troublemaker on the Korean Peninsula even though South Korea’s declarations and actions have also played a role in fomenting the crisis. But the “North Korean threat” mantras do not stand up to scrutiny. It is not very likely that the North Korean leadership, which is interested in preserving the state and regime, will embark on a military gamble. This would undoubtedly result in the country’s liquidation. Other capitals around the world are well aware of this. Pyongyang’s threats to deliver thermonuclear strikes or “annihilate Manhattan” make well-informed people smile and leave some politicians seemingly perplexed, because they have to act out for the sake of their own audiences and show that this is in fact a tangible threat. In reality, no serious response is required except for demonstrative gestures.
For decades, especially after the disintegration of the world socialist system, North Korea struggled for survival and could even make a deal with its opponents if only they were left alone. But this approach never won support in Western capitals that wanted to get rid of the disgusting regime. This is perhaps one of the reasons why North Korea’s actions have become increasingly annoying and are raising more and more questions.
To some extent the reason is the personality of Kim Jong-un, the third son of Kim Jong-il, who rose to power unexpectedly in late 2011, just two years after he had begun preparing for this role. Until then his father could not decide who should become his successor: his elder son, Kim Jong-nam, was too light-minded and had compromised himself by traveling to Japan on a fake passport (although this was not the main reason for his disfavor; there must have been more serious motives). For some time Kim Jong-il was trying to size up his middle son, Kim Jong-chul, but the latter was considered too soft to keep intact the country and the regime. Kim Jong-un was too young at that time even though he was quite ambitious and ruthless, which in his father’s opinion was quite appropriate for the future leader.
Kim Jong-un failed (despite aggressive propaganda) to build his own support base or acquire genuine authority among the elite and people over the two years before he took power. After his father’s death, he began to act in the best traditions of feudal monarchy and Stalinism, obviously wishing to gain influence by inspiring terror. He launched repressive campaigns against top military commanders, not even for ignoring his orders, but just for not showing enough zeal in fulfilling them. The critical moment came in late 2013 when Kim Jong-un approved the public and brutal execution of Chang Sung-taek, his aunt’s husband who was regarded as regent for the young leader, at least until the latter became more experienced. The West and China viewed Chang Sung-taek as the main access channel to North Korea, a figure inclined to reform the country’s archaic economic system. And this was perhaps what brought the misfortune to him, apart from his personal ambitions and lack of devotion to the leader. Kim Jong-un made it very clear that he would not touch the existing system of government, mainly for the sake of self-preservation.
Moreover, Kim Jong-un revived the traditions established by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, whose style of work and even appearance he is trying to imitate. Under Kim Jong-il, national governance was based on military structures and the songun (military-first) policy, with the military as the leading political force in the country. Kim Jong-un brought the “power vertical” back under the party’s control. The “old-new” system was endorsed at the seventh party congress in May 2016, which was held for the first time since 1980.The Congress reaffirmed the immutability of the system and the fact that there were no intentions for any reform or at least admitted publicly that such intentions existed. The main, if not the sole, aim of the grandiose event (attended by nearly 5,000 delegates and observers) was to draw a line under the process of the consolidation of Kim Jong-un’s power and to honor him as the nation’s leader “in his own right,” and not just because of his “bloodline.”
In domestic policy Kim Jong-un has rejected (probably for personal reasons) many of the methods used by Kim Jong-il, who had managed to keep the country from crumbling for almost two decades when it was left to face its enemies after the collapse of the global socialist system and amid a severe economic crisis. It remains to be seen, however, if this more aggressive policy will make it possible for the country to survive or if it will overtax the patience of North Korea’s partners.
Nuclear tests and missile launches had an important political meaning inside the country, especially ahead of the May party congress, where Kim Jong-un spoke of successes in improving the country’s defense capability. Kim Jong-un reaffirmed the nuclear doctrine formula: “Our republic is a responsible nuclear state that, as we made clear before, will not use nuclear weapons first unless aggressive hostile forces use nuclear weapons to invade on our sovereignty. And it will faithfully fulfil its obligation for non-proliferation and strive for the global denuclearization.” So any illusions concerning denuclearization of North Korea in the foreseeable future were dispelled.
However, fresh winds are blowing in the economy and everyday life, leaving increasingly less room for orthodox approaches. Kim Jong-un’s rule has created conditions for semi-legal sectoral division of the economy, which began to form in the 1990s during a deep economic crisis. While his father attempted to harness emerging market forces, using even such doubtful methods as the confiscatory monetary reform in 2009, the market sector was given more room to develop according to its own laws under Kim Jong-un, with the government turning a blind eye to that.
In the socio-economic sphere, North Korea will probably continue the search for “its own way.” It will definitely not follow the Chinese model, because “bourgeois liberalization and the line for reform and openness”—the recipes China is offering North Korea—has come under direct criticism. At the same time, there is a clear intention to expand the use of “our method of economic management,” i.e. the method that uses market mechanisms as an addition to the planned economy, while the cabinet of ministers gets more responsibility for economic policy as a whole. While previously business in North Korea was based on the rivalry of bureaucratic clans, trying to get hold of the formally state property, using their administrative resources, today “concentration of powers in the hands of the government” has been announced. Kim Jong-un has also taken practical, if not much publicized, measures to promote “marketization.” These include the family contract system in agriculture, cost-accounting in industry (named “responsibility system of socialist enterprises”), attracting foreign investments, and establishing special economic zones in the country.
Based on semi-legal private ownership rights, trade and industrial liberalization significantly boosted the production and consumption of foods and commodity goods (the latter coming mainly from China). Although the income gap widened sharply, the formation of the middle class accelerated and the quality of life generally improved. People had no reason to protest, while continued repressions against members of the elite (although on a smaller scale) did not affect ordinary citizens.
But the nation’s leader never forgets the need to strengthen defense capability, especially now that the militarization of the country has been raised to a new level. The focus is on creating nuclear missile capabilities as part of the byungjin strategy of parallel development of nuclear weapons and the economy. At the Party congress the commitment to simultaneously building up the nuclear potential and the economy as a strategy of the Party was reconfirmed. Since the beginning of 2016, North Korea has claimed it has built an H bomb and miniaturized nuclear warheads (so that they could be deployed on missiles), has tested solid-fuel engines and submarine-launched missiles, and has begun preparations for testing a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile. Two landmark events were a thermonuclear bomb test on January 6, 2016 (some specialists say that the technology used boosts a regular nuclear charge with isotopes of hydrogen) and the launch of a satellite on February 7 (which was regarded as a ballistic missile test). This was too much not only for North Korea’s enemies, but even for its apparent allies, primarily China and Russia.
A DIPLOMATIC IMPASSE
What goals is North Korea pursuing? All of these demonstrative steps are designed for both the domestic (to prove the power of the leader ahead of the party congress) and external (primarily American) audiences. The message to the latter is quite clear: you had better negotiate with us directly or we will do something really nasty.
There is nothing strange about this since North Korea sees the United States as the main threat to its security, while South Korea is not regarded as an independent player and is unlikely to take any steps without its overseas patron’s approval. Recognition by Washington is the ultimate foreign-policy goal for Pyongyang. North Korean strategists consider an agreement with the United States as a guarantee of their survival. In the best-case scenario, Pyongyang sees itself balancing between China and the United States. The logic is quite simple: by raising the bets, Pyongyang hopes to force Washington to negotiate and make concessions, for this is better than a large-scale conflict. Such blackmail succeeded somewhat in the 1990s when the U.S. preferred to sign an agreed framework with North Korea (which was expected to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for aid and the normalization of relations) in order to avoid a conflict. Hoping for a quick collapse of the North Korean regime, the U.S. easily assumed obligations it was not going to fulfill.
However, the U.S. does not view North Korea’s despotic regime as a partner and considers it an antipode of American ideals. Demolishing this stronghold of dictatorship, which was not carried out in the 1950s, is a matter of honor now. Tactical compromises are possible, but the goal of regime change has remained unaltered for decades since the end of the war. At the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama made an attempt to work out an agreement with North Korea, but he did not intend to pay the “real price”—normalization in exchange for denuclearization—and failed.
Is a breakthrough possible under a new U.S. president? Not likely, judging from the presidential campaign in the U.S. The latest events on the Korean Peninsula have made it clear that if the United States runs out of its “strategic patience” with regard to North Korea, it will do so only to put even stronger pressure on Pyongyang and isolate the country internationally to force it to stop its nuclear missile programs and possibly provoke a collapse of the regime. It seems that the prevailing opinion in the United States is that regime change is the most realistic solution.
The congressional votes on further sanctions against North Korea showed that the Republicans and the Democrats are united over tougher action. Both parties agree that the policy of engagement with North Korea is dead and buried.
Washington’s current goal is maximum isolation and sanctions in order to weaken the North Korean regime. This policy can produce certain results if China joins in. Now the U.S. suggests regime change in North Korea with the assistance of China, which, in its opinion, should be interested in a more responsible government in the neighboring country that follows the guidelines of the international community. Therefore, China should help change if not the political system in North Korea then at least its leadership (Plan B if the two Koreas cannot be reunified on South Korea’s terms).
The Americans have convinced China that its support to North Korea is detrimental to its own security interests that are not directly linked to Korea. The missile defense issue became the decisive factor during the current crisis. The start of the THAAD talks between the United States and South Korea outraged China almost as much as the North Korean missile launch itself. Washington, however, did not try to hide the fact that this was a lesson for Beijing to prod it into assuming a tougher stance on Pyongyang.
In the decades since the end of the Cold War, China had to protect the “fraternal” (albeit formally now) People’s Republic, since millions of “Chinese volunteers” had fought for North Korean independence (with many of them, including Mao Zedong’s son, giving their lives). From the geopolitical standpoint, preserving the North Korean buffer, which keeps American and South Korean troops away from the 1,500-kilometer long Korean-Chinese border, is imperative for Beijing.
Kim Jong-un listens to his “senior comrades” in China much less than his father and grandfather did. Beijing’s clear message was that it will not defend Pyongyang endlessly. At the same time, China is unnerved by the West’s attempts to tear North Korea away from it, but realizes that it has no influence over its northern neighbor. North Korea’s audacious activities have long evoked a controversial reaction in Chinese society and political circles. After long debate about whether China should continue to support such a notorious regime for the sake of stability on its northeastern border, Beijing decided in 2014 to leave everything as it was. Despite Kim Jong-un’s defiant behavior and his dislike of Chinese President Xi Jinping (they have never met in person even though the new Chinese leader has a good relationship with South Korean President Park Geun-hye), China made several friendly gestures with regard to North Korea in 2015. This only increased Chinese disappointment when Pyongyang let Beijing down with nuclear missile provocations and forced it to make excuses to the Americans. However later in 2016 China admitted it had gone too far with the sanctions and changed into reverse gear, trying to mend the relations with Kim Jong-un’s government.
The South Korean leadership played a negative role in this situation by assuming a conspicuously hostile position with regard to North Korea and actively trying to win over its supporters and neighbors, including Russia. Korean reunification on its own terms (i.e. occupation of the North) remains Seoul’s national idea enshrined in its constitution. Tactical moves such as attempts to forge cooperation with North Korea do not overrule this idea, even though it is becoming increasingly at odds with reality.
For a quarter of a century, South Korea has been trying to convince itself that “a collapse of the dictatorial regime is not far off” and the South only has to wait for the right moment to embark on the reunification. Since North Korea’s military power does not allow South Korea to begin a war and avoid unacceptable damage, it has to ruin the neighboring country’s regime from within. This is the quintessence of Seoul’s current policy—combining pressure and sanctions with subversive work and isolation of the regime not only outside, but also inside the country. South Korea resumed this policy in 2008 after the end of the “liberal decade” during which President Kim Dae-jung and his successor Roh Moo-hyun pursued the policy of national reconciliation with the North. However, not only conservatives but also a considerable part of South Korean society viewed it as “flirting with the devil.” Conservative President Lee Myung-bak, who replaced his “liberal” predecessors, “turned the clock back.” The situation started to deteriorate and at times degraded even to armed provocations and artillery duels.
In an attempt to make peace, President Park Geun-hye, who took office in 2012, proclaimed the Dresden Doctrine, the Eurasia Initiative, and the Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative. These three components were designed to promote reconciliation with North Korea, but in reality sought to subordinate it and achieve reunification on South Korean terms. President Park Geun-hye said reunification would be a “jackpot” to be hit in a not so distant future. She invited the North to create the basis for unification by stepping up exchanges and cooperation in some areas, and promised assistance if Pyongyang gave up its nuclear ambitions. North Korea responded by slamming this concept as a “psychopath’s daydream.” Naturally, it ended there.
Kim Jong-un hoped to begin relations with the South from scratch as there was virtually nothing for which he could be blamed when he came to power. In August 2015, Pyongyang sent a senior delegation, headed by its number-two government official, to Seoul in order to negotiate new relations. But South Korea’s conservative leadership was unbending and opted for “strangling” the North in the wake of North Korea’s latest steps to build up its nuclear weapons capabilities (even though they are in fact not directed against South Korea).
Conservative forces in South Korea are unable to admit that the world has changed and that the majority of its own people are against reunification, no matter what they say publicly. New generations do not view the northerners as their brothers and want to guard their way and quality of life, which will inevitably be put at risk if North Korean statehood is scrapped and South Korea assumes the burden of supporting the ruined economy of its northern neighbor and its 25-million population. Reunification declarations are a means of propaganda for the current South Korean leadership, which is trying to win over conservative voters in a fierce political struggle.
Amid party rivalry and diplomacy crisis, South Korea, squeezed between the United States and China, can hardly expect to build trust with the North as long as the present administration remains in power. Pyongyang no longer considers Park Geun-hye a dialogue partner. North Korea and its allies are annoyed that South Korean politicians have lately focused entirely on contemplating the measures they should take after reunification and on making (and rehearsing) different plans to physically dispose of the North Korean leadership and seize Pyongyang. Joint U.S.-South Korean military maneuvers in the spring of 2016, during which the two sides practiced strikes at Pyongyang and elimination of its leaders, were particularly provocative.
It is not surprising that resolving the nuclear issue and creating a new security system on the Korean Peninsula, as advocated by Russia, remain nothing more than wishful thinking as long as North Korea’s opponents continue their pursuits. All nuclear missile talks that have been conducted for years simply camouflage the real goal of getting rid of the “pariah state,” with each side pursuing its own purposes.
North Korea wants security guarantees and recognition, while the United States and South Korea are stalling for time, waiting for the “inevitable collapse” of the regime. Aware of this, Pyongyang is improving its nuclear weapon capabilities to make the cost of such a scenario unacceptably high. It may also raise its demands at future talks and resort to blackmail with weapons of mass destruction. Tensions spiral up with every passing year and the situation is unlikely to improve unless the United States and South Korea change their policy. Clearly, no one likes this impasse around North Korea, which is making advances in nuclear weapons technology. But what are Russia’s interests in this situation?
A CHALLENGE FOR RUSSIA
Historically, Russia is tied to the Korean Peninsula in many ways. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, relations were practically scaled down and Russia’s influence fell to a minimum. Now the situation has changed as both countries have strained relations with the West. But Russia has no reason to look down upon North Korea as the Soviet Union did. Russia has to refrain from criticizing the situation in North Korea and respond to its nuclear missile escapades in as reserved a manner as possible (even though its patience is wearing thin). Experience shows that the worse relations with Pyongyang are, the less other capitals listen to Russia’s opinion on the Korean issue.
Moscow has made considerable efforts in recent years to improve relations with Pyongyang by finally resolving the issue of North Korea’s $10 billion debt on Soviet loans, which complicated economic cooperation for a long time, and working out a new model of cooperation—Russian investments and supplies in exchange for access to North Korea’s natural resources as a guarantee that the investments will pay off. 2015 became a year of friendship, filled with numerous contacts and humanitarian and cultural events. However the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 has complicated the implementation of the new model, if not made it impossible. It has also jeopardized ambitious plans to increase bilateral trade to $1 billion by 2020, for which purpose the two countries have agreed to use the Russian ruble in mutual settlements.
North Korea’s challenging behavior has also prompted Russia’s leaders to revise the principles of interaction with that country, and change its benevolent or neutral attitude to a negative one both in official circles and society. How will this affect Russian policy towards North Korea?
There are many reasons why Russia wants the situation to normalize and the two Koreas to develop dialogue and cooperation. First of all, this will reduce the risk of conflicts and prevent a nuclear and conventional arms race. Secondly, this will make it harder for the United States to increase its presence near the Russian and Chinese borders. Thirdly, this will make it possible to implement trilateral projects involving Russia, North Korea, and South Koreas (a railway, logistics infrastructure, oil and gas pipelines, and power transmission lines). The easing of tensions in Northeast Asia will also provide for the implementation of multilateral economic projects with China.
Russia’s ability to facilitate a Korean settlement, including a multilateral one, is its unquestionable foreign-policy advantage that must not be given up. However Moscow cannot achieve a breakthrough in these efforts. Its task is to show good will rather than suggest any settlement recipes that will not be useful anyway unless the United States changes its approach towards North Korea and starts treating that country as a legitimate international entity.
No matter how much we would strive, we can actually do very little for the resolution of the Korean nuclear issue. Pyongyang is determined to discuss matters of war and peace with the United States, and any advice or influence will only annoy it, especially since of all the political and diplomatic recipes, we have only one left—resumption of six-party talks. Naturally, this format is the only possibility for Russia to participate in the discussion. However, one must clearly understand that solely the denuclearization agenda (which is insisted on by the United States and its allies) is absolutely unacceptable for North Korea, which has declared itself a nuclear power. It may not seek to become an internationally recognized full-fledged nuclear weapons possessor state, but it is certainly seeking a status similar to that of India or Pakistan, which are de facto nuclear powers outside of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. And North Korea is bent on discussing modalities of that only with the United States.
Does Russia have any maneuvering room now that China has largely adopted a policy of pressuring North Korea? Maintaining the current level of interaction with Pyongyang is imperative despite the negative developments. Otherwise Russia will be pushed to the sidelines of the Korean settlement process or even excluded from it if the talks resume in the 2+2 format to replace the 1953 armistice with a new system of peace maintenance (advocated now by China).
Working with China on the Korean issue is a delicate matter for Russia. In fact, China is jealous of Russia’s increased role in the North Korean issue, as was clearly borne out by the fact that the package of sanctions approved by the United States and China completely ignored Russia’s interests. China is also increasingly suspicious, albeit not quite justifiably, about Russia’s activities in North Korea and the latter’s attempts to play the “Russian card” against China. It is necessary to find a balance and to calm down China, but at the same time hint that Russia’s interests and its role in the Korean settlement process cannot be ignored. China may want some day to see a clearer reaction from Russia, which may not, however, be satisfactory to it. Russia must conduct a more frank discussion of the Korean issue with China, if for no other reason than to avoid being surprised by its actions one day. At the same time, Russia must pursue its own policy in the UN Security Council, without automatically supporting China’s proposals or unhesitatingly approving the results of its negotiations with the United States.
Dealing with the incumbent South Korean government is also a challenge. Seoul will continue to insist that Russia should step up sanctions against North Korea and push for greater isolation. It is doubtful that South Korea believes in the success of its own initiatives, and therefore it would be enough to just maintain the dialogue without allowing it to deteriorate or making any promises.
Theoretically, Russia could step up cooperation with Japan. Although the Ukraine crisis has adversely impacted bilateral relations, many in Japan view Russia as a potential partner on matters of regional security, given Tokyo’s concerns about the growing military power of China, its sensitivity to the Korean issue, and readiness to handle it more independently from the United States than other matters. Russia could also mediate between North Korea and Japan since both countries are tired of China’s monopoly in the Korean settlement. But this is hardly relevant until the crisis passes.
Russia should think about using special approaches based on its own interests. If we admit that the key to solving the Korean issue is reducing hostility between the United States and North Korea, maybe we should focus our efforts on that prospect. In addition to a better situation in the region adjacent to our Far East, we will obtain a new channel of interaction with the U.S. on international issues. If we openly support North Korea’s concept of “a peace treaty with the United States” (with appropriate legal reservations) as a prerequisite for devising an international system of guarantees on the Korean Peninsula with our participation, Pyongyang will not be able to ignore our support, especially in light of the increasingly strained relations with China.
The risk is not very feasible that North Korea will eventually fall under U.S. influence and assume an anti-Russian stance. Therefore we could agree to participate in the five-party “preliminary” format advocated by South Korea and the U.S., which earlier put us on guard quite justifiably, since it was rejected by Pyongyang. In this case we should put forth new initiatives, preliminarily discussing them with North Korea, and thus become an important mediator in the settlement process.
Even in the current complex situation Russia has an opportunity to show more initiative both internationally and in relations with the two Koreas. Russia’s activity on the Korean Peninsula is an indicator that shows Northeast Asian countries how much it is interested in solving security problems and pursuing effective economic cooperation in the region. Russia is facing not only regional, but also global problems (due to U.S. and Chinese involvement). Resolving these problems is critical for developing Russia’s Far East and ensuring the security of the country as a whole.