Since its invasion of Ukraine in February, Russia’s international clout has dropped tremendously. Many nations Moscow considered to be friendly have jumped ship and disavowed having any sort of relationship with Russia, whether economic, diplomatic, or military. Except for China, Cuba and a handful of other staunch allies, Russia is very much alone. North Korea is not one of the nation-states shunning Russia however, and its loyalty is being rewarded. In a letter to Kim Jong Un for Korea’s Liberation Day, Vladimir Putin said closer ties between Moscow and Pyongyang are in both countries’ interests and will help strengthen the security and stability of the Korean peninsula and the Northeastern Asian region. Kim replied with his own letter, reminding Putin of the long friendship shared between North Korea and Russia. The burgeoning relationship really caught the world’s attention in July when North Korea officially recognized two Russian-backed breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine as sovereign nation-states.
Russia is not the only power competing for North Korea’s attention. South Korea is also trying to entice Pyongyang into closer relations as well as eventual denuclearization. Today South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Monday offered comprehensive economic assistance to North Korea if it abandons its nuclear weapons program.
Pyongyang has been quiet over the summer. The underground nuclear test many analysts were expecting never came about. With numerous crises going on simultaneously around the world, Kim Jong Un has been operating under the radar for the most part. With Seoul and Moscow now visibly courting the North, expect this to change in the coming weeks and months. North Korea will be back on the world’s radar scopes for better or worse by late September.
I was shocked and saddened to learn that former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated at a political event Abe was a towering figure in Japanese politics. The longest serving prime minister in Japan’s history. His accomplishments through the nine years he was in office have significantly shaped Japan’s trajectory for the coming decade at least.
Abe reestablished Japan’s position of prominence on the world stage economically and geopolitically. Under his leadership, Japan reinterpreted the pacifism-centered nature of its constitution. He was convinced Japan had to do more in order to counter China’s growing strength and influence in the Western Pacific. Along with leading the charge to change the constitution, Abe also championed a major defense buildup. This was also aimed at countering China’s power.
He was a nationalist at heart who refused to tread lightly when it came to Japan’s World War II history. In this regard he was the polar opposite of most Japanese prime ministers since 1945. Many of his predecessors apologized profusely to China and South Korea for Japan’s horrid actions and crimes against its people in the war. Abe did not disregard Japan’s past actions, however, he did not dwell on them profusely. The result was a chilly relationship with erstwhile ally South Korea and a deep freeze with the People’s Republic of China.
China has not shed a tear for Abe’s passing. Chinese social media has been filled with celebratory posts and comments. The South Korean people have been somewhat more subdued, but there is little sadness for Abe across the Sea of Japan.
With US President Joe Biden heading to Asia today, the focus of the US government will pivot away from the war in Ukraine and Europe for the first time in months. Even though the pivot will be temporary, Biden’s trip to Japan and then South Korea will reveal a glimpse or two at future US economic and security policies and postures in the Western Pacific. As expected, even though Biden’s trip will take him to Japan and South Korea, two staunch US allies, this visit is all about North Korea and China.
Tensions in the region are evident at first glance. China is contending with issues close to home stemming from the latest COVID-19 outbreak on the mainland, redoubled efforts to replenish strategic oil reserves and of course, Taiwan. Then there is North Korea, dealing with its first official outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, as well as preparing for either a ballistic missile or underground nuclear test in the near future. Washington’s preoccupation with Ukraine and Russia has delayed the Biden administration’s intentions to refocus on Asia this year.
The Ukraine crisis and subsequent war is raising concerns about the ability of the United States to handle simultaneous crises in different parts of the world diplomatically and politically. China’s designs on Taiwan are at the core of these concerns. One of Biden’s primary goals for this trip will be to address the worries of allies and non-aligned regions in the region and demonstrate how solid US security commitments in the region are. The president also needs to address why his administration has failed to apply an economic component to US Indo-Pacific strategy. During this trip, Biden is expected to present the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as an answer to the economic questions.
There are growing indications that North Korea is moving forward with plans for its first nuclear weapons test in over four years. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been on the rise lately, though this has been underreported in light of the war in Ukraine. Last week, Kim Jong Un promised to continue development of its nuclear weapons “at the fastest possible speed.” This has prompted concerns that a test will be scheduled to disrupt the late May visit of US President Joe Biden to South Korea. Chinese and South Korea diplomats met in Seoul on Tuesday with China pledging to play a ‘constructive role’ in attempting to get North Korea to resume negotiations.
South Korea, with a new administration taking power on 10 May, is quite interested in deterring North Korea from escalating the situation. One element that appears to be coaxing the North along the slippery path it’s on at present is Russia. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin have forged close ties over the years and the North is one of the few nations supporting Russia in its war without misgivings. In exchange for this loyalty, Russia could return the favor by blocking a UN effort to impose severe sanctions on North Korea if it does move forward with a nuclear test.
Having said this, it must be mentioned that the global economic fallout from Russia’s adventure in Ukraine and the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in China could hit the North Korean economy especially hard. Supply chain issues now coming into play will exacerbate food shortages. Inflation will also play a greater role. Food prices in North Korea often mirror global prices. With food prices rising around the world, the North’s prices are expected to do the same in the coming weeks, taking the country’s economic issues from bad to worse in the process.
Slipping away from Ukraine for a brief spell, North Korea’s latest missile test is raising concerns across the world. The US, South Korea and Japan have all condemned what looks to be the test of an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) by the North on Thursday, its first ICBM test since 2017. The test was far from unexpected. US officials have been warning for weeks now that an ICBM test was probable in the ‘near future.’ The missile flew for 71 minutes, traveled a distance of 671 miles, and reached a maximum altitude of 3,852 miles. It landed 100 miles off the coast of Japan, prompting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to label the launch as ‘reckless’ and ‘unacceptable.’
This missile, officially named the Hwasong-17, has upgraded capabilities over its predecessor, with the ability to reach the United States and carry multiple-independently targeted re-entry vehicles. In other words, more than a single warhead. It is more of a threat to the United States than Western Pacific nations, yet this has not deterred South Korea from staging its own demonstration in response to Pyongyang’s launch, firing its own ballistic and cruise missiles and dropping guided bombs, in order to “demonstrate the determination and capability to immediately respond and punish” North Korea.