The Korean War ended more than 70 years ago, and a tense peace has reigned ever since on the Korean peninsula.
The two Koreas have exchanged artillery fire, battled in the economic and diplomatic arenas, and even covertly dispatched spies to each other’s territory. But the threats of a resumption of conflict, disproportionately coming from North Korea in recent years, have been rhetorical. The firepower of the South Korean military, backed by a U.S. defense pact, has deterred Pyongyang; the sheer number of soldiers in the North Korean army, backed by a small but operational nuclear arsenal, has deterred Seoul.
But borders don’t seem quite as inviolable as they once did. Russia has invaded Ukraine, Israel has sent forces into Gaza, and even Venezuela recently seemed to contemplate an incursion into Guyana. The United States, meanwhile, has recently attacked various targets abroad, from the Houthis in the Red Sea to Iranian commanders in Syria.
Against this geopolitical backdrop, are the latest threats emanating from Pyongyang still rhetorical?
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sounds more and more embattled and belligerent. In power since the death of his father at the end of 2011, he has been constrained by a hemorrhaging economy and uncompromising adversaries abroad. The growth rate of the North Korean economy wasn’t too bad at the beginning of his tenure. Since 2017, however, the arrow has simply gone downward, with a devastating 4.1 percent contraction in 2018, followed by a further 4.5 percent decline during the pandemic year of 2020. International sanctions have made North Korea dangerously dependent on China for trade, which explains in part Kim Jong Un’s current interest in covering his bets by improving relations with Russia.
Meanwhile, the two leaders that promised some form of engagement with Pyongyang—South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump—are no longer in office. South Korea’s current government is very cool toward engagement. Joe Biden, focused on a raft of other foreign policy challenges from Ukraine to Gaza, has not expressed much interest in expending political capital on a risky venture like negotiating with Pyongyang.
Washington’s failure to remain engaged with North Korea is the primary reason that longtime North Korea watchers Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker believe that Kim Jong Un has abandoned the default approach of more-or-less peaceful coexistence in favor of launching an attack against South Korea. In some ways, Kim is following the logic of Hamas, an illiberal force also in charge of a largely failed entity. Kim, too, perceives his adversaries as complacent, uninterested in any real negotiations, and vulnerable to a surprise attack. Presiding over an “open air prison” in Gaza, Hamas decided it had nothing left to lose. The North Korean leadership, in charge of an impoverished country with a horrific human rights record, may well have decided that it also has run out of options.
“The literature on surprise attacks should make us wary of the comfortable assumptions that resonate in Washington’s echo chamber but might not have purchase in Pyongyang,” Carlin and Hecker write in 38North. “This might seem like madness, but history suggests those who have convinced themselves that they have no good options left will take the view that even the most dangerous game is worth the candle.”
Carlin and Hecker don’t have what the Israeli intelligence community possessed a year before the October 7 attacks, namely a detailed description of preparations to launch a surprise attack. They are relying on official North Korean statements eschewing reunification of the peninsula and a constitutional change that now identifies South Korea as an adversary rather than as tanil minjok (“one people, one blood”).
This week, reports based on satellite images showed the destruction of Pyongyang’s iconic Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, also called the Arch of Reunification, which Kim earlier referred to as "an eyesore," and called for its demolition.
As sober analysts, Carlin and Hecker are not given to overstatement, so their warnings must be taken seriously.
At the same time, the usual North Korean approach has been to make wild threats to get the attention of an otherwise indifferent U.S. government in order to pave the way for a fresh round of negotiations. Missile launches, nuclear tests, and promises to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire” have all, in the past, signaled not an interest in war but, perversely, a determination to restart peace talks with newly attentive adversaries. Also, Kim might be eyeing elections in South Korea where the pro-engagement opposition party is hoping to increase its parliamentary majority in the April elections and in the United States where Donald Trump is now running even or better against Joe Biden in the polls. Trump has long boasted of the 27 “love letters” he exchanged with the North Korean leader. Perhaps, Kim strategizes, the love could continue if Trump is reelected.
Beware wishful thinking. Most analysts misinterpreted Vladimir Putin’s warlike rhetoric and military preparations at the end of 2021 as merely a bid for Western attention and a better bargaining position at the negotiations table. Conventional notions about the deterrence of superior force—Israel, NATO, South Korea—may not apply in a world of increasingly volatile leaders and increasingly violated borders.
Kim’s closer relationship with Putin may well prove pivotal in North Korean calculations. Beijing has traditionally attempted to rein in Pyongyang because an overly provocative neighbor is not good for the Chinese economy in addition to boosting U.S. military presence in the region. Moscow, on the other hand, might be sending different messages, given Putin’s more confrontational approach to the West. Just as the war in Gaza has proven a boon to the Kremlin, in that it has distracted attention and military hardware away from the European theater of operations, a conflict on the Korean peninsula would be an even greater draw on U.S. and European resources.
In the late 1940s, Stalin was skeptical about the advantages of North Korea attacking South Korea. Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, eventually convinced Stalin otherwise and won Soviet support for the attack on the south that took place on June 25, 1950. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has indicated that he will visit North Korea “at an early date,” his first trip there since 2000. Pundits and policymakers take note: Putin’s visit might tip the balance one way or the other in North Korea’s deliberations over war and peace.
In the meantime, it’s not too late for the United States and South Korea to offer Kim Jong Un an offramp from the conflict he has yet to initiate.
John Feffer is an author and director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He has been an Open Society Foundation Fellow and a PanTech fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University. He has also worked as an international affairs representative in Eastern Europe and East Asia for the American Friends Service Committee.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits Korean People's Army Air Force headquarters on the occasion of Aviation Day in North Korea, in this picture released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on December 1, 2023. KCNA via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE.
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.