North Korea has no chance of defeating a coalition of the United States and its regional allies in a military clash. However, if, as a result of the collision, North Korea is wiped off the face of the Earth, but the United States suffers a successful nuclear attack on San Francisco or Los Angeles, and Seoul “turns into a sea of fire” — this cannot be called a victory, since its cost will be unacceptable for the US and ROK leadership, writes Valdai Club expert Konstantin Asmolov.
This material is based on the author’s presentation at an expert discussion organised by the Valdai Club on May 29, 2023
Compared to the presentation, this text is more systematised and is the author’s personal opinion on the main issues of the current moment. For convenience, it is presented in Q&A form, incorporating elements of the discussion before and after the speech.
What are the macro trends affecting the situation on the Korean Peninsula?
Before talking about Korean affairs, I would like to mention important trends that determine the situation not only on the Korean Peninsula, but throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
The first is the notorious “global turbulence”, which is actually the beginning of the formation of a new world order. The old order is fading into the past, and the boundaries of the new one are not defined; this is a rather important point, since the unknown is always more frightening. In the old world, there were clear rules, in the new one there are not. Meanwhile, this new world order is clearly characterised by the fragmentation of a single political, economic and even information space, which, in particular, affects the weight of fake news. Its manifestation in Northeast Asia is a de facto return to the system of blocs, where instead of a single space we have two “iron triangles” (Moscow-Beijing-Pyongyang and Washington-Tokyo-Seoul). At the same time, the southern triangle is taking shape more clearly, especially after the visit of Yoon Suk Yeol to the United States, shuttle diplomacy between South Korea and Japan, the blitz summit of the leaders of the three countries in Hiroshima, and the attempts of the ROK to clean up the regular set of historical or other disputes against the backdrop of the “threat” from North Korea and China.
Under the bloc system, we are beginning to return to a situation where practical goal-setting is more important than certain general norms. This, in particular, concerns the fact that the previously widespread idea that Russia or (more often) China should be an intermediary between the DPRK and the West is coming to naught, if only because the role of an intermediary was understood as its ability to put pressure on Pyongyang or lead to Pyongyang adopting the position of the international community. Now, conversely, if China is working as a mediator, it is bringing Pyongyang’s position to the attention of the international community.
The next important trend is the growing level of confrontation between Washington and Beijing, as the likelihood of conflict increases beyond the Korean Peninsula. First of all, this pertains to the likelihood of clashes over Taiwan or in the South China Sea. This is important to us, since the Korean Peninsula appears to not be the only potential hotspot and there is no certainty that the first shots will be fired there.
In relation to Korean affairs, the level of confrontation forces both the North and the South to clearly define their respective side. North Korea quickly decided on a focus on China. There is no other real choice; since the spring of 2018, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have returned to the rhetoric of an indestructible historic friendship based on the fraternal parties professing socialist ideologies.
South Korea has found itself in a more difficult position, since formally the US is its leading security ally and China is its leading trading partner. However, from the point of view of value orientation, in fact, the South Korea had no choice, and we are witnessing a clear “pivot to the United States.”
Another consequence of the confrontational trend is that the arms race on the peninsula has entered a vicious circle, partly linked to the security dilemma. Both North and South claim they have the right to carry out self-defence manoeuvres as a response to “provocations” by the enemy side. If you make allowances for the form of rhetoric, then the content is almost identical. The problem is that if North Korean missile launches or high-profile statements “hit the front page,” then South Korean exercises, which increase regional tension no less and are not always defensive in nature (landings or practice for “decapitation strikes” are often carried out), are perceived by the media in a calmer way.
The course of the new president of the ROK really looks like a decisive reversal from China, while under President Moon Jae-in the ROK declared a multi-vector policy. To what extent is this true, and can Yoon be called a puppet of the United States?
Despite the fact that during the reign of Moon Jae-in, South Korea declared that it was trying to balance between the US and China, in terms of values it always sat on the American “chair” and orders from Washington were always carried out.
The difference is rather in the framework of how the execution of the order went. Under Moon, in response to American “requests”, South Korea first took the position of “we are an independent country and will not allow diktat,” but then the rhetoric changed to “we have a difficult choice to make.” Under Yoon Suk Yeol, Seoul immediately announced that it was America’s best ally, but at the same time, in a situation that could really harm South Korean national interests, South Korea is in no hurry to comply with American orders, although it vocally declares its readiness to do so.
A typical example is that despite the unprecedented level of pressure and constant intrigue about secret agreements between Washington and Seoul on the “delivery of shells to Ukraine,” Yoon Suk Yeol still hasn’t changed his policy (at least officially), and South Korean equipment and weapons are not yet going directly to Ukraine.
Of course, in the medium term, my predictions are rather sad, because at this level of pressure, Yoon is likely to be pushed — it’s not a question of “if” but “when” — in any case, at the moment things are turning out pretty well for him.
Yoon Suk Yeol should not be described as a typical conservative politician. This is a man who was appointed by Moon as Attorney General, but quarrelled with him when he began to look for corruption in the inner circle of the president. He was forced to go into politics, but due to the absence of a third political force in South Korea, he was forced to join the conservatives.
Unfortunately, the state of affairs had an impact on the political course, since Yoon was not a professional politician. Foreign policy and inter-Korean relations were given to the feeding of those people who were engaged in this not even under Park Geun-hye, but under Lee Myung-bak.
Now about the term “puppet”. By this we mean a ruler who, of his own free will and to the detriment of the national interests of the country, is ready to run ahead of the locomotive.
Yoon Suk Yeol’s policies do not yet meet these criteria. Yes, we see a fairly strong trend towards solidarity with the United States. However, if you look not at words, but at actions, then there is a very interesting difference. On the one hand, South Korea is increasing cooperation with the United States in areas where, according to Seoul, this improves its military potential in terms of containing the North. We also see activity in those areas that bring economic benefits to South Korea. In particular, it is the arms trade, since Yoon Suk Yeol has ambitious plans to climb from 8th place to 5th or 4th. On the other hand, South Korea supports organisations like QUAD or AUKUS, but is in no hurry to join them.
With regard to Russia, Seoul has fulfilled the minimum level of sanctions and condemning rhetoric in order to be considered a member of the Western-like “international community.” Even the expansion of the list of sanctioned goods made before the US visit, apparently as a goodwill gesture before the trip, according to Seoul, concerned export controls. It is another matter that for Moscow the very act of joining the sanctions is important, and not the level of participation.
Finally, one should not think that by pursuing an openly pro-American course, Yoon is going against the opinion of the nation. 89% of South Koreans consider the US to be their top partner for cooperation. This is evidenced by the results of a survey conducted on April 4-5, 2023.
How can Yoon Suk Yeol ’s North Korean policy be characterised?
It seems that in terms of his personal views, Yoon Suk Yeol really perceives North Korea as a territory of unfreedom and lawlessness. To this we must add who is responsible in his government for its policy on North Korea. A good example is current First Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Tae Hyo, who is well known for being a professor and a man of knowledge, but is also an outspoken hawk.
Under Lee Myung-bak, it was Kim who developed the program “denuclearisation — openness — 3000”, a remake of which we are seeing today as the so-called “bold initiative”. The idea is very simple: first, the North will be completely disarmed, and then we will probably flood it with economic aid, the concept of which has become obsolete, even under Lee Myung-bak.
One gets the feeling that by putting forward such proposals, obviously impassable from the point of view of North Korea, Yoon is trying to exchange the inter-Korean direction for a minimum level of freedom in dealing with the Russians and Chinese.
Why? The 2018 Olympic thaw showed well what the upper bar of inter-Korean cooperation looks like, when even under Moon Jae-in, who was considered “pro-North Korean” by conservatives, almost none of the signed agreements were implemented. Although the South Koreans often pointed to obstacles on the part of the Americans as a reason, it turned out that, for example, the supply of medicines to the North and other humanitarian supplies by the Americans hadn’t been blocked.
The only thing that was more or less done was a military agreement that returned the DMZ to the status of a real “demilitarized zone”, which reduced the likelihood of conflict for irrational reasons.
The lower bar is, formally, the threshold of the conflict, but at the same time, both in Yoon’s entourage and in Pyongyang, there are pragmatists who, without certain triggers affecting ideological foundations, will not enter into a serious conflict. Based on this, Yoon understands that South Korea will somehow endure the situation with furious rhetoric and a different level of border tension that does not devolve into a direct conflict. But the second round of informal sanctions from China or a serious complication of Russian-South Korean relations will cause serious damage to the country. That is why Yoon is aligning with the US regarding Korea, while trying to change the situation in relations with Russia and China.
To what extent will South Korean politics change if representatives of the opposition Democratic Party come to power there?
Some feel that if, miraculously, Yoon is replaced by Democrats, the country will adopt a less unfriendly course. Even taking into account the logic of South Korea, when decisions are made according to the principle “the main thing is not the same as under the predecessor,” I would not count on this. Despite the feigned anti-Americanism of some representatives of the Democratic Party, the dependence on “American values” in the ranks of the Democrats is even greater, and under the most iconic Democratic President Roh Moo-hyun, South Korean troops fought in Iraq, and talk about declaring English a second state language made it to the working level.
In terms of values, Democrats are no less US-oriented than Conservatives. Moreover, their populist nature will require them to take demonstrative steps. Thus, the current leader of the opposition and Yoon’s rival in the presidential elections, Lee Jae-myung, even as part of his election program, offered to sink Chinese ships that illegally enter South Korea’s territorial waters.
In addition, since at least the imitation of inter-Korean rapprochement is important for Democrats, if Yoon sacrificed it for the sake of trying to secure a free hand regarding the Chinese and Russian track, the Democrats will do the opposite. Yoon Seok Yeol is actively criticized in the democratic press precisely because South Korea does not help the Ukrainian people in the right way. Demonstrations by Russian-speaking citizens against Vladimir Putin’s policies are supported more by organizations associated with the Democratic Party, and Yoon Seok-yeol’s criticism of his lack of commitment to the ideals of democracy comes more from democratic newspapers.
What are the consequences of the development of the DPRK’s nuclear missile programme for the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula? How do the Republic of Korea and the US contain the DPRK?
The current level of North Korea’s military potential is at least at the level of minimum deterrence, at which the probability of a successful response by North Korean nuclear weapons against the US continental territory, and even more so against America’s allies (Japan and South Korea), is not zero.
In 10 years, North Korea has become a serious nuclear power, which, in terms of its military technology is beginning to surpass some of the younger countries of the Big Five. Pyongyang has a hydrogen bomb and there is a very wide range of delivery vehicles for a nuclear charge. Railroad-based missile systems, cruise missiles, a hypersonic glider, a local version of Status 6 Multipurpose System, a large-calibre (600 mm) MLRS that de facto fires short-range missiles, Iskander analogues that perform the “pull-up” manoeuvre, etc.
As for North Korea’s military potential as a whole, if a country is able to launch ICBMs not at the level of a single Wunderwaffe, but at the level of serially produces weapons, this requires an appropriate industrial base, human resources, and engineering base. Relatively speaking, if a single sample can still be stolen somewhere, made by hired specialists from nowhere, the current situation is no longer interpreted that way.
Of course, North Korea has no chance of defeating a coalition of the United States and its regional allies in a military clash. However, if, as a result of the collision, North Korea is wiped off the face of the Earth, but the United States suffers a successful nuclear attack on San Francisco or Los Angeles, and Seoul “turns into a sea of fire” — this cannot be called a victory, since its cost will be unacceptable for the US and ROK leadership. As the missile – and space – race continues (both the unsuccessful launch of the reconnaissance satellite of the North, and the space programme of the South, must be considered from this angle), at this stage the current level of South Korean missile defence is more likely to not deter a possible missile attack from the North. This explains the reasoning of the South Korean military that in a critical situation it is more logical to rely on a preventive strike, attacking North Korean missiles before they are launched. At the same time, the DPRK reasonably perceives such talk as justifying aggression, where arguments about a preventive strike are nothing more than justifying the first strike.
Another consequence of the inability to repel a North Korean strike is to bet on the “collapse of the regime” from within, but despite periodic briefings by South Korean intelligence, where it is concluded from any event that the regime is on the verge of collapse, North Korea is resilient enough to try to shake the boat. There are no prerequisites for either a “color revolution” or a “conspiracy of generals.”
As a result, both among the military and among politicians, the idea that the nuclear weapons of the North should be deterred with nuclear weapons is rapidly becoming mainstream. This idea is beginning to be discussed by systemic politicians from among the conservatives as well as the people which are not against it. According to a survey conducted by the Korea National Unification Institute in June 2023, 60.2% of respondents said they would support arming their country with its own nuclear weapons. Although this figure has dropped significantly from 69% in 2022, in general, the majority of respondents support the nuclear project.
The discussion is only about whether South Korea should start its nuclear programme or whether US nuclear weapons should be permanently deployed on the Korean Peninsula, as they were in 1958-91.
Proponents of nuclear deterrence believe that with the presence of a nuclear bomb in both the North and the South, the situation will resemble the Indo-Pakistani situation, where after both sides got nukes, the overall tension decreased.
It is interesting that the same logic being used as a justification for its own nuclear programme was once used by the North. It concerns the tenth article of the NPT, according to which a country can withdraw from the treaty if it is a potential target of aggression from another nuclear power (when it left the NPT, the DPRK justified this by saying that American nuclear missiles were aimed at the territory of the North, despite the fact that it did not have nuclear weapons).
However, these ideas do not seem to be supported by the United States. Yes, South Korea is part of the “new nuclear nine” and has sufficient technological potential to take a political decision and perform its first test within one or two years. But the emergence of a nuclear South Korea could finally put an end to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, as well as present Washington with the unpleasant task of imposing sanctions against an ally.
In addition, the appearance of nuclear weapons in the ROK, especially American ones, will be perceived by South Korea as a nuclear springboard not so much against North Korea, but against Russia and China, which American missiles would be able to reach. This could result in a Far Eastern analogue of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Perhaps that is why the Washington Declaration adopted during the visit of the President of South Korea to the United States became an important step in the development of “extended deterrence”, but this is much less than everyone expected. First, South Korea has reaffirmed its adherence to the principles of the NPT (i. e., the South Korean nuclear project is at least formally shelved), and second, American nuclear weapons will not be deployed in South Korea on a permanent basis. Yes, there is greater integration in terms of decision-making, information exchange, etc., there will be more exercises, visits by nuclear weapons carriers to the Korean Peninsula and around it, but, in fact, that’s all.
Incidentally, the trend towards turning South Korea into a US missile base actually began under Moon Jae-in, when the Americans lifted the restriction on South Koreans developing ICBMs. Previously, the range of these missiles was limited to 800 km, which was enough to reach the territory of North Korea, but now a good question arises: against whom will the new generation of South Korean missiles be directed?
What are the positions of the members of the UN Security Council on the issue of the security of the Korean Peninsula? How will the role of China and Russia change regarding security issues on the Korean Peninsula?
Let’s start with the fact that different members of the UN Security Council understand the “security of the Korean Peninsula” differently. For Russia and China, this means reducing tensions in accordance with the roadmap worked out back in the 2010s and involving a double freeze, against both the North and the South. The United States, on the other hand, proposes a final solution to the North Korean issue: erasing the DPRK from the map. The Constitution of South Korea applies to the entire peninsula (Article 3), and the fourth article of the constitution says that “The Republic of Korea shall seek unification and shall formulate and carry out a policy of peaceful unification based on the basic free and democratic order.” However, it should be well understood that unification does not mean the creation of some new structure jointly by the North and the South, but a simple absorption of the North by the South, and that is why in Russian-language texts, the “Ministry of Unification” was translated as “Ministry of Reunification”.
Global turbulence and increased confrontation between Washington, on the one hand, and Moscow and Beijing, on the other, have left their mark on the change in the position of Moscow and Beijing on the North Korean issue. The fact is that the international community ceases to be a single international community and this term is more likely to be used as a designation for the United States and its allies, who are trying to usurp the right to speak on behalf of the whole world. Previously, while the international community was quite united, Moscow and Beijing understood the reasons why Pyongyang was trying to enter the nuclear club, but the need to maintain a world order based on non-proliferation took precedence. Accordingly, the principle of “a new step in the development of the nuclear programme — a new round of sanctions” was not questioned, although Moscow, Beijing and Washington could argue about the measure of sanctions pressure.
However, amid global turbulence, I see signs of a debate regarding the extent to which, in the current situation, full compliance with sanctions still takes precedence over understanding North Korean needs. This does not yet mean direct or indirect support for the North or an open violation of sanctions, but conversations on this topic are ongoing, right up to Dmitry Medvedev, that in the case of proven assistance from Seoul to Ukraine, Moscow can help the DPRK in a similar way.
Therefore, an important sign of the new world order was the vote on May 26, 2022, when Moscow and Beijing vetoed another US sanctions stream, and since then any attempt by the US to use the UN Security Council to condemn Pyongyang has not ended with any official statements.
Of course, against the background of further divergence and the formation of a bloc system, the Russian Federation and the PRC will continue to try to support the DPRK, and even in the event of a hypothetical nuclear test by the North (This issue is beyond the scope of the article, and therefore I would like to note that it has not yet taken place, and one of the explanations for this is the requests of Moscow and Beijing), the UN Security Council may be split.
What role in decision-making can the image of the DPRK, which has been formed in the mass consciousness of Western countries as a “rogue state,” play, and is the DPRK trying to somehow counteract this?
Indeed, in the mass consciousness, there are very serious distortions regarding the image of North Korea as some completely caricatured totalitarian and undeveloped country, because “a rogue state is supposed to build Potemkin villages.” The idea that “such a country cannot have real success” is still clouding the minds of both the masses and policymakers.
A good example of a misunderstanding of the situation is the mini-MLRS transported on a tractor, which has become a kind of meme without any understanding of what this is. In fact, these weapons are not of the army, but of the territorial defence troops, which should engage in guerrilla warfare in the event of an enemy attack.
The Mini-MLRS is a commando weapon that is easy to carry and quickly deals serious damage; it is a rather unpleasant thing.
It is clear that certain elements of counter-propaganda are being carried out in North Korea, and under Kim Jong-un they even reached a qualitatively new level. For example, today there are vlogs that are maintained by residents of North Korea. Another thing is that in the US-controlled media environment, almost all North Korean or pro-North Korean resources on sites like YouTube are banned instantly. Additionally, outright lies, especially among the type of “defectors” who earn money by selling scary tales, are replicated very actively. As a result, I came across the opinion of a number of North Korean officials that “we still won’t convince them.”
In addition, the author would like to draw attention to the fact that the crazy rumours such as “in Pyongyang all children with disabilities are being killed for the fifth time this year” are not designed to convince those who hesitate. They are aimed at strengthening the faith of those who already “know” that Hell and Mordor are in North Korea.
Now let’s look at North Korea from the point of view of the average American, and talk about the “state of evil” as a “black mirror” of ideas about the ideal state (which is why the conditional rogue state is different for each culture). Collectivism, as opposed to American individualism, and atheism, as opposed to American religiosity, which we traditionally underestimate, provide an approximate analogue of the DPRK. Therefore, for many American religious conservatives, the destruction of North Korea is an “incomplete gestalt.”
Today, the Korean theme resonates beyond the Korean Peninsula. They talk about the Korean set-up when discussing proposals to end the Ukrainian crisis. How accurate are these comparisons?
It seems that a Korean solution would only entail the concept of a truce and the creation of a demilitarized zone on the line of contact.
The Korean War began as a civil war between two parts of a divided country, each of which had reason to consider itself the sole rightful heir (the ROK emphasized the recognition of the UN, the DPRK on the fact that, unlike the South, it held elections not only in its own half). Before the start of the Special Military Operation, it was relatively legitimate to say that Seoul regarded Pyongyang in the same way that Kiev looks at Donetsk and Lugansk.
According to the National Security Law of the ROK, North Korea is not a state, but some kind of anti-state organization that controls half of the country. That is why the inter-Korean direction is not under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but under the Ministry of Reunification, and all attempts to disband this structure and give it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have caused strong opposition, because they were perceived by both liberals and conservatives as a sign of recognition that North Korea is a separate country.
Accordingly, since the formation of the two Koreas, conflicts on the 38th parallel have been going on constantly, and both sides have made belligerent statements (by the way, the South to much greater extent). It was clear that sooner or later a big war would begin, and the one that hit first would have an advantage. After that, some elements in the North Korean leadership who were personally interested in annexing the South, and specifically Pak Hong-yong, first convinced Kim Il Sung that in the event of a war there would be a large-scale uprising and there would be a blitzkrieg, then together they convinced Stalin and Mao.
Then the war was internationalised by an external invasion, first from the South (the so-called UN troops), then from the North (Chinese People’s Volunteers). And when both sides realized that they could not build on their success, negotiations began, as a result of which both sides actually remained “on their own”. The border was located approximately the same as where it was before the start of the Korean War — and this is a significant difference from the situation in the Special Military Operation.
By the way, the 1953 armistice agreement was signed by North Korea, the DPRK and the UN troops, but South Korea did not add its signature.
Rhee Syngman was going to fight to the bitter end, and torpedoed the peace agreement process as best he could, and a natural consequence of this was the mutual defence agreement signed by the United States and the ROK, during which the South Korean army was actually subordinated not to the South Korean president, but to the command of the UN troops (de facto, to the Americans) and this was done solely to ensure that the South Korean authorities did not start a war when the United States was not ready for it.
Technically the war is still not over. Therefore, it is possible that in the eyes of those who talk about the “Korean option”, they mean a certain demilitarized zone and a freeze on the situation, but this conditional DMZ will not be located between conditional Ukraine and conditional DLPR, but between Ukraine and Russia, since the four regions have joined the Russian Federation.
Then, from the point of view of the discourse of both the North and the South, the Korean War is perceived rather as a victory, because “we defended our territory from enemy aggression.” If such an agreement is signed between Russia and Ukraine, then both sides will perceive it as a defeat. For Ukraine — because a significant part of the territory remained under Russia. For Russia, because the declared goals of the Special Military Operation were not fulfilled, and part of the territory that became part of Russia following the referendum remained on the Ukrainian side.
Accordingly, this will increase the level of resentment and legends about the “stab in the back” both in Moscow and in Kiev, and moreover, it will actually greatly increase the likelihood of a nuclear conflict, because the situation after this truce will resemble an interbellum from the point of view of “this is not peace, it’s a truce for 20 years.” Both sides will use the truce in order to replay the conflict in their favour as soon as possible through the accumulation of forces, including nuclear forces, which will thus increase the likelihood of the conflict escalating into a nuclear one.
Now to what to expect in the future. I do not see any changes in the environment that could in the short term (until 2027) stop or slow down the vicious circle associated with the security dilemma. From my point of view, the situation will gradually escalate. The only question is how far we can avoid sliding into conflict for conditionally irrational reasons. This is what I call “a war over the rabbit”: incomprehensible rustling in the bushes is perceived as penetration of saboteurs, one side begins to shoot back, the other one perceives this as an unprovoked shelling and the situation escalates.
It is likely that Moscow and Beijing, similarly not interested in a hot spot on their borders, will try to keep the North from sudden movements, but in general I expect a situation where both sides pursue a policy of brinkmanship, exchange insults and sabre-rattling, but do not cross the red line.