The main aims of this article are to investigate and explain China’s policy, cooperation and disagreements with Washington and Moscow on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK or North Korea) nuclear issue.
As a permanent member of the UNSC and an important player in international relations, China has the capability and authority to address and solve internationally important problems. In turn, international society is also interested in Beijing continuing its active involvement in the improvements in world security․
China plays a decisive and important role in the negotiations regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issue. The de facto withdrawal from the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) by the DPRK led to a new political situation in the international community. The DPRK’s nuclear weapons may trigger a decision by other Far East countries to acquire nuclear arsenals. The balance between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) has already been violated in favor of the former. Whether the ROK will continue to rely on the American nuclear umbrella or develop its own nuclear weapons depends on the final results of negotiations. Japan has previously announced that the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal is a threat to its national security, which means that Japan may consider a possible substitute for the American nuclear guarantee. Tensions regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issues threaten the entire political and economic stability of the Far East. China is the second-largest economy in the world, and Japan and the ROK are extremely well developed economies. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Indian economies continue to grow rapidly. Tension or military actions in the Korean Peninsula can harm economic development throughout the entire region. However, after missiles and nuclear tests, the DPRK seems to be playing its own game, as it has not accepted UNSC resolutions. Officially, Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the NPT and rejects international norms; this behavior discredits the effectiveness and authority of the UN, as well. In a broader sense, the DPRK continues to attempt to solve its national security problems by developing missile systems and nuclear weapons. However, these projects harm the DPRK’s political relations with the international community, including with allies such as China. When the DPRK began nuclear tests, China was initially surprised and attempted to punish the DPRK for its actions by voting for sanctions against the nation.
The following question therefore arises: Which action is more useful for a state? Developing nuclear weapons would give the opportunity to deter any offensive activity, whereas having allies and expanding economic relations would deter any possible revolutions or economic collapse. Recent world history offers a cogent example. The Soviet Union was one of the most powerful states in the world, but history has nevertheless shown that it is difficult to maintain sovereignty without a modern economy, free trade and open economic relations with the international community. Moreover, if a state’s economy collapses, no nuclear weapon can help. The next hypothesis is that the DPRK’s government understands that the ROK’s economy develops quickly and that they are far from the ROK’s level of economic development. However, they want to show their domestic audience that they are building a modern and strong state. Although the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty and New Start
treaties between Russia and the US might encourage other countries to reduce their nuclear capabilities, the DPRK’s nuclear tests can lead to a new nuclear arms race.
View from Beijing on the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue
In response to the DPRK’s nuclear tests, the UNSC chose sanctions as the appropriate way
of halting the proliferation of Weapons of Mass destruction (WMDs) in the Far East. UNSC sanctions on the DPRK primarily targeted the military, financial and nuclear sectors of this country. China condemned the DPRK’s nuclear test and voted affirmatively for Resolutions․
With these steps, China sent a message to its partners in Pyongyang, stating that Beijing is not interested in a nuclear arms race in the Far East. Chinese decision makers sent another message to Western colleagues stating that they are ready to cooperate within the framework of negotiations and would not accept any attempt to solve the DPRK’s nuclear issue militarily.
Contributions of the Chinese researchers show that the opinions of China’s researchers are divided on this issue. One segment of Chinese researchers believes that the DPRK is not China’s friend and that its behavior and nuclear arsenal is a threat to Chinese security. The second segment of Chinese researchers believes that the DPRK is a buffer between China and Japan and between Chinese and US troops that are based in Japan and the ROK and that China must help the DPRK for this reason.
In turn, the second segment of Chinese researchers can be further divided into two groups. The first group believes that China should help the people of the DPRK because of the longstanding Sino-Korean relationship, but representatives of this group like to add that the Chinese do not like the Kim dynasty. The second group of this segment of Chinese researchers believes that the DPRK is China’s strategic partner, as evidenced by the Sino-
North Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance of 1961, and that China must continue to help the DPRK maintain its political system.
If we consider, that the DPRK is still China’s ally due to the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, Mutual Assistance, that was signed by China and DPRK in 1961, which obligated each party to come to the aid of the other if attacked, so the following question arises: Why did China accept sanctions against its so-called ally?
China is disappointed by the fact that nuclear weapons technology is being spread to neighboring states, which may be a reason for the possible nuclear arms race in the Far East.
Thus, if the international community could not find the ways to urge the DPRK’s government to completely, verifiably, irreversibly dismantle its nuclear arsenal, it is possible that other countries in the region such as Japan and ROK, which have the capability to build nuclear weapons, would strive to repair the balance and would start their own nuclear programs. They can announce that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons threaten their security and that they need to build their own to deter the DPRK. It is worth mentioning, that before the first nuclear test of the DPRK, China was the only legal owner of nuclear weapons among its eastern neighbors. Nuclear weapons give China an advantage against its perpetual opponent, Japan. This fact provided an impetus to China to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons in NEA.
The Chinese nuclear arsenal deters Japan, but what will happen if Japan creates nuclear weapons as well?
China would lose its coercive deterrent against its historical opponent.
I believe that China will continue to press the DPRK and urge it to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, but Beijing will never entirely turn to the US and leave the DPRK in complete isolation. It appears that if China agrees with the US’s wishes to isolate the DPRK that such an event would mean the beginning of the collapse of the DPRK. I believe that after this step, the US would reach a separate agreement with Pyongyang. The history of international relations features several examples designed and implemented by the US as follows: the first event was when the US improved its ties with China without discussing this step with Japan, and the second event was when the US improved its relations with Vietnam – a country that the US had struggled with in the past. Currently, the US serves as a reliable patron for the guarantee of security in Vietnam. The US-Vietnam strategic partnership is surely in opposition to China’s interests. From my point of view, China would continue to support the DPRK in building its economy, which would give Beijing a chance to maintain its influence over the DPRK. Further, Beijing will continue to improve its ties with the ROK, as the ROK is the third-leading economic partner of China. China will attempt to find ways to demilitarize and denuclearize the Korean Peninsula with the ROK. From Beijing’s perspective, these steps will provide an opportunity to reduce the US’s influence in the Far East. We can conclude that from China’s perspective, “no problems in the region will eliminate US interference in regional affairs.” In sum, during the negotiations for preventing further nuclear proliferation in the Korean Peninsula, China is in the most difficult position because it attempts to push the DPRK to continue the negotiation process and to stop developing new nuclear weapons. China also makes an effort to ease sanctions on the whole. Beijing cannot allow an unstable situation in the DPRK, which would cause thousands of refugees to flee from the DPRK to China; thus, China is interested in the DPRK’s stability. Additionally, the government of China believes that if a communist regime is maintained in Pyongyang, China would be able to use the DPRK’s massive army in a possible “West-East” confrontation.
China-US Disagreements and Cooperation on the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue
China-US competition for political influence on the Korean Peninsula began following the Second World War and escalated during the Korean War, as China was struggling with the DPRK against the US and its allies. The DPRK’s nuclear arsenal and tense relations between the DPRK and the ROK remain threats to the security and stability of the entire Far East. The conflicting parties have powerful military allies. On July 11, 1961, China and the DPRK signed the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance, and in 1953, the ROK and US signed Mutual Defense Treaty. Due to this treaty, the US maintains troops in the Korean peninsula.
In fact, the US has a military presence near China’s eastern borders (in Japan and in the ROK), and the DPRK’s nuclear issue has given the US an excuse to relocate more troops to the region and to relocate its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) advance missile defense system to deter the DPRK.
From Beijing’s perspective, a concentration of US troops or relocation of the US missile defense system near its borders are also a real threat to China. China helps maintain Pyongyang’s regime so that its army can keep away and deter US ground troops from Beijing and Eastern China, which are located south of the Korean Peninsula.
From previous experience, the Chinese people also know that the No.1 US ally in the Far East, Japan, might attack China if it strengthened its position in the Korean Peninsula.
In sum, China and the US have different visions for the future political development of the Korean Peninsula. China would like to maintain the DPRK’s stability, whereas the US attempts to weaken it by sanctions. If it finally crashes, the US wishes to change the regime and unite it with the ROK. By contrast, China attempts to limit its disagreements with the US and maintain peace in the Korean peninsula; however, China’s strategy is also to develop high-level political and economic relations with the ROK, connect the ROK’s economy with China’s economy and, as a result, weaken the US in the Korean Peninsula. This strategy may yield results, but the main obstacle is that the DPRK periodically takes provocative actions, including nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches. Thus, ROK leaders continue to see the US as the main guarantor of ROK security. As a result, the US maintains a military base in the Korean peninsula.
However, China and the US also have one common goal: to remove nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula and prevent a possible nuclear arms race in the Far East. The main reason for cooperation between the US and China is that the two superpowers oppose nuclear proliferation in the Korean Peninsula.
China-Russia Cooperation Regarding the DPRK’s Nuclear Issue
In a broader sense, in the UNSC, Russian diplomacy regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issue entails finding solutions with China and subsequently negotiating with other partners. Russia attempts to use its influence on the DPRK to support the negotiation process. The main positions of Russia and China on the Korean nuclear issue match as both sides want to see the Korean Peninsula without nuclear weapons and the peaceful development of the DPRK.
The following question arises: What is uniting Beijing’s and Moscow’s positions on the DPRK nuclear issue in the UNSC?
- China and Russia are responsible powers that are interested in dismantling the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal. China is not interested in seeing its neighbors become new members of the “nuclear club”. Russia is also interested in maintaining the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula and Far East.
- The second reason for the Russian-Chinese united resistance against the DPRK’s nuclear tests is that that after the DPRK’s nuclear tests and missile launches, the US increased its military involvement in the Far East, arguing that it must protect the ROK and Japan from the DPRK threat, but in fact it is against China and Russia as well. The ROK and Japan subsequently began increasing their military potential in the Far East.
III. China and Russia are against the rhetoric of US politicians who emphasize the importance of changing the DPRK’s political regime. Any type of political instability in the Korean peninsula would deepen – not solve – the political crisis in the Far East. Russian and Chinese decision makers understand that if the US leads political changes in the DPRK, it would completely change the direction of Pyongyang’s foreign policy and that the country would move into the Western camp. These types of possible developments in the DPRK would limit Russia’s and China’s ability to maneuver in the Far East.
- In the UNSC, China and Russia have attempted to maintain stability and the balance of power in the Korean Peninsula. Concurrently, along with the other main players of the international community that were involved in the negotiations on the DPRK’s nuclear issue, they continue to press the DPRK to return to the negotiating table to discuss dismantling its nuclear arsenal. In the UNSC, Moscow and Beijing maintain pressure on the DPRK but only to the extent that its economic and political systems do not collapse.
- China and Russia continue to develop their economic relations with the DPRK, given the limitations of the UNSC sanctions. These economic relations provide an opportunity for the DPRK regime to maintain its political and economic systems. China’s investments and economic aid are the DPRK’s main guaranties of stability. As developments have shown, China and Russia can exert influence on the DPRK; however, regarding its nuclear policy, the DPRK has independently chosen its steps and listened to neither Beijing nor Moscow.
- China and Russia cooperate regarding the DPRK’s nuclear issue and do not let the US and its allies isolate and destroy the DPRK; on the other hand, when the Russian bear returned to Korean Peninsula, a hidden struggle would develop between Russia and China for influence in the DPRK. This would provide more room for the DPRK’s diplomats to maneuver between Russian and Chinese disagreements, as was the case during the Cold War, when the DPRK’s leaders were playing on disagreements between China and Russia.
VII. China and Russia are against US and ROK’s use of the DPRK actions as an excuse for deploying the THAAD missile defense system, as it could become a real security threat for both China and Russia.
From my perspective, the DPRK’s nuclear issue can be solved if the US, China, Russia, the ROK, and Japan can come to a united conclusion.
What type of policies do these 5 countries have?
The US has long attempted to find ways to change the DPRK’s political system or to disrupt the DPRK’s weak economy and receive concessions from Pyongyang. Japan, with some exceptions, has attempted to follow US policies. The ROK has tried to maintain economic relations with the DPRK, but at a low level. China, by contrast, continues its economic relations with the DPRK, given the limitations of the UNSC sanctions. Beijing has urged the DPRK leaders to implement Chinese-style economic reforms and continues to provide the DPRK with food aid. China therefore attempts to maintain influence in the DPRK to prevent unpredictable or dangerous steps by Pyongyang, but as past developments have shown, the
DPRK tries to play its own chess game and make decisions by itself. Russia has attempted to reestablish its influence in the DPRK, which was lost when the USSR collapsed. For this reason, Moscow wrote off the DPRK’s debt. Therefore, we have 5 players+ the DPRK, and every player attempts to play its own game. I believe that the DPRK also tries to gain from the disagreements of the above-mentioned global and regional powers (China, Russia, the US, the ROK and Japan). I believe these powers can agree from their side that nobody should separately or secretly sign an agreement with the DPRK. The powers can offer the DPRK support for developing its north regions, which border China, to prevent further immigration to China from the DPRK’s poorest regions. The 5 powers must announce that they have no intentions of changing the DPRK’s political system so that the DPRK does not need nuclear bombs to prevent such developments. I believe it is important to maintain an arms embargo and control the import and export of nuclear dual-use materials to the DPRK, but it is nonetheless possible to suspend heavy economic sanctions. These steps will provide the opportunity to build confidence among the negotiating parties and improve the DPRK’s economic situation, which in turn will give added impetus to stop the immigration of the DPRK’s citizens into China, which Beijing would like to prevent. The 5 powers can offer the DPRK a new roadmap for a final solution to its nuclear issue. The main idea can apply to that if the 5 powers help the DPRK join the global economic order, as a result it will be much easier to urge the DPRK’s decision makers to dismantle their nuclear arsenal. In this hypothetical scenario, the DPRK would have something to lose.
(*)Mher D. Sahakyan- Ph.D. 2016 (International Relations), School of International Studies, Nanjing University, China. Director of the “‘China-Eurasia’ Council for Political and Strategic Research” Foundation, Armenia and the author of the article CHINA’S POLICY ON THE DPRK’S NUCLEAR ISSUE: COOPERATION AND DISAGREEMENTS WITH THE US AND RUSSIA, (Moscow University Bulletin. Series 13. Oriental Studies, No. 1, 2017, pp. 39-55), from which this essay is adapted. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The Uyghur militant threat: China cracks down and mulls policy changes
China, responding to United Nations criticism, academic and media reports, and an embarrassing court case in Kazakhstan, has come closer to admitting that it has brutally cracked down on the strategic north-western province of Xinjiang in what it asserts is a bid to prevent the kind of mayhem that has wracked countries like Syria and Libya.
The Chinese Communist Party’s Global Times charged in its Chinese and English editions that the criticism and reports were aimed at stirring trouble and destroying hard-earned stability in Xinjiang, China’s gateway to Central Asia and home to its Turkic Uyghur and ethnic minority Central Asian Muslim communities.
The crackdown, involving introduction of the world’s most intrusive surveillance state and the indefinite internment of large numbers of Muslims in re-education camps, is designed to quell potential Uyghur nationalist and religious sentiment and prevent blowback from militants moving to Central Asia’s borders with China after the Islamic State and other jihadist groups lost most of their territorial base in Iraq and Syria.
Concern that national and religious sentiment and/or militancy could challenge China’s grip on Xinjiang, home to 15 percent of its proven oil reserves, 22 per cent of its gas reserves, and 115 of the 147 raw materials found in the People’s Republic as well as part of its nuclear arsenal, has prompted Beijing to consider a more interventionist policy in the Middle East and Central and South Asia in contradiction to its principle of non-interference in the affairs of others.
The Global Times asserted that the security situation in Xinjiang had been “turned around and terror threats spreading from there to other provinces of China are also being eliminated. Peaceful and stable life has been witnessed again in all of Xinjiang… Xinjiang has been salvaged from the verge of massive turmoil. It has avoided the fate of becoming ‘China’s Syria’ or ‘China’s Libya,’” the paper said.
Five Chinese mining engineers were wounded last week in a suicide attack in the troubled Pakistan province of Balochistan, a key node in the US$ 50 billion plus China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intended to link the strategic port of Gwadar with Xinjiang and fuel economic development in the Chinese region. The attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) rather than Uyghurs.
The Global Times admitted that the Chinese effort to ensure security had “come at a price that is being shouldered by people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang.”
China has not acknowledged the existence of re-education camps but the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said last week that it had credible reports that one million Uyghurs, were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy.”
The UN assertion of the existence of the camps is corroborated by academic research and media reports based on interviews with former camp inmates and relatives of prisoners, testimony to a US Congressional committee, and recent testimony in a Kazakh court by a former employee in one of the camps.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, US Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the chair of the congressional committee, called for the sanctioning of Xinjiang Communist Party Secretary and Politburo member Chen Quanguo and “all government officials and business entities assisting the mass detentions and surveillance”. He also demanded that Chinese security agencies be added “to a restricted end-user list to ensure that American companies don’t aid Chinese human-rights abuses.”
Stymying the international criticism and demands for action before they gain further momentum is imperative if China wants to ensure that the Muslim world continues to remain silent about what amounts to a Chinese effort, partly through indoctrination in its re-education camps, to encourage the emergence of what it would call an Islam with Chinese characteristics. China is pushing other faiths to adopt a similar approach.
Concern that Uighur militants exiting Syria and Iraq will again target Xinjiang is likely one reason why Chinese officials suggested that despite their adherence to the principle of non-interference in the affairs of others China might join the Syrian army in taking on militants in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
Syrian forces have bombarded Idlib, a dumping ground for militants evacuated from other parts of the country captured by the Syrian military and the country’s last major rebel stronghold, in advance of an expected offensive.
Speaking to Syrian pro-government daily Al-Watan, China’s ambassador to Syria, Qi Qianjin, said that China was ‘following the situation in Syria, in particular after the victory in southern (Syria), and its military is willing to participate in some way alongside the Syrian army that is fighting the terrorists in Idlib and in any other part of Syria.”
Chinese participation in a campaign in Idlib would be China’s first major engagement in foreign battle in decades.
China has similarly sought to mediate a reduction of tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan in an effort to get them to cooperate in the fight against militants and ensure that Uyghur jihadists are denied the ability to operate on China’s borders. It has also sought to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Chinese officials told a recent gathering in Beijing of the Afghan-Pakistan-China Trilateral Counter-Terrorism dialogue that militant cross-border mobility represented a major threat that needed to be countered by an integrated regional approach.
Potentially, there’s a significant economic upside to facilitating regional cooperation in South Asia and military intervention in Syria. Post-conflict, both countries offer enormous reconstruction opportunities.
Said Middle East scholar Randa Slim discussing possible Chinese involvement in the clearing of Idlib: “You have to think about this in terms of the larger negotiations over Chinese assistance to reconstruction. Syria doesn’t have the money, Russia doesn’t have the money. China has a stake in the fighting.” It also has the money.
Sino-American Strategic Rivalry
From a strategy point of view, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu are similar in least in one respect: Sun Tzu’s idea of moving swiftly to overcome resistance is similar to the one endorsed by Clausewitz and practiced by Napoleon.
The modern day example can be traced to the 2003 “shock and awe” campaign by the U.S. in Iraq and the Iraqi reliance on a strategy similar to Russian defense against Napoleon’s attack in his Russian Campaign of 1812. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia was the beginning of the end of his ambition. He won many battles but lost the war.
And America is suffering from the same fate as the struggle for a new Iraqi political identity is not going to go the American way. The same can be said about Afghanistan.
This is precisely why discussions on war must be assessed from a geopolitical point of view as Clausewitz has noted that “war is an extension of politics”. And the reverse is also true, one may add.
A quick tour of modern history reveals the true winners and losers of wars, by comparing a country’s power before and after a war. The United Kingdom and Germany were both losers of the two World Wars. And the difference of losses between them is a matter of degree.
But the U.K. suffered greater and irreversible losses than Germany. The British ceded its number one geopolitical leadership position in the world to the United States. But Germany has been able to regain its position as Europe’s great economic and political power, while the prospects of the U.K. taking back the world leadership position from the U.S. are next to none.
America has been a geopolitical winner overall since the two World Wars. But its power has been in relative decline. It has failed to advance its power after the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and most recently Syria. It has failed so far to advance the momentum created by the Arab Spring as it has since become the Arab Winter, or to make much headway in Latin America, in Ukraine, and in Africa.
America’s key failures in the past decade are failures in being able to offer tangible economic benefits to target countries while expanding its military involvements. The country can win military battles because of its overwhelming fire power but has not been successful in its after-war “nation building” efforts.
Despite China’s numerous shortcomings, many developing countries quietly wish they could become a mini-China economically. They want to live better with more consumption but they probably want to do it by being able to build up their country’s infrastructure and an industrial base.
America’s recent announcement that it will invest $113 million in technology, energy and infrastructure initiatives in the Indo-Pacific as part of a new strategy to deepen ties with the region has received jaw-dropping reception – sarcastically speaking.
As an example, a survey of North American light rail projects shows that costs of most LRT systems range from $15 million to over $100 million per mile. So how far $113 million or even $1.13 billion can go even if one is to factor in some discounts if projects are implemented in lower cost Indo-Pacific countries? Remember, $113 million is for countries as in plural!
This pales in comparison to China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) that ranges between $1 trillion and $8 trillion. BRI is not without its problems and critics. Concerns have been raised about increases in some participating countries’ level of national debt as a result of massive infrastructure building. But because of the scale of the initiative, even if it could only succeed at the lowest end of the range, would offer some real and substantial benefits to countries that can benefit from it.
While freedom and democracy are ideals that have universal support in the abstract – the key words here are “in the abstract” – successful nation-building efforts are realized in the nitty-gritty of people’s everyday economic well-being. This is particularly true among developing countries.
Cheap Chinese smart phones have enabled Africans to get market information to transact with one another more beneficially, to acquire news and information, to lower transaction costs through mobile payments. Inexpensive Chinese motor bikes have become life-saving vehicles for rural populations carrying goods to markets as well as the sick to clinics or hospitals many miles away that they previously could not do.
While the U.S. is no doubt keen on promoting democracy, it is the Chinese that provide affordable smart phones to the masses that allow the spread of information.
While some of the best and the brightest, the elites, the upper middle class in developing countries may desire to have an opportunity to earn an Ivey League degree, to emigrate to the U.S. for better opportunities, to acquire an American passport as an insurance policy, it’s the Chinese that are doing the grunt work of building and training local personnel to conduct trains, to train electrical power linemen to install and repair of overhead or underground power lines as well as to maintain and repair of other electrical and hydro-electrical subsystems and components.
Regardless of how one’s view of China’s strategic intents in its international involvements, the strategies between the U.S. and China cannot be more different. China builds and America destroys.
But many countries especially in the Indo-Pacific region are taking advantage of the rivalry between these two powers to extract the best deals for themselves and you can’t blame them. Economically they want to cooperate with China but militarily they want to get a free ride from the U.S. and the U.S. does not mind that as long as it falls within America’s China Containment strategy.
And time will tell which strategy will work better – economic cooperation or military encirclement?
The 70th Anniversary of the Koreas
Seventy years ago, the Korean nation was divided into two separate states. On August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea was founded in the south of the Korean Peninsula, and on September 9, 1948 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was founded in the north.
A Longstanding Confrontation
The Korean War of 1950–1953, which saw the United States fighting on the side of the South under the UN flag, was the bloodiest and most destructive conflict since World War II. De jure, the two Korean states are still at war. This is because the Korean Armistice Agreement signed on July 27, 1953 to stop the war is nothing but an agreement between the commanders-in-chief of the two armies to suspend military hostilities. Two powerful military contingents with cutting-edge weapons and equipment are still at the ready on both sides of the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea. And these contingents are not just made up of Korean troops. Under the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of Korea, U.S. contingent of 28,500 troops is deployed in South Korea. When Pyongyang started to develop nuclear weapons and missiles to prevent the United States from intervening in the inter-Korean military conflict, this further exacerbated the situation.
“The Asian Tiger” and a “Rogue State”
Today, South Korea is referred to as the “Asian Tiger.” It is a highly developed and prosperous state: it is the world’s second-largest shipbuilder; the third-largest manufacturer of semi-conductors and displays; the fifth-largest automobile manufacturer; and the six-largest producer of steel. South Korea invests 4 per cent of its GDP into research, more than any other OECD member, and it has the fourth-largest number of patent applications for inventions, behind the United States, Japan and China. Seoul has its own space programme and has plans to send its first probe to the Moon’s orbit by 2020 and another to its surface by 2025.
North Korea certainly lags behind South Korea in its economic development; however, statements about the country’s cultural and technological backwardness are largely the work of western media. And we are not only talking about the fact that Pyongyang would not have been able to develop its own nuclear programme that the world is so concerned about if it did not have a high level of scientific and industrial development. No one can deny that the new blocks of high-rise buildings in Pyongyang are practically indistinguishable from those in Seoul, that Pyongyang’s metro is a year older than Seoul’s, and that North Korea launched its artificial satellite before South Korea did.
Since North Korea has its own nuclear programme, the United States has declared it a “rogue state” and has not only imposed its own sanctions on the country, but has also managed to have very harsh sanctions imposed on it by the UN Security Council. It is curious, however, that the timing of the sanctions against North Korea (after the country carried out its first nuclear test) coincided with the North Korean economy emerging from the very severe economic crisis of 1995–2000, after it had overcome famine and started to show signs of economic growth. Even more paradoxically, economic growth in North Korea picked up pace significantly in 2012–2013, when the sanctions were tightened. This was primarily due to the fact that when Kim Jong-un came to power, he launched active, albeit quiet, market reforms in the country.
From Confrontation to Dialogue
The tension around Korea has been one of the greatest threats to international security in recent years. Today, the global community is focused on forcing Pyongyang to abolish its nuclear programme. However, this alone will not eliminate the threat of a new Korean war involving the United States, South Korea’s military ally. Shutting down North Korea’s nuclear programme requires, first, a reconciliation between the two Koreas and, second, solid guarantees to Pyongyang that the United States will not take aggressive measures.
2018 was marked by important positive events in Korean affairs. On April 27, President of South Korea Moon Jae-in met with the leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un in Panmunjom. Naturally, this summit between the heads of two Koreas (only the third ever) did not resolve all the problems that had accumulated in the bilateral relations over the decades of confrontation. However, it did open the way to move on to specific talks on trade and economic cooperation and a military and political détente.
We also saw the first ever U.S.–North Korea dialogue on the North Korean nuclear programme, with a summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un being held in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Even though the summit’s declaration contains nothing more than generic phrases, one thing is without doubt: no nuclear or conventional war will take place in Korea in the near future. The handshake between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un is a real contribution to the cause of peace in Korea and throughout the world.
A Complex Knot of Problems
The North Korean leadership is clearly interested in a détente on the Korean Peninsula. While the Byungjin line proclaimed by Kim Jong-un several years ago entailed building a powerful nuclear potential and creating a prosperous economy, in April 2018 the Plenum of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea said that success in building the nuclear potential allowed North Korea to focus all efforts on building a socialist economy.
The proof of Pyongyang’s words is contained in its actions. Not a single nuclear test has been carried out for almost a year now, and missile tests have not been held for over six months. North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site has been shut down.
Pyongyang appears to have a precise step-by-step programme of possible bargaining with both Seoul and Washington on mutual security commitments. Kim Jong-un, however, is clearly dragging his feet in developing the positive work started at the summits with Moon and Trump. The reason appears to be that he is not confident that both his opponents will stick to the deals. Back in the day, the conservative President of South Korea Lee Myung-bak had no qualms about abolishing his predecessor’s “sunshine policy” in the country’s relations with North Korea, while George W. Bush did not hesitate to get rid of Bill Clinton’s “North Korea Appeasement Policy.” Is there any guarantee that in a couple of years, peace-loving Moon will not be replaced with some North Korea hater, or that Trump, Kim’s counterpart in Singapore, will not be impeached?
The nuclear disarmament of North Korea and the provision of security guarantees to Pyongyang is too complicated a knot of problems to be cut in a single stoke, and by the sole hands of the United States. The solution requires multilateral international efforts, and this cannot be done without the involvement of China and Russia, two countries that have historical and geographical ties with Korea. It would appear that both the Koreas are counting on the participation of Russia and China. This much is clear from the fact that Kim Jong-un has visited China twice over the past two months, and President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea Kim Yong-nam and President of South Korea Moon Jae-in have both paid official visits to Moscow.
The optimal way would be to go back to the six-party talks on the Korean nuclear programme: the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan. The talks should be structured as step-by-step negotiations using the principle of “action in exchange for action.” It would be wise at the initial stage to propose that North Korea’s nuclear programme be separated from its missile programme. North Korea’s nuclear status is set forth in the country’s Constitution, and this subject currently appears non-negotiable for Pyongyang. At the same time, a freeze on the missile programme and guarantees of non-proliferation of missile and nuclear technologies can be negotiated. Given that Pyongyang has essentially introduced a moratorium on missile launches and nuclear tests, the issue of lifting some sanctions from North Korea may be raised at the UN Security Council to stimulate Pyongyang to further roll back on its nuclear and missile programme. For instance, to get North Korea to stop developing ICBMs, freeze the production of nuclear materials and open its nuclear facilities for international inspections.
Several purely political steps would also be useful. For instance, it would be good to correct the entirely unnatural situation in which the United Nations, as a party to the Korean War (in that war, Pyongyang’s enemy fought under the UN flag), is still officially at war with North Korea, one of its members. For that purpose, the upcoming session of the UN General Assembly could adopt a UN Security Council declaration stating that the Korean War is in the past and that the UN Security Council is putting an end to that chapter and, therefore, the UN Command is no longer needed in Korea.
To further promote the inter-Korean détente, it would probably be useful for North Korea and South Korea to conclude an agreement between commanders-in-chief of the two countries on preventing dangerous military activities; such an agreement could serve as a landmark on the road to concluding a Peace Treaty to replace the 1953 Armistice Agreement. This would mean that any incidents that may arise due to dangerous military activities would be promptly stopped and settled through peaceful means without resorting to the threat or use of force. The document could be based on provisions of the 2015 Agreement between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Korean Affairs and Russia
The best way to diffuse tensions between neighbouring states and establish relations based on mutual trust is to run joint, long-term and mutually profitable economic or scientific and technological projects in. Russia could play a prominent part in such work on the Korean Peninsula.
The two Korean states are immediate neighbours of Russia, and Russia is interested in having good and mutually beneficial relations with both. And there is a good basis for this to happen. Historically, Russia has never had any disputes with either of the Koreas. Russians have never set foot in Korea as an aggressor. On the contrary, the country has always welcomed Korean people into its territory: 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of Korean resettlement in Russia. In 1945, it was the Soviet Army that liberated Korea from the colonial power.
There are no disputes between Russia and either of the Koreas today either. The leadership of South Korea, for instance, stresses its interest in taking its relations with Russia to the level of “strategic partnership.” It is noteworthy that, despite the persistent pressure of the Unites States, South Korea did not join the sanctions against Russia imposed after the events in Ukraine.
During his three meetings with Vladimir Putin over the past year, Moon Jae-in has unfailingly stressed collaboration with Moscow on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, establishing peace there and developing Eurasia. Economically, South Korea that has virtually no mineral or other resources and is highly interested in exploring the natural wealth of Siberia and the Far East. At the same time, Russia is a promising market for South Korea’s industrial products.
South Korea is also ready to collaborate with Russia in those areas where Russia has globally competitive technologies. This much is evident from the participation of Roscosmos in the construction of South Korea’s Naro Space Center, the flight of a South Korean astronaut with two Russian cosmonauts in a Russian spacecraft, the launch of the Russia–South Korea Naro-1 (KSLV-1) launch vehicle, and the fact that South Korea imports Russian uranium for its nuclear power plants to meet over a third of its needs. Bilateral humanitarian ties are also being developed. South Korea is the only country in Northeast Asia that has a visa-free travel agreement with Russia.
During President Moon Jae-in’s state visit to Moscow in June 2018, the parties agreed to expand bilateral cooperation in the areas of civil aircraft building, automobile manufacturing, shipbuilding and the construction and modernization of shipyards in Russia. The parties intend to expand cooperation in space research, the exploration of the Northern Sea Route and the joint development of oil and gas fields. Concluding a Free Trade Agreement would be a landmark moment in the development of trade and economic cooperation.
As regards North Korea, Russia’s relations with the country were on a downturn in the 1990s. Vladimir Putin’s visit to Pyongyang in 2000, the signing of the Treaty on Friendship, Good-Neighbourly Relations and Cooperation in February 2000, and settling the issue of North Korea’s debt to Russia in 2012 all paved the way for the restoration a full-fledged partnership between Russia and North Korea. Such a development was intended to give a powerful impetus to trade and economic relations both in the Russia–North Korea bilateral format, and in a trilateral format with the participation of South Korea, thus contributing to building bridges in inter-Korean cooperation.
During the Russia–South Korea summit held in Moscow this past June, the two parties expressed interest in trilateral projects between Russia, South Korea and North Korea, such as: linking the Trans-Korean Main Line to the Trans-Siberian Railway; building a pipeline between Russia and North and South Korea; and connecting the power grids of the three countries. The problem is, however, that implementing these trilateral projects is currently hampered by sanctions imposed on Pyongyang due to its nuclear programme, as is the development of bilateral trade and economic cooperation between Russia and North Korea.
Further dialogue on the matter is expected at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2018, to which Vladimir Putin has invited the leaders of both Korean states.
The two Korean states are celebrating their 70 th anniversaries while gradually retreating from confrontation algorithms formed by the Cold War. It is in the interests of everyone that a reconciliation of the two Koreas is achieved and a solution to the nuclear problem on the Korean Peninsula is developed.
North and South Korea should become full-fledged members of the comprehensive security system in Northeast Asia.
First published in our partner RIAC
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