Pending the periodical transformation of the North American political system, the Korean issue is surfacing again. It is a complex issue which is crucial to the strategic balance in Southern Asia. Moreover, it is precisely in the Korean region that the US (and also the European) balances with China and the Russian Federation are determined.
Since February 2016, Russia has always had excellent relations with the North Korean regime, but exactly in that phase the United States called for sanctions against North Korea within the UN Security Council. These sanctions have been primarily designed to damage the economic and strategic interests Russia has in the region.
Russia voted in favor of the sanctions, but I do not believe it can go beyond that level of warning against North Korea.
Russia is no longer willing to accept the nuclear and military autonomy of North Korea, which is now seen as a free rider in the Asian context.
The Russian Federation, however, wants to preserve the North Korean regime, which prevents the important Korean peninsula from falling under the US influence. Certainly it does not want military pressure against North Korea, which could endanger its security structures in Central Asia and the Pacific region.
Nevertheless Russia will certainly continue to preserve the high volume of trade with North Korea, amounting to one billion dollars a year – trade which is also based on the ruble.
It is also likely for the UN Security Council to block the project of an “Asian trading house” between Russia and North Korea, open to the other Asian countries and viewed by Russia as an axis for its penetration into Southern Asia.
China is no longer interested in keeping a North Korean system which puts pressures only on South Korea and the United States, but it plans to keep on using North Korea as the Southern pivot of its Belt and Road Initiative southwards and westwards.
This is the reason why China needs to “punish” Kim Jong-un (President Xi Jinping has not yet paid a visit to Pyongyang), but also to use him so as to avoid the Americanization of the terrestrial-maritime hub of the Yalu River and the Yellow Sea, which is essential for China’s military autonomy.
In this context, North Korea conveys two different sets of messages to Western countries and South Korea: the will of a slow but peaceful reunification and the rejection of the dismantling of its regime according to the techniques of the “orange revolutions” or the internal coup and even conventional war.
Finally, the North Korean regime shows its intention not to give up its nuclear-missile arsenal, which could also be managed by an agreement to be defined and reached from scratch.
The signs exist in the North Korean narrative and they only need to be interpreted with strategic wisdom, without regarding the North Korean regime as “irrational” or “unreasonable” or, even worse, run by an unpredictable leader.
Kim Jong-un is not an irrational man. He has a clear and reasonable plan in mind, but he wants to discuss it with reliable partners that do not wish, first and foremost, the destruction of his regime and his country.
Basically North Korea wants the United States to sit around a peace negotiating table which can definitely acknowledge its regime and define close and stable cooperation with South Korea.
The North Korean reaction to the South Korean block of the “reunification package” in Parliament and of the June 15 joint event of the whole Korean Nation, must be interpreted in this sense.
The celebration to be held in Kaesong, North Korea, did not take place due to the unilateral choice made by South Korea’s government.
Hence South Korea wants to play its own autonomous and independent role in the Asian region and fully exploit its new excellent relations with China and the Russian Federation, as well as probably wait for an implosion of the North Korean regime so as to do what West Germany did with East Germany, by incorporating it into its industrial system, almost at zero cost, while also avoiding competition thanks to the parity between the West German mark and the East German mark.
The South Korean President, Park Geun-hye, has gladly accepted the sanctions imposed by the United States on North Korea last February and has particularly emphasized that the economic crisis will tend to make North Korea implode if it does not give up its nuclear program.
Nevertheless it is precisely this military-civilian nuclear system which will enable North Korea to negotiate – maybe directly with the United States – a slow but stable softening of the regime and its return into the mainstream of the world-market.
I do not believe that Russia and China intend to support the US design of a controlled collapse of North Korea, which would destabilize the Chinese province of Liaoning and the whole Yalu River delta, as well as the 78 islands on the river controlled by China.
Russia has no interest in the collapse of the North Korean regime, but it does not even intend to support the US and South Korean pressures to definitively intimidate North Korea.
China has accepted the UN Security Council Resolution 2270 sanctioning Pyongyang. It has also set aside, for posterity, Kim Jong-un’s execution of his uncle Jang Song-Thaek, the privileged channel for relations with China. Finally it does not wish to witness an increase of North Korea’s nuclear technological potential – a system which could even threaten China in the future.
Nevertheless it does not want to run out of cards to be played in the debate on the future of the Korean peninsula, where the United States already have South Korea and China could remain without a point of reference in the region.
Currently winds of war are also blowing on the Korean peninsula.
On June 17 last, North Korea reported the preparation of a long-range military exercise in the US Andersen base in Guam, consisting of a formation of B-52H strategic bombers equipped with nuclear weapons.
Currently the presence of American forces in South Korea amounts to 28,500 soldiers and officers, while the South Korean Armed Forces have a staff of 3,600,000 units with 700,000 active soldiers.
According to the latest data available, North Korea’s armed mass is approximately 1.2 million units.
All analysts agree that a conventional war between South and North Korea would end quickly and easily with the North Korean defeat, since North Korea has almost no air force and has less advanced and refined weapon systems than South Korea’s, possibly supported directly by US forces.
However, it is precisely for this reason that North Korea has developed its nuclear system, so as to make the final attack on its regime difficult or impossible.
Furthermore, on June 13 last, the US nuclear submarine “Mississippi” was spotted in the South Korean port of Pusan.
Also this presence has been interpreted – and not fully unreasonably – as the direct threat of an act of war against North Korea.
The reactions of North Korean nuclear counterattack on the US system are related to the missile control over the Andersen base in Guam and over the other North American bases in the Pacific and to a series of precise counteractions: particularly the use of the KN-08 missile, which can reach the US territory, all the bases of the South Korean Armed Forces, the US bases in the Pacific and the Japanese territory.
Basically North Korea does not want the negotiations to be based on the threat of a conventional war or a US nuclear counterattack to a limited action of North Korea against South Korea.
In this case there is no “proportionality of force” or “reaction,” while the North Korean strategic objective is to be integrated permanently and stably into the market-world without losing its own political autonomy.
Is it possible? I think so. Kim Yong-un’s aim is to bring the United States around the final negotiating table.
Hence the United States could seek support from Russia – which does not want the collapse of North Korea, but its strategic downsizing – and from China, which has no interest in a hypernuclearized North Korea (but the North Korean bombs are often “made in China”) nor in a region experiencing a free-fall economic collapse along its borders.
Hence a new strategic equation is possible, not waiting for the crisis in North Korea as a good opportunity to seize, but managing the soft landing of North Korea in the new system of Asian equilibria.