North Korea: What Is and What Should Never Be

The rapid collapse of the inter-Korean dialogue and the likely appearance of American missiles on Korean soil with the blessing of Moon Jae-in, has some chance of coming true, writes Valdai Club expert Konstantin Asmolov.

Sometimes, when engaging in scientific activity, yours truly is not so much engaged in expert forecasting as he is writing so-called anti-forecasts, describing undesirable scenarios in hope that the publication of such plots will prevent their execution. This text offers one of these unpalatable “what if” scenarios, because the situation around the rupture of inter-Korean communication channels on June 9, 2020, conjures rather unpleasant thoughts.
To begin with, by the second half of 2019, the inter-Korean dialogue had already clearly reached an impasse, and the fault for this impasse can largely be found with the actions of the Moon Jae-in administration.

In the Russian media and elsewhere throughout the world, Moon is often positioned as a leftist (in the sense that he is not rightist), and South Korean conservatives generally try to portray him as a crypto-communist. In fact, Moon is more likely a populist or an adept politico, voicing the left’s agenda and a course toward rapprochement with the North, largely from the logic of the factional struggle. In this context, Moon in early 2018 responded to North Korea’s proposals for two reasons. First, it elevated his political standing, and, second, it allowed him to hold the Olympics in Pyeongchang without fear that on the day of their commencement, Kim Jong-un might launch another ICBM missile and thus “steal the show”.
If you carefully look at the inter-Korean agreements and analyse what has been done, then you can notice that in the end, their only real success has been an agreement in the military sphere, which significantly weakened border tension and reduced the likelihood of armed conflict due to random factors. However, it should be noted that the agreement provides for the cessation of all hostile actions by the parties, which include the distribution north of the Demilitarised Zone of anti-Pyongyang and offensive leaflets by South Korean “civil activists”, primarily “fighters for a free North Korea”, led by defector Park Sang-hak. The launch of these leaflets, where the size of the average batch was 500 thousand pieces, repeatedly provoked the indignation of the North, but each time Seoul failed to intervene, explaining that freedom of opinion in the country and actions against human rights activists was a violation of the Constitution. Moreover, most of the balloon launches come from the border zone, the entrance to which is limited, which indicates the tacit approval of the authorities.

The situation is worse in other areas. An arranged meeting between divided families was never held because it became drowned in South Korean bureaucratic delays. Meanwhile, the joint fight against infectious diseases, against the background of the coronavirus epidemic, ended up in general embarrassment: the news story that South Korean-made masks were being used by the North Koreans led to a special government statement that there had been no official or secret deliveries to North Korea, and all the masks needed for the epidemic stay in the country. In general, if the North requested some real assistance, the South either furnished it with a huge number of delays, or offered various ceremonial events that would look good in photos, but did not have a substantive effect on the development of relations between the two countries. As a result, the North, without naming Moon Jae-in, intensified its criticism of Seoul’s political policies, and was not particularly embarrassed to do so.

Let’s add to this that recently, against the backdrop of the confrontation between the US and China, Seoul found itself in a very unpleasant situation, when it was required to not only take a side, but also to take part in a “cold war”. In this context, one can consider rumours actively circulated in Seoul about the desire of the United States to strengthen the power of its THAAD missile defence system, or even deploy medium-range missiles in South Korea, potentially aimed not only at the DPRK and the PRC, but also against Russia.

Add to this the rather unpleasant bargaining which transpired over the cost of keeping the American contingent in South Korea.

It is clear that the United States is the main political ally of South Korea, and China is its leading economic partner, and we remember what Beijing’s first reaction to the deployment of the first THAAD battery in South Korea was. However, despite the many troubles that China may cause South Korea if it chooses to side with the Americans, Washington has much more varied and equally unpleasant methods of leverage. This was clearly seen in several previous stories (the fate of GSOMIA or the participation of South Korean troops in operations in the Strait of Hormuz): at first Seoul demonstrated a proud and independent policy, but at the last moment accepted the American conditions, although the fact that this was not done right away and not in its entirety, was declared as a diplomatic victory. Therefore, the question of the solidarity of Seoul and Washington is not an “if” but a “when” question.

In this context, inter-Korean contacts, oddly enough, turn into a “toxic asset”. Not so long ago, North Korea began to openly express support for China in its confrontation with the United States, and it turns out that from the point of view of future political moves, maintaining dialogue is turning into a source of concern.

However, Moon’s electorate is more likely to lean left than right, and it may not forgive him for a sudden change of position. Therefore, from the point of view of more cynical policymakers, it is highly desirable that the sudden deployment of American missiles in the South would look like a response to certain malicious actions of the North, which “first started” the escalation. Given the ideocratic nature of power in the DPRK, it’s easy to tease it by clicking on the pain point of “insulting the highest dignity”, all the more if you don’t prevent your own ideologically-minded activists from weighing in.

Of course, after the ultimatum of Kim Yo-jong, the Seoul authorities got worried and proposed the adoption of a law banning leaflets, but one might ask: why weren’t measures taken to stop the balloon leaflets from the very beginning? Therefore, it is possible that in the foreseeable future, we may see the end of the inter-Korean agreement in the military sphere, especially if on June 25, on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, Park really launches a million leaflets to the North, as he promised? Let me explain: the South Korean law on national security, which is much tougher than Russian anti-extremist laws, allows for the punishment of “activities that benefit the enemy”. At one time, it was applied to trade union activists, since the struggle for the rights of workers was thought to undermine the economic growth of the South, which meant that it benefitted the North. According to such logic, Park, despite his anti-communism, could well be blamed for the consequences of his actions that could pose a threat to the national security of the country.

Moreover, this is not the first sharp turn. Park Geun-hye began her presidency as a centrist and talked about the “process of trust”, and moved to extreme right positions in 2016 under the influence of the two nuclear tests in the DPRK. An even more suitable example is Kim Young-sam, who was preparing for a summit with Kim Il Sung in 1994, but after his death sought to “rock the boat” as much as possible, including urging that the DPRK be denied assistance during a deadly famine, in the hope that the difficult economic situation there would lead to regime change.

Therefore, to the great regret of the author, his anti-forecast, which predicts the rapid collapse of the inter-Korean dialogue and the likely appearance of American missiles on Korean soil with the blessing of Moon Jae-in, has some chance of coming true.

Of course, not only the author, but also Russia and China, as well as the “international community” would very much like the “Olympic warming” and even the current stagnation on the Korean peninsula to continue as long as possible, not to mention the resumption of real dialogue. But it seems that the North Koreans are “fed up”, and in this sense, it is very symbolic that Kim Yo-jong made an ultimatum on June 4, given that it was her visit to South Korea in the winter of 2018 that started a peace-oriented dialogue. And although the general trends in the changing international situation indicate the that conflict will prevail over consensus, the author hopes that his dire predictive fantasies will remain fantasies.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.