On February 9, the editorial office of the scientific journal “Asia-Pacific Journal of Marine Science & Education” hosted the regular, 19th since 2003 expert round table “Situation Analysis on the Korean Peninsula”. Ten experts from the Maritime University, Far Eastern Federal University, Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, specializing in the political, economic, military and informational aspects of this topic attended the event conducted online due to pandemic restrictions.
The round table participants discussed two main topics: what is happening in the DPRK, which has been in complete self-isolation for two years due to the coronavirus, and the upcoming presidential elections in the Republic of Korea (March 9, 2022).
The current situation with the pandemic can be beneficial to the DPRK leadership, since any mistakes and failures in the economy can be attributed to it.
North Korea was the first in the world to completely close its borders back in January 2020, three weeks before the official start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such self-isolation could not but affect the domestic economic situation. Despite the recent resumption of rail communication with China (exclusively for cargo, the movement of people across the borders of the DPRK is officially prohibited), the situation is unlikely to improve significantly in the short term. According to the current rules, all goods imported into the DPRK must be kept in quarantine for 120 days. Thus, only durable goods can enter the country. There remains the problem of delivering vaccines and medicines to the DPRK that require special storage conditions. However, the plans of the DPRK leadership to vaccinate the population are still unknown. So far, no decision has been made in favor of a particular vaccine, and the country’s official media express doubts about the effectiveness of vaccination and call for preparations for a protracted “war” against the virus, for three to five years at least. These dates may indicate an approximate year of opening the borders, but taking into account the DPRK specifics, it is possible that the opening of the borders will depend not on the epidemiological situation, but on the domestic political considerations. The current situation with the pandemic can be beneficial to the DPRK leadership, since any mistakes and failures in the economy can be attributed to it.
At the same time, the DPRK not only did not reduce, but also, on the contrary, drastically increased its activity in the nuclear / missile sphere. At the end of 2019, Kim Jong-un announced the end of a voluntary moratorium on launches of long-range and intercontinental missiles. Although these tests have not yet resumed, during the parades in October 2020 and January 2021 and the defense exhibition last year, new strategic missiles were demonstrated. Tactical missile systems were mainly tested in January, but their diversity is striking: North Korean analogues of “Iskander” missiles, rail-based ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and even hypersonic weapons. Although many observers perceive the latter with skepticism, the experts noted that for the DPRK, the success in this class of modern weapons is only a matter of time. The idea of a North Korean ICBM, which has now become a reality, was once perceived with skepticism.
The DPRK also continues to work on the modernization of the submarine fleet, increasing the range of solid-propellant SLBMs, and creating a solid-propellant engine for ICBMs with MIRVs. These works will eventually require further testing. Although the DPRK has already taken the first step towards the practical end of its voluntary moratorium with the recent test of the “Hwaseong-12” intermediate-range missile, the resumption of testing of more threatening systems will be determined by many factors – not only military, technical and doctrinal, but also domestic and external challenges and threats.
As experts noted, the DPRK is not stopped by either the specter of an imminent famine or the obvious discontent of China, which is hosting the Winter Olympic Games these days. The leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un, celebrated the 10th anniversary of his tenure in December 2021, his position is quite strong. His younger sister Kim Yo-jong is gradually, but steadily moving to the upper echelons of power. Moreover, despite the undoubted economic dependence on China, the DPRK is very jealous of its sovereignty. Perhaps that is why there are quite strong anti-Chinese sentiments in North Korea.
declining attention to the issue of national reconciliation could cost South Korea dearly if the North decides to take serious actions to remind the world community of itself.
South Korea will hold presidential elections on March 9 this year. There is no clear favorite yet. During the discussion about the possible outcome of the elections, as well as how their results will affect the overall military-political and economic situation in Northeast Asia and in Russia, original ideas, assumptions and assessments were expressed by the round table participants. Particular emphasis was placed on options for the implementation of planned and promising projects of international economic cooperation. At the same time, it was noted that the euphoria from the possibility of a quick national reconciliation is gradually disappearing in the Republic of Korea. Voters are much more concerned about such issues as the rights of the LGBT community, the debt load of the population, the inaccessibility of mortgages, and the introduction of an unconditional basic income payment to all citizens. On the one hand, this indicates the rapid advancement of the Republic of Korea to the standards of the ‘genuine’ Western society. On the other hand, declining attention to the issue of national reconciliation could cost South Korea dearly if the North decides to take serious actions to remind the world community of itself.
The current aggravation of the situation in the east of Ukraine, will delay the implementation of BRI in the ‘Chinese’ format at least for several years.
The issue of China’s influence on the situation around the Korean Peninsula was discussed separately. For both Korean states, China is the main economic partner. However, Beijing has serious problems on a global scale – confrontation with the United States and the West, dissatisfaction with China’s unilateral actions to “fight” the coronavirus, which negatively affect the global logistics system. Finally, the January events in Kazakhstan and the crisis around Ukraine cast doubt on the feasibility of President Xi Jinping’s main Eurasian strategy, the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. Kazakhstan was considered the most powerful and stable country in Central Asia, a decisive link in the creation of the infrastructure for the New Silk Road. It turned out that this stability is a very fragile thing. As for Ukraine, an equally important transit country for Chinese exports to Europe, in the past few years Kiev has taken a course towards curtailing cooperation with China, probably relying on a speedy Euro-Atlantic integration. The current aggravation of the situation in the east of Ukraine, will delay the implementation of BRI in the ‘Chinese’ format at least for several years. These problems of the PRC only add to the uncertainty for the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, the current situation opens a new window of opportunity for Russia in the Asia-Pacific region.