How Are Things in North Korea? Is the Nuclear Issue Still Relevant?

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.

Both questions can be answered in a much more detailed way, of course, and we will start the conversation with the second one, since the termination of the moratorium on ICBM launches was officially confirmed by the North Korean side after a new type of ICBM, the Hwasong-17, was launched on March 24 under the personal stewardship of the country’s leader. In terms of its tactical and technical characteristics, from range to time in the air, this missile significantly exceeds the one launched in 2017 and is definitely a missile capable of delivering a nuclear explosion anywhere in the United States. Moreover, emerging data on activity at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, Kim Jong-un’s remarks about the need to rebuild the Sohae spaceport, and information about the start of construction work at the Phungheri nuclear test site have provided an occasion for speculation that, in a certain situation, North Korea may implement new nuclear tests.

In addition, in late 2021 — early 2022 North Korea revealed new military equipment. A hypersonic glider, cruise missiles, large-calibre MLRS (actually firing short-range missiles), and a rail-mobile missile system that launches a North Korean analogue of the Iskander missile, capable of performing a “pull-up” manoeuvre, which creates a fair amount of missile defence problems for a potential enemy.

Such movements have a complicated range of reasons, both political and military-technical, associated with the need to test a number of weapons technology innovations. A year after the Biden administration came to power, it became completely clear to Pyongyang that the new American administration does not intend to change policy, and although they have declared their readiness to negotiate at any time, in any place, they do not offer anything new. At the same time, we have to expect a new round of sanctions pressure, which has so far been restrained by the actions of Russia and China — statements that North Korea has violated the “moratorium on the launch of ICBMs”, since the spring launches of 2022, despite the formal distance, signify the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles with high-altitude trajectories and preparations for the launch of a reconnaissance satellite, sounded even before the term “ICBM” was uttered in Pyongyang.

During the 10 years of Kim Jong-un’s rule, the young leader has turned out to have made a number of breakthroughs — from the development of a nuclear missile programme, the capabilities of which today are at the level of an “adult” country, to the expansion of foreign policy contacts during the “Olympic warming” and meetings with leaders of USA, China and Russia. However, this year the warming, which had turned into a strategic pause in recent years, may come to an end.

In such a situation, Pyongyang will resort to its typical “raising the stakes” tactics. This should sober up its opponents and push them towards the idea that it is impossible to solve the problems of the Korean Peninsula by force. The 2018 Olympic thaw was preceded by the 2017 “presidential rap battle”, when Kim and Trump bickered almost live.

At the same time, 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.

I would also like to note that accusations against Pyongyang of violating the moratorium are not correct: it was not a legally binding document, but a “goodwill gesture” that was supported in the hope that North Korea’s “exemplary behaviour” would be rewarded with reciprocal steps towards consensus, at least at the level of easing sanctions. In this sense, the fact that ICBM launches have not been carried out for so long time deserves respect.

Of course, discussions about possible sanctions being levied raise a new set of questions about how the situation with the North Korean economy is. According to the information available to the author, it is not simple, but it is radically different from the idea of imminent famine, despite the combination of the consequences of economic sanctions and special anti-epidemic measures that closed the country for quarantine.

The course to focus all efforts on economic development, which has been ongoing since April 2018, combined with a set of measures to strengthen ideological unity and combat the propaganda of hostile content, allows the regime to ensure the provision of food and ideological security that will allow it to exist in a situation that is actually equivalent to blockade. Especially as there is no complete blockade — the DPRK is starting to slightly open its borders, building disinfection complexes on the border and slowly resume transport links, at least with China.

It is not clear how long the country will remain in self-isolation, but it will open slowly, taking into account the anti-epidemic situation in the surrounding countries. Given the situation in South Korea, where the number of cases is in the hundreds of thousands per day, it is unlikely that North Korea will not discard the “self-isolation of the whole country” in the foreseeable future.

Thus, the nuclear programme of the DPRK remains relevant, especially against the background of the fact that the Ukrainian crisis dealt a certain blow to the traditional model of the world order, while the statements of the Ukrainian leadership about the possibility of establishing their own nuclear weapons clearly played a role in shaping Russia’s decision to conduct a special military operation. In this context, I would like to note the increased likelihood that in the new situation, the permanent members of the UN Security Council may no longer vote so unanimously for the next sanctions package against North Korea.

However, the question of “how things are in Korea” concerns not only the North, but also the South, where important changes have also taken place.

On March 9, 2022, amid an atmosphere of public division and unprecedented “black PR from both sides”, a presidential election was held in South Korea, which was won by the conservative candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol. The gap between him and the ruling camp’s candidate, Lee Jae-myung, was a little more than 0.7%, making it the slimmest margin in the electoral history of South Korea.

Let us note that Yoon is not a typical conservative politician. Moreover, he is not a professional politician at all. The former prosecutor general is known, among other things, as the man who imprisoned the previous conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, and before that he investigated the sensitive case of interference of special services in the 2012 elections. However, after becoming prosecutor general in 2019, Yoon continued his anti-corruption crusade, targeting Moon Jae-in’s inner circle. As a result, the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor’s Office “fought” for more than a year, Yoon resigned, was forced to go into politics, after which the black-and-white logic of factional struggle and the absence of a third force led him to the conservative camp.

The new president’s determination to bring order to domestic politics shows that he has refused to rely upon the traditional Blue House way of doing things, which has become for the masses a symbol of the “imperial presidency” and the alienation of power from the people. As for foreign policy, here Yoon reflects the views of conservatives who advocate an unambiguous alliance with the United States, a tougher policy towards the DPRK and a less tough approach towards Japan. Yoon himself clearly believes in “achieving peace by force” and has already said that a preventive strike could be the answer to the development of the North’s missile potential.

However, much more interesting is how the new president will solve a whole range of problems that the previous administration of Moon Jae-in left him as a difficult legacy. This includes a whole range of tasks, from problems related to demography (low fertility in the country, comparable only to Japan), the pandemic, a crisis in the real estate market and ensuring national unity amid a difficult political environment: the flywheel of political revenge will be very easy to start and very difficult to stop.

At the same time, from the point of view of putting his policy into practice, the new president faces a number of problems. First, the public split has not gone away and Yoon’s decisive actions will meet with especially strong opposition from society.

Second, until 2024, Yoon will have to work with a parliament in which Democrats hold a parliamentary majority. This will play a role if he hopes to pass certain bills through parliament or approve the candidacies of government representatives.

Third, Yoon needs to strengthen party unity, which he does in many ways, by recruiting as advisers (especially on economics and foreign policy) those persons who did similar things under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, which will most likely return the regional situation to the pre-2017 level.

Thus, the question “how are things in Korea” can be answered as “interesting times continue.” Ahead is Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15, which, according to some experts, will be marked by one or another version of the “missile salute” and local elections in South Korea on June 1, and a new branch of political struggle may await us.

In such an environment, the Korea experts will definitely delight the audience with regular comments on the topic. Stay tuned!
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.