In the phase immediately after the end of the 23rd Winter Olympics in PyeongChang – a site located in South Korea – North Korea’s new global strategy is much more innovative than we can imagine.
In fact only the naivest analysts, who are almost always Westerners, were surprised at Kim Jong-Un’s “opening” for the Winter Games organized in South Korea, which is allied with the United States.
Indeed, the framework of North Korea’s new international relations is rapidly changing, after the presence of Kim Jong-Un’s sister, namely Kim Yo-Jong, at the opening ceremony of the Winter Games and the large North Korean delegation including as many as 550 athletes, cheerleaders, etc.
North Korea has a significant presence in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea – and this will increase in the future – in addition to the well-known good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan.
In the future, North Korea will operate in Latin America and Southeast Asia, independently of China but without hampering China’s interests or, in the near future, Russia’s.
The first aspect to analyse in the new distribution of strategic potentials around North Korea is the traditional one represented by Japan.
In the latest documents released by North Korea, the first consideration is addressed to the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and his Foreign Minister, Kono, who warned the various countries against North Korea when they visited Europe and North America, as well as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, against the dangerous “war designs” of the North Korean regime.
Firstly, there is historical and ethnic tension between the two countries.
It is worth recalling that, after the cease-fire between North and South Korea signed on July 27, 1953 (in fact, it was not a real armistice according to current international standards), there were almost one million Koreans who remained in the Japanese archipelago.
It is also worth recalling that the Korean general negotiated also on behalf of the Chinese, who had participated in the conflict against US and Southern forces in large numbers.
Many of these Koreans living in Japan returned to South Korea, but all the “Zainiki Koreans” suffered marginalization, the loss of Japanese citizenship and harsh exclusion from the labour market.
However, the Koreans who remained in the Land of the Rising Sun and recognized themselves in the new North Korea, created an association, namely the Chongryon, while another association was established, namely the Mindan, that defended the Koreans close to South Korea.
Today, there is ongoing tension between right-wing groups and the Chongryon association, which has long been serving as North Korea’s de facto diplomatic mission to Japan.
Furthermore, also recently, North Korea has repeatedly accused the Japanese government of plotting to eliminate some of Chongryon‘s leaders.
Indeed, this is the core of the issue: the bilateral issue between North Korea and Japan is also an ethno-national issue – a factor that must never be forgotten in North Korea’s current foreign policy.
The protection of the Korean tradition and ethnicity is a prerequisite for the North Korean regime.
Finally, in recent years, the North Korean nuclear issue has come to the fore – a phase in which, from 2007 onwards, Japan has declared itself to be unwilling to supply oil to North Korea because of the age-old issue of “abductions” of Japanese citizens of Korean ethnicity.
And that supply was connected to the Six Party Talks.
Furthermore, in 2009, the already difficult bilateral relations between Japan and North Korea further exacerbated, especially after North Korea’s launch of a space satellite – an action that caused the further extension of Japan’s very harsh economic sanctions against North Korea, as well as the closure to all North Korean exports.
Hence – as number one enemy of North Korea and possible primary US support for a military reaction against its nuclear bases – Japan is seen by North Korea as the number two strategic and military enemy, after the United States, for North Korea’s political and economic survival.
On the other hand, without the United States, the Japanese “Self-Defence Forces” would be useless against a North Korean attack.
For the current strategic juncture against Japan, North Korea wants to emphasize – above all – the current completeness and comprehensiveness of its nuclear weapons and the clear desire to “threaten the US allies”.
Hence, if Japan hits North Korea, the military reaction will be very tough and with a “salvo of nuclear missiles”.
Japan has also a new bilateral military treaty with the United States, just what Prime Minister Abe tried to further strengthen during his visit to Washington in November 2017.
Hence, between the Land of the Rising Sun and the two Koreas, there is again the same strategic, ethnic and cultural conflict that characterized the Japanese invasion of Korea to build the “Co-prosperity Sphere” from 1910 onwards.
In history and geopolitics nothing is created and nothing is destroyed.
Japan has also proposed a new trilateral military alliance with South Korea and the United States. It also wants to buy the US anti-missile system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) and strengthen its Self-Defence Force.
However, currently the network of InterContinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) leaves Canada and even the European Union without credible defences.
Currently there is no possible rational strategy against North Korean nuclear weapons: hence, – if we accept the policy line of the future necessary military clash – as President Trump hinted – the whole North Korean peninsula will be destabilized and, in all likelihood, China and the Russian Federation may decide to support North Korea.
In spite of everything. Rather than bordering on a country full with US military bases – a South Korea extended also to the current North Korea – Russia would act according to the model of its current operations in Syria.
China would do the same, despite the fact that there has always been bad blood between Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un.
Conversely, if Japan deployed its hypothetical future ICBMs – autonomous from the United States – there would be substantial equivalence of set-ups, which would be taken very seriously in North Korea.
In particular, North Korea does not want the nuclear and conventional coupling between the United States, Japan and South Korea.
Alternatively, North Korea can only accept a policy of economic, political and military normalization between the United States, which should officially recognize the North Korean regime, and the other two Asian countries, which should accept the North Korean status quo and rebuild a “normal” political and economic network around Democratic Korea.
Currently, however, the United States thinks that North Korea’s global strategy, even after the Winter Games, is to immediately subjugate South Korea, as well as fully expel the US forces at first from the Korean region and later from Japan, and finally directly threaten the US territory.
In fact some analysts, mainly in Canada and the United States, even think of being able to reactivate the conventional war between the two Koreas, so as to eliminate the North Korean nuclear potential.
Would South Korea agree on it? And would Japan accept it? I seriously doubt.
It is not clear what the logical and strategic connection between the conventional war from South to North Korea and the removal of North Korean missiles is, but this is the current level of US strategic thinking.
Do the experts of US think tanks possibly believe that North Korea would easily be defeated in a conventional conflict, or that, if nuclear weapons were used by South Korea, it would not be able to inflict unbearable damage on the United States and South Korea?
What if the United States and the axis between South Korea and Japan would finally lose the war? It is a possibility not to be ruled out.
Or if North Korea decided to create such a missile escalation as to destroy – in different phases – the Japanese self-defence forces and the North American bases in the Pacific?
It is not the case. North Korea exerts its pressure with nuclear weapons to be recognized internationally and avoid American pressure in its vicinity.
This is the strategic factor from which to start.
Moreover, North Korea uses its nuclear network to rebuild its economy, which, however, is growing and now combines the private sector with the State one.
Hence it is no mere coincidence that Jo Yong Sam, the Director General of North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, has recently underlined that there will be no possible contact between the North Korean and the US delegations to the Winter Olympics.
North Korea wants to reassure South Korea, not others.
Another aspect to note is that North Korea wants negotiations – essentially on an equal footing – between its government and the US one and the warning about the Olympics has exactly this meaning.
North Korea will never be satisfied with back-room dealings, intermediaries or rhapsodic contacts.
It wants the full, official and multilateral opening of negotiations.
In fact, it is worth reiterating that the friendship between the two Koreas, shown during the 23rd Olympics, has nothing to do with the future possible negotiations between North Korea and the United States.
Furthermore, the 2018 North American Nuclear Posture Review speaks of the North Korean “provocative quest” for nuclear weapons and missile systems, while the United States also thinks that in “a few months” North Korea will achieve an effective nuclear strike capacity on the US territory.
Again according to this year’s North American Nuclear Posture Review, North Korea shows “extremely dangerous rhetoric and activities” – hence the US political and military leadership wants a “full, complete, verifiable and irreversible” elimination of the North Korean nuclear program, which is regarded by the United States as the number one threat to international peace.
How can it be eliminated?
I believe that the United States erroneously thinks that the North Korean doctrine is that of the first use of nuclear weapons to support conventional operations.
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review also believes that North Korea can begin to carry out autonomous major provocations, including precision attacks and missile launches against Japan.
This is not the case. In fact this has never happened, apart from the launches of ICBMs artfully fired into the sea before hitting targets in Japan or in Guam.
If anything, North Korea’s nuclear weapons will be used in possible joint actions on Japan and, above all, on the US territory – but if and only if there is an invasion from the South with the US support.
In that case, North Korea’s nuclear missile operations will certainly be a deterrent, but also fully operational and targeted directly against the US bases in Guam and Japan.
While Japan will be put in a position – with ICBM counterforce actions – not to respond or to scarcely react.
Decoupling between the United States, South Korea and Japan, as well as decoupling between the North Korean peninsula and nearby areas.
Nor is it possible to think of an effective US red nose strategy against North Korea’s nuclear positions.
In other words, and only for the United States, the issue would lie in hitting only some North Korean ICBM and nuclear positions to point to a possible escalation if the situation worsens or, possibly – although this is not clear yet – to generate a “slowdown” of the nuclear and missile programs in North Korea.
A slowdown that has no strategic significance for North Korea.
This is another serious geopolitical mistake: North Korea is in no hurry to use its conventional ABC arsenal, while the US red nose strategy could trigger North Korea’s reaction against the US regional allies, which would be effectively deterred from intervening in a future clash on the Korean peninsula.
Hence, according to the statements of the 2018 North American Nuclear Posture Review, the strategy of imposing “unsustainable costs” on the North Korean regime can have a dual effect, thus creating such waves of strong distaste for the United States in Japan and South Korea as to inhibit the US future reactions.
For North Korea this strategic policy line only means that President Trump wants a limited nuclear war with it.
But can it only be limited and not damage South Korea?
If, as is said, the US nuclear weapons are high-precision ones, they will probably limit the North Korean response. On the contrary, if the confrontation – also at a purely conventional level – involves South Korea, it will experience such an internal opposition and a political and military crisis as to endanger its very existence.
Does the United States want this?
Obviously North Korea also claims that its nuclear system has been designed to protect the country for “over a hundred years”, but are we sure that the US intelligence services really know where to hit or analytically know the geography of hidden and underground sites? I seriously doubt it.
Perhaps, the United States can further strengthen economic sanctions – the harshest ones so far – against North Korea, as was indeed announced by President Trump on January 24 last.
The sanctions do not cause much damage to North Korea.
In principle, it manages to avoid its effects by using ships of friendly or third countries, from Africa, the Caribbean, and Hong Kong, for its trade.
Ships that often change their names.
However, as President Trumps says, if sanctions have no effect, we will “move on to a second phase”.
It could be the already seen, but disastrous red nose effect – a childish resource that could only aggravate the situation.
Or the United States could think of a conventional operation from the South, by putting in the middle – as possible blackmail for the North – just the territory of South Korea. An ally, or am I wrong?
Hence, a clear improvement of reactions between the two Koreas is necessary for North Koreans, against the possibility of an exacerbation of the real or foreseen US operations against North Korea.
This is the sense of Kim Jong Un’s behaviour before and during the 23rd Winter Olympics.
However, there would be a further clear and simple solution: to resume the negotiations of the Six Party Talks, perhaps with a new composition of Western countries, and open negotiations between the United States and North Korea for mutual diplomatic recognition, as well as start a negotiation also for reducing conventional forces in both Koreas and wait (since it will come) for a statement in this regard by Kim Jong Un.
In fact, any nuclear war scenario would be self-destructive and ineffective.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France