We have already conducted a preliminary analysis of what the situation on the Korean Peninsula will look like in 2020, and what is happening now goes to show that although the dialog is not being broken off, there is a hardening of attitudes, which we can see is inevitable.
Let’s not forget that towards the end of 2019, the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held its plenary meeting in the DPRK, where several important decisions were taken. The most important decisions taken can be summarized as follows: despite two years of hoping, it has become clear given the current situation in world politics that sanctions being lifted is something the North Koreans cannot even dream of. This means that the DPRK should expect the worst when planning its strategy for the next phase (prolonged sanctions and the impossibility of reaching a solution to the problem through dialog), which will see a continued focus on the economy, along with a tightening of screws in the country’s ideology and a tougher dialog with the United States. The DPRK does not feel it is bound by its moratorium, and the North Korean media has reported that the world will witness a new strategic weapon in the near future.
One of North Korea’s top foreign diplomats, First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Kim Kye-gwan, later published a statement printed on 11 January 2020, commenting on the media frenzy over Donald Trump congratulating Kim Jong-un on his birthday through South Korea’s National Security Advisor Chung Eui-yong. South Korea, which is not a member of one big happy family, is acting recklessly in trying “to play a mediator role.” “But they seem not to know that there is a special liaison channel between the top leaders of the DPRK and the United States.” Kim Kye-gwan called Seoul’s actions “presumptuous”, and said that South Korea is still clinging to a lingering hope of playing the role of “mediator” in DPRK-US relations. “The South Korean authorities had better not dream a fabulous dream that we would return to the dialogue with thankful feelings for the birthday greetings,” warned the North Korean foreign ministry adviser.
However, he had another more important message: sure, the friendly relations between North Korean government and President Trump are “not bad”, but it would be “foolish” to expect the North to return to the dialog based on the leaders’ friendly relations. The North Koreans will go their own separate way, and there will be no more talks held to consider partially lifting the sanctions against North Korea in return for North Korea’s complete denuclearization along with the immediate termination of its nuclear program. There can only be a dialog between the DPRK and the United States if the US agrees to all of North Korea’s demands, and let’s not forget, their core demand is for sanctions to be eased and then lifted, in exchange for North Korea’s step-by-step denuclearization. “However, we are aware that the United States is not prepared for this, and at the same time they do not have the ability to do so.”
This was not the only statement in this style. On January 21, 2020, Ju Yong Chol, a counselor at North Korea’s mission to the UN in Geneva, said that Pyongyang does not feel the need to adhere to the commitments made to Washington, as the United States has continued to pursue a hostile policy towards the DPRK. “If the U.S. persists in such hostile policy towards the DPRK there will never be the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” he said. “If the United States tries to enforce unilateral demands and persists in imposing sanctions, North Korea may be compelled to seek a new path.”
Ju Yong Chol reiterated that given “the most brutal and inhuman sanctions” imposed by the US authorities against North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic no longer feels bound by the commitments it made to adhere to its moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. “As it became clear now that the US remains unchanged in its ambition to block the development of the DPRK and stifle its political system, we found no reason to be unilaterally bound any longer by the commitment that the other party fails to honor.”
This was followed by a new team of players being brought on to replace those who had led the country’s foreign policy. Minister for Foreign Affairs Ri Yong-ho, a career diplomat, was replaced by Ri (often spelled Li) Son-gwon, who has held various different posts in the DPRK Ministry of People’s Armed Forces in recent years, and has chaired the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland for the past few years, representing Pyongyang on issues concerning inter-Korean relations.
In performing his ministerial duties, welcoming foreign diplomats at a reception held on the eve of the Lunar New Year, Ri Son-gwon stressed that the DPRK is prepared to make “any breakthrough”, having strengthened its “confidence in its ability” to solve issues in foreign policy in accordance with the decisions taken during plenary meeting held by the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in December.
Ri Su-yong, who oversaw foreign policy in the Central Committee, was also replaced by Kim Hyong-jun, an experienced diplomat and the former ambassador to Moscow.
Minister for Defense No Kwang-chol was replaced as well, who rose through the ranks to become a member of the North Korean Politburo in 2019. The new minister is Kim Jong-gwan, who previously headed key North Korean construction projects, including tourism facilities in the Wonsan-Kalma region and a spa resort in Yangdok. However, it should not be forgotten that within North Korea’s military hierarchy, the Minister of the People’s Armed Forces is in third place after the Director of the General Political Bureau and the Chief of the General Staff responsible for the Army’s financial, administrative and logistical needs. This being the case, and considering the role of the Korean People’s Army in the North Korean economy, appointing the country’s top military construction General was predicable to say the least.
Western observers have already begun drawing their own conclusions about this, along the lines of “Pyongyang is picking up where it left off more than two years ago,” or that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was defeated in a standoff with the military, or that now all the dismissed ministers are being repressed, The reshuffle was more likely due to the fact that people in the DPRK have different opinions when it comes to tactics (even if the overall strategy is determined by the Supreme Leader), and the task is assigned to supporters of this line, depending on direction of the shift, whose political opponents are put on the back burner.
Another point which should not be overlooked is that no new course has been announced as of yet, nor have there been any actions taken which would indicate a change in course. The numerous gatherings that have been held in support of the decision made at the plenary meeting and the articles published in newspapers do not prove anything here, as they accompany every political decision of this scale. South Korean media outlets have noted that despite the tone of the statements made by Kim and Ju, they do not contain any threats.
The impression these statements give is that the North Koreans are actually biding their time: “the door is closed, but not locked” The Americans can come knocking on this door with new proposals, or the North Koreans may crack open the door themselves if the situation changes.
To begin with, the North Koreans are waiting to hear the verdict of Trump’s impeachment trial. In a broader sense, they are waiting to hear whether Trump is in with a chance of making it through his last year in office unscathed, and whether he could stay on for a second term. If Trump succeeds, then North Korea and the US could have another go at trying to find a solution, Trump’s hands may be untied, and he may not have to pay as much attention to public opinion ratings and political opponents. Russia and China do not mind if the DPRK keeps doing what it is doing either.
Secondly, Pyongyang is waiting to see how the struggle between Washington and Beijing plays out. If the situation deteriorates any further, China will hold onto one of its few regional partners. North Korea may be trying to distance itself from this conflict, but one thing is for sure – North Korea is hardly on Washington’s side. Meanwhile, despite all of South Korea’s rhetoric about the pride the country takes in its independent politics, South Korea is ultimately doing what it has been told, as US President Trump has far more leverage than General Secretary Xi Jinping, and for President Moon, it boils down to a choice between the lesser of two evils.
Thirdly, the North Koreans might be waiting to see how US-Iranian tensions develop in the Middle East. The busier the United States is kept dealing with Iran, the more likely they are to put issues in the Far East on hold. Apart from that, observing America’s own strategy in dealing with Iran will also help Pyongyang to adapt its tactics for cooperating with the Americans.
Fourthly, we will be keeping an eye out for the traditional springtime flare-ups in relations, given that the United States and South Korea conduct joint military exercises on a massive scale around this time of year. Prior to the period of détente, 300,000 military personnel took part in these exercises, and the program was of an unmistakably offensive nature. The format in which the 2020 military drills will take place will also give Pyongyang an idea of what to expect from its counterparts. According to reports so far, the Key Resolve и Foal Eagle joint staff exercises will be carried out using computer simulations like last year’s exercises. Joint field training events at regiment level will not take place, although training for battalions and their companies should go ahead as planned. Command-post exercises are planned for the second half of the year, which will test South Korea’s ability to assume operational control of a combined US-South Korean force during wartime.
Lastly, South Korea’s parliamentary elections are due to take place on April 15, 2020, which is sure to be an important date. South Korea’s domestic politics are a notorious “Game of Thrones”, and anything could happen in the run-up over the next three months. However, if the conservatives manage to secure a parliamentary majority, President Moon may be left a “lame duck” while still in office, and that is not far off the public carnival for impeachment. Whatever the outcome may be, the election results will have an impact on international relations and on Seoul’s relations with Washington.
In this scenario, the South Korean government has a task to complete, known as “mission analysis” in the military. The overall strategy will probably remain unchanged, but tactical decisions will be taken based on the circumstances when there will be fewer factors of uncertainty (such as Trump’s impeachment trial). In this scenario, we should not expect to see much provocation; there will, however, be more responses to provocation from the other side.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.