Korean Peninsula and East Asia
North East Asia is a region characterized by the presence of three of the most dynamic world economies: China, Japan and South Korea. It therefore constitutes a natural crossroads of cultures and traditions, which today is characterized by the extraordinary ability to technological innovation and global business. Even the most important tactical player in today’s geopolitics, Russia, faces that area with its eastern offshoots.
Furthermore, the American presence in the region has been strong since the first postwar period: it can be said that Japan and South Korea represent the extreme limits of the sphere of influence of the United States, of which they are historical partners.
The intersection of deeply opposed actors in their geopolitical interests makes this area, one of the most militarized on the entire planet and historically full of tensions, a highly critical point in the world chessboard, and precisely within this context, the small North Korea is to represent today an element of grave concern for the entire international community.
Each of these actors pursues objectives that are not limited to the control of the region but are attributable to their global strategies: if you cannot say that here you play the battle for control of the world, It is, however, a fact that the confrontation around the Korean peninsula has a clear impact on the world’s economic and geopolitical balances, certainly much more than is the case in Eastern Europe and the Middle East itself.
To sum up further, it could be said that the real geopolitical confrontation taking place in North-East Asia is that between China and the United States, and in this context the complicated and difficult situation of the Korean peninsula should be placed, around which is articulated the threat of a nuclear conflict from the potential catastrophic consequences.
If we wanted to express ourselves in sports terms, we could talk about a six-player match: China, Russia and North Korea on the one hand, South Korea, Japan and the USA on the other.
China represents the economic, political and military pivot of the region. The strategy implemented by Beijing to control the East and South China Sea is certainly a priority in the context of what appears to be a clear expansionist plan of a neo-imperial type. It is well represented by the annexation (illegitimate under international law) of small uninhabited islands belonging to other states and by the creation of artificial islands: these outposts are transformed into tactically fundamental military bases for the control of the very important commercial traffic and immense natural resources contained in the maritime subsoil. The American presence in the region, through alliances with South Korea and Japan, has always been, and today in particular, an obstacle to China’s absolute dominance in the strategic quadrant of the Far East. Therefore, the prospect of a retreat of the American sphere of influence is a priority objective for Beijing. North Korea, wanted and created as a buffer state against the Western presence and always supported economically, politically and technologically first by Russia, then by China, today becomes a fundamental interlocutor for the geopolitical game of the Beijing government, for which it constitutes, at the same time, a source of serious concern. On the one hand, Kim Jong-un’s aggression represents, in the eyes of the world, an unprecedented risk, and China cannot afford to appear conniving with it; on the other hand, a possible conflict in the Korean peninsula could produce a flow of millions of refugees that would not be sustainable even for a giant like the Chinese one. In this sense, Beijing is trying to balance its approach with the Korean peninsula, maintaining constant pressure to push Pyongyang to abide by international rules, but at the same time condemning South Korea for strengthening its defences, in particular the new anti-missile installations. It is indisputable that Chinese support for North Korea has diminished over time and that today Beijing’s priority is stabilization on the Korean peninsula: it remains to be seen whether China will become a real partner of the international community in limiting North Korean aggression. The recently held stance on sanctions at the United Nations, where, together with Russia, Beijing has worked to minimize their impact, does not suggest a real and strong commitment against the Kim Jong-un regime. Nor does the thorny issue of respect for human rights in North Korea appear to be an element that China itself can use seriously against Pyongyang.
The weakening of relations with China created the conditions for North Korea to strengthen bilateral relations with Russia, which, little by little, increased its contacts with Pyongyang, while not formally opposing the United Nations sanctions. However, the limitation imposed on the sanctions themselves shows that Moscow’s role is not equidistant, but that its current interest is to demonstrate, even in this region, that it is an essential centre of influence in the equilibrium of a world that is being increasingly characterised for its multipolar nature. In the region, Russia has never resolved the dispute with Japan over the ownership of the Kuril Islands, disputed between the two countries for over 60 years.
Despite the progressive isolation to which it has been subjected from the international community, North Korea continues to pose a serious risk to regional and global security. The acceleration imposed by Kim Jong-un on its programs has produced a series of disturbing nuclear experiments and missile tests, with launches that flew over Japanese skies several times and with threats directed at the American presence on the island of Guam. The success of the tests gave North Korea a further push in the direction of its own nuclearization. Added to this is a growing capacity in the IT industry that has increased the potential for cyber-attacks, giving Kim an added advantage in terms of asymmetric conflict.
On the one hand, its historic partnership with the United States continues to maintain peace and stability in the peninsula. On the one hand, Seoul has significantly increased its conventional defence systems while activating an agreement to develop the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) anti-missile defence system. This decision was severely criticized by China. South Korea represents a very solid economy and an actor strongly committed to multilateral efforts to maintain stability in the region, also essential in the interest of its nature as a country strongly linked to exports.
It is taking concrete steps to play a more active role in regional security, both by actively participating in collective defence systems, and by engaging in multilateral efforts aimed at containing the North Korean threat. The still problematic relationship with South Korea prevents an improvement in bilateral relations, which would represent a clear strengthening of the axis linked to the US presence. Progress has recently been made, at least at the defence systems level, to strengthen trilateral Japan – United States – South Korea cooperation, which could reduce the relationship gap that still exists between the two American allies. Japan’s main problem is its Constitution which, in Article 9, provides for neutrality. In recent years, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to push for a broad interpretation of the same article, which would allow not only passive defence, as currently envisaged, but also intended defence in terms of prevention. This would have allowed their country to carry out military operations even outside the national territory and, at the same time, pushing for an increase in investments in the defence field. The majority of the Japanese population, however, has always been against this approach, preferring classical neutrality. The recent launches of North Korean missiles, which have flown over – not surprisingly – Japan, are however changing the orientation of public opinion, frightened by the hypothesis of a nuclear attack. The recent victory of Abe himself in the political elections, which gave him a very large majority in Parliament, today gives the prime minister the opportunity to proceed with a revision of the Constitution that eliminates the neutrality clause, and this hypothesis appears closer precisely because of the progressive change in popular orientation. If such a revision were to take place, it would obviously involve a massive rearmament operation of the country, with a foreseeable further increase in tensions in the region and the concerns of the entire international community.
The North American presence in the Far East is by now strongly rooted in South Korea, where American contingents are installed that amount to a few tens of thousands of soldiers with related advanced weapons systems, while the US military fleet has been garrisoning the waters of the Eastern seas for decades. This constitutes the outpost in the Pacific of the USA, which has always been concerned about a front which, although geographically distant, has never had further bearings compared to Russia and which today sees the new Chinese superpower appear, now risen to second place in the world also in military terms. Therefore, it does not currently appear realistic to hypothesize a disengagement from the region by the American giant which, on the contrary, has demonstrated with the Obama presidency, that it wants to concentrate more resources in defence of the peaceful front, even at the expense of an evident and controversial retreat from other historically manned areas, such as the Middle East. If anything, the real challenge for the United States appears to be to consolidate a difficult trilateral axis with Japan and South Korea, which have so far maintained a distance between them, despite the common alliance with the USA.
The two Koreas
The comparison with South Korea in terms of economic development appears merciless. The following two tables, taken from data provided by the United Nations Command in South Korea, clearly reveal the distances that separate two physically neighbouring worlds but have always been bitter adversaries.
The first table shows the data relating to the main economic indicators. The second instead compares, for the two countries, data from 1970 with those of 2015, highlighting how, in the face of a substantially very similar starting situation, in 45 years an insurmountable ditch has been dug, not only from a diplomatic point of view. but in terms of real living standards, with non-comparable growth rates between the two realities.
|Parameter||North Korea||South Korea|
|Population||25 Millions||50 Millions|
|GDP / Position in the world||USA Dollars||17 billions / 113°||1.400 billions / 11°|
|Annual GDP per capita||USA Dollars||642||27.397|
|Annual production of motor vehicles||4.000||4,55 millions / 5° in the world|
|Annual production of ships||Tons||60.000||23 millions /2° in the world|
|Annual production of televisions||100.000||80 millions / 1° in the world|
|Annual production of smartphones||Not registrable||377 millions / 1° in the world|
|Annual Import||USA Dollars||3,6 billions||436 billions|
|Annual Export||USA Dollars||2,7 billions||527 billions|
|Smartphones diffusion||% population||Not registrable||88 / 1° in the world|
|Internet speed||Not registrable||1° in the world|
|Licenses||Not registrable||1° in the world compared with GDP|
|Energy consumption||Kwh||15 billions||495 billions|
|Higher education||Not registrable||1° in the world|
|Parameter||North Korea||South Korea|
|Population – Billions||14||25||+79%||31||51||+62%|
|Life expectancy – Years||57||70,4||+23%||62||82,4||+32%|
|GDP – Billions of USA Dollars||5||17||+240%||82||1.400||+1.600%|
|Annual GDP per capita – USA Dollars||384||842||+67%||253||27.100||+10.600%|
|Production of motor vehicles||9.000||3.500||-61%||29.000||4.500.000||+15.600%|
|Production of ships- Tons||3.500||60.000||+257%||38.000||20.000.000||+51.000%|
|Roads – Km||20.000||26.000||+31%||40.000||107.000||+167%|
|Undergrounds – Km||12||34||+183%||8||642||+8.140%|
|Import – Billions of USA Dollars||0,4||3,6||+800%||2||436||+21.700%|
|Export – Billions of USA Dollars||0,3||2,7||+800%||0,8||527||+65.750%|
In particular, a very significant fact can be noted, namely the non-existence of infrastructure investments in North Korea.
However, despite the abysmal differences, the economic and social situation in North Korea is not as dire as it may appear and how often it is portrayed. The second table does not show a fundamental fact in terms of North Korea’s economic evolution, namely that the Korean economy’s record low was reached at the end of the 1990s, and that growth in the last 15 years has been more marked compared to previous decades which had even seen situations of further recession. Today, growth in North Korea is estimated at around 3-4%.
Furthermore, Kim Jong-un has started, since his seizure of power, a strategy of support for the population, with investments in welfare policies. It has also activated a path of opening the economic system also to private investments, starting to orient North Korea towards a – still very modest – liberalization, which has allowed a substantial improvement in the standard of living of citizens compared to a few years ago. The internal market basically works and jobs are guaranteed for everyone. All this is positively perceived by the population, especially in Pyongyang (in the countryside the situation is much more backward) and seems to constitute an element of stability for the regime. In the same way, openings have been made regarding the issue of access to information: today, young North Koreans know the films, artists, music of South Korea, and access (with limitations) the internet.
This situation, for the moment, has not yet given rise to phenomena of contestation by the regime: it is possible that, in the space of a few years, if these openings continue, changes can be produced on a social level. By some observers, this approach is defined as a new moderate populism, which allows the regime to keep popular consensus and the social situation firmly in check. With two elements of attention, however, whose impact will have to be verified over time. The first is linked to the fact that the State has begun to tax citizens, initiating a transformation whose consequences on public opinion are currently unpredictable: it is presumable, however, that the transition from a model that sees the State providing for everything to a system increasingly based on the responsibility of the individual cannot be, over time, without consequences. The second critical element is the aforementioned lack of investment in infrastructure which, if the trend is not reversed, will make the comparison in terms of development with the rest of the region less and less sustainable.
The theme of consent introduces another consideration. It is still not clear to observers what Kim Jong-un’s real purpose is in his tactics of continually increasing pressure on the issue of nuclear weapons. In fact, it could be a strategy of maintaining and consolidating one’s own leadership and that of one’s family, or an authentic plan of cultural unification of the people under the banner of nuclear power. Both of these hypotheses obviously have a common denominator: the management of popular consensus through the reference to the identity strength of a nation that has always considered itself self-determined and that has made its ideological banner of this isolation for 60 years.
On the level of internal equilibrium in North Korea, some specialists observe that the key to reading the North Korean system is in the group of families who, with the creation of anti-Japanese guerrilla battalions, created the country and who have always held it firmly under control. The members of these families attend the same schools and create a real oligarchy. It is observed how Kim Jong-un seems not to have been part of this “tour”, having studied abroad.
It is clear that the tactic of continuous escalation of tension is also intended to strengthen the positioning of North Korea in the negotiations with its neighbours – China and Russia -, in particular with China, which has always wanted and favoured the existence of the buffer state and has always provided economic, technological and operational support. It is very evident that Kim Jong-un has China itself as its first interlocutor, with which North Korea has 90% of its trade, and that it prefers to maintain the buffer state and the current regime rather than its own ” normalization”, even if the impression is that the “toy” has gotten a bit out of hand.
Pyongyang’s ideology has always been based on an ultra-nationalism that translates into an ambition for self-sufficiency and which has led to an authentic autarchy, which is also typical of many totalitarian systems. In this context, it is worth noting that, currently, there is emigration from North Korea of a thousand people a year, an absolutely physiological figure and indicative of the fact that, despite the enormous development gap compared to neighbouring countries, the autarchic model and the iron control of the regime continue to hold.
From a military point of view, North Korea has the fourth largest army in the world, with one million soldiers, 70% of which are deployed and operational. Aviation can count on 1,300 aircraft, again with a high percentage of operational forces, over 50%. The navy, in addition to a not too large coastal fleet, has, conversely, a significant supply of submarines, almost certainly with nuclear capabilities, even if of old construction and technology. The special forces are well equipped and perfectly trained. The North Korean armed forces’ endowment of vehicles and equipment is enormous, even if, for the most part, of old design, mostly Soviet-made. The amount of North Korea’s operational military forces is estimated to be the largest in the world today.
In terms of nuclear risk, the range of North Korean ICBMs has also raised concerns in European public opinion. Apart from the simple consideration that we have much closer to us nuclear sites of a very different range, qualitative and quantitative (just think of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, a few hundred kilometres from important European capitals) that should worry us much more, the possibility of a missile launch by North Korea towards Europe appears remote. If only for the fact that they would have to fly over the whole of Russia, which it would certainly not stand by. Moreover, Kim Jong-un is launching all his demonstration missiles towards the east, making them fly over Japan, for clearly intimidating purposes, or aiming to demonstrate the possibility of destroying American bases on the island of Guam. The fact remains that a possible, albeit very unlikely, launch to the west would put a strain on the current European anti-missile systems, calibrated for other types of attacks, thus representing a real risk.
In addition, Pyongyang has developed considerable capabilities in terms of hybrid warfare: in addition to the deadly combination of nuclear potential (albeit quantitatively limited) and the availability of ballistic missiles, it has significant reserves of chemical weapons and has recently demonstrated its ability to conduct cyber-attacks in an effective way, especially against South Korean networks, as well as being able to count on a solid and tested propaganda system, which today tends to spread even outside the country.
These are the typical ingredients of asymmetrical conflicts, which, combined with an efficient system of special forces, considerably increases the danger of the North Korean regime. A system that can be defined as understandable in its strategies but tactically increasingly unpredictable, precisely because of its ability to adapt to new scenarios. These considerations are certainly not secondary in explaining Kim Jong-un’s increasingly aggressive and bold attitude, aware of the fact that the major players in the region – China in particular – are basically interested in maintaining the status quo. Therefore, they are interested also in the buffer role that its country represents. Furthermore, the idea that Kim is just a madman must certainly be revised: he appears more like a lucid calculator, tactically very skilled and unscrupulous: characteristics, given the right proportions, not unlike those of Putin.
In Seoul, life is apparently quiet, and this might seem a contradiction at such a delicate moment: in reality, South Koreans have been used to living with the constant threat coming to them from the north for over 60 years, and this explains the fact that daily behaviours are not greatly influenced by what happens beyond the border, also this partly justifies the poor reactivity of the South Korean stock exchange with respect to missile launches and nuclear tests in Pyongyang. The stock market, in fact, has so far proved substantially stable despite the growing tensions linked to the threats from Kim Jong-un.
However, public opinion is concerned about Pyongyang’s escalation and is largely in favour of a substantial increase in investment in the defence sector. The current South Korean defence spending is 2 percent of GDP and President Moon has set himself the goal of gradually reaching 2.6-2.9%. This perspective is shared by both the majority parties and the opposition, and already in 2018 there will be an increase in military spending of 6.9% compared to the previous year.
The real debate is on the type of armaments to be adopted by South Korea: in fact, a part of public opinion would like the adoption of nuclear weapons, in order to be able to respond adequately to the North Korean regime in terms of deterrence. Others, alternatively, would like to see the United States deploy tactical nuclear weapons again. The government, on the contrary, makes a very pragmatic reasoning: South Korean economy is strongly based on exports and the adoption of nuclear weapons would entail a sanctioning regime by the international community that would risk having disastrous consequences on the country’s production system. Therefore, it is preferred to foresee a strong investment in conventional defence instruments, the power of which would, in any case, be able to represent an adequate deterrent for Pyongyang. South Korea remains a non-nuclear country and continues to work for the denuclearization of the entire peninsula. The key factor of this strategy is the historic and very close alliance with the United States, considered mutually indisputable and very solid: South Koreans define it as the strongest and most powerful alliance the world has ever known, and it sets itself the goal of preserve peace and freedom. The presence in South Korea of a few tens of thousands of American soldiers therefore constitutes a fundamental element of reassurance for the population.
It is therefore understandable that South Koreans are very concerned about the approach that President Trump has given to his foreign policy: the motto “America first” is considered the prelude to a possible American disengagement, a prospect considered incompatible with security and stability of the country. Already the request by Trump himself for greater South Korean economic commitment sounds like a warning in this direction.
Added to this is the reactivity with which the American President responds to the provocations of Kim Jong-un: messages such as “we will crush you like ants” are very negative for the oriental mentality, used to phrases much less direct and offensive, even in the opposition policy. In the perception of the South Korean population, these repeated attitudes risk fuelling tensions and justifying Pyongyang’s increasingly aggressive counter-reactions. A positive element is the evidence that the US Congress and the Secretaries of State are, in fact, limiting Trump’s exuberance in favour of a more traditional and realistic approach.
A further fear, perhaps the most significant on a political level, is that the new American administration’s foreign policy approach may favour bilateral US / North Korea solutions, leaving the major regional players off the negotiating table: China and Russia from one side, South Korea and Japan on the other. This hypothesis would actually be very convenient for China and, probably, also for Russia, because it would have the effect of weakening the Western presence in the region: Seoul considers a hypothesis of this kind to be disastrous, as it is clear that no country alone can solve problems and that no bilateral approach can lead to stable and reasonable solutions. This change of course in American politics also risks fuelling the nationalistic impulses, always present and strong in the region, and the anti-American spirit, weakening the traditional US / South Korea and US / Japan axes.
The position of the government of Seoul with respect to the threats coming from the north is based on some cornerstones that appear very solid today:
- the current situation is the child of 25 years of nuclear ambitions on the part of North Korea;
- South Korea’s strategic objective is instead the denuclearization of the entire peninsula, which is still considered possible, even if not realistic in the short term;
- Conflict must be avoided at all costs; military solutions are not realistic options. In this regard, the international community must increase its capacity for political pressure on Pyongyang to arrive at stable solutions through diplomatic channels. Sanctions, although imperfect and probably ineffective, remain the main practical means of lobbying. However, the sanctions recently decided by the United Nations Security Council, much softened at the Chinese request, appear too bland and therefore inadequate;
- it is necessary to raise the level of deterrence against Pyongyang, and the forecast of a constant increase in defence spending goes in this direction. The axis with the United States cannot be weakened, on the contrary, it must be further consolidated, and Western support must be more concrete and visible.
For some months it could be felt that something in the relationship between the two Koreas could happen in a short time, even if it was certainly more about feelings than certainties. The escalation of aggressive attitudes by Kim Jong-un and the increasingly determined responses of the American administration increased the tensions and concerns of the South Korean population, suggesting, or at least hoping, that some intervention aimed at relieving, even psychologically, could be envisaged the pressure on South Korea and on the whole world public opinion, legitimately terrorized by the hypothesis of a nuclear war.
The winter Olympics in PyeongChang were the occasion for relaxing gestures between the two sides. The presence of Kim’s sister, the exchange of greetings with President Moon, the statements that followed and the nervousness of the United States should not be underestimated.
These facts, if read carefully, reinforce the hypothesis of a skillful direction orchestrated by Beijing – probably with Russia in the guise of an interested spectator – precisely in the perspective, on which we have insisted, of another type of interest, namely the removal of the US and its sphere of influence from the region. In fact, a progressive and peaceful bilateral solution to the conflict would greatly reduce the need for an American presence on the Korean peninsula and, with it, in the entire strategic quadrant of Northeast Asia, to the point of making it useless, if not harmful. This hypothesis could be precisely the spring that pushes China today to intervene in favor of a pacification on the Korean peninsula, in the hope that Washington is, in the end, forced to give a free hand to Beijing’s hegemonic aims on the East and South China Sea. With the corollary, not secondary, of a huge return of image for China itself, which would acquire the merit of having defused the threat of a nuclear war that terrifies humanity.
It could be said that the weak and withdrawn China of a few decades ago had the need to create and maintain a buffer state to defend itself from the excessive US political, economic and military power, to the point of making North Korea a nuclear power, the only real deterrent possible for Washington. For today’s China, which by now competes on equal terms with the US, the power of Pyongyang can constitute a boomerang and justify the American stay in the region, a real stumbling block for its plan of control over the Far East. So, better defuse the threat, rather than give Trump credit. In short, today’s peace is better than an armed threat.
But since a major political-diplomatic victory by Beijing is especially risky for the US, we are witnessing today moves that once again upset the picture. They seem to be entrusted to three actors: Kim Jong-un, South Korean President Moon and Donald Trump.
The first announces the unilateral decision to suspend any missile experiment, the second fills Seoul with giant posters praising peace between the two Koreas, the third seems ready to fly to Pyongyang, the first American president in history to make a similar gesture. China seems to be stuck in the window.
It is not easy to understand what lies behind this rapid change of scenery, in which some actors certainly have to gain, others to lose.
Kim is a very skilled tactician and if he makes this move, it means he is getting what he was looking for and maybe more. What? Certainly, the consolidation of his leadership figure within his own people, the goal that is most close to his heart; moreover, a first international legitimacy, certainly accompanied by important economic aid (it remains to be understood from whom) which will be indispensable for accelerating the growth of his country. Why is this growth critical? Because the initial attempt at modernization of the North Korean economy put in place by Kim himself, which has so far given its citizens the feeling of enormous progress after decades of poverty and marginalization, could prove to be a formidable boomerang when you really go towards a real resumption of relations between the two Koreas. This would dramatically highlight the huge development gap between the two countries, in the face of which the North Korean people could significantly change their attitude towards their leader. We must, therefore, expect from the dictator a policy of social spending and liberalization of the economy to attract investments, strategies that need a consolidated role in the geopolitical chessboard and an availability of important resources from the state.
Moon absolutely must solve the problem of the relationship with Pyongyang, perceived by South Korean citizens as an element of serious instability and as a daily threat to their security. Any move that can lead in this direction will be supported by him, not forgetting, however, that the US military presence in his country cannot be eliminated in the short term. It must also deal with the great distrust that South Korean public opinion – and not only it – has towards the dictator of Pyongyang.
Trump sees mid-term elections approaching and needs great international political success, which he has so far lacked. It will be necessary to see to what extent he can (or is allowed to) work for a solution of real pacification that could make the US stay in the Korean peninsula unjustified. This fact would leave South Koreans alone after decades and, above all, would expose Japan to be the only bulwark of Western politics in the Far East.
While Russia, at this moment, has only an interest in observing developments, given the many other fronts on which it is engaged, China continues to pursue the goal of removing the American and Western spheres of influence in the region and, in this sense, a solution that realises the conditions for a progressive US withdrawal from the peninsula can only agree.
The latest moves, therefore, seem to lend themselves to a fairly linear reading: a bilateral Kim – Trump negotiation, with the explicit blessing of Seoul and the implicit one of Beijing, seems to be an excellent investment for China itself – which could invest economic resources relevant for this purpose – and for North Korea; a good solution for South Korea, at least in the short term; a tactically fundamental goal for Trump (who hardly thinks in terms of strategy); one less headache for Putin and, in any case, an unwelcome limitation of the American sphere of influence in the Far East. Hence, a win-win solution for all these players. With all due respect to Japan, the only subject strongly concerned about the weakening of its position, which would push it even further on the path out of neutrality undertaken by Shinzo Abe for some time. Moreover, the Japanese weakening would not be at all unwelcome to the two Koreas due to the rusts that have persisted since the Second World War, and this is another element to be taken into account.
However, a much more conspiratorial and complex reading cannot be excluded.
Let’s imagine that Kim still wants to raise the price with China (and perhaps also with Russia) to obtain further benefits: he may have decided on the move of the unilateral suspension of the experiments to make it clear to Beijing that it still has the key to the problem and to Moscow that his embrace with Trump would certainly not be an advantageous element for Putin, committed to investing enormous resources in anti-American propaganda, who would be forced to acknowledge Washington’s merits. Furthermore, Kim’s leading role would obscure Moon’s mediating action in a short time, further strengthening his image in front of his people and gradually gaining the trust of South Koreans. He could also act as Tokyo’s direct interlocutor, perhaps with some reassuring moves. And a direct and bilateral relationship between North Korea and the United States could even, over time, strengthen the American presence in the region: it is presumed, in fact, that Trump may be willing to propose Kim an American aid and investment plan in North Korea, which would justify a less military presence but even stronger in economic terms right next to China. In short, Kim at this point could do the politics of the two ovens, selling himself to the highest bidder: knowing the skill and unscrupulousness of the North Korean leader, this scenario is anything but unrealistic.
In short, the confrontation between Washington and Beijing always remains in the background, which is not fought only with tariffs, but also on the delicate and complex chessboard of geopolitical influences. A chessboard on which Kim Jong-un, who started as a pawn, has at least conquered the role of the horse.