A Changing North Korea

The future of South Korea, North Korea, the United States, and China


A Changing North Korea: The future of South Korea, North Korea, the United States, and China
A Changing North Korea
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Disclaimer: Please note in advance that this Ringle Packet contains some subjective interpretations and opinions on current affairs.

1. A sudden change in North Korea’s position

North Korea's attitude toward South Korea, the U.S., and the rest of the international community is rapidly changing.

  • Before 2018, North Korea focused its national efforts on completing a weapons program that could launch nuclear weapons to the U.S. mainland, including the manufacture of miniature nuclear warheads and development of intercontinental ballistic missiles. In doing so, North Korea set itself at extreme odds with South Korea and the U.S., while also sending out messages threatening world peace.
  • Since then, however, North Korea has participated in the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It is easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula and creating an atmosphere of mutual cooperation with South Korea and the U.S. also by pursuing the inter-Korean summit in April 2018 and the upcoming North American summit on the premise of giving up its nuclear weapons.

These changes stem from the sharp turn in North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s national operations strategies.

  • Kim Jong Un’s vision: To establish economic power exceeding Vietnam’s by achieving rapid economic growth while consolidating North Korea’s one-man dictatorship and communist regime.
  • Previous implementation of his vision: Kim took firm control of the North Korean military by continuously developing nuclear weapons and purging those in de facto power. Afterwards, Kim either collected aid while posing nuclear threats to the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, or sought economic development through trade with China and Russia.
  • Realizing the limitations of previous tactics: The path to North Korea’s economic growth was blocked when the U.S. placed its largest-ever sanctions while China and Russia were failing to meet North Korea’s expectations in support and aid. At the same time, powerful American conservatives have begun arguing that “in order to eliminate the possibility of North Korea’s nuclear threat against the U.S., we must conduct military operations in North Korea to bring down the Kim Jong Un regime.” President Trump, who considers this a viable option, is likewise applying a great deal of pressure on Kim.
  • A sharp turn in strategy: Kim Jong Un has begun using completely opposite tactics than those of the past. He has lowered North Korea’s dependency on China and is attempting to obtain regime security and economic support by seeking cooperative relations with South Korea and the U.S.

In particular, Kim Jong Un’s unique upbringing is largely responsible for his new, previously unimaginable direction for North Korea.

  • Unlike his father Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un attended a Swiss boarding school, so he is much more open-minded about the market economy and socialism. Rather than retaining a policy of isolation in order to maintain its one-man dictatorship, he demonstrates interest in embracing a market economy to promote economic growth while maintaining a one-party dictatorship like Vietnam and China.
  • Kim also has a tendency to make forward-looking, unconventional decisions as a young leader only now in his early 30s with the rest of his life ahead of him.

South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia have been extremely busy following North Korea’s unprecedented moves under the leadership of Kim Jong Un.

2. The advantages and disadvantages of major countries surrounding North Korea

In the U.S., the Donald Trump administration dreams of protecting the safety of American citizens, checking China’s power in East Asia, and seizing international leadership by establishing cooperative relations with North Korea on the premise of complete denuclearization.

  • After seeing North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile tests on the news, American citizens have begun to perceive North Korea as a threat to their lives. North Korea has become a sensitive issue, and solving the North Korea problem could win the support of the American people. Accordingly, American pundits are saying that President Trump is trying to bring a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear crisis to use as leverage in his re-election campaign.
  • Simultaneously, Trump perceives improved relations with North Korea as an advantage in future dealings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, his greatest enemy.

Trump perceives negotiations with North Korea as “a pretty good deal with nothing in particular to lose.”

In South Korea, the Moon Jae-in administration has evaluated North Korea’s change in attitude as its best chance at moving towards denuclearization and a peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula, and is thus entirely committed to improving relations between North Korea and the U.S.

  • The Moon administration considers this recent improvement in relations with North Korea as its best chance at actualizing the Sunshine Policy of his liberal predecessors Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, which aims to induce North Korea to abandon its nuclear program by peaceful means such as dialogue and economic aid.
  • Furthermore, because North Korea can earn the economic support of the U.S., China, and Japan if they give up their nuclear weapons, South Korea anticipates that this may minimize the expected astronomical cost of reunification in the future.
  • Additionally, improved relations between North Korea and the U.S. will undermine the conservative parties that oppose President Moon; therefore, Moon perceives this as an opportunity to overcome the current ruling party and strengthen his administration.

President Moon Jae-in perceives negotiations with North Korea as “a golden opportunity that is not to be missed.”

In China, the Xi Jinping administration is in a tight spot and thereby taking defensive action to minimize losses.

  • All this time, China has strategically used North Korea. China officially appeared to be in accord with the international community, pressuring North Korea about its nuclear problem, but China was actually supporting and encouraging North Korea to strain its relations with the U.S. and South Korea—a strategy to keep the U.S. in check and strengthen China’s own influence throughout East Asia.
  • If North Korea fulfills its nuclear disarmament obligations and develops a cooperative relationship with the U.S. and South Korea, then China will face a difficult situation where it can neither oppose North Korea’s nuclear disarmament nor passively watch North Korea’s relationship with the U.S. and South Korea improve.

To President Xi Jinping, North Korea’s changed stance is an unwelcome turn of events that leaves little for China to gain even if they were to handle it well.

In Japan, the Shinzo Abe administration recognizes the current situation as a crisis where Japan’s political status in Northeast Asia could drop sharply and is looking for ways to minimize “Japan passing,” i.e., countries negotiating with North Korea on terms that fail to include Japan’s input.

  • Japan has been a powerful force in Northeast Asia as the closest partner to the U.S. in keeping North Korea, China and Russia in check, but there are now concerns that Japan’s status will drop sharply when relations between South Korea, North Korea, and the U.S. improve, resulting in “Japan passing.”
  • Moreover, improved relations between North Korea and the U.S. is unfavorable for the conservative Abe administration’s re-election campaign because Japan’s strained relations with North Korea have been used as a rationale to strengthen its national defense and check opposition forces.

To Prime Minister Abe, North Korea’s changed stance presents an unfavorable deal from which he is very unlikely to gain anything.

In Russia, the Putin regime is reacting in a more neutral manner than other countries because North Korea’s changed stance does not have much of an impact on Russia.

  • After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, North Korea has maintained a neutral relationship with Russia. To Russia, North Korea is a country to which they can sell weapons, export gas, and offer some assistance in keeping the U.S. in check.
  • In the event that relations between South Korea, North Korea, and the U.S. improve, economic trade between them will become more active than that between North Korea and Russia. Because trade volume could increase by extending the Trans-Siberian Railway, Russia is expected to approach the improved NK-SK-US relations from not a political or diplomatic perspective, but from an economic perspective of maximizing profit.

3. Future prospects

The future of North Korea and the changing state of affairs between countries surrounding North Korea (South Korea, the U.S., Japan, China, and Russia) are expected to be greatly influenced by the following variables:

1. Will North Korea completely give up its nuclear weapons? Isn’t there a possibility that they will change their mind before going through with it?

2. Will North Korea partially sacrifice its relationship with China and continue to maintain its cooperation with the U.S. and South Korea?

3. Will the U.S.-North Korea relationship continue uninterrupted, despite conflicts in the process of North Korean nuclear disarmament?

4. Will the South Korean and the U.S. governments be able to support North Korea continuously? Isn’t there a danger that the relationship with North Korea could be broken by changes in administration?

5. How will China intervene?

Talk to your Ringle tutor, predict the developments soon to unfold in Northeast Asia, and also receive feedback on your English usage.

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