PacNet #29 – Hints of a new North Korea nuclear strategy

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Japan Times.

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

Make no mistake: North Korea leader Kim Jong Un truly believes he needs nuclear weapons.

For years, that need reflected a single objective: the protection and maintenance of his regime. A nuclear arsenal was a defensive tool—a deterrent—to ensure that no foreign power would attack his country and end the Cold War division of the Korean Peninsula. Kim’s rationale for possessing nuclear weapons seems to be shifting and his rhetoric and accompanying military developments indicate a new focus—the acquisition of a war-fighting capability.

In the May 9 Japan Times, Gabriel Dominguez argued that North Korea wants nuclear weapons to “offset its weaknesses against the superior conventional military capabilities of the United States and regional allies Japan and South Korea.” I’m inclined to a more ominous explanation. Kim wants nuclear weapons for coercion. It looks as though Kim has resurrected his grandfather’s dream of unifying the whole of Korea under Pyongyang’s flag—and nuclear weapons will assist him in that quest.

Since they began in 2003, an uncomfortable fact has clouded negotiations to get North Korea to give up its nuclear capability: Pyongyang’s commitment to the development and acquisition of a nuclear weapon is absolute, a requisite for regime survival that cannot be bargained away. For all the talk of complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization or its subsequent variants, that wasn’t a real option.

Negotiations had two unspoken goals for the United States and like-minded governments. First, talks would buy time so pressures would build and force the collapse of North Korea. Second, they would reveal Pyongyang as unreasonable and intransigent and rally other governments behind a policy that would pressure the North to give up its weapons or collapse.

The regime proved more durable—and lucky—than many anticipated. It survived the negotiations and kept the other five parties in the Six Party Talks from uniting against it and forcing it to make concessions. It exploded its first nuclear device in October 2006, while the talks continued and has conducted five tests since—the last in September 2017. There are reports that a seventh test may occur sometime soon, perhaps in days.

Equally important has been Pyongyang’s determination to hone its delivery systems. It has steadily developed its missiles, lengthening their range, increasing throw weight, and improving mobility, which requires greater accuracy in targeting. Most recently, it is thought to be miniaturizing components, allowing it to send more payloads farther.

This year, North Korea has conducted a record 16 missile tests as of mid-May, including the testing of two intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US homeland and a guided missile that can reportedly deliver a tactical nuclear weapon. A May 7 test-launch featured a submarine-launched ballistic missile; such missiles are harder to detect, and better-suited to a surprise attack.

The focus on smaller nuclear weapons is particularly worrisome, because it suggests that Kim now thinks he can fight a war with a tactical nuclear weapon.

Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on the North who teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul, has been sounding the alarm. He told the Financial Times that North Korea’s strategy has changed. A program that was initially “purely defensive”—a product of fears that “without nuclear weapons they would be invaded”—is now “clearly overkill from a defensive point of view.” The new capabilities make Lankov “strongly suspect that their ultimate dream is to assert their control over South Korea.”

That was his grandfather’s dream, one that he tried to make real in 1950 with a bloody, ill-fated invasion of the South. Later, Kim Il Sung appears to have accepted co-existence with South Korea after the Cold War, although we’ll never know his actual intent in agreeing to a nuclear deal with Jimmy Carter, a proxy for President Bill Clinton, in 1994. Kim Il Sung died soon after. I’m inclined to believe that his son, Kim Jong Il, knew that reunification was impossible given the balance of forces he inherited and the appalling shape of his country.

Recent statements by Kim Jong Un and other senior officials suggest those grand ambitions have been revived. Kim last month spoke of a “secondary mission” for the country’s nuclear forces, adding that “our nuclear (arsenal) cannot be tied to this one mission of war prevention.”

Gibum Kim, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government-funded think tank, emailed that development of nonstrategic, low-yield nuclear weapons is consistent with statements from Kim and other officials “that they are working toward ‘diversification,’ ‘miniaturization,’ and ‘lightening.’” He also said that ambition is much longer lived, pointing to a 2016 order of Kim’s to the North Korean military to “convert (their) mode of military counteraction toward the enemies into a pre-emptive attack one in every aspect.”

Paul Choi, a military expert in Seoul, agrees with Gibum and Lankov. “North Korea’s advancing military capabilities and changing nuclear doctrine reflect Kim’s pursuit of a more coercive strategy and posture,” he explained in an email. Pyongyang “seeks to control escalation, if not dictate the terms of conflict (including its termination), and be the dominant force (the product of capabilities, commitment, and threshold of risk).” Especially worrying is Choi’s assessment that tactical nuclear weapons are aimed at being able to prevail in a fight that may include territorial expansion.

External developments have no doubt reinforced Pyongyang’s thinking. Western governments’ concern about Russian nuclear escalation to break the stalemate in Ukraine makes the North Korean pulse quicken. Western restraint and refusal to put boots on the ground as it supports Kyiv seems to underscore the deterrent effect of nuclear threats. But, Choi cautioned, North Korea is also learning “about the formidable challenge of controlling any territory with a resisting population.”

A second external development is the return to power of a conservative president in Seoul. New President Yoon Suk-yeol has promised to prioritize the alliance with the US over inter-Korean relations, which will deprive Pyongyang of a vocal advocate in otherwise skeptical capitals.

A senior member of the presidential transition committee, who worked on foreign affairs and national security, agreed that Kim Jong Un shares his grandfather’s dream of unifying the Peninsula under the North. “Diplomacy and negotiation for denuclearization have always been tools to earn more time and political space to continuously develop nuclear weapons,” the committee member says. “For Pyongyang, military threat is leverage to force the US and the ROK to accept nuclear arms reduction negotiations, a peace treaty, withdrawal of (US forces in Korea) and eventually a socialized Korean peninsula.”

Note, however, that those developments reinforce North Korean thinking. Pyongyang has its own logic and central to that thinking is the necessity of a nuclear capability; recent developments confirm existing beliefs. Or to put it differently, the outside world has limited ability to redirect North Korean policy.

There is no need to hyperventilate, however. Coercion and expansion may be the goals, but they both remain beyond Kim’s grasp. South Korea is not Ukraine. It’s a treaty ally and US commitments, conventional and nuclear, are steadfast. I’ve heard North Korean officials talk about a relationship with the US akin to that of the Soviet Union, which was characterized by nuclear parity. That’s a fantasy. A nuclear threat is not the equivalent of mutually assured destruction.

The North has a long way to go to turn its ambitions into reality. Gibum Kim explained that a test or two (or 16) isn’t enough. North Korea would have to spend lots of money to build the logistical infrastructure for nuclear use and maintenance, train for nuclear use and, “most unimaginable of all,” prepare to delegate authority to field commanders for nuclear use in wartime.

Still, the US, South Korea, and Japan must plan on continued acquisition and sharpening of North Korean nuclear capabilities and prepare to better deter and defend. Yoon has said that he wants to work more closely with Washington and Tokyo to do that, and President Joe Biden is reportedly going to reiterate nuclear assurances to US allies during his trip to the region beginning this week.

The signals must be clear to discourage Kim Jong Un from reviving those dangerous dreams of unification or miscalculating his way into a nuclear conflict.

Brad Glosserman (brad@pacforum.org) is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

PacNet #16 – South Korea’s presidential election aftermath: Ukraine as test for a “global pivotal state”

For more from this author, visit his recent chapter of Comparative Connections.

South Korea has watched the tragic development of war in Ukraine and—like much of the rest of the world—come down firmly on the side of Ukrainians. Seoul city authorities have displayed blue and yellow lighting on buildings and monuments to show solidarity. President Moon Jae-in and Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong have condemned Russia’s invasion and voiced support to their Ukrainian counterparts. Nongovernmental and civil society groups have launched emergency charity and humanitarian efforts, and citizens have made donations. Most substantively, South Korea has agreed to support and enforce the sanctions—spearheaded by the United States and the European Union—to impose costs on Russia.

At the same time, South Korea has been focused on its March 9 presidential election, which resulted in victory for conservative opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol. With a new executive team soon to enter the presidential office and ministries, South Korea’s approach toward Russia and the Ukraine war are likely to continue, but the new leadership may set different accents. New issues and challenges may also emerge depending on how the war evolves.

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down?

South Korea is a member in good standing of the international community. It is democratic, well-governed, prosperous, and peaceful. It follows international law and supports the rules-based order. Today, it does so regardless of which party is in power, so it was not surprising that Seoul chose to implement the economic sanctions, financial transaction lockout, asset freezes, and export bans against Russia. The Moon administration recognized that Russia’s invasion is not just an attack against another sovereign state, but against sovereignty tout court—a concept a formerly colonized nation appreciates—and against the rules-based order generally.

That said, South Korea’s principles are tempered by pragmatism, and the Moon administration was mindful not to be too forward in responding to Russian aggression. At first, the Blue House offered rhetorical support to Kyiv and called out the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, but was slow to condemn Russia by name. South Korea was also a follower—not a leader—in the campaign to sanction Russian entities. Seoul’s primary concern was potential blowback from Moscow, both economically and with respect to Russian support for inter-Korean relations.

South Korea has legitimate concerns, as it both exports and imports products to/from Russia. Nonetheless Seoul eventually acquiesced to the broad sanctions package, although it did negotiate inclusion on a US waiver list for certain export-ban items. Meanwhile, the Moon administration’s worry about alienating Russia as a partner for inter-Korean relations seemed primarily reflexive. Inter-Korean relations have been stagnant for years due to North Korean recalcitrance, and Seoul is a long way from sufficient rapprochement with Pyongyang such that Moscow’s support would be necessary.

For its part, Russia has indeed flashed its anger. South Korea predictably and understandably demurred from sending Ukraine lethal weapons, but that was not sufficient to prevent Moscow from placing Seoul on an “unfriendly list.” Consequently, South Korean firms owed payment in non-Russian currency will have the debt settled in rubles, which have declined drastically in value since the start of the war.

Enter Yoon Suk-yeol

In contrast with Moon’s progressive Democratic Party (DP), which tends to be more parochial and Peninsula-focused on foreign and security policy, Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) privileges more comprehensive and geographically expansive alliance alignment with the United States. Indeed Yoon’s campaign foreign policy statement committed to making South Korea a “global pivotal state.” The Russia-Ukraine war will test that commitment.

First, Yoon will need to maintain current sanctions on Russia, even if they have a negative effect on South Korea’s economy, or if Russia retaliates (including through cyberattacks). That will require crafting a narrative for the public, notably and convincingly underlining Seoul’s global role. Beyond that, the United States and European Union may strengthen sanctions, which South Korea would be expected to endorse. That could include joining a ban on the import of hydrocarbons and petrochemicals (of which South Korea imports a modest amount). There may also be cases in which Washington and/or European capitals increase pressure on China to dissuade it from assisting Russia with sanctions evasion. As a “global pivotal state,” Seoul may feel obliged to support such measures, which would risk South Korea’s economic relations with its number-one trading partner.

Finally, depending on how the war develops, South Korea may need to engage in peacekeeping and post-conflict stabilization. Seoul may be called on to participate in rebuilding efforts in Ukraine, as well as in financial assistance programs. In addition to delivering these contributions, the challenge for Yoon would be to do so in a timely way, with South Korea out front and outspoken in bilateral and multilateral fora. This would signal that South Korea is now a “global, pivotal” leader.

The specter of North Korea

Even a “global, pivotal” South Korea cannot escape the specter of Pyongyang, and the Russia-Ukraine war has provided (at this point provisional) lessons for the Korean Peninsula. Those lessons are a mixed bag.

On the one hand, both South Korea and Kim Jong Un’s leadership circle would very likely have understood how pyrrhic the Russian invasion has been. Swallowing and digesting a country with an appropriately armed and motivated population is a devilishly difficult endeavor. Furthermore, military operations with poorly motivated/trained soldiers and shambolic logistics is a recipe for disaster. Note also that South Korea is well-armed (and allied with the United States) and would be motived to defend itself, while North Korea’s military likely has poorly motivated/trained soldiers and limited logistics capabilities.

Putin’s Ukraine war illustrates why North Korea would be foolhardy to invade South Korea. South Korea is thus perhaps marginally safer from North Korean attack. Nonetheless Yoon will surely want to bolster deterrence by re-starting full-spectrum US-South Korea joint military exercises, which have fallen by the wayside under Moon (and partially due to COVID).

On the other hand, Putin’s signaling of potential nuclear escalation in Europe highlights the nexus of the stability-instability paradox, nuclear coercion, and the escalate-to-de-escalate doctrine. Both South and North Korea will keenly watch to see what kind of effects Putin’s nuclear brinksmanship produces vis-à-vis NATO and Ukraine, and whether Russia is able to meet some of its objectives in Ukraine by overcoming conventional military failure through brandishing nuclear weapons as both sword and shield. Yoon’s national security team will watch this development and perhaps need to adjust South Korea’s defense posture accordingly (in consultation with the United States), including especially extended nuclear deterrence.

Conclusions

The Russia-Ukraine war will likely offer both opportunities and risks to the Yoon administration, and there are steps the administration can take to rise to the challenge. First, Yoon should prepare the ground for South Korea’s enhanced prominence as a “global, pivotal state.” Having greater voice in global and regional affairs increases influence and weight, but also means more responsibilities and costs. The South Korean public needs to be convinced of the value of this path. For example, Yoon has made a commitment to leading more in support of democracy and the rules-based order—this implies calling out the predatory behavior of certain states, which South Korea has not often done forcefully. Doing so can attract unwanted attention, and South Korea must be prepared.

On the conventional deterrence front, in addition to re-starting full US-South Korea joint military exercises, the Yoon administration should review South Korea’s defense procurement to make sure it has the right systems and equipment for national defense, notably for a nation with a dramatically declining population of males eligible for military service. In particular, the Yoon administration will need to take a hard look at the value of big-ticket items such as a planned light aircraft carrier. The efficiency of resources allocated for indigenous missile defense assets will also require close examination.

As for extended nuclear deterrence, Yoon may wish to reiterate his openness to the United States eventually re-stationing tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, although Washington has already rebuffed this request during his campaign. More plausibly, Yoon and his senior security and defense officials should consider working more closely with Washington on nuclear planning for the Korean Peninsula, with the objective of further institutionalizing shared nuclear planning and strategy, akin to NATO.

Mason Richey (mrichey@hufs.ac.kr) is Associate Professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, South Korea and Senior Contributor at the Asia Society (Korea).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

Photo: Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s president-elect and former top prosecutor, speaks at his campaign office after his election win. Source: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg News

PacNet #45 – False Dawn: The Resumption and Re-ending of the Inter-Korean Hotline

This article summarizes the author’s chapter in the new issue of Comparative Connections, which can be read in its entirety here.

Summer 2021 saw a false dawn on the Korean Peninsula, hardly the first, but surely one of the shortest. On July 27 both North and South announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines, severed for over a year. In Seoul, hopes were high that this signalled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the United States. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) began their regular August military exercises—albeit scaled back and wholly computer-based—North Korea snarled and stopped answering the phone. Inter-Korean relations remain frozen, as they have been ever since early 2019. With Moon Jae-in’s presidency due to end next May, any real melting of the ice looks increasingly like a challenge for his successor.

War Games: Shadow-Boxing?

To understand the hotline, first consider the politics behind US-ROK military exercises. Since Donald Trump summarily cancelled upcoming regular US-ROK military exercises at his Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un in June 2018, the usual calendar of spring and summer allied drills has been much disrupted. Far from appreciating that olive branch, Kim saw this concession as a chance to press harder.

After several changes of name, these drills have waxed and waned, reflecting the state of relations between North Korea and its foes. Trump, soon followed by COVID-19, ushered in a new era of cancelled or smaller maneuvers. So Kim had less to worry about, but he chose to go for broke, insisting that to hold joint exercises at all, in any form or on any scale, is a hostile act. This has created a new cycle, where every spring and summer the allies must decide what kind of drills, if any, to stage.

With exercises due in August, Minister of Unification Lee In-young on June 6 called for “maximum flexibility,” insisting that joint drills “should never work in a way that causes or further escalates tensions on the Korean Peninsula.” That was tantamount to calling for their cancellation, which Lee could not do directly. This kicked off a fresh round of the perennial argument in Seoul about the right balance of stick and carrot, force readiness versus peace process, and so on. Besides playing out in the media, politically more important was the debate inside the ruling Democratic Party (DP), and above all necessarily hidden discussions within Moon Jae-in’s government.

Arguably, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and the military establishment, not to mention Washington, would not countenance complete cancellation (in 2018 Trump forced their hand). Even as public debate continued, planning and preparations were surely under way. Meanwhile, as we now know, at some point and in some form Moon and Kim began exchanging messages about reactivating inter-Korean hotlines, unused for a year after Pyongyang blew up the Kaesong joint liaison office in June 2020. Ever since then, the South has faithfully called as agreed at 0900 each day, but gotten no reply. (Talk of the lines being “cut” misleads: They still work, but the North chooses not to pick up.)

Lights! Camera! Action! They’re Talking Again!

Then, on July 27 and with much fanfare, the Blue House in Seoul and the official North Korean news agency KCNA in Pyongyang both announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines. In a triumph of hope over expectation all too familiar in inter-Korean relations (but we never learn), hopes ran high that after a two-year hiatus that Pyongyang might finally be ready to engage again. Not only with Seoul, but also the not-so-new Biden administration.

For a week or two, inter-Korean ties seemed to flicker back into life. Beyond the formality of checking the lines daily, there were signs of substance. The two sides used the line to compare tallies and positions of Chinese vessels illegally fishing in the West Sea near the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the de facto inter-Korean maritime border, which the DPRK has never formally recognized. Besides sharing notes to repel intruders, such liaison in sensitive and sometimes contested waters would help avoid any risk of accidental clashes.

But it went no further. An eager Seoul broached concrete proposals—virtual talks, family reunions by videolink—but got no immediate reply. Then Kim Yo Jong weighed in. On Aug. 1, four days after the lines were restored, Kim Jong Un’s sister warned against “premature hasty judgment. What I think is that the restoration of the communication liaison lines should not be taken as anything more than just the physical reconnection.” In particular, the “unpleasant story that joint military exercises between the south Korean army and the US forces could go ahead as scheduled” would surely “becloud” inter-Korean prospects.

On Aug. 8 Seoul announced that joint drills would go ahead, albeit computer-based with no field exercises. This predictably prompted an angrier second salvo from Ms. Kim, attacking the “perfidious” South for this “unwelcoming act of self-destruction for which a dear price should be paid.” That was on Aug. 10. In the morning the hotlines still worked, but by 5 pm the North was not picking up. Nor has it done so since.

As You Were

What to make of this episode? The Blue House denied insinuations by Yoon Seok-youl—a contender for the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP)’s presidential nomination next year—that a secret deal lay behind the hotlines restoration. If that is true, then it fell apart in record time. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) claims the initiative came from Kim Jong Un. If that is the case, then one hypothesis is that Kim was testing Moon over the joint drills. Perhaps he thought this sop might tip the balance of the debate in Seoul. It did swell the ranks of those in the ruling party who favored cancellation, but not enough. Once it was clear the exercises would go ahead, Kim duly exacted punishment, reverting to noncommunication and the status quo ante.

Reading Moon’s mind is harder. Though an idealist on inter-Korean ties, he is also a canny politician whose time is running out: his successor will be elected on March 9 next year. He may have felt he had little to lose, and we don’t know what was said in the letters he and Kim exchanged. Unclear too is what input, if any, the foreign ministry or even MOU had in any of this. Reportedly, the Blue House handles dealings with Pyongyang itself, no doubt via the NIS. Did Moon reckon Pyongyang would not really mind the joint exercises, despite Kim Yo Jong’s clarity on the issue?

After Moon: More of the Same?

As a presidency winds down it is natural to try to peer into the future. With ROK presidents constitutionally limited to a single five-year term, less than half a year from now South Korea will have a new president, due to take office May 9.

Six months is a long time in politics, especially in Seoul. As of now, while Moon Jae-in is becoming a lamer duck (albeit with better poll ratings than most of his predecessors at this stage), the DP looks in better shape than the PPP. Within the DP, ongoing primaries have confirmed a front-runner: Lee Jae-myong, governor of Gyeonggi province which surrounds the capital (indeed, it has become a largely urbanized greater Seoul).

Though not personally or factionally close to Moon, ideologically Lee shares his engagement stance. He also favors conditional sanctions relief for the DPRK. So, if he is the next ROK president, expect policy continuity rather than change. The problem is that Moon’s approach has not worked, even if his government appears in denial on that score. At the very least, Lee (if it is he) will have to be more imaginative in finding ways to break the deadlock.

Postscript

The chapter from which this article is excerpted was completed early in September. There have been fresh developments since, notably two—one skeptical, the other more positive—by Kim Yo Jong to President Moon’s suggestion, made (not for the first time) in a speech to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 21, of a formal peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War. We might therefore see a renewed bout of inter-Korean dialogue on Moon’s watch after all. Precedent, not least the episode described above, suggests that hopes of a meaningful breakthrough are not high. But let us not prejudge. Prospects will be clearer when the next issue of Comparative Connections appears in January 2022. Watch this space!

Aidan Foster-Carter (afostercarter@aol.com) is honorary senior research fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University, UK. His interest in Korea began in 1968. Since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on North and South Korean affairs: writing, lecturing, and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide. He has written on inter-Korean relations for Comparative Conections ever since 2001.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #40 – Comparative Connections Summary: September 2021

COMPARATIVE CONNECTIONS SUMMARY- SEPTEMBER 2021 ISSUE

 

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
EUROPE “DISCOVERS” ASIA AND WASHINGTON “DISCOVERS” SEA, AMID AFGHAN ANXIETY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Joe Biden pledged that the US would resume its traditional role as leader of US alliances, supporter of multilateralism, and champion of international law and institutions. Throughout its first nine months, his administration has labored to turn those words into reality, and for the first six months the focus was on Asia, at least Northeast Asia. During this reporting period, Biden himself worked on multilateral initiatives and while the primary venues were Atlanticist–the G7 summit, NATO, and the European Union–Asia figured prominently in those discussions. Chinese behavior loomed large in European discussions as NATO allies conducted ship visits and military exercises in the region to underscore these concerns. Meanwhile, a number of senior US foreign policy and security officials visited Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, amidst complaints of neglect from Washington. Concerns about Chinese pressure against Taiwan also grew in the region and beyond. The impact of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, messy at it appeared to be, has thus far not resulted in a crisis of confidence regarding US commitment to the region.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUMMER TAKES AN UNEXPECTED TURN
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN
By the end of spring, the US-Japan relationship was centerstage in the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific diplomacy. From the first Quad (virtual) Summit to the visit of Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide to Washington, DC, relations between Tokyo and Washington could not have been better. A full calendar of follow-up meetings for the fall suggested even further deepening of the partnership. And on Aug. 20, President Joe Biden announced that he intended to nominate Rahm Emanuel, former mayor of Chicago and chief of staff for President Obama, as ambassador to Japan. Throughout the summer, the US and Japan continued to deepen and expand the global coalition for Indo-Pacific cooperation. The UK, France, and even Germany crafted their own Indo-Pacific visions, as did the EU. Maritime cooperation grew as more navies joined in regional exercises. Taiwan featured prominently in US-Japan diplomacy, and in May the G7 echoed US-Japan concerns about rising tensions across the Taiwan Straits. Japanese political leaders also spoke out on the need for Japan to be ready to support the US in case tensions rose to the level of military conflict.

US-CHINA RELATIONS
THE DESCENT CONTINUES
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US
The downward slide in US-China relations continued as the two countries wrangled over Hong Kong, COVID-19, Taiwan, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, and cyberattacks. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Chinese officials met in Tianjin but appeared to make no progress toward managing intensifying competition between the two countries. The US rolled out a series of measures against alleged Chinese forced labor practices and strengthened the prohibition against US investments in the PRC’s military industrial complex. Deteriorating freedoms in Hong Kong prompted the Biden administration to impose more sanctions on Chinese officials and issue a business advisory warning US companies of growing risks to their activities in Hong Kong.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
STIR NOT MURKY WATERS
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
US relations with both South and North Korea were—with a few notable exceptions—uneventful during the May-August 2021 reporting period. If US-Korea relations displayed some excitement, it was largely along the Washington-Seoul axis. An inaugural leader summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in took place in Washington, producing significant deliverables for the short, medium, and long term. Biden and Moon then participated in the June G7 summit in Great Britain. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August also provided South Korea with challenges and ponderables. Washington-Pyongyang communication was subdued, aside from standard North Korean criticism of US-South Korea joint military exercises. Even when the US and North Korea addressed each other with respect to dialogue, it was usually to underline for the other party how Washington or Pyongyang is willing to talk under the right circumstances, but capable of waiting out the other side. Late August added some spice, however, as the IAEA issued a credible report confirming what many had expected: North Korea has likely re-started fissile material production at the Yongbyon complex. Finally, outside the reporting period, Pyongyang tested a potentially nuclear-capable land-attack cruise missile on Sept. 11. Are these signs that sleeping dogs are stirring?

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
WASHINGTON FINDS ITS FEET IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
In the months immediately following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Southeast Asia was on the backburner in US foreign policy, but in May the administration heeded calls for a stronger voice and more active role in the region with a succession of visits by high-level officials, culminating in Kamala Harris’s first trip to the region in her role as vice president. The cumulative impact remains to be seen, but one key “deliverable”—the renewal of the US–Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila—was enough to label the summer strategy a success. More broadly, the administration responded to the surge of the COVID Delta variant in Southeast Asia with donations of vaccines, making considerable strides in the “vaccine race” with China and Russia.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
PUSHING REGIONAL ADVANTAGES AMID HEIGHTENED US RIVALRY
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
China’s recognition of the strategic challenge posed by close Biden administration relations with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) powers Australia, India, and Japan reinforced Beijing’s strong efforts to preserve and expand its advantageous position in Southeast Asia in the face of rising competition with the United States. Beijing used uniformly critical coverage of US withdrawal from Afghanistan to highlight US unreliability, and attempted to discredit Vice President Kamala Harris’ Aug. 22-26 visit to the region, the highpoint of Biden government engagement with Southeast Asia. It also widely publicized evidence of China’s influence in the competition with the United States in Southeast Asia, even among governments long wary of China, like Vietnam. That effort underlined the lengths Vietnam would go to avoid offending China in reporting that Hanoi allowed the Chinese ambassador to publicly meet the Vietnamese prime minister and donate vaccines, upstaging Vice President Harris, who hours later began her visit and offered vaccines.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
CROSS-STRAIT TENSION INCREASING BENEATH A SURFACE CALM
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
Cross-Strait tensions intensified between May and August 2021, despite the superficial calm that generally prevailed after the dramatic confrontations earlier in the year. China again blocked Taiwan’s participation at the World Health Assembly (WHA), and Xi Jinping reaffirmed the Communist Party’s commitment to the peaceful reunification of Taiwan at the Party’s 100th anniversary. Chinese military flights into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone were almost routine until China launched 28 sorties in a single day to protest the G7 summit’s endorsement of Taiwan’s participation in the WHA. The Biden administration announced its first arms sales to Taiwan. Several countries, most notably Japan and Australia, made their strongest statements ever in support of Taiwan. Lithuania announced it would permit the opening of an unofficial “Taiwanese” representative office. Beijing withdrew its ambassador from Lithuania and told Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador from Beijing. The US dismissed fears that its withdrawal from Afghanistan might portend abandonment of Taiwan. In coming months, Taiwan faces three potential turning points: Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party will elect a new chair; a referendum could overturn the opening of Taiwan’s market to US pork; and the US has signaled it will invite Taiwan to President Biden’s democracy summit despite threats of military retaliation by China.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
SUMMER FALSE DAWN: ON/OFF COMMUNICATIONS
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
Summer 2021 saw a false dawn on the Korean Peninsula, hardly the first, but surely one of the shortest. On July 27 both North and South announced the reconnection of inter-Korean hotlines, severed for over a year. In Seoul, hopes were high—aren’t they always?—that this signalled a fresh willingness by Pyongyang to engage, not only with South Korea but also the US. Yet this “breakthrough” lasted barely a fortnight. When the US and ROK began their regular August military exercises—albeit scaled back and wholly computer-based—North Korea snarled and stopped answering the phone. Inter-Korean relations remain frozen, as they have been ever since early 2019. With Moon Jae-in’s presidency due to end next May, any real melting of the ice looks increasingly like a challenge for his successor.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
ALLIANCE RESTORATION AND SUMMIT COMMEMORATIONS
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
South Korea President Moon Jae-in’s meeting with Joe Biden and his participation in the G7 summit during May and June focused attention on Seoul’s strategy of balancing relations with China and the United States. While Beijing disapproved of the US-ROK joint statement released after the May summit, Chinese state media praised the Moon administration’s relative restraint in joining US-led coalition building against China. Official remarks on core political and security issues, however, raised mutual accusations of interference in internal affairs. US-China competition and South Korean domestic political debates amplify Seoul’s dilemma regarding its strategic alignment ahead of the country’s 2022 presidential elections.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
A CHILLY SUMMER
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
China and Japan continued to vie over a wide variety of issues including economic competitiveness, jurisdiction over territorial waters, World War II responsibilities, representation in international organizations, and even Olympic and Paralympic medals. The Japanese government expressed concern with the increasingly obvious presence of Chinese ships and planes in and around areas under its jurisdiction, with Chinese sources accusing Japan of a Cold War mentality. Nothing was heard of Xi Jinping’s long-planned and often postponed official visit to Tokyo. Also, Chinese admonitions that Japan recognize that its best interests lay not with a declining United States but in joining forces with a rising China were conspicuous by their absence.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
UNREALIZED OLYMPIC DIPLOMACY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
In the summer months of 2021, the big question for many observers was whether Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Moon Jae-in would hold their first summit meeting during the Tokyo Olympic Games. Cautious hope was in the air, especially on the South Korean side. However, by the time the Olympics opened in late July, any such hope was dashed amid a series of unhelpful spats. Seoul and Tokyo decided that they would not gain much—at least not what they wanted from the other—by holding a summit this summer. With Suga’s announcement of his resignation as head of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) at the end of September, barring any sudden turn of events, his tenure as Japanese prime minister will be recorded as one that did not have a summit with a South Korean president.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
AFGHAN ENDGAME AND GUNS OF AUGUST
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
The summer of 2021 may be the best and worst time for Russia-China relations. There was much to celebrate as the two powers moved into the third decade of stable and friendly relations, symbolized by the 20th anniversary of both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the “friendship treaty” (The Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation). This historical moment, however, paralleled a hasty and chaotic end to the 20-year US interlude in Afghanistan with at least two unpleasant consequences for Beijing and Moscow: a war-torn Afghanistan in their backyard with an uncertain future and worse, a United States now ready to exclusively focus on the two large Eurasian powers 30 years after the end of the Cold War. As the Afghan endgame rapidly unfolded in August, both sides were conducting large exercises across and around Eurasia. While Afgthanistan may not again serve as the “graveyard of empires” in the 21st century, but then end of the US engagement there, however, will usher in an era of competition, if not clashes, between rival empires.

AUSTRALIA-US/EAST ASIA RELATIONS
COVID AND CHINA CHILL, ALLIANCE ANNIVERSARY AND AFGHANISTAN
BY GRAEME DOBELL, AUSTRALIAN STRATEGIC POLICY INSTITUTE
Australia closed its borders to confront COVID-19 and rode out recession, while China shut off key markets to punish Australia. The short recession caused by pandemic ended Australia’s record run of nearly three decades of continuous economic growth; Beijing’s coercion crunched the optimism of three decades of economic enmeshment. However, Australia’s economy rebounded while the China crunch continues, causing Australia to question its status as the most China-dependent economy in the developed world. The Canberra–Beijing iciness has built over five years, marking the lowest period since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972. In 2021, the language of “strategic partnership” died and the “strategic economic dialogue” was suspended by China. The Biden administration promised not to abandon Australia, saying that US–China relations would not improve while an ally faced coercion. Australia embraced Washington’s assurance, along with the elevation of the Quad with the US, Japan, and India.

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PacNet #35 – South Korea’s Military Inferiority Complex Must End

According to a survey by the Korea Institute for National Unification, in November 2020 more South Koreans believed that North Korea had a stronger military than South Korea. That changed for the first time in 2021—by a slim margin. More now believe the South Korean military is more robust than North Korea’s (37.1%) than the other way around (36.5%).

Why has it taken so long for the South Korean public to acknowledge the superiority of their own military?

The Trump Effect

Donald Trump’s four-year term as president of the United States was a nerve-racking time for many in South Korea.

He repeatedly disparaged the free trade agreement between South Korea and the United States, and made excessive demands in cost-sharing negotiations. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said that President Trump had a personal dislike for South Korea, something he allegedly voiced in front of Hogan’s Korea-born wife.

President Trump’s approach made many in South Korea wonder if decoupling might be imminent, possibly helping convince many South Koreans that their country was in a much weaker position than North Korea.

The Appearance of Strength

The Republic of Korea Army is one of the largest standing armies in the world, and its size is the backbone of its defense against North Korea.

However, many South Koreans fulfill their mandatory military service because it is compulsory rather than out of a sense of patriotic duty. Also, because today’s South Korea is a much wealthier country than in the 1960s and 1970s, there is a belief that the South Korean Army has grown soft and effete.

By contrast, the sight of thousands of goose-stepping and battle-ready North Korean soldiers and the procession of their latest missiles during their infamous military parades is impressive to behold.

Plus, while South Korea and the United States have frequently conducted extensive and highly publicized joint military exercises, North Korea has long had an ace up its sleeve. Since 2006, North Korea has conducted six nuclear weapon tests, and undertaken numerous and varied missile tests. Neither South Korea nor the United States appear to have any path to denuclearizing North Korea.

A Reality Check

Yet the North Korean military is not as formidable as it appears. Their weakness was apparent in 2017 when a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the DMZ. After he was shot by his former comrades during his escape, the doctor responsible for saving the soldier’s life reported that he had found inside the soldier’s body parasites he had only previously read about in medical textbooks.

Food security between the two Koreas is so stark there is even a notable height difference between South and North Koreans—North Korean soldiers are so malnourished that many have become physically stunted.

The South Korean military is also a much more modern fighting force. The South Korean Army boasts weapons such as K2 main battle tanks and K9 howitzers—many of which the South Korean government has exported to other countries—and has Apache attack helicopters.

In 2019, the South Korean Air Force bought 40 F-35 stealth fighters, and in 2020, it announced that it would buy 40 more. Earlier this year, South Korea showed the world the prototype of its own indigenous 4.5 generation fighter jet, the KF-21 Boramae.

Not to be outdone, the South Korean Navy has three Sejong the Great-class Aegis destroyers and plans to buy three more. Recently, the South Korean Navy announced plans to enter into service its first aircraft carrier by 2033.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s tank forces are obsolete and impotent in the face of South Korean K2 Black Panther tanks, its geriatric air force belongs in a museum, and its navy is hopelessly outgunned and outhulled. Aside from its fleet of submarines, none of North Korea’s conventional forces could ever hope to challenge South Korea’s Armed Forces.

Doomsday Weapons

North Korean strategists are aware of South Korea’s military prowess and industrial output, which is why they have no intention of relinquishing their nuclear weapons.

Yet, having nuclear weapons is very different from using them. The moment one of their nuclear bombs detonates in South Korea, that would guarantee a vengeful retaliation from the full might of the South Korean and the United States militaries.

Even if the US didn’t come to South Korea’s defense, South Korea has its own arsenal of missiles. While South Korea does not possess nuclear weapons, its mix of ballistic and cruise missiles are an integral part of its aptly-named Kill Chain and Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation plans. Not only are South Korea’s missiles already capable of targeting every inch of the Korean Peninsula, but the Hyunmoo-4, tested just last year, reportedly carry a payload as large as 2 tons to ranges of up to 800 kilometers. Once it is completed, it is rumored that the Hyunmoo-4 will have a 3,000-kilometer range and be capable of supersonic flight.

After South Korea and the United States mutually agreed to lift the former’s missile restrictions and allow Seoul to develop solid-fuel space rockets, these agreements have ensured that North Korea no longer has a monopoly on offensive missile technology and capability. South Korea also recently successfully tested a locally developed submarine-launched ballistic missile.

To ensure its second-strike capability in the event of a war, South Korea also has anti-missile defense systems—Patriot missiles and THAAD. In addition, South Korea is also developing its domestic anti-missile defense, the L-SAM, and plans to build its own version of the Iron Dome to counter North Korea’s artillery.

Perception Matters

Many believe that the North Korean military is full of hungry soldiers with nothing to lose. They also assume that the South Korean military includes pampered soldiers who grew up in an affluent society. They reason that the typical North Korean soldier is more willing to fight and win.

Yet, in November 2010, after North Korea opened fire and shelled Yeonpyeong-do, South Korean marines fired back within 13 minutes. One of the two South Korean marines who died that day, Staff Sergeant Seo Jeong-woo, was on leave but returned to base after the attack. There are also signs, including attention-grabbing defections, that the dedication of North Korean conscripts is not nearly as strong as its state media would have the outside world believe.

The erroneous view that South Korea’s military and soldiers are somehow weaker or less capable than North Korea’s serves Pyongyang’s goals at the expense of Seoul and Washington’s national interests.

Korea ranked 10th worldwide in terms of nominal gross domestic product in 2020. As such, South Korea would have much to lose should the Korean War ever reignite. Combined with the perceived South Korean weakness vis-a-vis North Korea, South Korea’s political leaders and voters enter into negotiations with North Korea from a disadvantaged position.

South Koreans need to understand that their country is superior and that this superiority extends to the military. While triumphalism would not aid South Korea in dealing with North Korea, neither does an inferiority complex.

The South Korean government must address this problem. Tiptoeing around North Korea’s pride and placating North Korean demandsmust end. The way for that to change is for the South Korean government to change its own narrative, making clear all the advantages their country—and their military—enjoys.

John Lee (johnwlee1013@gmail.com) is a blogger and freelance writer and columnist whose work has appeared in NK News. He has also been featured in Channel News Asia, the South China Morning Post, and La Croix. He lives in South Korea. Twitter: @koreanforeigner.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #33 – Kim Jong Un’s Failures Could be Washington’s Gain

At North Korea’s Eighth Party Congress in January, as state-run media reported ebullience among participants and extolled the virtues of Kim Jong Un’s leadership, external news noted a peculiarity: Kim’s admission that almost all sectors of the DPRK’s economy failed to meet their objectives. That Kim openly acknowledged such shortcomings during such a major gathering should be taken as tacit recognition of the ghastly state of the DPRK economy.

Kim’s resurrection of the phrase “Arduous March” during an April 8 conference also hints at the DPRK’s difficulties. Food security has become increasingly problematic and, with North Korea seeing its worst economic performance in two decades, Kim appears to be rolling back steps toward market liberalization.

North Korea has certainly grappled with events beyond the control of its leadership, including the severe summer floods of 2020 and the devastation wrought by COVID-19. The former exacerbated an already precarious food situation, while the latter reduced trade across its northern border to a soupçon of its usual volume. However, two issues loom for which Kim cannot escape responsibility: those diplomatic and those economic.

Failures of Diplomacy

Kim played a central role in planning the US-DPRK summits of 2018 and 2019, extending a direct invitation to then-President Trump and opting for high-level dialogue. He also placed himself in the limelight during summits with his South Korean counterpart.

Not since the Clinton administration had diplomatic relations offered such horizons. Then it was North Korea obtaining US cooperation in the Agreed Framework in 1994 and the Kim Dae-jung-era Sunshine Policy with South Korea (1998-2003). This time, the presidency of Donald Trump promised to be unlike anything before, while South Korea’s Moon Jae-in made improvement of North-South relations a foundational piece of his platform.

Initially, it appeared both would pay off: Trump’s first summit with Kim in June 2018 ended with the joint signing of a document that contained rhetoric on a desire for peace, denuclearization, and other commitments to cooperation. Southward, Kim made history by becoming the first North Korean leader to cross into ROK territory.

However, dialogue in both realms fell flat. This began with the abrupt breakdown of the second Trump-Kim summit in February 2019, which ended in accusations from both sides that the other was unreasonable. Trump stated that the breakdown was due to DPRK demands that sanctions be lifted in their entirety, while North Korea insisted that the DPRK had merely insisted on a partial lifting.

As for inter-Korean dialogue, both parties agreed to several compromises, including one to restore Inter-Korean economic cooperation in the form of joint ventures such as the Kaesong Industrial Region and the Mount Kumgang tourism project. Nevertheless, such tokenism failed to produce tangible benefits, joint economic projects have yet to resume, and the DPRK’s destruction of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office in 2020 literally and symbolically dismantled a platform for improved inter-Korea relations.

A Miscarriage Five Years in the Making

Kim’s nonperformance in the diplomatic arena only compounded the failure of his five-year economic plan—and it was his economic plan, as he emphasized his role in the process in a way his father never had. A moribund economy is nothing new for the North, yet some forecast a sea change upon Kim Jong Un’s ascent. Having inherited a nascent nuclear weapons program, Kim enunciated his byongjin development policy, in which nuclear weapons would provide an environment secure enough to focus on economic development.

Kim crafted a development plan which included a softening of the collectivization of agricultural policies, a shift from heavy to light industry, and the energetic pursuit of special economic zones. The central authority afforded local governments a relatively free hand in their construction, with collaboration among private enterprises encouraged.

However, Pyongyang recently declared that factories will be left to their own devices to secure raw materials. The budget report out of the 2020 Parliamentary session for the first time in DPRK history noted that there had been flaws in the implementation of a national budget. Given the report’s modest growth goals for 2020, the state likely experienced significant hurdles in collecting revenue.

All of this leads back to the Eighth Party Congress. In sharp contrast to his father, Kim Jong Un bears the responsibility for a failure in policy implementation. His admission of failure at the Congress, therefore, speaks volumes.

Kim’s Reckoning

The same is true regarding the foundering of the Trump summits. Perhaps assuming that Trump would be more pliant than then-National Security Advisor John Bolton or then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it appears Kim sought high-level talks to be in the spotlight. Yet, despite both sides’ claims of a personal rapport, Kim could not turn this to his advantage.

Staking so much on Trump’s instincts for deal-making appears an even worse decision following his lost re-election bid. Kim’s strategy with the Biden administration remains a mystery, with Pyongyang seemingly refusing diplomatic contact and welcoming the new US team with a perfunctory missile test in March. In that same month, Biden confirmed his unwillingness to “sit down,” shutting the doors on a repeat of the Trump-Kim summitry. Meetings with the South have also failed to produce results, and Kim’s positioning as architect of the economic plan ensured that self-exculpation would be an impossibility.

Whether the reported malcontent among the DPRK’s elite is significant enough to alter Kim’s behavior is unknown, but as long as he remains unwilling to bargain away nuclear weapons, sanctions will continue to weigh down the North Korean economy.

Amid these failures, the United States may have an opportunity. While the Trump-Kim summits have ended in failure, they exhibited that a break from tradition may open new doors. The Biden administration should begin exploring new paradigms, one being the de facto recognition of the DPRK as a nuclear-armed state. The Administration could negotiate recognition as a jumping-off point to curtailing ballistic adventurism and beginning arms control negotiations. Given the state of its economy and Kim’s leadership, Biden might find Pyongyang receptive to agreements it usually would not entertain.

Daniel Mitchum (daniel@pacforum.org) is a resident Kelly Fellow at the Pacific Forum. He has spent the last 12 years living and working in South Korea. He holds a dual BA in Global Politics and East Asian Studies from State University of New York, Albany and an MA in International Cooperation from Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies, Seoul.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #25 – Improving US-China Crisis Communications—Thinking Beyond the Air and Sea

As the Pentagon’s China Task Force prepares to deliver its final report to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin next month, one of the key issues on the table is how to strengthen US-China crisis communications. The focus is likely to center on improving safety for air and maritime encounters near China’s borders and handling crises if they occur. This is logical given the occasional “near misses” between US and Chinese forces—a repeat of the 2001 EP-3 incident could be a disaster. But there are already rules on the books and misaligned interests mean that encouraging China to enforce them will be difficult. US policymakers should not overlook the chance of productive talks for crises in other domains, including on land and in nuclear, space, and cyber, where the rules are more ambiguous and both sides have reasons for restraint.

Crisis communications talks can be useful under two conditions: incomplete mechanisms or “rules of the road” that require new agreements and common interests that promote enforcement and refinement of existing rules. The Obama administration focused on air and maritime cooperation because of the lack of concrete agreements. The 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), created after the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, provided a venue for the two sides to discuss maritime incidents but lacked the detailed protocols that Washington had reached with Moscow in the 1972 Incidents at Sea agreement. Driven by leadership from both Obama and Xi, the two sides agreed to a similar protocol for US-China naval encounters in 2014; an annex covering air incidents was added the following year. Encouraged by Washington, China also agreed to follow the multilateral Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in 2014.

With detailed rules already on the books, the next step for both sides should be greater enforcement and consultation when incidents do happen. The problem is that the incentives for each side are misaligned. Washington seeks the predictability and stability of safe air and naval encounters, but China’s strategy for dissuading the United States from operating freely in the Western Pacific or intervening on behalf of an ally (or Taiwan) benefits from the “costly signal” offered by dangerous intercepts—one example was a September 2018 close call in which a Chinese destroyer maneuvered within 45 yards of the USS Decatur in the South China Sea. Chinese representatives, with less to lose, also refused to participate in an MMCA dialogue scheduled for December 2020. Crisis communications talks are of little value when one side refuses to follow existing protocols or participate in discussions.

Given the challenges for making current agreements stick, US officials should have low expectations for “more communications channels and mechanisms” in these domains, as Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan put it in 2019. One idea occasionally discussed is expanding the naval agreement to cover the Chinese Coast Guard and the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, which have been involved in several tense incidents with US ships over the years, or to include representatives from these forces in the MMCA. But China’s incentive is to retain maximum flexibility of these assets, which are helpful in a “gray zone” campaign of gradually expanding control of contested regions without resorting to war. Thus, Beijing has shown little willingness to expand the regime to include “white hull” ships.

There have also been periodic calls for a maritime and air “hotline,” such as a link between the US Indo-Pacific Command and a PLA theater command. The two sides have managed to establish three hotlines so far: a presidential link in 1998, a link connecting the defense ministries in 2008, and space hotline in 2015. However, as Kurt Campbell recently noted, China has been reluctant to use these systems in real-world situations, with the phones essentially ringing out in “empty rooms.” Even if Beijing were more willing to use these systems, a new hotline linking operational forces would be of little value given the PLA’s more centralized decision-making structure.

With limited hope for progress in these domains, members of the China Task Force should look for progress elsewhere. One potential avenue is discussions on land crises. Unlike the air and maritime domains, there are no detailed protocols for how land forces can communicate and resolve crises. The two sides, to be sure, are not preparing for a land conflict against the other but could find themselves in one given a disaster on the Korean Peninsula. Lack of communication could set the stage for accidental fire incidents or miscalculations about each side’s intentions.

Historically, Beijing has had no appetite for discussing Korean contingencies with the United States, apart from some conversations among academics. Such talks, from China’s perspectives, would amount to collusion with Pyongyang’s primary enemy and thus risk narrowing China’s own leverage with the hermit kingdom. Nevertheless, China has an interest in avoiding an unnecessary clash with US and Republic of Korea forces, and discussions with the PLA do not need to be focused explicitly on Korea to have value in such a contingency. The two might, for instance, consider holding a crisis simulation tied to a terrorist threat against China’s overseas interests in which forces from both sides are part of the solution. This would help generate ideas about how both sides would operate and quickly communicate and deconflict their activities, without alienating North Korea.

Crisis communications might also be strengthened in the “strategic domains”—space, cyber, and nuclear. Like the land domain, there are no in-depth protocols between China and the United States covering conflict escalation within or between these arenas. While China has incentives to seek advantage in these domains, including targeting US infrastructure or space systems to achieve what PLA strategists call “integrated strategic deterrence” against US intervention, Beijing is also vulnerable to retaliatory strikes. Several incipient changes in China’s nuclear posture, including a move to a “launch on warning” system and advent of dual-use long-range missiles, are also creating new challenges for nuclear stability that need to be addressed. It is thus encouraging that retired Major General Yao Yunzhu, one of China’s leading authorities in crisis management, has proposed new talks on “strategic stability” in the nuclear realm, including on the targeting of nuclear command and control structures, as well as “standards, rules, and norms” for space, cyber, and artificial intelligence.

The new US administration should consider several mutually supporting ways of bringing crisis communications in these domains into the picture. Detailed talks at the Track 1.5 level might be helpful, especially if the PLA itself is represented; this may include crisis simulations testing the utility of the existing procedures or hotlines in a nuclear conflict (or highlighting the need for changes to those systems). This might be augmented by discussions of space, cyber, and nuclear issues in high-level forums such as the Defense Consultative Talks (which have been on hold since 2014). Finally, Washington should support talks involving forces that currently do not communicate much with foreigners, including the Strategic Support Force and Rocket Force. Such talks would be of use even if they shed a small amount of light into this otherwise opaque part of the PLA.

In short, expectations for new air and maritime agreements should be low and military relations may only be helpful in warding off provocative PLA moves by amplifying US messages about the consequences of conflict. Those messages can be sent diplomatically but are probably more effectively received through sustained presence, new deployments and operational concepts, and coordination with US allies and partners. If a crisis does occur, it is up to China to follow agreements on the books and use existing hotlines.

Instead, US policymakers should focus on areas where the rules aren’t already clear and there are common interests. Coming to agreements in the larger context of mutual mistrust and great power competition will be difficult, but with support of the Biden and Xi administrations, may help make crises beyond the air and maritime domains more predictable.

Dr. Joel Wuthnow (joel.wuthnow.civ@ndu.edu) is a senior research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the US National Defense University. The views in this essay are his own and not those of NDU, the Department of Defense, or the US government. He is on Twitter @jwuthnow.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #24 – Comparative Connections Summary: May 2021

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
CHANGE IN STYLE, CONTINUITY IN ASIA POLICY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Quadrennially, we write to assure readers that there will be more continuity than change as a new foreign policy team takes office. Globally, this would not be the case this year. In its first few months, the Biden administration made 180-degree turns on issues such as climate change, World Health Organization membership, the role of science in the battle against COVID-19, immigration, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In our region, however, there has been more continuity. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focused on the Quad—the informal but increasingly structured grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US—and the Biden administration has doubled down on this effort, conducting the first (virtual) Quad summit. It has largely continued the “cooperate when we can but confront when we must” approach toward China. And while Trump appeared to have disdain for US alliances, every national security document from his administration underscored the central role US alliances played in its Asia strategy.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUGA AND BIDEN OFF TO A GOOD START
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
The early months of 2021 offered a full diplomatic agenda for US-Japan relations as a new US administration took office. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States amid considerable contention. Former President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, and on Jan. 6, a crowd of his supporters stormed the US Capitol where Congressional representatives were certifying the results of the presidential election. The breach of the US Capitol shocked the nation and the world. Yet after his inauguration on Jan. 20, Biden and his foreign policy team soon got to work on implementing policies that emphasized on US allies and sought to restore US engagement in multilateral coalitions around the globe. The day after the inauguration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reached out to his counterpart in Japan, National Security Secretariat Secretary General Kitamura Shigeru, to assure him of the importance the new administration placed on its allies. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to focus the attention of leaders in the United States and Japan, however.

US-CHINA RELATIONS 
CONTINUITY PREVAILS IN BIDEN’S FIRST 100 DAYS
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US & HANNAH PRICE, CSIS
In its final days, the Trump administration took more actions to impose costs on China for its objectionable policies and to tie the hands of the incoming Biden team. The first 100 days of President Biden’s administration revealed substantial continuity in policy toward Beijing, with strategic competition remaining the dominant feature of the US-China relationship. Senior Chinese officials delivered speeches that pinned blame entirely on the US for the deterioration in bilateral ties. A round of combative, yet serious, talks took place between senior US and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. The US added new sanctions on Beijing for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. In coordination with its allies, Washington imposed sanctions on Chinese individuals deemed responsible for carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Steps were taken by the US to demonstrate “rock-solid” support for Taiwan in the face of stepped-up Chinese coercion. Cooperation on climate change was launched with John Kerry’s visit to Shanghai to meet with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua, and Xi Jinping’s participation in the US-led Leaders Summit on Climate.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
In the first four months of 2021—the first three and a half of a Biden administration focused on domestic progress and COVID-19 vaccinations—US relations with the Korean Peninsula assumed familiar contours after four years of an unorthodox Trump administration. The US and South Korea quickly reached a military burden-sharing agreement and pledged cooperation in a variety of areas, although the regular differences of opinion lurk under the surface regarding how closely Seoul should work with both North Korea and Japan. The US-China rivalry remains a shadow over the Asia-Pacific security and political economy situation, complicating South Korea’s regional hedging strategy. Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program advanced apace, US and South Korean attempts to open dialogue were rebuffed, and the Biden team’s North Korea policy review will not endear it to Pyongyang.

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
ASEAN CONFRONTS DUAL CRISES  
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar dealt a serious blow to the ASEAN diplomatic order and presented the incoming Biden administration with its first major policy challenge in Southeast Asia. More profoundly, the coup set into motion a political and humanitarian crisis that has pushed Myanmar into an economic free fall. The imposition of Western sanctions gave China and Russia an opening to strengthen ties with the Tatmadaw. Myanmar was an extreme example of political turmoil, but the instability surrounding Thailand’s anti-regime and anti-monarchy movement persisted into the new year. In January, Vietnam embarked upon a more orderly political transition through the 13th National Party Congress, resulting in a leadership structure focused on ensuring stability, both external and internal.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
BEIJING’S ADVANCES COMPLICATED BY MYANMAR COUP AND US RESOLVE
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
Beijing confidently forecast continued advances in high-priority efforts promoting regional economic integration, ASEAN’s prominence as China’s leading trade partner, as well as strengthening supply chain connections disrupted by the pandemic and US trade and economic restrictions. Ever-closer cooperation to counter COVID-19 saw Chinese pledges add to its leading position providing more than 60% of international vaccines to Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, the unexpected coup and protracted crisis in Myanmar headed the list of important complications. The incoming Biden administration showed no letup in US-led military challenges to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, while strong high-level US government support for the Philippines in the face of China’s latest coercive moves supported Manila’s unusually vocal protests against the Chinese actions. Beijing also had difficulty countering Biden’s strong emphasis on close collaboration with allies and partners, seen notably in the first QUAD summit resulting in a major initiative to provide 1 billion doses of COVID vaccines for Southeast Asia and nearby areas. The effectiveness of Chinese vaccines was now questioned by Chinese as well as foreign specialists and Beijing’s domestic demand was growing strongly, slowing donations and sales abroad.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
TAIWAN PROSPERS, CHINA RATCHETS UP COERCION, AND US SUPPORT REMAINS “ROCK-SOLID”
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
For the leadership of Taiwan, the significance for Taiwan’s relationships with the US and China of the end of the Trump administration and the arrival of the Biden administration formed the defining concern as 2021 began. Taiwan welcomed two steps that the Trump administration took in its waning days: announcing a visit to Taiwan by the US ambassador to the UN (even though it was later cancelled) and repudiating the longstanding Taiwan Contact Guidelines, which was widely seen in Taiwan as overly restrictive. Taiwan’s anxieties regarding the Biden administration were quickly allayed, as incoming senior officials repeatedly called US support for Taiwan “rock solid” and issued new far less restrictive Guidelines. Taiwan also benefited from unusually direct expressions of support from Japan and other international partners.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
THE SOUND OF ONE HAND GIVING
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
As in 2019-20, inter-Korean ties remained frozen, other than a rare lawsuit. Revelations that in 2018 Moon Jae-in’s government had pondered building the North a nuclear power plant caused a brief furor. Seoul’s propaganda balloon ban backfired, prompting widespread criticism—but no thanks from Pyongyang, which was also unimpressed by scaled-down US-ROK war games. North Korea tested its first ballistic missile in nearly a year, amid concerns of a new arms race; some analysts deemed the South culpable, too. Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong fired four verbal volleys, mostly insults. Another undetected defector highlighted failings in ROK border security. MOU Lee In-young was ubiquitous and loquacious, but scattergun in the causes he championed. Moon’s government remained reticent, or worse, regarding DPRK human rights abuses. With just a year left in office, and notwithstanding rare criticism of the North by ministers, Moon was expected to double down on engagement despite Pyongyang’s lack of reciprocity.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS POISED FOR RECOVERY DESPITE INTENSIFIED CONFLICT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
China’s relations with North and South Korea gained momentum in the first four months of 2021. China-North Korea relations were propelled by an exchange of messages between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping around North Korea’s successful convening of the Worker’s Party of Korea’s (WPK) Eighth Party Congress, the appointment of former North Korean Trade Minister Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s new ambassador to China, and another round of messages in March that emphasized the importance of close relations. In a Jan. 21 Cabinet meeting, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to develop relations with China to new heights, and in a Jan. 26 telephone call with Moon, Xi expressed support for Korean denuclearization and joint development of China-South Korea relations. China and South Korea held consultations on maritime enforcement cooperation, defense lines of communication, health security, and free trade negotiations.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
THE GLOVES COME OFF
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
After several years of seeking to counter each other while insisting that their relations were at a recent best, Tokyo and Beijing became overtly contentious. A major event of the reporting period was China’s passage, and subsequent enforcement, of a law empowering its coast guard to take action, including through the use of force, to defend China’s self-proclaimed sovereignty over the Japanese administered Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Heretofore reluctant to criticize Beijing over its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu finally did so in April, and pledged to work with the United States to resolve China-Taiwan tensions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that a continuation of such moves would cause Chinese-Japanese ties to hit bottom and threatened retaliation for any interference on Taiwan. No more was heard about a long-postponed Xi Jinping visit to Japan.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
DIFFICULT TO DISENTANGLE: HISTORY AND FOREIGN POLICY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
Unsurprisingly, historical issues proved difficult to disentangle from other foreign policy issues in Japan-South Korea relations, which remained at the “worst level since the normalization” in the first four months of 2021. The Seoul Central District Court’s ruling on Jan. 8 that the Japanese government should pay damages to victims of sexual slavery during World War II set the tone for contentious relations at the beginning of the year. While the Moon Jae-in administration made gestures to mend ties, the Suga administration maintained that South Korea should take concrete measures to roll back the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling on Japanese companies requiring them to compensate wartime forced laborers. Export restrictions levied by Japan against South Korean companies in 2019 remain in place, while the case is with the World Trade Organization after South Korea reopened a complaint in 2020 that was filed and then suspended in 2019.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
EMPIRE STRIKES BACK AT MOSCOW AND BEIJING
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
For Moscow and Beijing, the changing of the guard in the White House in January 2021 meant no reset of ties with Washington. Instead, the newly inaugurated Biden administration turned the screws on both China and Russia by reinvigorating alliances, firming up sanctions, and prioritizing force deployment, particularly to the Indo-Pacific region. In contrast to Biden’s multifaceted diplomatic offensive, China and Russia seemed passive, if not inactive, both in terms of their bilateral ties and their respective relations with the US. Top Russian and Chinese diplomats met in person just once in the first four months of 2021 in the middle of sharply escalated tensions across the Taiwan Strait and in East Ukraine. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow waited to see if the transition from Trumpism would lead to a brave new world (“new concert of powers”), a grave new world of Kissingerian “great games” in the era of WMD plus AI, or something in between.

JAPAN-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
A DIPLOMATIC “NEW NORMAL” IN THE INDO-PACIFIC REGION?
BY KEI KOGA, NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY
Japan-Southeast Asia relations were relatively stable, despite COVID-19, as summarized by three trends: emphasizing multilateral actors; prioritizing enhancement of bilateral relations with two countries (Indonesia and Vietnam); and the synthesis of Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific “vision” (FOIP) and ASEAN’s ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Japan and Southeast Asian states managed to achieve tangible cooperation, as illustrated by the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED). Yet, strategic dynamics among Southeast Asia, Japan, and the United States are shifting because of changes in Japanese and US political leadership. Japan, the most reliable partner for Southeast Asia in the Trump era, seemingly faced a relative decline in the importance attached by Southeast Asia because of the United States’ renewed commitment to the region. In the context of this new diplomatic reality, the foremost challenges that Japan and Southeast Asia will likely face in 2021-2022 are Myanmar and ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

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PacNet #21 – Who Kim Jong Un’s “Worst Ever” Declaration was Aimed At

An earlier version of this article was published in The National Interest.

The coronavirus has been a disaster for North Korea. Last week Kim Jong Un warned that his country faces the “worst-ever” situation. He said this situation was creating conditions like the “Arduous March” North Korea faced with the famine of the late-1990s, this time because of the coronavirus, United Nations and US sanctions, and bad weather. In the late-1990s, “millions of North Koreans reportedly died from widespread hunger.”

It was surprising that the leader of North Korea would admit such dire circumstances, circumstances which at face value suggest major failures on his part. But Kim is once again refusing to accept responsibility for his bad choices, and making the results seem more dire than they are in reality. Yes, the situation may be terrible in North Korea but there is “no evidence to suggest that North Korea’s economic situation is nearly as dire as the Arduous March of the 1990s.”

For some time now, Kim has denied that he has a coronavirus problem. But there was considerable evidence that this North Korean claim was not true even a year ago. They could not afford to have a major spread of the coronavirus because the decrepit North Korean health care system was unable to handle it. So Kim closed North Korea’s borders, blocking trade that would normally provide badly needed food, energy, funds, and other goods.

While the sanctions on North Korea cut its exports significantly, it was the North Korean border closure which cut needed North Korean imports, especially from China, and had a greater overall impact than the sanctions. And despite the bad weather, the North’s food harvest was only down 5% in 2020. In his January Workers Party Congress, Kim admitted the failures of the North Korean economy but turned to his normal scapegoating of other parties and situations, blaming them for the North’s problems.

But the North’s economic problems rest squarely on Kim. After all, the UN and US sanctions have been applied to North Korea because the North has defied the United Nations and the United States, continuing and even expanding its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs when the international community has told the North not to continue destabilizing peace in Northeast Asia.

Kim has spent his country’s scarce resources on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, going well beyond the military capabilities he needs to deter outside intervention in North Korea. He has done this rather than providing food for his people or improved health care. He is not even telling his people that coronavirus vaccines have been developed, offering both South Korea and the United States a powerful information operation opportunity. And even though his country periodically experiences heavy rains, he has not built the infrastructure required to protect his people against these predictable events. Anxious to maximize his control of his people, he has also experimented with closing the markets in North Korea, only to be then forced to back off or face even more dire economic consequences. Kim knows that a major problem in North Korea is official corruption and mismanagement, and yet he has not addressed the conditions underlying this corruption.

So why is Kim admitting that dire circumstances are developing in the North? We do not know for sure. But it appears that he is hopeful he can convince the Chinese and the Russians that North Korea is becoming increasingly unstable and thus dangerous. China has historically moderated its demands on North Korea despite providing it major subsidies, fearing that North Korean instability could create a major threat to Chinese security. Kim appears to be hoping that China will accept Kim’s alarmist declaration and provide North Korea increased sanctions relief. Kim likely also wants China to focus on the North Korean economic difficulties and not on the growing North Korean nuclear weapon threat, which increasingly is also a threat to China.

At some point, the international community may need to induce Kim to face responsibility for his choices. Kim could fix his problems by freezing his nuclear weapon production as a first step toward his promised denuclearization. Such an action could gain him significant sanctions relief and shift the resources being wasted on nuclear weapons to taking care of the North Korean people.

Bruce W. Bennett (bennett@rand.org) is a senior international/defense researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

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PacNet #5 – North Korea Doubles Down on a Dead End

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the Korea Society.  

“If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” The American economist, Herbert Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under the Nixon and Ford administrations, made this observation. However, the fundamentally unreformed, immutable North Korea continues to test the limits of Stein’s principle as it enters its eighth decade of what has become a no-exit political and economic drama.

In his report to the Eighth Korean Worker’s Party Congress this past week, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un admitted the country’s previous five-year plan (2016-2020) had failed and laid out a new five-year economic plan. (North Korean economic plans have had a checkered and blurry history. We tally the new plan as the country’s 11th.)

Unfortunately for the people of North Korea, the new plan does not offer a credible framework for overcoming the gale-force headwinds howling down on the North Korean economy. Most likely, North Korea’s economy contracted in 2020 more than any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Sanctions and the COVID border closure with China have sharply cut back both state-led and non-state trade and have crimped the inflow of renminbi. That, coupled with Pyongyang’s measures to wring hard currency from the special donju class of entrepreneurs and financiers, have dried up sources of domestic hard-currency investment, as seen in the shutdown of the informal foreign exchange market. Under these circumstances, the North Korean economy has been pushed to the brink, again.

Overall, the policy emphasis of the Party Congress report highlights the importance of strengthening centralized control and autonomy. Chairman Kim pointed out that “a precious foundation for making sustained economic development by our own efforts was provided.” The focus on self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-supported development are refrains that echo juche concepts championed by Kim’s father and grandfather.

Yet Kim admitted to setbacks in the past plan. He said “economic construction failed to hit the expected strategic goals,” growth objectives from that plan “fell a long way short” and the standard of living “could not be improved remarkably.” He admitted to internal problems and that “serious mistakes” were made in economic management. Technology was insufficiently utilized, and labor operated in an “irrational work system” with “incompetent” and “obsolete” working methods. Yet he insisted that such shortcomings and mistakes were forced by undisciplined deviations from an intrinsically good plan and by external factors.

In the deeper analysis of the shortcomings of the plan, the first factor mentioned is the allegedly “most barbarous sanctions and blockade by the US and other hostile forces.” Next, the report says the economy was hampered by natural disasters and the coronavirus pandemic. International sanctions in the face of an unpersuaded regime and the health environment have certainly had major impacts, and the latter has been an unprecedented global shock for North Korea and for every other country. But few countries face as bleak a future as North Korea.

In response, the Party Central Committee will strengthen unified guidance and strategic management over the economy. This involves a policy of micromanagement in various sectors, such as mining, machinery, chemical industries, and power. The invisible hand of Adam Smith will have no place in the new plan, albeit with some market activity likely to be tolerated at times.

But reconsolidating central control is short sighted and unsustainable. Whatever the near-term gains, over the long run, centralization will suffocate the nascent incentives that motivate donju trade and investment activities. Quasi-market activity has likely been the only source of growth in the North Korean economy in the past five years since international sanctions were ratcheted up.

Yet the plan leaves unanswered the question of the sources of financing. North Korea has scant domestic savings, no access to international credit and has squeezed the foreign currency savings of the donju entrepreneurs and financiers. At least, unless it changes course, it will not finance state investment and economic activity over the next five years through inflationary money creation as countries with recent episodes of hyperinflation have done—namely Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

Kim Jong Un’s doubling down on self-reliance and shunning external financial assistance is in reality making a virtue out of necessity. North Korea is the only country bordering China that is not receiving Belt and Road (BRI) infrastructure investment. This is probably due to two reasons. One, North Korea is not creditworthy. It has yet to completely restructure its debt arrears to foreign governments and banks incurred in the 1970s, and is thus a very poor credit risk for China’s development banks that finance BRI projects. Moreover, North Korea is likely wary of becoming too dependent on China, even if Chinese investment would boost national income.

Furthermore, because it is blocked by UN Security Council sanctions, Seoul cannot move forward on its offers of new economic cooperation projects for rail and road infrastructure, let alone revive the two Sunshine Policy era projects—the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Kumgangsan Tourism Zone. But even if it could, the lack of economic policy conditionality in the financing of infrastructure and industrial projects will not create the conditions in which reforms could be institutionalized and economic growth sustained. This is also a fundamental flaw in China’s BRI initiative—debt accumulation that does not enhance productivity and growth ultimately destabilizes an economy. The BRI and North-South economic cooperation projects are not a variant of the Marshall Plan, and North Korea would need a true Marshall Plan for sustainable development.

A curious aspect of the Party Congress report is that Kim Jong Un’s analysis of the current state of the North Korean economy is reminiscent of that made by his father, Kim Jong Il, in 1997. At that time, the centrally planned North Korean economy had collapsed from the delayed effects of the dissolution of the Soviet Union’s Council of Mutual Economic Assistance trade network, in which North Korea had participated. That shock was interwoven with natural disasters. In September of that year the International Monetary Fund (IMF) sent staff to Pyongyang on their first, and only, fact-finding trip. Data provided by North Korea painted a dire picture—North Korea’s economy was in crisis, with output cut in half inside four years. North Korean officials blamed “natural disasters.” The IMF staff disagreed, laying the blame on North Korean policy makers, citing the need for “a fundamental change in policies” and increase in transparency.

Back in 1997, North Korea had the option of taking a path to economic reform, there was an exit from economic destitution. But in turning its back on the IMF, the leadership showed that it was unwilling to open up the economy and reform. Arguably, in 1997, Pyongyang also had the political ability to do so. Its first nuclear test would take place almost a decade in the future and it therefore did not face the harsh regime of UN and US sanctions that now hobble its economy. Not possessing nuclear weapons in 1997, Pyongyang had not shut the door and bricked up the windows on a possible diplomatic opening which would set the stage for economic engagement with international financial institutions and the US. So now, North Korea has neither the willingness nor the ability to pursue systematic and sustainable economic development.

Because the Party Congress report and new five-year plan do not even hint at a fundamental shift in strategic and economic policy, North Korea is destined to remain in the same situation as the characters in Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist play—locked up in a room in the netherworld, the windows all bricked up, and there is “No Exit.”

Thomas Byrne (thomas.byrne@koreasociety.org) is president and CEO of the New York-based Korea Society and former Asia-Pacific manager for Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group.  

Jonathan Corrado (jonathan.corrado@koreasociety.org) is policy director at the Korea Society, a contributor to NK Pro, and a former Korean-English translator for Daily NK.

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