The world has long got used to the cyclical nature of tensions around the Korean peninsula. Aggravation of the situation has been repeatedly followed by détente, while bellicose rhetoric has been replaced by peaceful gestures. But the recent two years’ developments raise eyebrows even among seasoned observers; launches of North Korean missiles and large-scale US-South Korea military exercises are only several months away from the unprecedented summit meetings between Kim Jong-un and leaders of the great powers. Valdai Club experts explain where the young North Korean leader is taking his country and what its neighbours should be prepared for.
On December 26, 2011, nine days after Kim Jong Il, the Great Leader and All-Conquering Steel Commander, passed away, his son Kim Jong-un, was proclaimed Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. A new chapter in the history of North Korea began. During the new leader’s eight-year reign, he has carried out a number of de facto market reforms and significantly improved the welfare of the nation’s citizens. When Kim Jong-un came to power, he was under thirty years old, but he has managed to deliver the country out of an economic crisis by implementing policies that improve the lives of ordinary citizens without shaking the pillars of the North Korean political system.
At the same time, Pyongyang has remained isolated in the international arena, primarily because of its stubborn insistence on implementing its nuclear programme. The launch of the first North Korean satellite in December 2012 and its February 2013 nuclear test resulted in a significant increase in tensions between the DPRK and its rivals: the United States, South Korea and Japan. In early 2016, the DPRK announced a hydrogen bomb test, which prompted the UN Security Council to issue new sanctions against the hermit kingdom. On July 4, 2017, as the US celebrated Independence Day, Pyongyang launched the Hwasong-14, its first intercontinental ballistic missile. After that, the sanctions became even more restrictive. It is worth noting that even China, North Korea’s main economic and political partner, and Russia joined the international community in implementing these sanctions. It seemed that Kim was finally headed for confrontation, and the international isolation of the DPRK reached its peak.
However, in Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year’s address, the Supreme Leader expressed a conciliatory attitude towards South Korea, which was preparing to host the Winter Olympics. Seoul reacted favourably, and within three days a direct line of communication was re-established between North and South Korea. On March 9, the first meeting between high-ranking representatives of the two countries in more than two years took place in the border town of Panmunjom. After that, events unfolded rapidly: on April 27, Kim held a meeting with Moon Jae-in, the President of the Republic of Korea, and soon US President Donald Trump announced that he was ready to hold a summit with the North Korean leader.
The summit took place on June 12, 2018 in Singapore – although Trump kept the public in suspense until the last moment, threatening to cancel the meeting. Observers suggested the meeting was a victory for Kim Jong-un’s image, and that it gave him international recognition. Now, almost a year later, we can say that despite the general reduction in tensions and bellicose declarations, the DPRK’s position on key security issues which deeply concern South Korea, the United States and Japan, has not changed. What matters the most is that is clear that Pyongyang will not agree to the “unconditional and complete denuclearisation” demanded by Washington. Did Kim outplay all of his opponents? What are his goals with regards to domestic, regional and international politics?
“Kim sees North Korea as a socialist state entrusted to him by his ancestors, and takes his responsibilities as the country's sacral leader very seriously,” Konstantin Asmolov, leading research fellow in Korean Studies at the RAS Institute for Far Eastern Studies, says. “Since the Juche ideology implies a course of self-reliance, Kim tries to ensure the country’s independence in the economy and in foreign policy alike.”
Evidently in line with the rules of Realpolitik, the North Korean leadership regards its nuclear missile capabilities as the basis of its international independence. Thanks to their development, the country is able to concentrate its efforts on building an independent economy, which remains resilient in spite of increasing sanctions pressure. In April 2018, this course of action was outlined in the documents of the third plenum of the Central Committee of the Korean Workers’ Party.
According to Georgy Toloraya, executive director of Russian National Committee on BRICS research, while he hopes to preserve the look of “our version of socialism” in the DPRK, Kim is ready to fill it with new content, focusing on domestic economic development rather than the preservation of dogmas. “Kim Jong-un actually chose to shut his eyes to changes in domestic economic life, which began back in the 1990s with the “marketization from below”. Pushed to the verge of starvation, North Koreans somehow had to survive by engaging in shuttle trade and small businesses. They were reselling goods and trading on the market, which led to the emergence of a class of proprietors and private ownership in the DPRK by the beginning of Kim’s rule,” he says.
The experts agree on Kim's models, which are essentially a repetition of China’s reform efforts. “It is about transforming the economy to a market economy, about a serious expansion of the private sector while political control is retained by the elites and about formally maintaining the official ideology, which is a mixture of Stalinist communism and local nationalism,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University says.
North Korea has serious advantages that theoretically would allow it to become another Asian “developmental dictatorship”. Its trump cards include both natural resources and its well-educated population, who are used not only in labour-intensive jobs, but also in highly skilled professions as labour is cheap. It is also important that in the framework of the nuclear and space rocketry programme, North Korea has accumulated significant scientific and technical potential in the field of new technology. “Therefore, the DPRK does not particularly need external resources to promote and consolidate its positions in the IT market,” Georgy Toloraya asserts. “Tales about North Korean hackers may be quite an exaggeration, but it is clear that North Korea has considerable personnel potential for software development and advances in the context of the fourth industrial revolution. North Korea is capable of using this potential on the outside either legally (if this is allowed) or illegally (cryptocurrency transactions, hacker attacks on financial institutions, banks and the corporations of ‘hostile countries’, etc.) Modern IT can bring hefty dividends to North Korea and it has been chosen as a priority in upgrading the scientific level of the North Korean economy.”
“North Korea is located close to economic powers such as South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, and has an abundance of natural resources and high-quality labour”, Lee Jae-Young, president, Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, says. “If North Korea's denuclearization is accompanied by economic reform and opening policies, in line with international standards, the growth potential of the North Korean economy will be quite considerable”.
However, Russian experts have expressed serious doubts about both greater openness and the possibility of denuclearization (more on that below). The main reason why the DPRK’s leadership will not pursue greater economic and, especially, political openness lies south of the 38th parallel.
“The existence of South Korea, which exceeds North Korea 25-fold with regard to the population’s income, according to the latest official material in North Korea, is a potentially destabilising factor”, Andrei Lankov says. “This presence of a country that is very rich and fundamentally attractive for its ‘twin state’ radically distinguishes the situation in Korea from China’s. To prevent the regime from falling due to an East German scenario, the DPRK must maintain a high level of control over the population, the relative closeness of the country, and the rigidly repressive nature of its management. Unfortunately, in order to maintain domestic political stability, these measures are necessary, but they are incompatible with economic growth at the level of present-day China. Hence, the DPRK’s transformation into a full-fledged ‘Asian tiger’ is unlikely. However, a significant improvement in the situation is quite possible”.
For the DPRK, the key obstacle to following the Chinese or Vietnamese way is the sanctions regime. “The DPRK could quickly achieve economic growth even without opening the economy, which would be dangerous for its social system. However, this would only be possible if sanctions were lifted or greatly reduced, and this is not likely for the time being”, Toloraya suggests.
Trump, who considers himself “deal-savvy”, would like to offer Kim a “big deal”: North Korea, meanwhile, must abandon its nuclear missile potential in an exchange for an end to sanctions and the opportunity to develop in the Chinese or Vietnamese way. However, things are not as bright as in the White House’s propaganda video, prepared for the Kim-Trump first meeting (incidentally, it surprised many Russians by showing AvtoVAZ assembly as an illustration of innovation). It is not only because nuclear weapons offer the main guarantee of sovereignty for the DPRK‘s leadership.
“North Korea’s complete denuclearization cannot be achieved either because from the perspective of the US, it implies the destruction of biological and chemical weapons as well”, Georgy Toloraya explains. “Such complete disarmament of the DPRK is only possible if it is backed by an entirely new system of security guarantees and the disappearance not only of any direct military threat but also of the new hybrid war methods, including colour revolutions and information warfare, which are dangerous to the regime”.
Security guarantees from the US are even hard to imagine. Even if Donald Trump gives them, his successor could favour a harsh confrontation. According to Toloraya, “even a reformed democratic DPRK will hardly suit the US establishment, that has persuaded itself over decades that North Korea is the devil incarnate and embodies all evils that are completely at variance with the very ideological paradigm of the American way of life”.
Nevertheless, the Valdai Club experts suggest that a compromise is possible. The DPRK will not give up its deterrent potential, but may begin by keeping certain boundaries. Toloraya and Asmolov address the “Israeli option” when the country denies that it has nuclear weapons, although everyone understands that it has a certain reserve, and tacitly agree with this.
“The most of what can be achieved, in my view, is compelling North Korea to reduce its nuclear potential to a minimum and stopping its build-up by closing down a number of programs on developing ICBMs and producing weapon-grade fissionable materials. But Pyongyang should retain a certain necessary nuclear reserve”, Toloraya says. According to Asmolov, Pyongyang could also officially observe the moratorium on nuclear tests and missile launches, legally formalise a limitation of its nuclear missile potential above and beyond the one provided for by the agreements and conclude a mutual agreement on the non-use of force with its opponents.
On February 27-28, 2019, the second Kim-Trump Summit took place in Hanoi and, according to both sides, failed. Pyongyang was ready to close its nuclear centre in Yongpyong in exchange for the lifting of sanctions adopted by the Security Council in 2016-17. However, according to the US, this was too little to guarantee the immediate lifting of sanctions, because the DPRK has other nuclear facilities, and Washington’s goal was to deprive it of nuclear weapons completely. The parties went away with nothing.
According to Valdai Club experts, in the wake of Hanoi the situation could develop in two directions. “On the one hand, there is a possibility that the United States and the DPRK will reach a kind of compromise, or at least resume the dialogue interrupted in Hanoi,” Andrey Lankov says. “This compromise cannot and will not include the complete nuclear disarmament of the DPRK, but may include a reduction in North Korea’s nuclear and/or missile potential in exchange for the weakening of the sanctions regime. For the time being, this generally optimistic scenario seems to be more likely.”
However, we shall not exclude the pessimistic scenario, he warns. If the talks have reached a complete dead-end, Washington, believing that time is on its side, could wait for sanctions to destabilise the North Korean economy. “In this case, the DPRK could try to increase pressure on the United States and go for a new deliberate exacerbation of the situation. This, in turn, will result in a painful reaction from President Trump, and eventually we will find ourselves in a situation as risky as the one in 2017,” Lankov asserts. The dialogue has not been declared severed, but, speaking at a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly in April 2019, Kim said that if the US does not abandon its demands for unilateral concessions by the end of the year, the DPRK may go “to Plan B”, Konstantin Asmolov reminds.
Lee Jae-Young believes that “Plan B” is unlikely to include armed provocations, since Pyongyang made it a priority as part of its self-reliant economic development. “This indicates that North Korea, which wishes to establish itself as a normal state in the international community, is concerned it will be stigmatised as a rogue state by the international community if it again resorts to military provocation tactics. Therefore, the risk of North Korea staging further provocations seems low even if advances are not made in the denuclearisation process”.
The third Kim-Trump meeting took place on June 30, 2019 and was an impromptu one. After the G20 summit in Osaka, Trump paid a two-day visit to Seoul to discuss the stalled talks on denuclearization. “While there, if Chairman Kim of North Korea sees this, I would meet him at the Border/DMZ just to shake his hand and say Hello(?)!” Trump wrote in his Twitter to apparent surprise of his own administration. The meeting lasted only several minutes but it included a symbolic gesture on Trump’s part: he crossed the demarcation line becoming the first US president to enter North Korea. The “diplomacy of smiles” continues, but will it lead to real diplomatic breakthroughs? Although tension on the Korean Peninsula has ebbed significantly since the beginning of 2018, Valdai Club experts prefer not to talk about “détente”.
The moment President Trump meets Chairman Kim at the DMZ and becomes the first sitting President to enter North Korea: pic.twitter.com/VwqGAEmmxz— The White House (@WhiteHouse) 30 июня 2019 г.
However, eventually the tensions pendulum will swing back, the experts warn. Transitions from cooperation to confrontation and back will largely be due to the changes within South Korea, Andrei Lankov says. South Korea’s conservatives are strict opponents of any contact with the North, while the so-called “Progressives” (that is, left-wing nationalists), on the contrary, support these contacts. A power transition in Seoul will mean a radical change in policy towards the DPRK.
According to Georgy Toloraya, the next round of confrontation may occur in 2020: a diplomatic success could benefit Trump in the presidential election less than a demonstration of strength in East Asia. If so, tensions may surge at approximately that time, Moon Jae-in, a ‘lame duck’, will also be in a much weaker position by the time”, the scholar points out. “A threat from the conservative opposition may compel him at some point to play up to the anti-North Korean attitudes that are fairly strong in South Korea. South Korean society is about fifty-fifty in its attitude to cooperating or deterring North Korea. Importantly, the North Korean factor is less and less relevant for new generations in South Korea: they do not perceive North Koreans as brothers and are not willing to feed and support these ‘poor relatives’.”
That is why any talks about Korea unification, despite the official statements from both sides of the demilitarised zone, have become something of a political ritual. According to Georgy Toloraya, neither the North nor the South needs it. “History shows that it is not at all necessary even for groups with a common history and ethnic background to unite in a single state,” he says.
Andrei Lankov has the same position. “Even if we ignore that world history knows not a single precedent for such a ‘peaceful unification’ in this case the situation is that it is undesirable both for the elites and for the population of the South. For the elites and the population of the North it will be a death sentence”, he says. “Therefore, the ‘peaceful unification’ of the country is nothing more than demagogic rhetoric both sides have resorted to in the process, and they have not taken it seriously for a long time.”
What could be the consequences for the North and the South, given a hypothetical “peaceful unification?” Konstantin Asmolov asks. “Even if in an imaginary world the North Korean regime miraculously dissolved, and the South engulfed the North, a united Korea would be faced with a wide range of problems,” he says. “They include economic (costs involved in rebuilding the infrastructure and developing the North); social (defectors from the North are seen as second-rate people in the South; what happens when one-third of the population is second-rate citizens?); and political (lustration and witch-hunting in the North would lead to resistance, and the current level of freedom could be forgotten)”.
The only real scenario which could facilitate unification would be a revolution, Andrei Lankov claims. “It would be about the regime in the North falling, followed by the generally forced seizure of the North by the South, conditional upon Beijing’s tacit approval of this annexation. Neither Korea and none of the external forces want such a turn of events, but that does not guarantee that it will not happen, since troubles tend to happen.”
However, what will happen if an internal political crisis occurs in North Korea and Beijing refuses to approve of the peninsula’s unification under Seoul’s authority? Given that South Korea is one of the most loyal US allies in the region, this is quite likely. China may occupy North Korea or part of the territory by itself, according to Georgy Toloraya. “At any rate, North Korea will be put under China’s nuclear umbrella through the formation of a pro-Chinese regime. At most, North Korea will be included in the PRC as a self-governing territory, but this is unlikely,” he suggests. “It appears that the most rational decision for the North Korean elite in a critical near-death moment would be to sell themselves out to China and most probably, in this case we would have to deal, not with a united Korea but with South Korea disappointed with its failure to resolve a national problem and a pro-China North Korea. This historical experiment would be denounced in Asia as an example of Chinese expansionism and would seriously undermine China’s positions in the region.”
In the long run, an ideal option is the co-existence of the two Koreas based on respect for each other’s sovereignty and the maintenance of economic exchanges, especially due to the fact that both groups of national elites are in no way interested in losing part of their power to supranational bodies, Toloraya says. “That said, having preserved its political independence, the DPRK would become an economic appendage to South Korea, but this prospect would fully suit it. This kind of arrangement may last for a long time. At some historical moment, after the arrival of a new generation, a rapprochement of the two states is possible (in a similar form to the Union State of Russia and Belarus) but for the time being this is idle speculation,” he points out.
It is notable that the “unification plan” of the current South Korean government includes the preservation of North Korea as a separate state (despite the fact that according to Asmolov, for South Korea, “the DPRK is not a country, but an anti-state organisation which illegally controls its five northern provinces”). “The Korean government aims to guarantee the stability of North Korea and to coexist peacefully,” Lee Jae-Young explains, “defining its stance with the “3-Nos”: no desire for the North’s collapse, no pursuit of unification by absorption, and no pursuit of unification through artificial means”.
Nevertheless, the official unification plan of Korea is the Unification Plan for One National Community. According to Lee Jae-Young, in the first stage of the plan, the two Koreas resolve the current hostile and confrontational relationship through reconciliation and cooperation. In the second stage, a transitional two-system and two-government inter-Korean coalition is formed to develop the respective economic and social communities. The third step is to draft a unified constitution and proceed on to a single system and single government through due democratic processes. Considering the electoral cycles in South Korea, it is fair to assume that during his presidency, Moon Jae-in could accomplish, at best, only the first point of this ambitious plan.
It is noteworthy that the hypothetical Korean unification could pose a problem not only to China: Japan regards this idea with great suspicion too. “Today, it is negative not only as regards North Korea, which it perceives as its main security threat, and this attitude sometimes turns into paranoia, but also to South Korea,” Toloraya says. “Recently, divergences between Japan and South Korea over history have become strongly pronounced. The two nations are far from reconciliation and will hardly treat each other with genuine respect in the foreseeable future.” In addition, the fact that both countries are allies of the United States does not contribute to the likelihood of an alliance between Seoul and Tokyo.
For both Pyongyang and Seoul, the Japanese attempt to play the Korean card in domestic political games is annoying. “Japan is actively utilizing North Korean issues, such as its nuclear armament and abduction of Japanese nationals, to distract the public away from domestic scandals and gain support for an amendment to the constitution, followed by an increase in its military power,” Lee Jae-Young says with regard to the concerns South Korea has regarding the military strengthening of Japan.
The United States needs the Korean Peninsula as an important regional geopolitical base, Asmolov explains. With regard to North Korea, it is a reason to build up its military potential in the region, directed not just against the DPRK. “The US is eventually interested in putting North Korea under its control, either mild or tough, by way of its occupation by South Korean forces or its involvement in the orbit of its influence”, Toloraya adds. “Moreover, the US has not given up and is unlikely to give up its strategic goal dictated by the interests of the geopolitical struggle in East Asia. The main opponent is China, followed by Russia, while the DPRK is an annoying buffer in the way of US movement to the borders of these countries. Moreover, North Korea’s “nuclear thorn in the flesh” deters the US forces in the Far East. Therefore, the ultimate goal of the US is the unification of Korea under the aegis of South Korea, which implies North Korea’s disappearance as a state. But this goal is nearly impossible to achieve, since China is the main opponent in this respect”.
For China, North Korea is a useful buffer that covers its north-eastern borders, so the hypothetical annexation scenario could be only last resort. China is interested in stability and maintaining the status quo. “Beijing would like to make Pyongyang more manageable”, Asmolov says, “but the DPRK is trying to manoeuvre, and, despite the rhetoric of friendship and support in bargaining with the United States, the mistrust persists. Of course, China tries to use economic levers and involve the South in its sphere of influence as well. Tensions between China and the ROK caused by the deployment of an American missile defence system in the South have decreased, but this is resetting things back to zero, not warming them up.”
According to the Valdai Club experts, maintaining stability is the primary interest Russians have regarding the Korean Peninsula. “Importantly, the preservation of peace should prevail over North Korea’s denuclearisation”, Toloraya points out, “although the development of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang is a serious challenge to the non-proliferation regime, which may undermine Russia’s position as a global actor in the future. At the same time, Russia’s concern is not as big as that of China, which would face a huge existential threat from the development of new nuclear forces and the appearance of new nuclear countries in the region, such as South Korea, Japan and especially Taiwan”.
Konstantin Asmolov shares the opinion that the denuclearisation of the DPRK should not be Russia’s main priority. He emphasises that the absence of tension is even more important for Moscow than the nuclear disarmament of the North. This is why Russia supports the current state of affairs, when the focus of a dialogue between Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington is more important than its speed.
Nevertheless, we should remember the least desirable scenario for North Korea’s neighbour to the northwest: if a hot spot appears in the immediate vicinity of the Russian border. Notably, Moscow must prepare for this option, both by taking measures to prevent the conflict, Asmolov says, and by preparing the infrastructure to make sure that fleeing refugees, environmental devastation, and high-precision weapons flying the wrong way do not cause Russia any harm.
Lee Jae-Yong presents an optimistic picture for Russia, recalling that after the unsuccessful summit in Hanoi, Moscow had the opportunity to play a critical diplomatic role (according to many observers, its first step was a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong UN in Vladivostok on 25 April 2019). “Russia can utilise the issue of the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearisation and inter-Korean economic cooperation as a useful strategic means on the international diplomacy stage”, he believes. “In addition, the importance of trade diversification as a countermeasure for sanctions against Russia has improved, and the strategic interests of Korea and Russia are falling into better alignment with each other: therefore, a progress in Korea-Russia relations can be expected. Now, the strategic implications of tripartite economic cooperation between South Korea, North Korea, and Russia, which Korea is actively pursuing, as well as Russia's Far East Development Policy are becoming much clearer for Russia.”
In this context, the question arises about whether Russia actually should support the sanctions against North Korea. According to Georgy Toloraya, support for the sanctions regime, let alone its toughening, does not meet Russia’s economic or strategic interests. It was a signal to China that Russia recognises its strategic concerns about North Korea's nuclear missile potential, but did not give Moscow any real benefits. “Russia should play up to China as it strives to persuade North Korea to denuclearize, and take relevant measures, mostly declarative on the bilateral track”, the scholar points out. “However, giving priority to denuclearization as Russia has been doing by force of inertia since the 1990s would be a major foreign policy miscalculation”.
Support for the sanctions regime, Toloraya asserts, alienates the North Korean leaders from Russia without bringing any real dividend except for some mythical approval by the US, which cannot be either turned into money or used in any other way because differences in other areas are too pronounced. It is time for Russia not only to urge a change in the sanctions regime, which is being predictably blocked by the US and its allies at the UN Security Council, but also take some concrete steps. ”It is also important to keep in mind that despite its formal support for the sanctions, China is turning a blind eye to their violation, owing to its long border with the DPRK. Bilateral trade is invisible for foreign observers and experts, but it continues and even expands,” he emphasises.
The bad news is that in the event of a hypothetical favourable breakthrough in the North Korea-US talks, the relaxation or lifting of sanctions and the settlement of the nuclear problem will benefit the Chinese, South Korean and American companies rather than Russia. “Considering Russia’s current double-dealing policy, North Korea will hardly be willing to grant us any preferences,” he warns.
Generally speaking, the current “no war, no peace” situation is the most favourable one for Russia, since Moscow is aware of its limited influence in Northeast Asia and often acts as Beijing’s junior partner. It does not profit from either sharp aggravation or a rapid warming of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. However, we could consider both as unlikely. The North Korean leadership’s actions are quite logical: Kim seeks to improve the well-being of the population, maintain the dominant ideology and make the nuclear shield the main means of ensuring sovereignty. Internationally, he will try to act as independently as possible, avoiding excessive dependence on allies like Beijing, well-wishers like Moscow and, with certain reservations, Seoul, and, especially, on his enemies in Washington. For South Korea, the possibility of internal upheavals in the DPRK creates no less concern than armed confrontation, so it would prefer to maintain the status quo. The same is true for the PRC. The only player which can consciously pursue a change in the strategic balance on the Korean Peninsula is the United States. In its diplomatic arsenal, “regime change” remains an option, and its use always could bring unpredictable consequences.