In 1950, when war broke out in Korea, China played a decisive role in assuring that the government in Pyongyang would ultimately survive the war, even if DPRK’s (North Korea’s) capital itself was physically destroyed by US lead UN forces. In spite of China having barely recovered from its own long civil war by 1950, the threat of atomic war (as advocated by US General Douglass MacArthur) was ultimately avoided due to the threat of mutually assured atomic destruction in the region. This was the case because China’s Stalin led atomic Soviet ally, would simply not allow US atomic bombs dropped on Korea or China to go unanswered.
Today, China, Russia, the US and the DPRK itself are all agreed on the need for a successful peace process to take place in Korea. Likewise, the peace process has been largely made possible due to Pyongyang’s agreement that de-nuclearistation is necessary for peace to prevail. In this sense, while it goes without saying that Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, Seoul and Washington all have different views on how the peace process should unfold, it cannot be ignored that support for the process itself is in fact unanimous.
Beyond this, even in the unlikely event that this unanimity were to collapse, the threat of modern nuclear mutually assured destruction is a far better deterrent to any war in Korea today, than atomically derived mutually assured destruction was to the US in the early 1950s when MacArthur’s atomic plan was famously rebuffed by the White House.
In this sense, there were only ever two realistic options for the DPRK over the last two years. One was the kind of peace process that has unfolded since Kim Jong-un offered South Korean President Moon Jae-in an olive branch on the 1st of January 2018, or otherwise, the DPRK would continue to live under sanctions and American threats of war – threats which almost certainly would never have materialised. The reason that these threats were almost certainly an American bluff is due to the fact that the DPRK has its own modern nuclear arsenal, but more importantly, because of the monolithic nuclear arsenals of the DPRK’s neighbours China and Russia – two superpowers that have no plans to ever de-nuclearise.
Because Kim chose peace and economic openness, rather than a life of sustained sanctions from the UN and condemnation even from Beijing and Moscow, many were quick to highlight possible comparisons between Kim’s DPRK and Gaddafi’s Libya.
In December of 2003, the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya agreed to give up its weapons of mass destruction in return for an open trading relationship with major western economies, including the US and EU. But far from a win-win scenario, Libya soon became frustrated due to a lack of genuine economic opportunities in a post-WMD age whilst in 2011, NATO invaded and destroyed Libya, thus turning what was once Africa’s most prosperous nation into a perpetually failed state. And yet, the scenario facing the DPRK could not be more different from that which tragically befell Libya in 2011.
First of all, unlike Libya which was betrayed by its traditional ally in Moscow and found itself unable to defend itself against NATO in 2011, the DPRK’s partnership with both China and Russia acts as a perennial insurance policy against the US doing to the DPRK, that which NATO did to Libya. Even if the positive friendship currently enjoyed between Pyongyang and Beijing, as well as that being Pyongyang and Moscow were to fall apart, neither China nor Russia want a war on their doorstep, as Donald Trump himself just acknowledged.
President Xi of China has been very helpful in his support of my meeting with Kim Jong Un. The last thing China wants are large scale nuclear weapons right next door. Sanctions placed on the border by China and Russia have been very helpful. Great relationship with Chairman Kim!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 24, 2019
Of course, the subtext to Trump’s statement is that even without the peace process, China and Russia would be able to deter a war in Korea, even though ideally, China and Russia both want to eliminate the conditions that could lead to future threats of war. This is in fact the very reason why both China and Russia support the current peace process.
The second element making a Libya scenario unlikely is that the US itself actually wants the DPRK to succeed economically on a post-nuclear Korean peninsula. Last year, geopolitical expert Andrew Korybko wrote the following regarding why Washington wants Kim Jong-un to prosper as opposed to sleepwalk into “regime change”:
“The US has more to gain in a grand strategic sense by protecting North Korea and doing good on its pledge to develop it into a ‘First World’ state (taking advantage of its citizens’ low wages, the country’s rare earth mineral wealth, and its location between China and South Korea) than to turn it into a failed state like it did to Libya. China is strong enough to protect itself from a prospective North Korean collapse, which would mostly harm South Korea and possibly even Japan if it led to Pyongyang lobbying a few nuclear missiles at their capitals out of last-minute desperation prior to being destroyed, but China would have a comparatively more difficult time confronting would be the emergence of a credible alternative to OBOR, namely if North Korea was held up as the model of how beneficial it could be it other countries joined the New Washington Consensus. With one-time anti-American Kim as its literal poster boy, the soft power appeal would be tremendous”.
In this sense, Kim’s biggest long term challenge is balancing close post-nuclear economic relations with China on the one hand and close post-nuclear economic relations with the US on the other. This is not an easy position to be in per se, but it is certainly preferable to that currently faced by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Seeing as how South Korea’s President Moon is doing an incredibly good job of balancing his country’s traditional relationship with the US on the one hand and rapidly accelerating economic and even political ties with Beijing on the other, Kim may well be able to pull off such a “multipolar miracle”, not least because he has already proved himself to be an astute diplomat, thus defying previous negative stereotypes about his rule that were mostly based on wild speculation in the first place. Furthermore, comparisons between an economically open Vietnam and a would-be economically open DPRK are not helpful, because South Korea itself arguably has better transparent win-win relations with China in the 21st century than does Vietnam. Thus, the idea that the DPRK would somehow have worse relations with China than South Korea in a post-nuclear age, is simply laughable from any perspective.
And thus one arrives at Venezuela, a country that may well be pushed into a hot conflict because of US meddling that is escalating at the very moment that Donald Trump is preparing to depart for Hanoi where he will hold his second ever face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un. It is undoubtedly hypocritical for the US to meddle in the internal affairs of Venezuela whilst attempting to secure a long overdue peace with the DPRK, but the fact of the matter is that this is exactly what is happening.
As such, it has become popular to state that Kim Jong-un will inherently distrust the US because of its lawless, reckless and disturbing actions taken against Venezuela. And yet, to imply that Kim would reach such a conclusion is to imply that Kim Jong-un is as stupid as the average social media conspiracy theorist.
First of all, Kim is well aware of his Chinese and Russian nuclear insurance policy. Secondly, Kim’s warm personal relationship with Donald Trump helps to demonstrate that Kim is also well aware of the reality that Andrew Kroybko wrote about last year. To put it bluntly – if Kim did not think that his economy would improve due to the peace process, he would have little incentive to pursue relations with the US as much as he already has. Finally, Kim Jong-un, like Xi Jinping, will be fully aware that whilst China and the Soviet Union prevented the US from controlling all of Korea and ultimately worked with the North Vietnamese to secure a devastating loss for US and South Vietnamese forces – during this same period in history, the US could do and did do whatever it wanted to do in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the lone exception of Cuba. Even in the aftermath of the late Cold War conflict in Nicaragua, the Soviet backed Daniel Ortega lost the 1990 presidential election, thus cementing the failure of Moscow’s long distance backing of the Sandinistas.
In this sense, while the DPRK’s geography and history indicates that even if the peace process were to somehow fail (a very unlikely event), the DPRK still would not be subjected to US led regime change. By contrast, the history and geography of Venezuela indicates that barring some last minute political compromise, the US may ultimately get what it desires as it has time and again in Latin America – whether before the Cold War, during the Cold War or after the Cold War.
The DPRK is on record condemning the US approach to Venezuela, but if China and Russia can’t do anything to actively stop the US in Venezuela, the DPRK can’t either. Kim knows this and that is why he is operating on the principle of ‘Korea first’. Because of this, the Hanoi conference will not be impacted by the ongoing events in Venezuela in any way.