North Korea is once again at the center of the world’s attention. Its plan to launch a rocket to mark the centenary of the birth of the great leader Kim Il-sung is causing a headache for all its neighbors and the United States.
Despite the unusual transparency of the event – Pyongyang has invited foreign journalists to attend – nobody believes that the launch is part of the country’s civilian space program rather than a ballistic missile test. Yet another cause for concern is that North Korean rockets sometimes deviate from their trajectory and simply drop at random.
When the Soviet Union broke apart 20 years ago and the Juche regime was left without material aid, almost everyone believed that it was doomed to an early end. Its collapse was expected in 1994 when its permanent leader Kim Il-sung died, to be succeeded by his son, regarded as a playboy who was not up to the task of ruling the country. Power has once again changed hands, with the great leader’s grandson now at the helm. He is young and inexperienced, and he is also not expected to last long in his post. It will be interesting to see what he can achieve in the next several years.
There are several reasons for the exceptional staying power of North Korean socialism. First, Pyongyang has never permitted any experimentation – unflagging repression does not leave any room for any alternative paths of development. The powers that be in North Korea have learned the lesson of other socialist countries – controlled liberalization instantly spins out of control.
What’s more, the North Korean regime has managed to keep society closed to an unprecedented degree. There is no other state in the world as insulated from foreign influence. This makes the country almost immune to events like the Arab Spring.
Second, at the early stages of this new era in geopolitics, Pyongyang made a far-sighted bet on a nuclear program. As a result, when the U.S. government began to pursue regime change by force at the turn of the century, North Korea was already untouchable – the risk of a suicidal nuclear retaliation with unacceptable consequences was too high. As with street gangs, having a reputation as a psycho is a good thing. Despite its strong words, South Korea is unwilling to go too far with its neighbor to the north. Nobody knows for sure whether the leaders of North Korea are prepared for a kamikaze mission, and nobody wants to test their resolve. Pyongyang understands this and actively cultivates its image as an irrational and dangerously unhinged regime.
Third, the support of Beijing, which backed Pyongyang in Soviet times and has been its chief patron since the 1990s, is decisive. This has nothing to do with ideology – the aggressive dogma of their North Korean comrades is alien to Chinese pragmatists. But Beijing proceeds from the premise that the status quo is better than any alternative, be it a pro-American united Korea or “Greater Korea” with ambitions and nationalistic bias.
Fourth, practically nobody is interested in Korean unification. Pyongyang has long stopped dreaming of expansion; it is too busy making an all-out bid to survive. Meanwhile, sudden unification with their North Korean brothers could bankrupt Seoul. Japan, though frightened of its reckless neighbor, would not be happy about the emergence of a united Korea even under Seoul’s aegis – the Koreans have accumulated many grievances against their neighbors, especially the Japanese, over the past hundred years.
Curiously, Russia would actually stand to gain from Korean unification. This does not mean Moscow’s “special relationship” with North Korea is anything but pure fantasy. But unification would create a big and influential country with far fewer historical or other grievances against Russia than any of its other neighbors.
With its newfound interest in Asia, Russia wants to diversify its ties to avoid complete dependence on Beijing. Korea could become a very convenient partner in this respect, not to mention Russia’s plans for transport and energy routes, such as the proposed trans-Korean gas pipeline, that cannot materialize because of the dispute between the two Koreas. This is why Russia is trying to shift the paradigm for a peace settlement and replace the obviously failed American approach with a new one that is based on an attempt to entice Pyongyang with economic dividends.
Finally, the North Korean issue is not nearly as straightforward for the United States as it seems. Obviously, Washington is irritated by this unpredictable state that taunts it with nuclear tests, missile launches and cascades of new centrifuges. But in the long term, this East Asian outcast is very useful for America.
The main challenge of the United States in the next decade is to consolidate its positions in the Asia-Pacific region. This is official policy. Strategic rivalry with China is not yet inevitable but its likelihood is growing. It would be too provocative for Americans to challenge Beijing openly by encircling China (although the U.S. has obviously beefed up diplomacy in Vietnam, Myanmar and the rest of Southeast Asia). Moreover, tightly woven economic interdependence in the region prevents the U.S. from acting head on. In the meantime, the presence of an aggressive regime in the region, which deliberately reaffirms this reputation and frightens U.S. allies in the region, is a good pretext for consolidating alliances and building up military and political presence, from ground- and sea-based systems to missile defense.
Beijing would have been wise to moderate its North Korean client long ago by nudging them along the path to peaceful transformation. However, it’s not clear that China can do this. Everyone agrees that it is impossible to simply persuade the leadership in Pyongyang. The Western idea that Pyongyang might retreat if Beijing cuts or discontinues economic aid may be erroneous.
North Korea’s leaders realize that their Chinese partners primarily want to avoid any escalation that might shift the status quo against Beijing’s interests. So, it’s not only America, Japan and South Korea that can be blackmailed through escalation, but China too.
By exerting pressure, Beijing risks provoking Pyongyang into a fit of aggression against Seoul or Tokyo, which could escalate U.S. involvement in the region and backfire against China. Paradoxically, the extremely complicated relations between Asian states, which define the contours of an intense rivalry in the future, are what guarantee the survival of this anachronistic regime – the spawn of a bygone era and a failed ideology.