Anastasia O. Barannikova
Admiral Nevelskoy Maritime State University, Vladivostok
Abstract: The present article analyzes the current cycle of tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Despite the current escalation there are still no prerequisites for a full-fledged conflict involving Korean states. At the same time given recent global shifts further ignoring of the security problems of the region can lead to other negative consequences including nuclear proliferation.
Keywords: Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, DPRK, US, NEA, nuclear proliferation
With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, many problems of Northeast Asian security, including Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, were overlooked. However, now, after the period of calm, the situation around the Korean Peninsula has begun to move again and is attracting growing attention of the international community. DPRK has ultimately put an end to its voluntary moratorium on long-range ballistic missile launches. It tested Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile on January 30 and conducted a test of intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time since 2017 on March 24. There is no consensus on a new missile: some believe that it was the Hwasong-17  ICBM, shown at the parade in October 2020 (the DPRK officially claims the same), others – that an improved version of the Hwasong-15  was tested. It should not be ruled out that another, unknown ICBM was tested. However, it is clear that the recent tests were not the last. Researchers analyzing satellite imagery of North Korea detect activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site , Sinpo South Shipyard , and at Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center . Increasing activities at these sites means that the DPRK can test both SLBMs and low-yield nuclear warheads for its tactical systems, and conduct any other test to solve the tasks set by the 8th Congress of the WPK .
All this comes against the backdrop of a presidential election in ROK, won by opposition candidate Yoon Seok-youl on March 9. Already during the election campaign he voiced his position on relations with the DPRK and US. Namely, he advocated more intensive cooperation with the United States and tougher position on the DPRK. He proposes  redeployment of U.S. nuclear bombers and submarines to the Korean peninsula as well as resumption of joint military drills with the United States that had been perceived as a threat by the DPRK and were frozen under Moon Jae-in. Also noteworthy is the tougher than usual reaction of the ROK to the launch of the North Korean ICBMs. In response to the recent North Korean tests, the South Korean side conducted drills involving a number of tactical systems, maneuvers involving fighter jets, and test-fired indigenous solid-propellant missile. Amid tensions in Inter-Korean relations the USS Abraham Lincoln strike group has been deployed in waters off the Korean Peninsula for the first time since 2017 . So, the situation around Korean Peninsula is going to remain a source of tensions in the nearest future.
On the one hand, this situation is not new. The US is putting pressure on the DPRK, the DPRK is modernizing its nuclear weapons in response. Its nuclear and missile program in turn, is used by other countries of the region as a pretext for building up their own strategic weapons. Aggravations on the Korean Peninsula have occurred regularly since the split of Korea into two states. The resumption of North Korean ICBM testing came as no surprise, too. Kim Jong Un announced voluntary moratorium on testing nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles in 2018, when there was hope for the normalization of relations with the United States and the “international community”. However, numerous promising summits did not bring any positive results, and this hope has gradually faded. As a result, Kim Jong Un said in 2019 that his country no longer felt bound by its self-imposed moratorium though the DPRK continued refraining from long-range missiles tests up to this year, possibly for foreign policy reasons. It is possible that the DPRK pinned certain hopes on the elections in the ROK, but those hopes were dashed. The result of presidential elections has become “the last drop” which overflowed the cup of patience of the North
Korean leadership and led to resumption of tests that once used to provoke negative responses from the international community.
On the other hand, compared to 2017 , we have completely different situation now. The world has faced global shifts that could not but have an impact on the Korean Peninsula. Among them are ongoing rivalry between the United States and China, the coronavirus pandemic, which not only shocked the global economy, but also reformatted international relations, the escalation around Ukraine and confrontation between the collective West and Russia. In a situation, when the world is not up to the Korean Peninsula, the question arises whether, left alone with its problems, it will become another “hot spot” and a zone of conflict? With a high degree of probability, we can say that it will not.
Despite the intensification of the DPRK’s nuclear missile program and a sharp response from the ROK, a military conflict between two countries is unlikely. Raising political and military tensions on the Korean Peninsula has also become a kind of tradition; usually, the cycle of escalation is followed by ease of tensions and a return to a dialogue. However escalation is needed to raise the stakes and strengthen positions of involved countries for future negotiations. Unexpected actions from the United States are also unlikely. First of all because the US, as well as other big powers, is interested in preserving status quo on the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, in the case of war between the US and the DPRK China and Russia could not stand aside, too. The former would try to preserve its strategic interests and the latter would support its quasi-ally. Both countries are also interested in keeping North Korea stable and preventing possible chaos on their borders. The DPRK would not start a conflict at least out of a sense of self- preservation. The China-DPRK Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance signed in 1961 is still in force, however Article 2 of the Treaty stipulates only that “in the event of one of the Contracting Parties being subjected to the armed attack by any state or several states jointly and thus being involved in a state of war, the other Contracting Party shall immediately render military and other assistance” . At the same time Chinese officials made it clear that China would not aid the DPRK if it attacked ROK or any other country first. Despite the obvious progress the DPRK made in its nuclear and missile program in recent years, its nuclear potential is
still significantly inferior to the American one both quantitatively and qualitatively. It is sufficient for deterrence, but not sufficient for war. Moreover, North Korean nuclear doctrine is rather defensive than war fighting.
However, military conflict is not the only threat in the context of escalation on the Korean Peninsula. The global factors listed above may make events on the Korean Peninsula unfold in a completely different direction.
First of all, the pandemic forced the DPRK to close its borders in early 2020. In addition to the obvious negative impacts of ongoing self-isolation on the economic situation, there is another problem. Namely, in the context of the continuing pandemic, no personal contacts of either the heads of state or high-ranking government delegations are possible. As a result, North Korea is unable to interact with other countries (except, perhaps, Russia and China) through the means of diplomacy and foreign policy. All that remains is “nuclear diplomacy.” Along with food deficit the country still faces the need for economic development and reducing dependence on China, which significantly increased after the adoption of the latest UN Security Council resolution in 2017. In order to balance its dependence of China and to be able to influence China itself, the DPRK needs normalization, or at least a permanent dialogue with the United States. However, how can it force big powers to change their attitude when they are interested in maintaining the status quo? In the conditions of voluntary self- isolation, the DPRK is limited in the means of diplomacy and foreign policy. What remains is nuclear demonstrations and pressure on the United States through its allies in Asia. The purpose of North Korean nuclear and missile signals is not only to keep big powers’ attention, but also to force the US to change its overly conservative stance towards the DPRK. When direct signals sent to the US do not bring the expected effect, the DPRK influences US allies. The calculation is that the US allies in NEA, who perceive the “North Korean threat” more seriously, will themselves force the US to negotiate with the DPRK. It would be dangerous for the United States to ignore the fears of its allies in NEA (and indeed any allies), especially now, when they are promoting initiatives like AUKUS and QUAD and need support of their allies in struggling against Russia and China. Perhaps this is what the DPRK is counting on,
activating its nuclear and missile program. And, who knows, maybe North Korean tactical nuclear weapon will finally make the US to revise its approach to the DPRK and start talks. However, as history shows, the talks will only be talks as long as all regional countries are interested in preserving status quo and KPNI with North Korean nuclear deterrent has already become an integral part of this status quo.
(End of introductory fragment)