Economic Statecraft
Two Koreas in ‘Iron Triangles’
Valdai Club Conference Hall, Tsvetnoy Boulevard 16/1, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

On May 29, 2023, the Valdai Club held an expert discussion on the prospects for the development of the situation on the Korean Peninsula. The moderator of the discussion, Ivan Timofeev, Programme Director of the Club, noted that although the Korean theme had fallen into the background in news headlines, security issues on the Korean Peninsula remain one of the key international problems.

Timofeev stressed that now new factors have appeared in the security equation on the Korean Peninsula. The development of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is underway, the defence potential of the Republic of Korea is changing, and cooperation between South Korea and the United States is deepening. Relations between Moscow and Seoul are changing because of the special operation in Ukraine. The Republic of Korea abides by the United States’ export control regime, there are concerns related to the alleged supply of military ammunition from South Korea to Ukraine and the supply of Korean weapons to some NATO countries. In general, in the new international situation, there is uncertainty about the further development of the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Dmitry Kiku, Deputy Director of the External Restrictions Control Department of the Ministry of Finance of the Russian Federation, pointed out that international law has eroded. This also affects the Korean problem. The United States feels extremely free in its interpretation of UN Security Council resolutions. Under Trump, America turned a blind eye to North Korean missile launches, unless it involved ICBMs. Under Biden, Washington changed its policy and, in addition, returned to joint exercises with South Korea, which Pyongyang sees as a threat to its national security. Subsequently, North Korea resumed ICBM launches. When speaking about the situation on the Korean Peninsula, one cannot ignore the Russian special operation in Ukraine and the Taiwan factor. These circumstances probably prompted Russia and China in May 2022 to block the American resolution in the UN Security Council, which further “tightened the screws” on the DPRK. According to Kiku, the launch of a satellite by North Korea and the reaction of South Korea and the United States to it could become a trigger for the Korean Peninsula. “There is only hope that the parties will refrain from radical steps,” he said.

Global turbulence means the beginning of the formation of a new world order, said Konstantin Asmolov, a leading researcher at the Centre for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This new world order is characterised by the fragmentation of the economic, political and information space. In Northeast Asia, this trend is embodied in a return to the bloc system. Instead of a single space in the region, two “iron triangles” are being formed: Moscow — Beijing — Pyongyang and Washington — Tokyo — Seoul. In the context of a return to the bloc system, practical goal-setting is more important than general norms. As a result, the previously popular idea that Russia and China should be mediators between the North and the South — that is, in fact, to put pressure on Pyongyang and bring the position of the international community to it — is losing relevance. Now it is rather the opposite situation — Beijing is bringing Pyongyang’s position to the attention of the international community.

Asmolov also considers the general trend towards confrontation important. The growing level of confrontation between Washington and Beijing is forcing the two Korean states to choose sides, he said. Moreover, for South Korea, it is not about a political union, but about values. At the same time, Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration, while actively speaking out in support of the American course of action, is in no hurry, despite US pressure, to comply with American orders that are unfavourable for Seoul, in particular in matters of arms supplies to Ukraine. Asmolov suggests that Yoon Suk Yeol, resorting to tough rhetoric in the North Korean direction, is bargaining for a certain freedom of action regarding Russia and China, as he realizes that pragmatists in Pyongyang and Seoul will not enter a real conflict because of rhetorical steps.