On February 7, 2016 (Juche 105), the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un orbited an earth observation satellite called Kwangmyonsong-4. This launch is part of the North Korea’s five-year plan for aerospace development – a project to which the North Korean leader attaches great relevance.
It is the other part – the most important and technologically independent part – of North Korea’s non-conventional military system.The three-stage carrier rocket blasted off from the Sohae Space Centre in the Cholsan County, North Pyongyan Province, at 9 a.m. local time on February 7 and entered its present orbit at 9.09:46 a,m., 9 minutes and 46 seconds after the lift-off.
The satellite revolves round the polar orbit at 494.6 km perigee altitude and at 500 km apogee altitude at a tilt angle of 97.4 degrees.
The satellite cycle is 94 minutes and 24 seconds.
Measuring equipment and telecommunications apparatuses were installed in the earth observation satellite called Kwangmyonsong-4.
Moreover, after the separation of the carrier stages, the third component of the missile was immediately broken apart into about 270 fragments, so as to prevent South Korea from discovering and recovering it, thus inferring its characteristics.
The first stage fell onto the area that North Korea had indicated to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the second reached up to the Philippines’s East coast.
The “Bright Star” satellite (this is exactly what its name means in Korean language) even flew over the stadium in which the Superbowl had taken place – one hour after the end of the sport event, in an area very close to the Silicon Valley.
The Unha rocket that launched the “Bright Star” into space orbit is also a version of Taepodong-2, the nuclear carrier which can hit targets up to 4,000-4,500 kilometres.
Hence it was an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), which has immediately alarmed Japan, the United States and, of course, South Korea.
What is the use of the satellite structure, over and above demonstrating the high quality achieved by North Korean science and technology?
According to the news currently coming from North Korea, the satellite will monitor weather conditions and will explore forest resources and the availability of raw materials which are still interesting for the North Korean government.
The other satellite already in orbit is only calibrated to manage telecommunications.
Nevertheless, what is the use of the North Korean overall missile and nuclear strategy, in addition to obviously increasing the prestige and security of that regime?
We can rationally assume some motivations.
Firstly, it would be a military or technological action designed to obtaining special concessions at diplomatic and international levels so as to stabilize its political system.
North Korea is afraid of melting in the globalization of its geopolitical region – hence of losing strategic, military and economic privileges currently enabling it to have its large military build up.
Hence a large amount of missile and nuclear technology to offset the threat against countries, starting from South Korea, which maintain a certainly more relevant financial and production structure than North Korea’s.
Secondly, for North Korea the use of technologically-advanced weapons and the constant threat of their use mean forcibly internationalize the historical crisis of the entire Korean peninsula, still divided along the 38th parallel, so as to put this issue high both on the US and Chinese agendas.
My friend Bob Gallucci remembers all too well that the negotiations with North Korea in 1994 and 2003 were based on the comparative reliability and rationality of that regime, which could accept a reduction of its nuclear arsenal in exchange for the construction of a large nuclear power plant.
And, above all, in exchange for the recognition of its stability and political autonomy.
Gallucci’s deal failed also due to the US reluctance to accept a negotiating line with North Korea which, in fact, finally walked out of the final agreement.
North Korea still pays great attention to the US moves. Any action taken by the North Korean regime is always a coded message conveyed to the United States to clearly show that North Korea can negotiate seriously only at a specific condition: to be a full member of the Asian system, on an equal footing and with the same dignity as Japan’s and South Korea’s.
But only with the explicit mediation and brokerage of China, the United States and, above all, the Russian Federation, the only one which can really negotiate an effective agreement between North Korea and the major global and regional powers.
Only Russia can interact with the DPRK in order to instil confidence in the Korean counterparts on the reliability and stability of negotiations. Only Russia can guarantee the effects of a future agreement – also at militarily level.
Russia is far enough away not to worry the regional powers and it is reliable for North Korea which has never included it in the list of its enemies. It is a credible power both for the United States, which certainly cannot do much with the DPRK, and for China, which is not worried by this new guarantee role played by Russia on the Korean peninsula.
Moreover the DPRK has the primary need to stabilize its political regime, which has not the economic bases for a peaceful power projection.
Furthermore, North Korea’s military system is calibrated to prevent any direct internal political destabilization attempts made by external enemies.
In the history of military nuclear power, North Korea’s is the first case in which these defence technologies are used primarily to preserve its own internal political system.
Obviously North Korea’s nuclear power has also a compensatory function: to offset – with its non-conventional ABC weapons – the inevitable tactical and logistical weaknesses of its conventional military system.
A system which, however, must ever more shrink in volume to make available the resources necessary for the development of the economy – and it is well-known that the nuclear threat is cheaper than the traditional conventional build up.
The first DPRK nuclear test dates back to October 2006.
Right away, the UN Security Council issued a series of Resolutions which lasted until 2013.
Tough and consistent economic sanctions certainly increased the costs of North Korea’s nuclear program and were a good example for all the countries which wished to imitate the DPKR “isolationist” strategy.
In the specific case of North Korea, however, the sanction system did not lead to any significant results.
Indeed, in 2015 North Korea reaffirmed the goal of byungjin, namely the “parallel development” of domestic economy and nuclear deterrence.
In principle, sanctions slow down the military development we want to prevent, but do not stop it.
Just centralize – as North Korea has done – military and economic planning, as well as operate outside the international channels for the acquisition of “sensitive” technologies.
It is also worth recalling that the sanctions imposed on North Korea were calibrated for a “rational political operator”.
For the DPRK this meant that the benefits inherent in negotiating would be greater than the costs of an autonomous action and of a negotiating stalemate.
This was not the case: political systems do not always follow the political science rule of rational choice, but they are often interested in operating as free riders that gain more from the isolated refusal of the collective action benefits – according to Mancur Olson’s theory – than from the distribution of the profits resulting from the collective action itself.
It is always the same old problem mentioned by Glaucon in Plato’s Republic (Book 2, 360 b-c) whether compliance with the laws is intimately connected with the unavoidability of sanctions.
If sometimes we can avoid being subjected to the “hard yoke of the law”, it becomes also rational to operate as if the rules do not exist, as a free rider, if we consider that the benefit of the isolated action is much greater than the loss incurred in implementing the law.
In any case, the sanctions put in place by the United States on the DPRK have indeed increased the North Korean cost of any unlawful procurement of nuclear technologies abroad, but have not made it impossible.
This is because, at first, it is possible also for North Korea to act at the level of international law, for another very important reason: China’s non-cooperation.
Obviously China has no intention of negatively affecting its equilibriums with North Korea.
For China the DPRK is a future – albeit full – contributor to its economic expansion towards the West, with the Belt and Road Initiative, and China has no intention of destabilizing a region which would create unimaginable demographic, security, economic and strategic dangers for it.
North Korea is indeed a strategic “belt” for the defence against the “foreign dogs” of South-Western Chinese borders, as well as an unavoidable axis for the protection of its routes in the South China Sea.
Moreover China does not fear the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal since it knows all too well it could respond immediately and decisively to any possible attack from the North Korean territory.
Hence, with a view to persuading China, we need to shift from an old sanction regime to broader negotiations – hence to a partial recognition of a North Korean strategic and economic status in the Asian regional system and in relation to Japan (and Taiwan, too).
Moreover while, even within the 2003-2009 Six Party Talks between the DPRK, the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, sanctions had not the opportunity of creating a diplomatic thread in the short- medium term, the sanction system becomes ineffective and useless, since North Korea simply regards its existence as a cost, and the implicit threat inherent in sanctions loses its effectiveness.
If you can never know how to check the effects of negotiations, you might as well not hold them.
In order to start talking effectively with North Korea, we have to explicitly clarify – and hence we must, at first, really convince North Korea – that no one is interested in a regime change in the DPRK.
At a later stage, after a series of confidence-building operations, we must prevent North Korea from always using – as happened so far – the heaviest card in each strategic and negotiating sector.
The geopolitical rodomontade and vainglorious boast can be rational today, but it would become self-destructive and self-defeating for North Korea in the future.
Therefore we must ensure that a new regional security climate enables the DPRK’s leaders to implement a less muscular foreign policy.
We must not call for North Korea’s complete denuclearization, but we must consider in parallel North Korea’s non-conventional arsenal and China’s deterrence and the North Korean regime’s opening to global economy in positive terms.
Always with the Russian mediation and brokerage.
If all this does not happen, being a free rider will become a rational choice for the DPRK.
Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China
There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.
Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.
By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.
The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.
China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.
Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.
The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.
A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.
Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question
The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.
Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.
Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.
However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.
Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.
During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.
Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.
Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.
If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.
From our partner RIAC
Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?
Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.
One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.
In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.
To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.
The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.
Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.
Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.
From our partner RIAC
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