02.07.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Where Is North Korea Heading and Can the Strategic Deadlock be Overcome?

35435345345North Korea once again was on a brink of a war, and it once again managed to pull back out of it. While another escalation of the situation on the Korean Peninsula is subsiding, the global community is wondering what the future holds, and whether there is a way to halt a negative development of events.

North Korean leadership believes it has repelled another attack on its sovereignty. And this is not entirely untrue. Though Kim Jong-un is celebrating tactical victory, his strategy seems to be plunging the country into troubles because it stakes on a continuous escalation of the situation, which (as North Korean hopes) will, at some point, make the world weary of the country’s missile-nuclear potential. North Korea also cherishes hopes that the United States will eventually reconsider its attitude and will treat the country not as an enemy subject to destruction, but as an opponent whose destruction could be too risky.

However, each new spiral of escalation puts an additional strain on the relations with Beijing and Moscow. The more “tantrums” North Korea has, the worse its relations with the said countries will be getting. Nobody knows when Russia and China will “have enough of it”; what is clear, though, is that it will happen one day since neither Russia nor China show a massive support of the North Korean regime, which is perceived as scandalous. Moreover, North Korea is considered more of an “enemy of our enemies” than an economic and ideological ally or friend. It is especially true for Russia because: (а) many Russians think of Korea as of some distant unrelated country; (b) both the proponents and opponents of the Soviet regime base their attitude toward North Korea on the Soviet Union-North Korean relations and judge North Korea’s actions from this perspective.

The above implies that Moscow and Beijing would continue “aligning with the international community.” It is also highly unlikely that either one would support Pyongyang in case of a conflict.

Even if China does not give North Korea the cold shoulder in case of a conflict, it would most definitely take upon itself a mission of ensuring peace and stability in the country. In this case, China would, most likely, keep North Korean territorial integrity and sovereignty, while implanting a pro-Chinese regime there, turning North Korea into a vassal state.

As for the United States, a nuclear attack on its continental part is a matter of “life and death” and, being such, is psychologically daunting. If the North manages to develop a missile capable of flying over the ocean, Americans might take it personally and justify the delivery of a pre-emptive strike.

The US, which would embrace a change of the North Korean regime, has unleashed an information war on North Korea, while trying to “strangle” it economically in hopes that the regime would collapse on its own, or with China’s “help.” Some cool-headed military officials and analysts in the US believe that if there is even the slightest probability of North Korea attacking the US, the latter must do everything possible to prevent it, as the consequences would be devastating. The “protective reflex” inherent in the security personnel fully agrees with this perception.

Thus, the more the North Korean “paper tiger” will resemble a real beast with fangs, the more will the US be inclined to “pull out” its “fangs.” And the US can always follow the example set by Israel in Syria when it delivered a strike and destroyed all key Syrian facilities.

Washington might also be convinced that North Korea will not be brave enough to unleash a full-scale war as a response to a pre-emptive strike. Of course, North Korea would sustain a painful blow, but it must realize that it would sign a death-warrant for itself if it responds with shelling of Seoul. And here is the question. What tactic would Pyongyang opt for? The lack of respond to said blow would imply the loss of face and negative consequences for the country’s internal affairs. However, whether all Pyongyang’s functionaries would be ready for a political suicide by engaging in “war on America” remains an open issue.

In addition, a deliberate erosion of the situation, nervousness, mutual demonization, etc., increase the likelihood of conflicts sparked by an irrational factor (another “Pig War”). They also create a fertile ground for making disastrous decisions based not on real facts, but rather on propaganda and products of fevered imagination.

What is good, though, is that neither one of those three scenarios is likely to be enacted at this stage. However, if China continues to move along this path of thinking, the probability of materialization of these scenarios will also be climbing up.

By adhering to this strategy, North Korea will have to continue enhancing its claims by demonstrating progress in the development of its missile-nuclear program or by “showing its teeth” in some other way. That means that earlier or later Pyongyang will be compelled to move one-step further. Once that happens, a response will come in a form of new sanctions.

The intuition suggests that most probably oil products (which somehow were not included in the list of sanctions this time) will be banned. But let us call a spade a spade: oil embargo would inevitably spark a military conflict. And if there is a risk of political chaos, North Korea might take drastic measures, including shelling of Seoul.

Perhaps Pyongyang cherishes hopes that the new US president will reconsider the US-Korean policy. Both Bill Clinton and George Bush-junior adhered to tough anti-North Korean policy at the beginning of their tenures. Later on, though, they changed to a more constructive policy. But even if Donald Trump is elected a new US president, there is little hope for a dialog. That means there will be no thawing in the relations in the next year and a half. And it does not look like there will be a change even after the election.

Is there a way to halt or reverse the process? There are at least three obstacles impeding its reversal.

First, the current leaders of North Korea and ROK have already said and done so many mean things that a somewhat meaningful thawing of relations would be construed a definite (and unacceptable) loss of face. There is, of course, a way of going in reverse if both parties agree to make mutual concessions. So far, however, neither one seems to be willing to give in. As for the proposals put forward by the parties, they are demagogical in nature. For example, theoretically, North Korean idea of “a moratorium in exchange for ceasing of military drills” sounds very good, but in practice the US and ROK (at least, their current leadership) would never consent to it. Thus, both Pyongyang and Washington pull out of talks by saying that bargaining is inappropriate. On the other hand, all parties understand that pressuring North Korea would do no good.

It should be kept in mind that North Korea is required to take radical, irreversible steps in order to do its share in the resolution of the nuclear crisis. All other parties, on the other hand, do not have to sacrifice much. Any agreement can be signed and then terminated. Same is true for military drills. It works the same way with the supply of energy as well: one can “Okay” it, and one can halt it at any time using some futile excuse. Considering the results of the 2005 framework agreement and joint statement, North Korea has grounds to make a reasonable conclusion that if someone decides to violate certain provisions of an agreement, they would do so at an “appropriate” time.

Second, for the parties to start acting reasonably, they have to develop a certain level of trust, and it does not happen overnight. Both North and South Korea might point out that they have been deceived by the other party more than once and for that reason dread not only the fire (as the burnt child), but also the matches. It should be admitted that North Korea has a habit of “putting its partners to test,” and that it usually does it in a rough and almost provocative way.

Add to that the general lack of awareness. Russian political scientists, to compare to their western and even South Korean peers, have a better understanding of the situation in North Korea. Perhaps, so do the Chinese. As for the western and South Korean experts, they demonstrate an amazingly low level of knowledge. Take, for example, attempts of South Korean “experts,” who tried to convince the world that anti-North Korean sanctions already have an effect, North Korea is on a brink of a famine and that “North Korean spring” is just around the corner. Some countries guided by this propaganda might take wrong decisions concerning their North Korean policy.

North Korea, apparently, falls into the same trap when assessing the actions of its western opponents. The distortion of information and truth bending are, in fact, universal problems. Therefore, it might very well be the case that a young general is told lies just because nobody wants to upset him with the truth. It is quite possible that North Korean experts construed the results of the last election in South Korea as “a total defeat of the pro-American conservative regime, which is about to be overthrown by the fed-up population.”

Third, the policy of any country is always influenced by global political trends. In case with North Korea, the global political trend compels it to follow the course aimed at the protection of its sovereignty. If the global political situation changes, North Korea would, most probably, cease brandishing its nuclear weapon. Once Pyongyang feels safe, it might change its policy. How should the situation change for North Korea not to feel intimidated? How would such a change align with the global trends, and, specifically, with the trends in East Asia? Apparently, it will not, because there seems to be a trend toward the escalation of misunderstandings and growth of sovereign ambitions demonstrated by the States, China and Japan. Something might change if democrats win in South Korea and isolationists (who believe that the US should focus on domestic affairs and leave the problems of the east to East Asia) take office in the US. Then the issue concerning the North Korean nuclear program might be resolved through the application of political and diplomatic means. So far, though, this scenario does not seem to be likely.

That is why the situation is slowly but surely deteriorating.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D in History, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.