On April 15 last, North Korea celebrated the 105th birth anniversary of Kim-Il-Sung, the “Eternal Leader” and founder of the new republic of North Korea.
“The Day of the Sun” was the opportunity to remember the Eternal Leader, who has always been compared to this bright star, but it was above all the optimum time for a missile test. The launch was carried out in the morning of April 16, just a day after the huge military parade in Pyongyang and, particularly, few hours before US Vice-President Mike Pence was due to arrive in Seoul, South Korea, at the start of a 10-day trip to Asia.
The medium-range KN-15 missile targeted to the Sea of Japan was launched at around 7:18 a.m.
The missile blew up almost immediately, but the political fact – also represented by the massive show of strength, displaying a bevy of new missiles and launchers during the giant military parade the day before – is that, as stated by the North Korean Deputy-Foreign Minister, Han Song-Ryol, “there will be ever more missile tests on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis.”
We do not know whether the fall of the missile carrier was caused by a fault of the North Korean planning or by a US cyber-warfare action, as many Western sources maintained.
The Deputy Minister also added that any further US pressure would be interpreted as an act of war and as an opportunity for final bilateral confrontation between North Korea and the United States.
Shortly before the statement made by the North Korean Deputy-Minister, while speaking from South Korea, Mike Pence had said that the “the era of strategic patience” of the United States vis-à-vis Kim Jong-Un’s regime was over.
The matter here is not about anger or patience. The issue is eminently geopolitical and – never as in these cases – multilateral.
In the days before the “Day of the Sun”, the US President had sent a naval squadron to the Korean peninsula, made up of the 97,000 ton USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, accompanied by a missile cruiser, the Lake Champlain, and two destroyers, the Wayne Meyer and the Michael Murphy.
The geopolitical and military significance is clear: the United States penetrates into an area in which North Korea can easily launch missiles or anyway carry out military actions.
And, if it did so, the North American naval squadron would be able to launch a counterforce strike of considerable importance and accuracy.
An aircraft carrier, however, has scarce offensive potential, because its aircraft are still vulnerable to the strikes of the North Korean military forces, while US-South Korean joint operations have always favoured a scenario of ground attack from the coast.
The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier will perform exercises with the Australian forces and, in the near future, with the Japanese marines.
The USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, however, is a US strong sign of strength that must not be overlooked: it carries 60 aircraft and 5,000 marines but, while it is true that the naval group can hit several strategic centers in North Korea, it is equally true that the North Korean response must be taken into account and it will certainly not be negligible.
However, as already said, the US-North Korea confrontation can never be interpreted in bilateral terms. The issue at stake is control over the China Sea and Southeast Asia – regions that no major Asian nation wants to leave only in US hands and the United States would be very naive to interpret the tension with North Korea as a “gunfight at the O.K. Corral”.
China, the only power having a full vision of the balance of power in the region, has recently asked the United States to immediately open direct diplomatic negotiations with North Korea.
Furthermore China has not changed its relationship with North Korea since the last contact between Trump and President Xi Jinping.
However, as some US Defense officers maintain, the issue does not lie in forcing North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile program, considering that weapons “cannot be disinvented”
In a new US strategic horizon, the issue would rather lie in dissuading North Korea by granting some kind of geoeconomic asset, thus also gaining support from the major countries of the region.
Nor the issue at stake is only the survival of the North Korean regime, which would probably remain stable, even after an enemy nuclear strike.
Moreover, are we really interested in a regime change in North Korea? Is it not enough to have experienced the disasters of the “Arab springs” or Syria? Regimes have always changed on their own.
Indeed, the real issue is the strategic relationship between China, the Russian Federation, Iran and, of course, North Korea.
Currently Russia is the most linked to North Korea, as often reported by the agencies of the North Korean regime.
Even over the last few months the Kremlin has strongly reduced the North Korean economic crisis and it is expanding the Hasan-Rajin railway network between the two countries – a project from which South Korea withdrew in March 2016.
At energy level, Russia supports North Korea also during the recurrent crises of commercial relations between China and North Korea, with oil and gas transfers from Siberia to Rajin, starting from Vladivostok.
The Russian oil has often been processed in North Korean plants and it has brought hard currency to North Korea, as well as particularly enabling it to resell to China precisely the Russian oil by-products.
At least 10,000 North Korean workers have already been posted to Russia, with a view to developing the Siberian infrastructure.
In this case, the Russian strategic idea is to become a strategic partner both for South Korea and North Korea, thus playing a unique role between the two countries that no naïve naval group can play in the long run.
Moreover, Russia blocks any illegal migration between North Korea and its territory, thus ensuring to Kim Jong-un strong demographic stability, which is essential for the country.
Paradoxically, another crucial fact for relations between Russia and North Korea is the presence, in South Korea, of the US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense) anti-ballistic missile system, which is seen by Russia both as an incentive for North Korea to continue the missile program and as a real threat to the Russian-Korean relations in the North of the Peninsula.
For China, the relationship with the North Korean regime is even more complex.
China is linked to North Korea by the Sino-Korean Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance of 1961 and China imports and exports approximately three-quarters of North Korea’s production.
Hence China does not seek the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime because, obviously, it does not want a flood of migrants on its borders, nor a peninsular reunification led by South Korea, which would mean thousands of US soldiers close to its national territory.
Instead of sending military ships, President Donald J. Trump would do well to discuss with Russia and China the future of North Korea, by reconciling all interests: the interest of Japan and South Korea, which do not want a strategic threat on their borders, as well as the interest of Russia and China, which have a geoeconomic interest and want a friendly country directed towards the South China Sea.
As Napoleon used to say, it is geography which guides and directs military strategy.
Gunboat diplomacy is also a relic of the nineteenth century or of the time when the United States forcibly opened new markets for their goods, as when Commodore Perry opened Japan to international trade in 1853.
Nevertheless also China supports and votes the resolutions on North Korea’s missile and nuclear activities and expands its relations with South Korea, thus playing a broker role that could be essential in the future.
As is the case with the Russian Federation.
North Korea, however, has never made concessions to its big neighbouring country, namely China.
In 2006, for example, it informed China of its nuclear test only twenty minutes in advance and so far there has been no official meeting between Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping.
China, inter alia, does not want a North Korea increasingly dependent on foreign aid, while international sanctions block the North Korean-Chinese trade despite the increase of North Korea’s production.
Hence a North Korean economic growth to absorb Chinese exports would be ideal for the CPC leaders, who have always set their relations with Pyongyang in view of making the two economies homogeneous.
This is only part of North Korean goals, since the country wants integration in the Asian coastal economic context without strategic “godfathers”.
The relationship between North Korea and Iran is even more complex.
Iran has always used the North Korean companies for acquiring the materials subject to sanctions, especially in the military sphere.
For no reason Iran will leave North Korea to its fate, while the economic relations between Iran and South Korea strengthen significantly as time goes by.
Certainly, still today the flow of funds from the Shiite theocracy to the atheist kingdom of the Korean Peninsula is focused on missile and nuclear technologies, but Iran exports large oil quantities also to South Korea.
Nevertheless, reverting to the military parade of April 15 last, it is worth recalling it had begun with an unusual climax of accusations between the United States and North Korea.
And exactly on April 11, North Korean leaders had declared that their country was ready to respond with a nuclear strike to any US conventional or non-conventional threat.
And, as it has been happening for years, China tries to pour water on the fire of tensions between North Korea and the United States.
North Korea, inter alia, has an army of approximately one million people and seven million reservists, with a thousand ballistic missiles including six hundred SCUD B, C or D missiles and four hundred Nodong missiles – an adapted version of Scud missiles – while it is supposed to have some dozens of Musudan Taepodong missiles, which are the most suitable for an extra-continental attack.
North Korea has 2,100 military vehicles, 4,000 tanks, 600 warplanes, 72 submarines and three frigates.
The ready-made nuclear warheads are supposed to be twenty, with 5,000 tons of nerve agent available.
For cyberwarfare, in the now famous “Unit 121”, North Korea has 1,800 hackers, probably trained by China, Russia and Iran.
Hence, instead of sending the current version of Commodore Perry, the United States could agree with China and Russia to define, in North Korea, an economic system open for special economic zones in Pyongyang.
Some work well, some others worse, but this is the main card to play so as to pool efforts between the United States, China and Russia in relation to North Korea.
Moreover, it would be reasonable to hold a new round of negotiations, quite different from the Six-Party Talks which have already taken place.
As is well-known, they were discontinued in 2009 following the dispute on the check and verification criteria and some missile launches by North Korea.
Now, on the one hand, it would be necessary to create such a linkage between the military structure and economy, in North Korea, as to ensure the stability of its political system and, on the other, to support the economy in exchange for verifiable and rational reductions of its nuclear apparatus.
But can this be the line of an America like the current one?
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France