US and the North Korea Challenge in the ‘Trinity’

By – Abhishek Sharma;

In today’s uncertain and fluctuating geopolitical terrain, and with the emergence of new alignment and reaffirmation of partnerships, the world seems to be taking a direction towards a polarized order led by China and U.S. Beijing, with its ideological ‘friends’ Moscow and Pyongyang are challenging the U.S in their respective regions. While the US-China trade war has been on for long, DPRK has sought an explicit demonstration of advancing missile capabilities while Russia has been increasing its troop numbers near the Ukraine border (threatening NATO). But what other factors are shared between the authoritarian ‘Trinity’ of China, Russia and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) apart from antagonizing the U.S.? Is it that all of them are now capable of hitting the U.S with strategic weapons? Is it their Ideological conformity against what they call international (imperialistic) values and norms that constricts them in pursuing their objectives? The reasons are manifold, but first we must contextualize the emergence of the new geopolitical and geoeconomics order in the International System (that already existed in the international society) mainly led by a rethinking in the European capital and a more substantial strategic alignment with the U.S. In this article, the main focus remains on the role of the DPRK in this shifting geopolitical scenario as a ‘strategic spoiler’ for U.S. and DPRK’s closeness with China. In addition, the need for the U.S. to relook its strategy in North-east Asia towards DPRK to avoid strengthening China’s motives is assessed.

DPRK missile demonstration and the US

DPRK, China, and Russia have been in global headlines for different reasons: Russia due to its military buildup on the Ukraine border and the imminent threat of invasion in Ukraine; China is occupied with the Beijing Winter Olympics; while DPRK seems to be the busiest partner absorbed with testing advanced missiles. Some experts have pointed the trend of repeated missile testing by DPRK as a signal towards the U.S. for renewed engagement. This development also comes when the elections in South Korea are slated to be held in March. The atmosphere in Pyongyang also seems suitable for engagement with the U.S. At the 4th Plenum of the 8th Central Committee of Korean Worker’s Party conveyed from 27-30 December 2021, statements made by Kim Jong-un about prioritization of ‘Rural Development’ shows that the DPRK is concerned with the increasing discontent rising among the citizens of the countryside who are hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

However, the U.S. has seemed uninterested in DPRK since Biden Administration came to the White House. It is an open secret that the decision to engage with the DPRK regime is not taken by Seoul but Washington D.C. After one year in office, the Biden Administration’s strategy towards DPRK has come under severe criticism with no ambassador appointed in Seoul apart from a U.S special representative to North Korea Ambassador Sung Kim.

With DPRK testing more missiles in 2022 than in 2017 alone, the focus in Washington D.C. seems to be shifting again towards Pyongyang. The Trump administration strategy of ‘sanctions and coercive diplomacy’ and the ‘isotopic’ continuation by the Biden administration in the form of ‘serious and sustained diplomacy’ has shown no results in changing attitudes in Pyongyang. On the contrary, DPRK has demonstrated the extent to which it can develop its deterrence arsenal by testing hypersonic missiles on January 5 and 11, which shows the level of technological sophistication achieved by DPRK. In addition, the recent testing of Intermediate-and-long range ballistic missile Hwasong-12 reaching a maximum altitude of 2,000 km and traveling 800 km is its most extended missile test since 2017. This test also breaks off the suspension announced in 2018, a moratorium of not testing nuclear devices and long-range ballistic missiles. DPRK also launched two short-range ballistic missiles tests through a rail-based system as a counter-strike measure on January 14. Even the testing of Cruise Missiles shows the overall strategy of DPRK in boosting its war deterrence against the U.S.

All these tests signal the clear intention of the regime in Pyongyang towards pursuing a credible deterrence against the U.S. by advancing its capabilities and capacities. This also highlights the failure of U.S. foreign policy under both Trump and the Biden Administration in restricting North Korea’s aim of achieving credible deterrence. These developments change the power dynamic in the northeast Asian region, creating more uncertainty both in Seoul and Tokyo. The lack of progress towards the DPRK problem shows a need to relook at the whole issue from a different lens.

Emerging of New Axis: Closing proximity between China, Russia, and DPRK    

The developments in the Korean peninsula show the complicated nature of geopolitics playing in the Indo-Pacific region and the U.S.’s failure to keep up with various concerns of its Allies and Partners. What adds to this fast-changing geopolitical situation is the emergence of ‘generated’ conflict in a different regions where U.S. interest lies. The current developments highlight the inability of Washington D.C to address and manage various foreign policy decisions when push comes to shove. The emerging convergence of the geopolitical and geoeconomic in the polarized international system has finally aligned the interest of various European capitals with the U.S. that earlier ignored the geoeconomics dimension of their relations due to domestic concerns. However, the ‘New’ strategy emerging amidst the re-alignments seems to favor Beijing. The U.S. preoccupation with Russia and DPRK has shown the U.S.’s limited capacity in dealing with multiple challenges. China has successfully benefited from the U.S. conflict with Russia and DPRK, keeping the U.S. occupied with North-East and South-East neighbors. Besides, China is trying to consolidate political capital by standing firm with its neighbors to show solidarity. China’s explicit support in UNSC with Russia on the Ukraine issue stands starkly against its abstention stand on Crimean Resolution in 2014 in UNSC. On January 20, China and Russia blocked the U.N. Security Council from imposing sanctions on North Korean officials engaged in the DPRK missile tests program. The convergence of interest between China, Russia, and the DPRK increases as new geopolitical realities emerge. ‘ China’s efforts to boost ties with Russia and North Korea are based on its national interests and the common interests shared by countries in the region, and most importantly, in these ties, all countries are equal’ stated an expert in Global Times. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the relations between the three countries had only grown.  China remains the largest trading partner of both Russia and DPRK, and with increasing sanctions from the west, Beijing has been the only reliable partner for both Moscow and Pyongyang.

Strategy towards North Korea going forward

China is emerging as the clear strategic competitor for the U.S in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S strategy for strengthening interest-based partnerships in the region should not focus only on aligning with new partners like India, Indonesia, and Vietnam and strengthening ties with the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. Further, there must emerge a new strategy that looks from different prism at U.S. ties with DPRK. This should involve taking into account both Seoul’s and Tokyo’s concerns. These encompass the transfer of OPCON to South Korea, support the development of Nuclear Submarines, and encourage closer ties between Seoul and Tokyo. Some changes like the removal of missile restriction made last year indicated the intention of the U.S. administration towards giving Seoul more strategic autonomy. At the same time, an acknowledgment that North Korea will not suspend its missiles program under forced sanction can be a starting point. A renewed engagement between U.S. and DPRK should be the way forward to ensure that the regime in Pyongyang doesn’t become more dependent on Beijing. This strategy must be based on reviving inter-Korean relations. The outlook of the U.S. towards DPRK should not be one-dimensional; in other words, focusing only on denuclearization. U.S. should also engage DPRK in cybersecurity and aim for a strategic outlook of policy in the Indo-Pacific that minimizes its theatres of conflict going forward. Such a strategy is beneficial for the U.S. and its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region like Vietnam and India. They are standing against Chinese hegemony and wish to see the U.S.’ increasing role in ensuring a Free and Open Indo Pacific (FOIP). To maintain peace in the Indo-Pacific region, the U.S. needs to manage its adversaries in another region more effectively. The U.S.’s strategic approach needs to link the peace and security of the Korean peninsula and its direct effect to the security of the Indo-Pacific region and the common factor of China. A strategy that strengthens its position in the region and weakens the hands of the Trinity should be the way forward.

Abhishek Sharma is a Doctoral Student in Korean Studies under the Department of East Asian Studies at University of Delhi. He is a postgraduate in International Relations from South Asian University. He is interested in evolving Geopolitics of East Asia and the Indo-Pacific Region, focusing on India-South Korea relations and Indian Foreign Policy. His research interests also include the intersection of Gender and International Politics, particularly in Environmental Peacebuilding, Nuclear Disarmament, and Feminist Foreign Policy


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