Geo-Economics and Politics

3 dynamics shaping the future of security on the Korean peninsula

U.S. President Joe Biden reacts as South Korea's President Moon Jae-in speaks during a joint news conference after a day of meetings at the White House, in Washington, U.S. May 21, 2021.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst - RC2NKN9QTJNQ

U.S. President Joe Biden reacts as South Korea's President Moon Jae-in speaks during a joint news conference after a day of meetings at the White House, in Washington, U.S. May 21, 2021. Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Joo-Ok Lee
Head, Regional Agenda, Asia-Pacific; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
Ariel Kastner
Lead, Geopolitical Agenda, World Economic Forum
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  • The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) recently restored communications.
  • Chatham House, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, hosted a dialogue exploring the dynamics shaping the security on the peninsula.
  • Experts discussed the peninsula's approach to international affairs, food security and politics.

The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) recently restored a communications hotline between their capitals after Pyongyang had severed the connection 14 months earlier. The restoration of this link raises some hope that strain that had intensified over the past several months can be replaced by additional steps toward dialogue. Yet, lasting, long-term security requires a more comprehensive approach that aligns stakeholders, addresses humanitarian issues, and accounts for domestic politics in key countries.

Within this complex context, Chatham House, in partnership with the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Councils on Geopolitics and the Korean Peninsula, hosted a dialogue exploring the dynamics shaping the security on the peninsula.

The discussion featured Hazel Smith, Professor at SOAS; Moon Chung-in, Chairman of the Sejong Institute, and Jean Lee, Director of the Center for Korean History and Public Policy, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. John Nilsson-Wright, Korea Foundation Korea Fellow at Chatham House, chaired the discussion, with Robin Niblett, Director and Chief Executive of Chatham House, offering opening remarks.


Will allies and adversaries align?

The ROK is looking to create a “virtuous cycle”, according to Moon Chung-in, in which Seoul deepen its already close ties with Washington and also with Pyongyang. In this way, Seoul hopes to be an axis of sorts, moving all three toward deeper engagement.

Whether this approach will be successful, Jean Lee said, is an open question as Washington looks to place the issue of security on the peninsula within wider strategic context: the US-China relationship. According to Lee, the Biden Administration is taking a “regional and global approach”, strengthening ties with traditional partners, most notably, Japan and South Korea, and also engaging with China. Members of the Biden Administration are meeting with counterparts in China at a time when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for his part has been reaching out to China and Russia to reaffirm his ties with these countries.

The key question will be whether Washington, Seoul and Tokyo can not only align among themselves but also identify common ground with Beijing and Moscow. “Trying to present a united front among the regional partners is absolutely key to bringing North Korea back into the international fold,” Lee said.

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Is food security national security?

North Korea is facing severe food shortages, according to United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, which estimates the “food gap” in the country to be around 860,000 tons—equivalent to approximately 2.3 months of food use. North Korea, Smith said, views food security as “a national security issue” because the government is facing weakening legitimacy, particularly among younger people.

Beyond the magnitude of the impact of food shortage on its population (vulnerable sectors of society, particularly the young and elderly, will likely suffer disproportionately) losing ideological control of the younger generation represents a national security threat to the regime. It is for this reason that Pyongyang has ignored recent overtures from Washington, instead focusing on its own internal challenges, feeling its nuclear program offers protection from external threats.

The underlying cause of food insecurity is the North’s policies, which has inhibited economic growth. But UN sanctions, argued Smith, particularly those imposed in 2017 targeting natural gas, trucks and machinery, have had a dire effect as well. These items are critical to agriculture, which represents a third of the North’s economy. Therefore, advancing security on the peninsula will need to account for the food crisis itself and for the national-security prism through which Pyongyang views it.

What role will politics play?

The coming year, 2022, will bring presidential elections in South Korea and midterm elections in the US, both of which may offer some additional challenge. Lee said the Biden Administration likely will have “bigger issues” to deal with, particularly on the domestic and economic fronts, in the runup to congressional elections than focusing on North Korea. All the more so, because North Korea does not represent an imminent threat to US interests.

The danger, though, is that North Korea may take provocative steps to try to reassert itself and gain attention. Moon agreed that politics could inject further challenge in that one of the few bipartisan areas of agreement in Washington is strong distaste for engaging North Korea. But Smith said that the active engagement of North Korea by the Trump Administration—specifically the former president’s meeting with Kim in Singapore in June 2018—neutralizes any criticism that Republicans could make if the Biden Administration more fully engaged Pyongyang.

On the North Korean side, Lee said, Pyongyang has been using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to more fully seal the country off. Emerging from this deepened isolation would therefore require a narrative that legitimizes its decision to do so. Otherwise, the regime would lose additional legitimacy among its population.

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