Russia and the two Koreas

February 05, 2024 23:09

The war in Ukraine has reached a relative impasse.

Neither Moscow nor Kyiv possesses the resources to score a decisive victory. With waning American support in view of both the war in Gaza and the looming elections, it is European support – which has certainly increased over recent months – that is keeping the severely impeded and dented Ukrainian army alive in their defense against the Russian invasion.

On the other hand, whilst Russia had leant heavily into its natural advantage of a much larger population than Ukraine’s, it is evident from both Prigozhin’s ill-fated, quasi-Quixotic rebellion, but also growing whispers of discontent in even the corridors of power in Moscow, that the war effort is not going in favour of the Kremlin.

Putin’s gameplan for 2024 is rather straightforward: firstly, hone in on critical junctures and positions in Ukraine, consolidate defenses, and build up entrenchments that would allow the country’s troops to weather the next ten months. With Donald J Trump likely to re-enter the White House in January 2025, Putin is hoping that his isolationist, fellow strong-man buddy would acquiesce to Russia’s irridentist, expansionist ambitions.

Secondly, maximally sow as much instability as possible in critical sites where NATO intervention would be required – Yemen/Red Sea (but not to the extent that Russian trade with India, via the Red Sea, would be wholly disrupted), Iran/Hezbollah, and, of course, the Crown Jewel of Northeast Asia – DPRK. Russia may also turn to cyber-warfare, information warfare, and general psychological operations to further sway Western opinion in the direction of withdrawal from Ukraine.

After all, when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. Both prongs would prove vital to Putin’s aim of re-establishing himself as Russia’s paramount, unquestionable leader, rebuilding his much-tarnished reputation as a fiercely unrelenting, determined leader that would spearhead his country’s return to geopolitical greatness.

A core linchpin of Russia’s 2024 plan hence involves egging on Kim Jong-un’s regime in Pyongyang, with the aim of expediting the militarisation and (partial) escalation of tensions within the region. Russia has turned towards DPRK for ammunitions, arms, and general military support, in exchange for providing the poverty-stricken and malaise-plagued country with new technology and business. In short, it is a win-win for the two leaders.

Kim, in turn, has played his part. He recently declared that North Korea was ready to occupy South Korea should war break out, cancelled reunification-related bureau and official organs, and doubled down on incendiary and provocative missile tests. Much of this was done with the explicit objective of deterring further military cooperation and security alignment between Washington and the hugely unpopular incumbent government in Seoul – with Yoon Suk-yeol polling at 29%, a nine-month low, in late January.

Yet it is evident that something more nefarious is at stake – DPRK is an increasingly negative-sum power: a power that does not care about improving its own standing, but only in ensuring that as others ‘burn’, it burns ‘less’. In short, it is a disruptive, as opposed to a defensive or constructive, force.

The likely prognosis for the Korean peninsula is not pretty. Thanks to Beijing’s phlegmatic and shrewd recognition of the need to put pressure on Pyongyang to rein itself in, as well as the growing realisation that Putin’s revisionist intentions could well prove to be a regionally destabilising and economically counterproductive force, China’s presence has been instrumental in preventing the situation from boiling over. Biden’s team, too, is deeply cognizant of and concerned about the need to engage in a third battlefront – on top of Israel/Gaza and Ukraine – in order to defend so-called American strategic interests in the region.

And there is much that can be done by Pyongyang short of an official, full-blown invasion. Stepping up digital and cyber-warfare operations. Scaling up espionage and infiltration missions, with potential assassinations down the line. And, of course, pursuing its usual favourite – blatant, uncouth, and unapologetic psychological warfare, in order to intimidate South Korean denizens. The efficacy of these ‘attacks’, of course, remains questionable at best.

In face of the simmering tensions in the region, it falls upon Beijing to identify a reliable and sturdy set of guardrails that it would jointly commit to upholding alongside Washington. Sino-American cooperation is facing substantial strain from the fact that China and the US are – fundamentally – tethered to opposites within the Korean peninsula. Yet this does not mean pragmatic conversations over i) categorically ruling out nuclear weapon deployment in the Peninsula, ii) deterring the Kremlin from further encouraging and rewarding Kim for his excesses, and iii) bringing parties back to the negotiating table eventually, cannot thereby take place.

It is indeed in both of the world’s largest economies to see a stable macroeconomic global environment – China needs to reorient itself towards economic growth and rejuvenation, whilst Biden clearly has an election to contest and little room for error. As a peace-oriented power who fully appreciates the horrors of imperialism and colonialism, I remain hopeful that the Chinese leadership shall navigate pragmatically the balancing of interests, between its ties with Russia, DPRK, Iran, but also its connections with the US, Europe, South Korea, and Japan – no small or mean feat!

Assistant Professor, HKU