Modern Diplomacy
Acute Stability: Lessons from the Korean Confrontation
Valdai Club Conference Hall, Tsvetnoy boulevard 16/1, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

On July 27, the Valdai Club hosted an expert discussion dedicated to the situation on the Korean Peninsula and timed to coincide with the release of the Valdai report titled “The Return of History. The Cold War as a guide to contemporary international crises". Andrey Sushentsov, programme director of the Valdai Club, moderated the discussion. He noted that after the end of the Cold War, the state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula was perceived by many as a relic of the past, but now, “when history has returned,” it seems to be a possible model for the future situation in Europe.

Gleb Ivashentsov, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Korea (2005–2009), RIAC Vice President, stressed that the Russian special operation in Ukraine coincided with the emergence of new tensions around the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. “In recent years, North Korea has significantly increased its nuclear potential,” he explained, adding that there were statements from the DPRK about the possibility of using nuclear weapons against South Korea in the event of a military confrontation, although Pyongyang had always denied that it would do so before. In Seoul, in turn, the idea has firmly established itself that now North Korea will definitely not give up nuclear weapons. In addition, partly under the influence of events in Ukraine, the discussion about the country's nuclear-free status has received a new impetus in South Korea. “According to polls, 70 percent of South Korean citizens believe that their country urgently needs to acquire its own nuclear bomb, and this opinion is shared by both the right and the left,” Ivashentsov said.

Andrey Kulik, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Republic of Korea, noted that almost seventy years ago, the Korean War took the lives of 2.5 million people, before it escalated into a frozen conflict - but a very peculiar one. On the one hand, the situation on the peninsula has remained generally peaceful all this time. On the other hand, in the 21st century, the DPRK acquired nuclear weapons, which brought the destructive potential of the conflict to a new level. “In recent years, the Russian Federation has made great efforts to find a way out of this situation,” the ambassador said, recalling the road map proposed by Russia in 2017 for the settlement. However, the United States turned towards denuclearisation instead of a comprehensive solution to the problems of the Korean Peninsula, and this only led the situation to a dead end. Now Washington, apparently, has given priority to the elimination of the North Korean regime with the help of sanctions and, apparently, is not going to deviate from this line of thinking. Accordingly, Pyongyang is unlikely to abandon its plans to improve and build up its nuclear potential. The only encouraging thing, according to the diplomat, is that the participants in the frozen conflict are probably not going to resort to forceful actions so far. 

Gu Ho Eom, Director of the Asia-Pacific Center, and a professor of the Graduate School of International Studies at Hanyang University, suggested that military tensions between North and South Korea would increase. Describing the policies of the new South Korean administration, he noted that the policy promoted by it of exchanging economic aid for denuclearisation is reminiscent of the policy of the Lee Myung-bak administration. In addition, Yoon Seok-yeol's administration may once again raise the issue of human rights in North Korea. Speaking about the broader international context, the scholar emphasised that inter-Korean relations are now hostage to a new Cold War, in which the United States, China and Russia are involved. Nevertheless, he sees certain prospects for a settlement within the framework of an international approach, and he would consider it useful at the first stage to conclude a so-called low-level nuclear agreement as soon as possible.

Ilya Dyachkov, Associate Professor at the Department of Japanese, Korean, Indonesian and Mongolian Languages, MGIMO, Russian Foreign Ministry, and RIAC expert, noted that although the situation on the Korean Peninsula has long been characterised by a certain degree of stability, “this stability is acute and rather turbulent.” This is exacerbated by the practical absence of channels for political communication between the parties. “It is imperative to change the interactions in the region, but this is a very difficult task,” he believes. Dyachkov denied linking the dynamics of the DPRK's nuclear missile programme to external factors, pointing out that North Korea intends to continue its nuclear developments in any event, considering them a guarantee of the state's survival. “Some way out of the negotiating impasse would be to move away from the idea of ​​denuclearisation and turn nuclear negotiations into a dialogue on arms control,  but this would mean tacit recognition of the nuclear status of the DPRK and negotiations on an equal footing, and in this situation there is no need to talk about it,”  said the expert.