The belligerent statements that the United States, North Korea and South Korea have been making about each other over the past few weeks, and the steps they have taken to mobilise their existing arsenals, suggest that a sharp escalation of tension may occur in the near future.
In March 2022, Pyongyang successfully tested a “monster missile” — a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, weighing up to 110 tons and with a diameter of 2.5 meters. Prior to that, in January of the same year, a hypersonic missile was tested. With the launch of these missiles, the DPRK withdrew from the moratorium it announced in the spring of 2018 on the launch of ballistic missiles with a range of more than 5,000 km, as well as nuclear tests.
The launches have clearly demonstrated that the DPRK has finally become a nuclear power and is becoming or has already become the third country in the world — after Russia and China — that is capable of delivering a nuclear strike on US territory.
Even in a hypothetical scenario, when the Korean issue recedes into the shadows amid further escalation in Ukraine or when China tries to resolve the Taiwan issue in all possible ways, including “non-peaceful” ones, the likelihood that Pyongyang would decide to forcibly unify the peninsula for its own benefit is best categorised as fantastic, not an analytical assumption, writes Valdai Club expert Konstantin Asmolov.
The situation around the Korean Peninsula in the current conditions cannot but be affected by the aggravation of China’s relations with the US or Russia’s relations with the US and South Korea. China views the balance of power in Northeast Asia primarily through the prism of its confrontation with the United States. Under these conditions, keeping the DPRK afloat is of strategic value to China. In addition, China does not see the DPRK’s nuclear programme as a direct threat to itself. North Korean nuclear weapons are perceived by Beijing primarily as a problem for the United States and its allies. That is why China, on the one hand, suppresses attempts by the North Koreans to gain access to materials and components for the nuclear missile programme, and on the other hand, continues to trade with the DPRK, in spite of the sanctions.
As for Russia, its approach to Korean affairs cannot be separated from its relations with the two Korean states. South Korea’s response to Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine reflected that of the United States. Seoul has applied a whole range of sanctions against Moscow, although it has not yet supplied weapons to Kyiv. In turn, the DPRK is one of the few countries that unequivocally supported Russia in its actions in Ukraine and recognised the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. This obliges Moscow to support Pyongyang to a certain extent in international affairs, for example, in preventing the adoption of additional sanctions against the DPRK.
Due to these circumstances, not only a solution, but simply a multilateral discussion of the North Korean nuclear issue is now more difficult than ever before. Evidence of this is the veto by Moscow and Beijing on May 26 of the American UN Security Council draft resolution on DPRK missile tests, in violation of the moratorium announced in 2018. It showed that differences in Russian-American and Chinese-American relations turned out to be a higher priority for Moscow and Beijing than a joint condemnation of the DPRK. If the DPRK conducts a new nuclear test, the reaction of Russia and China is unlikely to be different.
It should probably be recognised that no threats, as well as no promises of economic benefits, can force the North Korean political elite to completely abandon nuclear weapons, which they consider the key to their own political, and possibly physical survival. In Pyongyang, the example of Germany is well known, where the capitalist West brutally subjugated the socialist East, making former citizens of the GDR “second-class people” and subjecting members of the former East German power elite to all kinds of persecution, including imprisonment.
The nuclear status of Pyongyang not only makes an external invasion like that of Iraq or Afghanistan almost impossible, but also radically reduces the chances of open foreign interference in the internal political affairs of the DPRK.
Even if serious unrest begins in the country, the North Korean authorities will be able to suppress them without much regard for world public opinion.
We could probably only talk about reducing the severity of the North Korean nuclear problem by turning to compromise agreement, according to which the DPRK would retain a certain number of nuclear weapons, but would freeze its nuclear programme and, possibly, physically eliminate part of the equipment that plays a key role in this programme. However, such an agreement would essentially mean a recognition of the DPRK as a nuclear power.
On the Korean peninsula today there is a real deadlock situation. However, it will not come to a direct military conflict. None of the participants in the current confrontation is interested in a military conflict. North Korea will not start a military conflict, because it knows that in this case it will be subjected to a nuclear strike by the United States, which is bound by allied obligations with South Korea. But the United States will not start a conflict either, since today North Korean missiles are capable of striking San Francisco and Los Angeles. South Korea will not start a war either, because in Seoul they realise that the war would completely destroy the country with its nuclear reactors and chemical plants.
Perhaps, after some time, both the DPRK’s neighbours and the world as a whole will reconcile with a nuclear Pyongyang, just as the world has reconciled today with a nuclear New Delhi and a nuclear Islamabad, and a new, albeit illusory, stability will come to the Korean peninsula, as it came to South Asia.
Given the exclusively anti-Chinese orientation of the idea of the Indo-Pacific and the clear intentions of Washington to weaken Chinese influence, one should expect the US to intensify work with its Asian allies and partners, among which the Republic of Korea occupies an important place, writes Valdai Club expert Andrey Gubin.