The real meaning of North Korea’s recent military activities


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Photo: Rodong Sinmun

Predictably, much of the media commentary on North Korea’s new nuclear law and a flurry of missile launches and artillery fire in recent weeks, including its latest shot through the inter-Korean maritime border, ultimately boiled down to one question: what does Kim Jong Un want?[1] While there is a long list of possible internal and external factors driving North Korea’s ongoing moves, these activities must be viewed alongside what appears to be Pyongyang’s changing foreign policy. Only then can we understand the North’s current reckoning and the wider political implications.

By now, North Korea’s gravitation towards China and Russia and Kim Jong Un’s “no-negotiation” rhetoric have been widely chronicled. The true significance of these developments goes beyond North Korea’s mere joining of the anti-Western bloc led by China and Russia in what some have called “Cold War 2.0”: it signals a fundamental shift from respect to the North’s policy of non-alignment with China for more than 30 years. or Russia and efforts to normalize relations with the United States. North Korea’s view of the global political order and how the United States fits into its foreign policy will have implications for the security situation on the Korean peninsula and in the region, including prospects for talks. nuclear.

follow the signs

No country’s actions happen in a vacuum, and the same goes for North Korea. For this reason, rather than reacting or analyzing Pyongyang’s actions piecemeal, it is important to examine the context of those actions – the backdrop against which its perceptions are formed and decisions are made and implemented. implemented.

Signs of Pyongyang’s pivot to China have steadily and steadily accumulated in recent years, as evidenced by the North’s official support for the thorny issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan as early as August 2019 and June 2020, respectively.[2]

The Sino-Russian joint statement on February 4, in which the two countries defined their vision for a new world order and promised “no limits” in friendship, seems to have been an inflection point for North Korean leaders. that would change his worldview and fundamentally transform his foreign policy of more than 30 years.

In it, Kim Jong Un likely saw an increasingly fragmented world where American power and leadership wanes on the world stage. His thinking was reflected in his speech to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) in September, where he said, “The shift from a unipolar world advocated by the United States to a multipolar world is accelerating significantly “.[3] This seems to have encouraged North Korea to fundamentally recalibrate its policy of not aligning with China or Russia and using the United States as a buffer against these two giant neighbors.

Less than a month after the adoption of this joint statement, North Korea moved quickly to align itself with Russia, issuing a Foreign Ministry statement blaming the United States for the Ukrainian situation.[4] The following month, Kim Jong Un’s inspections of the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) and the Sohae Satellite Launch Station were followed by the first successful launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from the North since November 2017, marking the official end of its own moratorium on long-range ballistic missile and nuclear weapon testing.[5]

Over the summer, North Korea’s moves to strengthen its relations with China and Russia reached new heights. The North Korean Minister of Defense has committed “strategically and tactically[al] coordinated operations” with the Chinese military, while Kim Jong Un hailed a new level of “strategic and tactical cooperation” with Russia, two very unusual terms to use in reference to these respective countries.[6] The North’s alignment with Russia has become more pronounced, as evidenced by its diplomatic recognition of the two breakaway Ukrainian provinces and its support for Russian annexation.[7] The publication by the North Korean party daily of the interview of the Russian ambassador to the DPRK with the Russian government newspaper was another important nod to bilateral relations.[8] Pyongyang’s bolder moves toward China and Russia since the summer may reflect new guidelines given at a June Party plenum, where Choe Son Hui was named foreign minister, most likely to implement North Korea’s new foreign policy.

Consequences

The real significance of this policy shift goes beyond just North Korea’s pivot to China and Russia — it signals a more fundamental transformation in Pyongyang’s stance on relations with Washington.

First, it seems to spell the end of a strategic decision made 30 years ago by Kim Il Sung to normalize relations with Washington as a buffer against Beijing and Moscow.

If previous signals weren’t clear enough, Kim Jong Un hit the nail on the head in his 8,500-word SPA speech in early September, released alongside the North’s new nuclear law. In that authoritative speech, Kim made a rare direct reference to denuclearization, proclaiming that “there will never be…denuclearization first, nor negotiations to that end.” As if to underline his point, he added: “We have drawn the line of no retreat regarding our nuclear weapons so that there is no more bargaining over them.”

It was a hard line from Kim Jong Un’s speech at a party plenum in December 2019, when he said: “If the United States persists in its hostile policy towards the DPRK, there is no there will ever be a denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” without any reference to negotiations, bargaining or a “line of no return.”[9] In his last speech, Kim offered a condition on which he could change his nuclear policy: “if the political and military environment on the Korean peninsula [change].” However, this condition seems extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill, assuming that Kim means something along the lines of the five conditions for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula announced by the DPRK government in 2016, including the withdrawal of American forces on the Korean Peninsula. Peninsula.

This seems to suggest that North Korea is reverting to the US line that was first established by Kim Il Sung (resulting in the 1994 Agreed Framework) – ultimately normalizing bilateral diplomatic relations with the US by working to denuclearization. This line continued in the days of Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, as evidenced by the Six-Party Talks in the 2000s and the Singapore Joint Statement of 2018.

Second, it appears to reflect a change in Pyongyang’s long-held belief that creating a “conducive external environment” – usually a reference to improving relations with the United States – is an integral part of economic reform. .

This is perhaps best summed up by these somber words in Kim’s speech at the SPA: “Our generation will not pursue an immediately visible improved environment for economic life at the cost of abandoning nuclear weapons.” In the same speech, Kim continued to support reform initiatives, calling for “improving business and corporate management so as to maximize profits.” The implication is that North Korea would try to pursue reforms and improve the economy, but not by improving relations with the United States.

This marks a major break with the past. Historically – for example, in the early 2000s and in 2018, two pivotal years in North Korea’s economic policy – ​​there has been a strong correlation between North Korea’s reform drive and its diplomatic outreach. , especially to Washington.[10] It is possible that North Korea’s survival despite prolonged self-isolation, which some say could end the regime, coupled with the potential economic benefits of alignment with China and Russia, has encouraged Pyongyang to seek a different path.

Go forward

It’s unclear how long the North’s current foreign policy will last, but the scale of the change suggests it will remain in place at least in the short term. That said, this policy is not conducive to diplomacy or the easing of tensions. For example, North Korea’s “strategic and tactical policy”[al] “coordinated operations” and “strategic and tactical cooperation” with China and Russia, respectively, could have implications for the security of the Korean peninsula and the region if they materialize, especially as the war in Ukraine drags on and tensions across the strait increase.

North Korea’s foreign policy now appears to be dominated by the school of thought that engagement with the United States is futile and that the country’s national interests are best secured through alignment with China and Russia. In this context, it is important to make sustained efforts to persuade Pyongyang that normalizing relations with Washington would be beneficial in the long term for the security of its regime, and to create space for those in the North Korean system who favor diplomacy with the United States (assuming it still exists), so that the current policy does not become a must.

How to do this exactly? That’s a debate for another day.



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