North Korea, the never-ending story

The reality today is that the North Korean problem is in a new and potentially dangerous phase 
Esta fotografía tomada el 27 de julio de 2023 y difundida por la Agencia Central de Noticias de Corea del Norte (KCNA) oficial el 27 de julio muestra al líder norcoreano Kim Jong Un (C), con el miembro del politburó del Partido Comunista Chino Li Hongzhong (R) y el ministro de Defensa ruso Sergei Shoigu (3º L), asistiendo a la gran actuación de celebración del 70º aniversario de la victoria de la Guerra de Liberación de la Patria en Pyongyang - PHOTO/KCNA VÍA KNS/AFP
This photo taken on July 27, 2023 and released by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on July 27 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C), with Chinese Communist Party politburo member Li Hongzhong (R) and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (3rd L), attending the grand performance celebrating the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Fatherland Liberation War in Pyongyang - PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS/AFP

Among the many hotspots of tension in the world today, one of the most dangerous for escalation is on the Korean peninsula. A dictatorial, hermetic regime that keeps its people isolated from reality and in impoverished conditions, investing a huge amount of its meagre budget in disproportionate armed forces and whose disastrous economic planning has already caused several famines. Faced with such a situation, and the permanent need to offer an external enemy to blame for all its ills, the possibility of a flight forward with no return seems increasingly plausible. 

El amado líder supremo Kim Jong-un presencia el fastuoso desfile militar junto al ministro de Defensa ruso, general Sergei Shoigu, el vicepresidente de la Asamblea Popular de China, Li Hongzhong, y su alta jerarquía castrense - PHOTO/KCNA
Beloved supreme leader Kim Jong-un attends the lavish military parade with Russian Defence Minister General Sergei Shoigu, Vice Chairman of the Chinese People's Congress Li Hongzhong and his top military brass - PHOTO/KCNA

In this context, and other considerations aside, if there is one thing that can be credited to the previous US administration, it is the success of its policy towards the North Korean regime. 

President Barack Obama warned President-elect Donald Trump that North Korea's nuclear weapons programme would be the greatest danger he would face as president.

Once in office, the Trump administration launched a policy of "maximum pressure" against the Kim family's regime in North Korea, seeking to force dictator Kim Jong-un to end his pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. The comprehensive set of sanctions was unprecedented in its scope, and was even publicly supported by the People's Republic of China (PRC), North Korea's closest and almost sole ally. 

Donald Trump y Kim Jong-un - PHOTO/FILE
Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un - PHOTO/FILE

As part of this pressure, and coupled with economic sanctions, the United States undertook a massive build-up of military power in and around the Korean peninsula to ensure readiness for a possible military operation against North Korea. US Forces Korea (USFK), especially the US Eighth Army, were at the centre of these preparations that occupied several months in 2017. Stockpiles of supplies, especially ammunition and medical supplies, were significantly increased and a plan was put in place to train, receive and integrate other units from the US into the USFK so that they could, if necessary, operate alongside South Korean forces.  

All these preparations were carried out openly, so that for the first time in a long time it was clear that the United States was seriously considering military options for ending North Korea's nuclear programme. The North Korean dictator, like everyone else, witnessed these moves, and probably had further information through the intelligence that the People's Republic of China shares with his regime, so his conclusions were the same. 

Esta imagen de pool distribuida por la agencia Sputnik muestra al líder de Corea del Norte, Kim Jong-un, saliendo del cosmódromo de Vostochny, en la región de Amur, el 13 de septiembre de 2023, tras mantener conversaciones con el presidente ruso - PHOTO/PAVEL BYRKIN/POOL/AFP
This pool image distributed by Sputnik agency shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un leaving the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Amur region on September 13, 2023, after holding talks with the Russian president - PHOTO/PAVEL BYRKIN/POOL/AFP

It is impossible to know whether this action alone was the decisive factor that pushed the North Korean leader to seek the opening of diplomatic channels with the United States, but it is certain that this was the end result. One possibility is that North Korea came to the conclusion that its nuclear programme had only served to bring the US and South Korea closer together, with a particularly significant impact on their military alliance, and that it was time to adopt a new path with better short-term prospects, taking into account such an important perception as Trump's acknowledged dissatisfaction with the burden, in terms of economic cost, that the US assumes in defending South Korea. On this point there are clear parallels with the previous US president's position on NATO and the cost his country bears in comparison to other members that do not assume even minimal commitments. Similarly, the fact that the then South Korean President Moon Jae-in was progressive and much more open to dialogue and improved relations with North Korea also played a role, as did the timing: the Winter Olympics were to be held in South Korea in February 2018, and this was a global showcase and a fantastic opportunity to reduce tensions and improve the image of the North Korean satrap. 

El presidente surcoreano Moon Jae-in (derecha) se ha propuesto potenciar su sector espacial y llegar a la Luna mientras el líder de Corea del Norte, Kim Jong-un, se dedica a gobernar con mano de hierro el país que ha heredado - PHOTO/Reuters
South Korean President Moon Jae-in (right) has vowed to boost its space sector and reach the moon while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is busy ruling the country he inherited with an iron fist - PHOTO/Reuters

Regardless of his exact calculation, throughout 2018 and until his final meeting with Trump in the Korean demilitarised zone on 30 June 2019, Kim demonstrated the wiles and skills to preserve his regime and further boost his nuclear programme.

There is no doubt that Kim Jong-un is not the ludicrous leader he is often made out to be. It is true that his image does not help. His great virtue is that practically from the moment he came to power he has been able to read the United States very well and calibrate his actions. And the steps taken by both his southern neighbour and the US have made it clear to him that Washington does not want a military conflict and that South Korea and the US restrain each other at times of heightened tension. It knows full well that neither across the border nor across the Pacific will take any action that would trigger a war, and this certainty must be coupled with the firm conviction that Beijing would not abandon its ally in the event of a crisis. 

Los tres gobiernos han acordado ejercicios militares conjunto-combinados anuales, aumentar su cooperación en inteligencia militar y un procedimiento de alerta en tiempo real frente a los misiles balísticos norcoreanos - PHOTO/Office Prime Minister Japan
The three governments have agreed to annual joint-combined military exercises, increased cooperation on military intelligence and a real-time warning procedure for North Korean ballistic missiles - PHOTO/Office Prime Minister Japan

All of the above, for now, puts North Korea at an advantage. Hence its positioning in conflicts such as the war in Ukraine, where it has clearly sided with the invader, supplying Russia with large quantities of ammunition. It is not yet clear what the quid pro quo is, but it is probably in the form of the supply of energy resources, something much more useful to North Korea than hard currency. 

En esta foto de grupo distribuida por la agencia Sputnik, el presidente de Rusia, Vladímir Putin (centro izq.), y el líder de Corea del Norte, Kim Jong Un (centro der.), visitan el cosmódromo de Vostochni, en la región de Amur, el 13 de septiembre de 2023 - PHOTO/POOL/AFP/MIKHAIL METZEL
In this group photo distributed by Sputnik, Russian President Vladimir Putin (centre left) and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (centre right) visit the Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Amur region on 13 September 2023 - PHOTO/POOL/AFP/MIKHAIL METZEL

The reality today is that the North Korean problem is in a new and potentially dangerous phase. Kim Jong-un has shown himself to be ruthless and very clever. For more than 10 years he has played his cards right, skilfully manipulating two world powers to his advantage, and is adapting his regime and his country's economy to ensure dynastic control. 

On the nuclear front, he has not only settled for the ability to strike the US with nuclear weapons, his steps are now directed towards developing a ‘second response’ capability to prevent pre-emptive strikes against his nuclear or any other weapons programme. This would put the country on a par with the world's leading nuclear powers, exponentially increasing its deterrence capability. 

In parallel to its nuclear capability, North Korea possesses an enormous conventional deterrent capability, based primarily on its long-range artillery. This makes the war option against Pyongyang simply unacceptable. A simple conventional response against Seoul, which is within range of North Korean artillery, would cause thousands of deaths and injuries, while devastating one of the world's major economic centres. And that is precisely the key to the current situation. Korea's economic weight and its role as a global technology production centre mean that no option that would jeopardise its production capacity can be considered. The effects on the world economy would be tremendous, and no one wants to face that spectre.

El presidente chino Xi Jinping, a la izquierda, y el líder norcoreano Kim Jong Un saludan desde una limusina abierta mientras viajan por una calle en Corea del Norte. Pyongyang, Corea del Norte - XINHUA/JU PENG
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un wave from an open limousine as they travel down a street in North Korea. Pyongyang, North Korea - XINHUA/JU PENG

Kim Jong-un is too smart to think that reunification of the two Koreas, evidently under his regime, is impossible. However, he is perfectly aware of the situation on the world geopolitical chessboard, and he will continue to use it to make as much profit as possible, on the one hand, and, on the other, to advance his deterrence capacity and thus ensure his and his people's stay in power, as well as the continuity of the regime at any cost. The state of affairs shows that the regime is much more rational than we want to believe, but it is increasingly dangerous, as it feels more secure than perhaps at any time in recent decades.