North Korea’s decades old strategy of ‘Tong-mi bong-nam’ (Engage the United States, Block South Korea) and its rare variant ( ‘Tong-nam bong-mi’ or Engage South Korea, Block the US) of breaking the Washington-Seoul axis by alternatively cooperating with one in order to isolate the other so as to manoeuvre its way through it has seen a shift recently as Pyongyang moves closer to Russia.
Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula since the election of the conservative President Yoon Seok-youl, who has adopted a “Kill Chain” strategy to preemptively target the Kim regime in the face of an imminent nuclear threat. Cooperation has been restricted to calls for reunion of families across the border along with disarmament linked “audacious” economic aid in order to denuclearise Pyongyang, which stands at the cusp of its worst economic crisis post the pandemic. However, surprisingly, North Korea has not only rejected the offer but has declared itself a nuclear state by adopting a law which rules out the possibility of denuclearisation by allowing Pyongyang to conduct preemptive strikes to protect itself. With a possible nuclear test on the cards, the Russian hand behind such bold moves cannot be overlooked.
Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has emboldened North Korea in more ways than one: it has not only challenged the invincibility of the Western powers whom Pyongyang defines as “hostile” but has also created demands for North Korean weaponry for a sanction pressed Russia to continue the war, promising to fill Pyongyang’s coffers with much needed foreign reserves. While North Korea has denied these claims, its increased proximity with Moscow is too conspicuous to gloss over. The most significant consequence however has been a change in North Korea’s policy towards Seoul and Washington.
Efficiently using it to challenge Seoul’s participation in any peace negotiations since the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953, the strategy of Tong-mi bong-nam was employed again in 1994 when faced with recurrent famines and massive food shortages, Pyongyang agreed to denuclearise under the Agreed Framework and eventually normalise its relationship with the US. The idea was to extract economic aid while isolating Seoul after tensions soared over the latter not sending official condolences on Kim il-Sung’s death.
The strategy was reversed in South’s favour when relations with Washington soured after it imposed a fresh series of sanctions against Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation programme in April 1998 and North Korea positively responded to Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy which resulted in the historic June 15 summit of 2000, where the the leaders of the two Koreas met for the first time post the division in 1945. President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” comment further worsened US-North Korean ties which led Pyongyang to not only break off contacts with both the US and South Korea but also withdraw from the NPT in January 2003. Although South Korean efforts and North Korea’s mounting economic crisis succeeded in bringing Pyongyang to the Six Party Talks where Seoul argued that North’s security concerns be taken into account before pushing for denuclearisation, Washington’s rigid stance that North Korea denuclearises first resulted in a stalemate. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 inviting more stringent sanctions and eventually withdrew from the Six Party talks in 2009. After successive conservative governments which favoured a hard stance towards North Korea virtually stalled negotiations, President Moon Jae-in’s friendly approach resulted in a major breakthrough in Inter-Korean relations in the form of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration which called for phased disarmament, at a time when Pyongyang’s economy was at its lowest in the past two decades and tensions with the Trump administration soared high. The breakdown of the 2019 Hanoi Summit between North Korea and the US finally ended cooperation.
The above cases illustrate how efficiently North Korea has used Tong-mi bong-nam as a manoeuvring tool where negotiations were undertaken only during times of economic crisis while nuclear proliferation continued to remain a priority to achieve reunification of the peninsula in a way favourable to Pyongyang. Moreover, Kim Jong-un has learnt from the case of Gadaffi’s Libya that engaging the West in denuclearisation would only provide limited respite while possession of nuclear weapons not only creates a strong deterrence against attacks by much powerful adversaries but also fuels nuclear nationalism thus reproducing regime legitimacy even at its weakest moments. Hence, he has nipped all chances of achieving complete denuclearisation in the bud. While China has so far played a major role in moderating Pyongyang’s aggression by prioritising regional stability considering its own geopolitical and economic interests over countering the US; Russia’s bold violation of UNSC sanctions by not only trading with Pyongyang but also demonstrating active interest in employing North Korean workers and labelling the bilateral relationship as being of “mutual interest” speaks volumes about the greater latitude it is willing to provide its anti-American ally in pressing forward with its agenda.
Though Tong-mi bong-nam has served North Korea’s interests by aiding it in extracting economic benefits while dodging commitments over complete denuclearisation, it has simultaneously acted as the only window for Seoul and Washington to negotiate with Pyongyang. As its raison d’être, namely North’s economic and diplomatic isolation, wanes with Moscow’s support; the hope for denuclearisation might be lost forever specifically as the US and South Korea continue to seek “overwhelming” military response to resolve the crisis which might lead to unimaginably dangerous consequences. The need of the hour is to multilaterally engage with both Russia and North Korea on disarmament and lift sanctions in a phased manner while ensuring that the two abide by their commitments.