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The current North Korean issue

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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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.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

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East Asia

Twists and Turns in US -China Trade War

Gen. Shashi Asthana

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s stopover at Beijing on 08 October may not have been a pleasant experience, more so in the backdrop of accusation of US Vice President Pence about  China attempting to interfere in U.S. elections. The agenda of North Korean denuclearisation, where US and China were broadly agreeing earlier, seems to have taken a back seat, and improvement of relations doesn’t seem to be realistic in near future. The ongoing trade war continues as both sides dig their heels despite being the biggest trading partners of each other, because it is also linked with global dominance, strategic and military posturing, diplomatic and information offensive.

 China Braving Threat to its Vulnerabilities

China is putting a brave front despite being badly hit at some of its most vulnerable spots in the tit-for-tat trade war with both sides spiralling the slapping of tariffs on a wide range of each others’ trade items. Taiwan, which is another sensitivity of Beijing is witnessing visit of US officials after Taiwan Travel Act was signed by President Trump, with a promise to arm it further with latest weaponry. US continued military posturing in South China Sea, along with the appearance of UK warship ignoring Chinese repeated warning is another concern.   A recent injection of over $110 billion by China into its banks and hardly any financial benefits coming out of BRI partners incapable to repay anything is tightening its financial freedom for global dominance. Some of its BRI partners want to get out of the ‘Debt Trap’ by refusing/reducing Chinese investments is adversely affecting Chinese dream project (BRI), after five years of its announcement like Philippines.

Not a Smooth Sail for US

US on the other hand cannot be celebrating either, with China digging it heals and refusing to give up either in trade war or South China Sea. On North Korean front, the policy of good optics continues with Kim managing to get a lot of goodies from South Korea (presumably at their cost), during the last summit of North and South Korea. Kim in fact has been an outright winner, managing to get another Summit with President Trump, which helps him in convincing his countrymen of his sound leadership, as well as boosting his status internationally. US sanctions on paper continue, but after the chest thumping at Singapore Summit, his friends like China automatically relaxed the sanctions on North Korea, without any worthwhile denuclearisation/reduction in his nuclear/missile arsenal. US realises that knocking out China financially is the key to its global dominance; hence is unlikely to soften up to China. US also faces another challenge of keeping its allies like Japan and South Korea satisfied while negotiating with North Korea and asking ASEAN to make choices of partners, besides continuing with CAATSA hurting some of its strategic partners who could be helpful in balancing China.

It will take some time to see that whoever has greater resilience to withstand the economic stand-off and appetite to take setbacks will have an upper edge, which seems to be US at this point of time. As per IMF assessment, China’s GDP size will be 1.6 per cent lower in 2019 than it otherwise would be, if the US slaps tariffs on all Chinese imports.

How is India affected?

The Indian economy has survived some global slowdowns earlier and should be able to sail through the present one. The bigger problem is the sanction under CAATSA in dealing with Russia for urgently needed military hardware like S-400 and Iran for cheaper crude oil being paid in rupee terms, for which India has adequate refineries. The US option of buying shale oil does not suit India as it does not have adequate refineries and will have to purchase finished product in dollar terms. The port of Chabahar is also crucial for India for connectivity to Afghanistan and CAR. The silver lining is that US being our strategic partner will like to have well equipped Indian Forces to balance China and Indian connectivity to Afghanistan, in case Pakistan does not serve their strategic interest. On both counts I am hopeful that US will find a way out not to hurt its strategic partner.

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The talks held in September 2018 between Kim Jong-Un and Moon Jae-In

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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In less than one year three meetings have been held between the North Korean Leader and the South Korean President, Moon Jae-In.

In the initial meeting the two leaders had decided to put an end to the state of war between their two countries. They had also reaffirmed the goal of denuclearization of the entire peninsula, with the consequent destruction of the nuclear potential of South Korea and of the United States, in particular. They also decided to create an inter-Korean Liason Office between the two sides of the Demilitarized Zone and to bring together the families dispersed between the two Koreas. Finally, the idea was to create new communication infrastructure – railway lines, in particular – a project by which Russia has always set great store.

Indeed, Russia is betting many of its cards on a reunification between the two Koreas, capable of enabling it to keep its excellent relations with South Korea – which are essential for the economy – and to also support North Korea, which is Russia’s unavoidable strategic goal.

Now the two Koreas are dealing on their own, without the US brokerage and intermediation with respect to South Korea, although President Donald J. Trump has recently stated that President Moon Jae-In is his official “delegate” for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

The United States is scarcely interested in the internationalization of the North Korean economy. It only wants denuclearization, while Kim Jong-Un wants denuclearization to develop his country’s economy and maintain its geopolitical and national autonomy.

A serious problem – both in talks and in the final or working documents – is also to define an effective mechanism to check denuclearization.

Indeed, between September 17 and 19, 2018, the signing of the Joint Declaration of Pyongyang has not fully clarified the mechanism of checks on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Kim Jong-Un’s idea is to organise these checks with a series of “experts” appointed by the friendly powers, while the South Korean idea is to accept the maximum possible denuclearization to start the long process of reunification.

The two respective Defence Ministers, however -namely Song Young Moo for South Korea and Rho Kwang Chul for North Korea – have just signed a separate document from the rest of agreements.

In that text confidence-building measures between the parties are put first, with North Korea’s acceptance of dismantling a launch pad and a site for checking jet engines, with the presence of yet unspecified, but friendly international experts. From IAEA? We have some doubts, in this case.

Subsequently North Korea could also dismantle the Nongbyon site, if the United States does the same in South Korea.

It should also be recalled that most North Korean missiles are built to be launched by mobile vehicles, not from fixed bases.

In short, North Korea wants the United States to remove the nuclear umbrella protecting South Korea and Japan while, in the recent talks with North Korea, the United States thinks of a bilateral treaty regarding only the Korean peninsula and, at most, some classes of North Korean missiles.

In the US mind, the planned reduction of North Korean long-range missiles could be even equivalent to a nuclear and conventional decrease of its troops stationed in Guam.

On the basis of a new future agreement, both Koreas (and God only knows how and to what extent the North Korean conventional military potential would be useful for a South Korea unified with North Korea) would also define maritime and land buffer zones, as well as a no-fly zone over the old border, with a view to avoiding clashes or accidental air battles.

This is already partially clear, but much work shall be done to define all the details.

There would also be plans to cover or reduce artillery batteries along the coast.

Obviously, should these talks run aground, the only concrete political result would be the progressive divergence between South Korea and the United States, precisely on the problem of the peninsula’s denuclearization.

Furthermore, over and above the aforementioned sites, North Korea will dismantle the site of Dongchang-ri, in addition to the site of Yongbyon, while Kim Jong-Un is also very interested in the building of fast railway links between South and North Korea.

The two Koreas will get the industrial site of Kaesong back in shape and the old tourist project concerning Mount Kumgang back in track, besides planning new joint economic and tourist areas.

The inter-Korean agreement regards also collaboration for medical and environmental issues, as well as for the protection from epidemics.

In other words, both Koreas think of an economy of compensation between them, which could also develop at a later stage and become a need for the development of both countries.

An economic-political symbiosis that could get the United States out of play and later reinstate Russia, which is increasingly interested in the South Korean economy, as well as finally favour China, which has no intention of leaving the Korean peninsula to the hegemony of North Korea alone.

At the end of the Treaty, there is also the project of a joint participation in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and a joint candidature for the 2032 Olympics.

A few days ago, North Korea also expressed its intention to join the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – a sign that the internationalization of the North Korean economy is now a certainty.

Hence it is a de facto peace treaty between the two Koreas.

If North Korea continues along this line, it is very likely that South Korea will gain a tactical advantage over the sea while, if the relations between South Korea and the United States remain as they currently are, there should be no significant changes in bilateral relations between the USA and South Korea.

However, what is the current state of relations between the United States and North Korea?

In fact, while the inter-Korean relations are all in the framework of effective confidence-building measures, the clear purpose of the fourth round of talks between the two Korean leaders is to preserve a strong US engagement in the whole negotiation process.

Kim Jong-Un wants to engage the United States for his global economic projection and he certainly does not want to remain tied to a regional economy, albeit open and “reformed” according to China’s rules.

For North Korea, the procedure is simple: at first, bilateral talks with the US support for South Korea; later peace between the two Koreas and finally what is only interesting for the USA, namely denuclearization.

It is not even unlikely that the United States does not accept this timing, but it is also unlikely that it realizes the strategic and economic aspects of this timing.

North Korea wants a fundamental agreement with South Korea because: a) it is an unavoidable asset for the modernization of its economy; b) it is the fundamental strategic factor to have the support of both Russia and China, who want to avoid North Korea’s hegemony over the peninsula, but also want to keep it as a rampart for US forces in South Korea; c) it is only through South Korea that North Korea will eventually be in a position to be connected to the Chinese maritime economic and strategic system and reach up to the Mediterranean.

In fact, if the relations between the United States and North Korea improve further, the site of Yongbyon could be dismantled definitively.

Hence currently Kim Jong-Un wants to thoroughly test the US goodwill, rather than South Korea’s goodwill, in developing a long or very long-term peace policy.

In Kim Jong-Un’s mind, there is in fact a key factor: the US behaviour in the phase in which Muammar Gaddafi accepted its proposal to dismantle his nuclear project.

Kim Jong-Un thinks that not even the story of Saddam Hussein is a guarantee for the US long-term reliability and for the stability of its leaders’ word of honour.

This is the real important factor in the strategy of the North Korean Leader.

Moreover, the US immediate reactions to the last meeting between the two Korean leaders have been fast and positive, both by President Trump and by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

And North Korea’s autonomous foreign policy has been seen also recently, with the 70th Anniversary military parade.

North Korea’s military parade and its important national celebration, was attended by Li Zhansu, ranking third in the internal power hierarchy of the Communist Party of China (CPC); by Valentina Matviyenko, President of the Russian Federal Council, the third elected office in the Russian Federation; by a very significant figure, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, President of Mauritania, and finally by Hilal al Hilal, deputy-General Secretary of the Syrian Baath Party.

With peace, North Korea will significantly develop its already multiple economic and political relations with Africa, which will be essential for its new economic development.

At the military parade staged on September 9, there were also authorities from Iran, South Africa and Singapore – which is the never forgotten model of the Chinese “Four Modernizations” -as well as other 60 delegations from “friendly” countries.

At economic level, in August, shortly before the big military parade of the 70th Anniversary, there was the International Fair of Razon, which hosted as many as 114 companies of which 52 North Korean ones.

The North Korean product lines mainly included pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, textiles, electronics and cosmetics.

However, there were many Chinese large companies selling their products in North Korea despite the UN sanctions.

As from September 17, there was also the Autumn Fair which brought together 320 commercial companies from Russia, New Zealand, Australia and China.

This is in fact the new paradigm of North Korea’s foreign policy.

The dollar has also grown in the exchanges with the North Korean currency, both on the official and on the “parallel” markets.

If all goes well at geopolitical level, the North Korean project will be to further improve its light industry, in addition to the diversification and quantity of products, with a view to trying its own autonomous way on the market world, as was the way of the nuclear system.

It should be recalled that this was also Kim Il-Sung’s project.

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China’s Imprint underneath the Pyongyang Joint Declaration

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On September 18, the leaders of two Koreas met each other in Pyongyang, the capital of the DPRK. The world media focused on the meeting during which the two sides issued the “Pyongyang Joint Declaration”. If we see the Panmunjom Declaration serving as the cornerstone of the dialogue between two Korea, it is necessary to say that this joint declaration took a substantial step to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula that is vital to the regional peace and beyond.

Literally speaking, the Pyongyang joint declaration highlighted the key issues as follows. First, both sides are determined to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Second, they will work together to improve their relations with a view to the existing state of war, as the defense chiefs from the DPRK and ROK earlier signed a comprehensive agreement aiming to reduce tensions on the peninsula. Third, they will promote the peace talk process of the Korean peninsula. Given that Kim pledged to work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”, it would be seen as a political declaration that would mark a starting point for peace negotiations. If all goes well, a peace treaty would be sealed and then comes normalization of DPRK-US relations after it achieves complete denuclearization.

As a close neighbor to the Korean Peninsula, China always supports the DPRK and ROK as well in improving their relations through dialogue and consultation and promoting reconciliation and cooperation. This is the consistent and persistent position of Beijing, which has been playing a responsible role in politically resolving the Korean Peninsula issue and achieving the long-standing peace of the region.

In effect, prior to the leaders of two Korea met each other this week in Pyongyang, they have closely contacted their respective allies or strategic partners. Among them is China, dealing with both sides – Pyongyang and Seoul – in a unique way. It is true that China is the largest trading partner of the ROK while it is equally the only legal ally of the DPRK as well as its largest ideological partner now. If we review the bilateral relations between China and North Korea since last March, Kim Jr. has paid three significant, though unofficial, visits to President Xi of China. For example, during his March 25-28 visit, both sides vowed to continue their traditional solidarity in terms of their shared ideologies and common strategic interests. Xi especially proposed to strengthen the close ties between the two ruling parties. As he said to Kim, “party-to-party and state-to-state relations are the common treasure to both sides. And safeguarding, consolidating and developing China – DPRK relations are unswerving guidelines for China’s foreign policy and security strategy.

During his second meeting with Xi in Dalian summer resort, Kim vowed to terminate all the nuclear tests and to follow denuclearization if the United States took corresponding measures with good wishes. Then following his meeting with Trump in Singapore on June 12, Kim came to Beijing again on 19 to meet his Chinese counterpart. Xi confirmed China’s “3-no change” policy towards the DPRK, that is, political solidarity between the two parties remains unchanged, the friendship between the two peoples remains unchanged, and China’s support of a socialist Korea remains unchanged. Essentially, they serve as the foundation of the strategic consensus between Beijing and Pyongyang. In return, Kim reiterated his permanent shutdown of all nuclear tests and facilities if the US would respond sincerely and responsibly.

Given all the analysis above, it is understandable to conclude that China’s long-standing adherence to the goal of denuclearization of the Peninsula through dialogue and consultation is fully reflected in the Pyongyang Declaration. Meanwhile, China’s stance remains evident since it claims that the Korean issue must be resolved eventually by the Korean people rather than any external power. Therefore, peace not force is the only acceptable way. Also, as China and Russia have repeated that no coercive change of the regime by outside power is tolerated, North Korea can be confident and comfortable to proceed the permanent shutdown of the missile engine test site with international experts observing; and then a complete denuclearization is not too far in the future.

Here is necessary to argue that China has never claimed to play an exclusive role in the Korean Peninsula. Instead of that, China has always encouraged the DPRK to talk to the United States and other relevant parties. Since Kim has agreed to make a trip to Seoul for further talks and to meet the US high-ranking officials in Pyongyang soon, the summit between Kim and Moon marks a leap forward toward peace.

Yet, as the lessons in history show, it is better to approach realistically the Korean issue simply because it has involved too complicated concerns and memories and the overlapped interests. Therefore, we should be ready to accept trial and challenges lying ahead. China has insisted on diplomacy which means that all parties concerned should be brought to the negotiating table under the mandate of the UN Security Council.

Now, Beijing has navigated the course of denuclearization proactively to protect two sides’ common core security stakes when Kim reportedly promised to give up his nuclear program if the United States and South Korea respond to his proposal with good will. Due to this reason, China will do what it can to help ensure “no change of regime by force and denuclearization at the same time in the Korean Peninsula”. This is China’s influence or Beijing’s imprint on the Korean denuclearization issue and the regional peace.

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