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April 23, 2021

Is North Korean leadership suicidal?

I am beginning this column with a comment by a reader of British newspaper ‘The Guardian’ relative to the current nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula (the international media abounds in such reader comments and expert positions these days): ‘Could North Korea really be that stupid? To attack the country with the vastly superior weaponry and capacity would be suicidal, as well as launching a war that would inevitably spread its evil further. /…/’This is the legitimate question regarding the incomprehensible steps taken by the leaders of the Korean communist country recently. Having successfully tested a nuclear device as well as an intercontinental vehicle a few months ago, the elite in Phyongyang has launched itself into a series of threats to the South Korean neighbour and the USA. Last week, it denounced the 1953 truce that ended the Korean fratricide war and drew an ideological division line across the nation and the peninsula, and made an open threat to nuclearly hit the US territory.

That was made explicit in a photograph published Saturday morning by the official North Korean news agency, showing the supreme communist leader – the grandson of the state founder, now in his 20s, talk to army heads near a visible and decipherable map with US strategic targets. The photo clearly shows – as one of the articles discussing the matter says – North Korean missile trajectories ending in Hawaii, Washington DC, Los Angeles and probably Austin – Texas. The publication of the photo was a result of the participation in the US-s Korean military exercises of American aircraft carrying B-52 nuclear vectors. The US responded to the publication of the photograph by sending two B-2 invisible aircraft capable of nuclearly hitting a total of 16 independent enemy targets in one mission, to over-fly the peninsula.

The Korean crisis peaked on Saturday, with Phyongyang announcing a state of war with Seoul and its allies, leading to an instantaneous question in the international media: is a nuclear war really possible? Ranging from evaluations revealing that the start of hostilities could be just hours away to positions based on the logic of the above comment, the scale of probability of a nuclear war is wide. It starts from two assumptions: such a war is probable, the communist leadership being pushed beyond its conservation instinct and the communist leadership is not suicidal. For the first time the assumption also proposes positions taken by high officials representing global actors. For example, Russia’s Foreign Minister S. Lavrov warned the situation could slip ‘toward the spiral of a vicious circle’. EU decision-makers have sent out similar messages. China, who, at the beginning of this month, backed a resolution introducing international sanctions against its ally over recent missile-nuclear tests, shows the same concern. One can notice they are all insisting on that the situation can easily get out of hand, which also entails the likelihood that the entire development of events might be nothing but a North Korean bluff.

While North Korean officials have informed Western tour operators on its intention to terminate all commercial agreements due to an imminent war situation, the same authorities tell China there will be no war.Saturday, March 30, North Korea raised the already high level of tension, announcing that the neither peace-nor war situation in line with the 1953 truce had ceased and Pyongyang would respond to any hostile gesture by force, including nuclear. On Sunday, on the occasion of a meeting of the superior body of the communist state – the plenary meeting (central committee) of the party – a decision was announced that the country’s nuclear arming was complementary to its economic development, that North Korea’s nuclear status would exist as long as there was imperialism and that it would militate for stopping nuclear proliferation, disarming and global denuclearisation. It is already something usual that, in such situations, the Korean communist state tests the in-coming Seoul Administration after installation and the taking over of power by President Park Geun-hye required the routine procedure. On the one hand, if in previous situations, South Korea sought to modulate tension, this time the recent joint military exercises with the American allies gave Phyongyang an answer it was not quite used to. On the other hand, this time, the communist lairdship in the North of the peninsula is facing a completely new situation, where it has to reconsider its customary scenario. This element – not really that new as more coinciding with other major events such as the change of the leadership in Beijing for the next ten years or the Asian ‘pivot’ of the Obama Administration – is China’s non-traditional attitude in the dossier of North Korea’s nuclear arming. Even if the first signs of a certain Beijing reticence to the conduct of its ally – practically the guarantor of its survival ever since the war in the peninsula that ended in 1953 – had been visible before (China had also endorsed previous UN resolutions introducing sanctions against North Korea), this time China, together with the US, sponsored the new round of sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council through a resolution at the beginning of the previous month. According to Susan Rice, US representative to the UN, the new sanctions seek ‘to change course and recognise that a denuclearized Korean peninsula is in the interest not only of North Korea, but of international peace and security’. So the resolution urges – and China, alongside the US, is an initiator – the ‘denuclearisation’ of the peninsula, meaning that the North Korean communist regime should renounce the nuclear weapon. This is nothing new, actually also being the aim of the ‘4 plus 2’ talks (China, USA, Japan, Russia plus the two Koreas) having taken place for a number of years. Nonetheless, to our knowledge, it is the first time that Beijing initiates such an international document. Whether this Chinese decision reflects a major shift in Beijing’s policy – the prevalence of a different approach to the Korean situation by the new political leadership – or it is, in fact, the result of the country’s new global stature, co-responsible, alongside the US and a few other major actors, for the management of the international system of states (a hegemonic G-2 is now said to exist de facto) is a different discussion, of course, a rather important one for the future of the North Korean dossier.

As a matter of fact, in Seoul, on March 27 – therefore at the height of the crisis – the foreign minister and the unification minister presented to the new president a briefing on the country’s position of principle in the international arena, mainly in the peninsula, which also states: ‘Coordinating and advancing the alliance with the US and the partnership with China as well as stabilizing the Republic of Korea -Japan relations’. What is of interest in this case is the fact that Pyongyang’s analysis has come to the conclusion that the communist state must openly and unequivocally assert its nuclear status, this time for the entire world – including China – to know. This is what the leaderships of the Korean communist state did last Sunday when, after the escalation of the crisis almost to the boiling point, with the pretext that US strategic aircraft had over-flown the peninsula, openly announced the permanent nuclear status of Pyongyang. The Korean document cited by the official Chinese media says the nuclear status will be kept for as long as ‘the nuclear threat exists on earth’ and the newly adopted strategy is ‘not a temporary countermeasure for coping with the rapidly changing situation’. If this Pyongyang move means a blow on the current format of negotiation in the nuclear dossier of the peninsula (six-party talks) reminded of above or a warning that, while at war, it would just rely on its own forces (warning to China), that we shall see in the near future.

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