Multipolarity and Connectivity
Northeast Asia: How Far Can Confrontation Go?

Recently, increasingly alarming news has been coming from Northeast Asia. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is escalating again — Pyongyang and Seoul are exchanging threatening statements and demonstrating their determination in every possible way, including the firing of artillery in the sea in the immediate vicinity of the demarcation line. Konstantin Khudoley, professor at the Faculty of International Relations of St. Petersburg State University, believes that while the situation on the Korean Peninsula may be approaching the boiling point, it is unlikely that either side will cross the proverbial red line and spark another military conflict near the borders of the Russian Federation.

Northeast Asia is one of the most interesting regions of the world, where modern trends in the development of international relations are intricately intertwined with elements of the Yalta-Potsdam system. Here, as for the whole world, the state of relations between the United States and China is becoming increasingly important. They have improved somewhat since the November 2023 summit in San Francisco, and it is unlikely that either side is interested in seriously antagonizing the other in 2024. The conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East have already significantly strained the supply of resources from the United States, and the emergence of another one is not beneficial for them. With the upcoming presidential election in November 2024, this would certainly be used by Republicans to accuse the Biden administration of ineffectiveness. The PRC’s main problems now are economic ones, including the reduction in trade volumes with all major partners except Russia, and therefore the aggravation of the international situation is also hardly desirable. The fact that in November 2023 a trilateral ministerial-level meeting of the PRC, the Republic of Korea and Japan took place in Seoul is also very significant. Therefore, in the run-up to the US presidential election, it is unlikely that any of the parties will make sharp movements or encourage their allies and partners to do so.

The bitter bloc confrontation that existed during the Korean War in 1950-1953 and immediately after its completion evolved gradually. Currently, relations between Russia, China and the DPRK are built on the basis of bilateral agreements, within the framework of which each party has significant freedom of action. Thus, Russia and China quite rightly condemned the DPRK’s nuclear tests and voted in the UN Security Council to impose sanctions. Pyongyang shows no interest in the activities of the SCO, CSTO, EAEU, or the Chinese Belt and Road project. The formation of the USA— Japan— Republic of Korea triangle is at an early stage. South Korea avoids participation in groups such as QUAD, and its interpretation of the Indo-Pacific region is dominated by economic and humanitarian concerns.

However, the old dividing line, as well as the high level of suspicion, has always remained. This was one of the reasons for the failure of the six-party negotiations, which could have become an effective mechanism of interaction. We see the absence of any confidence-building measures, and the tacit refusal of large-scale economic projects involving several countries.

Modern Diplomacy
What Fate Awaits the DPRK and the Republic of Korea?
Gu Ho Eom
Military tensions between the two Koreas will increase and the process of resolving denuclearization will become more difficult, writes Gu Ho Eom, Director of Asia-Pacific Center, Professor of Graduate School of International Studies at Hanyang University.

The split of Korea into two states with diametrically opposed socio-political systems also remains. Now the issue of unification has been removed from the agenda. In South Korea, some older people remain committed to this idea, but for middle-aged and young people it is not apriority. Many fear that the unification of Korea will be associated with large financial costs, which will negatively affect their standard of living. South Koreans are largely indifferent to what happens in the North. But they are concerned about North Korea’s nuclear missile programme and the danger of attack; the memory of the events of the summer of 1950 remains strong. At the same time, the North understands perfectly well that in all respects it is losing to the South, and nuclear missiles are its only trump card. The North seeks to use it both to preserve its socio-political system and to improve its status in the world. In December 2023, the leadership of the DPRK for the first time publicly, and in a very categorical form, stated that it treats the Republic of Korea like all other countries and does not seek unification. Therefore, threatening statements from both sides, military manoeuvres, shootings, and even border incidents (which cannot be ruled out) most likely will not escalate into a large-scale armed conflict.

Russia’s policy in Northeast Asia has undergone significant evolution over the past three decades. Currently, it is determined by the attitude of a particular state to the events in Ukraine and the “war of attrition” between Russia and the West. North Korea became one ofthe few states that almost completely supported Russia. The dialogue between Moscow and Pyongyang inall areas has noticeably intensified. A visit by President Vladimir Putin to Pyongyang for the first time since 2000 is quite possible. The PRC takes a benevolent position. At the same time, the United States, Japan and South Korea, which has imposed sanctions against Russia, have become the unfriendly states. There are, of course, certain nuances. For example, the Republic of Korea imposed sanctions not in 2014, but only in 2022. At the same time, cooperation with Russia in the fields of education, science, culture, etc. is maintained. The Russia-South Korea Dialogue continues, where the representatives of the civic organisations of the two countries have the opportunity to discuss a wide range of the most pressing problems. While almost all Western countries have minimised the possibility of citizens visiting Russia, the visa-free regime between Russia and the Republic of Korea remains in effect. A complicating point is the issue of military ties. Seoul viewed with great caution the visit of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to the DPRK — the first in many years — and the development of military ties between the two countries, while in Moscow there is concern about possible supplies of South Korean weapons to Ukraine — directly or through third countries. Nevertheless, modern relations between Russia and the Republic of Korea are far more nuanced than with other Western countries.

Naturally, the situation in Northeast Asia may change if Donald Trump becomes President of the United States again. Many politicians, businessmen, scholars and experts are calculating the possible consequences. It can be assumed that this time Trump will take a tougher position towards China and the tension in US-China relations will increase, and not only because of Taiwan. At the same time, however, relations between the United States and North Korea may improve. Three meetings between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un produced insignificant results, but the desire of both leaders to continue dialogue at the highest level is also obvious, and it may already be more productive. It is very possible that, for financial reasons, Donald Trump will reduce the American military presence in Japan and the Republic of Korea or demand a greater financial contribution from them. Then Tokyo and Seoul will once again face the painful question of the feasibility of creating their own nuclear weapons. Now they rely on US guarantees, but if doubts arise about their effectiveness, such a development cannot be excluded as a political possibility. Of course, it will take some time, but in the medium term, Northeast Asia could become the first region where all states have nuclear weapons. This will require completely different approaches to create an international security system here.

Modern Diplomacy
Nuclear Weapons for South Korea?
Andrei Lankov
South Korea’s direct and indirect nuclear ambitions seem to be put to rest for the time being. However, the situation in the region continues to deteriorate, and this suggests that the South Korean political class will continue to look for some way out of the current situation, writes Valdai Club expert Andrei Lankov.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.