Economic Statecraft
The End of Military and Political Stability on the Korean Peninsula

There is the understanding that, along with the events that took place on March 31 this year with the launch of ICBMs, the alleged test of a nuclear weapon, also carried out for the first time since 2017, will begin a new cycle of aggravation of the military-political situation on the Korean Peninsula, writes Valdai Club expert Alexander Vorontsov.

Analysts acknowledge that the situation on the Korean Peninsula since the early 2022 has steadily begun to trend towards a consistent increase in tension.

But the events of recent weeks have given this process significant impetus.

The topic of an imminent new (seventh) nuclear test by the DPRK has begun to be actively discussed both in Seoul and Washington. At first, his date was set for May 10 this year, when the new head of the Republic of Korea was to take up his duties. Now the date has been postponed for the time being. 

Immediately after his inauguration, the ROK’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol held his first meeting with aides and spoke about a possible nuclear test by North Korea, while reiterating the US State Department’s assessment that the DPRK could conduct such a test soon, before the end of May.

Yoon Suk-yeol on Wednesday held his first meeting with senior secretaries in charge of various sectors in his cabinet, and discussed the possibility of a North Korean nuclear test happening in the near future.

The new Defence Minister, Lee Jong-sup, echoed his predecessor’s plan to develop the “Three Pillar System” — also known as the “Three Ks”: Kill Chain, KAMD (Korea Air Defence and Missile Defence), KMPR (Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation) — to counter North Korean threats. Let us recall that these measures of influence include, among other things, “beheading the top leadership of the DPRK” with pre-emptive strikes.

This process of increasing tension was the result of a number of factors. Among them, the following should be highlighted.

First, the leadership of the DPRK at the 6th meeting of the Politburo of the WPK Central Committee on January 19, 2022, after conducting an analysis of the policies of the Joe Biden administration, came to the conclusion that it was necessary to prepare for a long period of confrontation with the United States, requiring the accelerated development of “more powerful physical means capable of reliably suppressing hostile and ever-increasing US actions against the DPRK”. The party decided to abandon the voluntary moratorium on testing the most effective and formidable systems of nuclear missile weapons. The implementation of this decision followed immediately in the form of a series of tests of new types of missile weapons, including 13 such demonstrations this year. The latest among them was the launch of two new tactical guided weapons on April 16 this year. According to Pyongyang, the samples tested are important “for improving the performance of tactical nuclear weapons” and assumed the installation of a small nuclear warhead on them.

Second, the victory in the ROK presidential elections on March 9, 2022 of the right-wing conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, whose inauguration took place on May 10. The new president has demonstrated unilateral support for all aspects of the US strategy on the Korean Peninsula and in the East Asia region. As part of this course, he aims to completely abandon the policy of his predecessor, including with respect to North Korea; that is, at moving away from the line of military restraint and stimulating inter-Korean dialogue.

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Both the right-wing conservative and the progressive camps are almost equally emphasising their readiness to orient themselves towards Washington. Nevertheless, the conservatives accuse their opponents of not being pro-American enough in their stance. Of course, these accusations, like any election propaganda, are an exaggeration, but there is some small grain of truth in them, writes Valdai Club expert Andrei Lankov.
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So, if outgoing President Moon Jae-in tried tactfully to evade direct participation in Washington’s new military-political regional structures like QUAD and AUKUS, arguing that the US-South Korean military alliance and QUAD are different structures, Yoon Suk-yeol has resolutely reconsidered this approach. Yoon made the decision after assuming the presidency to participate as an observer in the summit of the four QUAD member states, which is slated to take place in Japan on May 24; this will be Seoul’s debut in this new capacity. Such steps reinforce fears in South Korean society about the inevitability of the country’s accession to QUAD in the near future, and, moreover, that South Korea may, to a certain extent, repeat the fate of Ukraine, which the US will use as a battering ram against China.

There is reason to believe that the new leadership of the Republic of Korea will also change its view on the advisability of deploying new US strike weapons systems on its territory, including additional THAAD missile defence systems. During the meetings of the Special Envoy of the President-Elect of ROK in Washington with Assistant for National Security Affairs Jake Sullivan and the Deputy Secretary of State of the United States on April 6 this year, an agreement was reached on the fundamental possibility of deploying American strategic weapons systems in South Korea in the form of nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and strategic bombers. The visit of US President Joe Biden to Seoul on May 20-22 this year is intended to consolidate the expansion of the sphere of responsibility of the bilateral alliance and the new role of South Korea in the US strategy.

With regard to Pyongyang, the new president’s team at the doctrinal level formulates the policy in the spirit of containing North Korea’s provocations with the help of overwhelming military force, which in practice has essentially transformed into a confrontation. This, among other things, is evidenced by the rigid linkage of any opportunities for dialogue with the demand for the complete denuclearisation of the DPRK according to the CVID formula repeatedly rejected by the north.

Within the framework of this model of interaction, Seoul predicts, and in fact “lays as an integral component of the general equation”, the likelihood of local clashes with the army units of the DPRK. Therefore, ROK intelligence predicts the most likely military provocations, including the skirmishes in the area of the 38th parallel.

However, as the long-term practice of real clashes between the North and South has showed, the nature and direction of the attacks of the north has often turned out to be unexpected.

Under the new ROK president, dangerous statements continue about the advisability of a preventive strike on North Korean missile positions, which to many analysts seemed to be only the costs of his election campaign.

In early April, the attention of the international community was attracted by the exchange of sharp verbal attacks between the official representatives of the ROK and the DPRK. On April 1, the South Korean Minister of Defence emphasised that a pre-emptive strike is possible if there are clear signs of a missile launch by North Korea, and the Secretary of the WPK Central Committee, the sister of the head of state, Kim Yo-jong, made statements on April 2 and 5, the meaning of which boiled down to a warning in the spirit that “before threatening a military strike against a nuclear state, one should first carefully consider the consequences” (in the first case, the message was delivered in a harsher and more emotional manner, in the second version, in a more restrained form). In Washington and Seoul, these statements by Kim Jong-un’s sister were interpreted as Pyongyang’s first public threat to use nuclear weapons against its southern neighbour. Then, during the military parade on April 25, 2022, the Supreme Leader of the DPRK himself repeated the same thought.

As a result, one gets the impression that at present both Pyongyang and Seoul are trying to aggravate the situation. What one side considers a necessary measure of self-defence, the other side, not without reason, perceives as an “intolerable provocation”.

As part of the rejection of the restrained policy of Moon Jae-in, the new leadership in Seoul, after a rather long break, resumed joint military manoeuvres with the Pentagon, launching a conflict spiral of action/counteraction on the peninsula. In this context, South Korean military analysts agree that the aforementioned launches of North Korean missiles on April 16 were Pyongyang’s reaction to the joint command and staff exercises of the Republic of Korea and the United States, which were held for 9 days starting on April 18 of this year. (preparation for them began six days earlier).

Within the framework of the developing conflict paradigm of North-South interaction, and based on information from reconnaissance satellites about active work on the restoration and modernisation of the Punggye-ri nuclear underground test site, in Seoul and Washington it is expected that Pyongyang will soon conduct a new, seventh nuclear weapons test. There are speculations in Seoul that this event may take place as early as May of this year.

The main vector of forecasts regarding the prospects for the development of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, which are being formed in the US and the ROK, holds that there is the understanding that, along with the events that took place on March 31 this year with the launch of ICBMs, the alleged test of a nuclear weapon, also carried out for the first time since 2017, will begin a new cycle of aggravation of the military-political situation on the Korean Peninsula. Accordingly, plans to respond to the expected “intolerable North Korean provocations” are being actively discussed in Seoul and Washington.

In this regard, the following factor should be highlighted. In the West, there is growing concern that in the new global international situation that has emerged since February 24, 2022, the possible reaction of Russia and China to the Pyongyang nuclear test may turn out to be much milder than before.

Seoul is carefully monitoring all the nuances of the emerging new phase of closer Russian-North Korean relations against the backdrop of Pyongyang’s resolute support for Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine. As an illustration of this thesis, we can note the fact that the next day after the reception at the DPRK Embassy in Moscow, dedicated to the 110th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, held on April 13, 2022, the ROK media, including Yonhap News Agency, completely reprinted the text of the speech by the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. South Korean analysts immediately began to scrupulously study it in order to understand to what extent now Moscow (and China) will take into account the position of the DPRK when forming its own policy in “regarding the development of bilateral relations and security guarantees on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.”

We are deeply convinced that it is precisely this most important factor in maintaining regional and global stability — the ability to hear each other — that should be the focus of attention of the leading strategists of the states concerned.

How Are Things in North Korea? Is the Nuclear Issue Still Relevant?
Konstantin Asmolov
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.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.