Editor's Note

Jihwan Hwang, a professor at the University of Seoul, predicts that the strengthening alliance between North Korea, China, and Russia could enable North Korea to overcome its international isolation, weakening the influence of the US-South Korea alliance and increasing China’s leverage over the Korean Peninsula. Dr. Hwang points out that even without the establishment of a new Cold War order, the strengthened cooperation among the authoritarian regimes will pose a significant strategic challenge to South Korea. As Seoul’s approach to Pyongyang has been based on a unipolar system led by Washington, Dr. Hwang highlights the need for South Korea to explore new approaches to address the changing security environment.

The Korean Peninsula has never been out of the Cold War order even after the end of the global Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. However, is the Korean Peninsula now facing a new Cold War? In fact, North Korea has recently recognized the introduction of the new Cold War order in international relations. Kim Jong Un noted in his 2021 policy speech that the current international situation is mainly characterized by a more complicated structure as it has been reduced to the ‘New Cold War’ due to the U.S. unilateral and prejudiced bloc-forming external policy. He also reported at the Plenary Meeting of the DPRK Workers’ Party in December 2022 that the structure of international relations has apparently shifted to the ‘New Cold War’ system and a push for multipolarity is further expedited.


Of course, Kim Jong Un’s perception of the new world order reflects the U.S.-China strategic rivalry and the changed international situation since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. He seems to believe that changes in world order will also change the security environment on the Korean Peninsula, in particular, in favor of North Korea. As a US-led unipolar world changes into a multipolar world, the power structure surrounding the Korean peninsula changes significantly. North Korea is determined to respond to this changed international relations in a very proactive way. Kim gave an order that the foreign affairs field should study the present U.S. policy toward North Korea, the prospects of the U.S. political situation, and the ever-changing international balance of power and provide tactical measures for implementing its strategic policy toward the United States. In this sense, North Korea has been striving to strengthen relations with China and Russia. North Korea has actively supported China amid various U.S.-China conflicts and has strongly defended Russia's invasion of Ukraine, arguing that the root cause of the Ukraine crisis lies in the hegemonic strategy of the U.S. and the West.


It is not yet clear whether the new Cold War order will be fixed in the future, but the changing world order seems to pose a greater challenge to South Korea. Given the balance of power shift from the U.S.-led unipolarity to the bipolar or multipolar system among great powers, it is necessary to think about the changing security environment in the region. In this vein, South Korea may need to examine the meaning of the new Cold War for the Korean Peninsula, especially with regard to the North Korean issue. In reality, the recurring conflicts between the U.S. and China have presented South Korea with a complex and difficult challenge in dealing with North Korea, although South Korea still intends to sustain its cooperative relations with China. Most of all, South Korea's approach toward North Korea has so far been based on the post-Cold War regional security framework, which is based on the U.S. unipolarity. While North Korea lost its two Cold War patrons, the Soviet Union and China in the early 1990s and was isolated and surrounded by an unfavorable security environment, South Korea has made good use of this favorable security environment and pursued a strong and determined policy toward North Korea.


Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, every South Korean government has sought to persuade Pyongyang to change the nature of its regime by either engaging or punishing it. The Nordpolitik under the Rho Tae-woo government was the first active effort to bring about the collapse of the Cold War order on the Korean Peninsula and to resolve the issues of divided Korea. The Kim Young-sam government had driven North Korea into a corner, hoping to see the collapse of the regime and reunify the two Koreas under South Korean leadership, especially after Kim Il-sung's death in 1994. The Kim Dae-jung, Rho Moo-hyun, and Moon Jae-in governments engaged North Korea and intended to change the nature of the regime through a South Korean initiative. The Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye governments also pursued a tough and determined North Korean policy supported by a strong US-ROK alliance and sought to force the North Korean regime to accept international norms and change its course of action. On the other hand, North Korean leaders have recognized since the late 1980s that as the global Cold War was over, the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula was moving against North Korea. Kim Il-sung reassessed North Korea's security environment in the process of the Soviet collapse and China's shift. North Korea started developing its nuclear and missile program and made a desperate effort to get out of its unfavorable security framework.


Since then, North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests and declared that it is now a nuclear weapon state. In order to respond to the North Korean threats, South Korea is committed to ensuring close security cooperation with the United States. For this purpose, South Korea is determined to strengthen the US-ROK alliance by holding joint military exercises and reinforcing the U.S. extended deterrence. Recently, the South Korean government is actively participating in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, strongly supporting U.S.-led rules-based international order and advancing freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values as a ‘Global Pivotal State.’ However, it is not an easy task in a Cold War situation.


U.S.-China friendship is best for South Korea, but what would happen if the Cold War order returns in international relations as Kim Jong Un expects? The impact of the new Cold War on the Korean Peninsula is already emerging. For the past few years, the UN Security Council has been divided over how to deal with North Korean military provocations. North Korea’s ballistic missile launches are illegal and violate several UN Security Council Resolutions, but China and Russia have recently vetoed additional sanctions on North Korea. They had voted for several Resolutions until 2017 to put pressure on North Korea for its nuclear and missile tests, but they have recently begun to oppose it. They have rather argued that more sanctions would not help North Korea change its behaviors and that sanctions already in place should be lifted or eased. The United States, Russia, and China have been and will be arguing over in the UN Security Council who was to blame for the North Korean military provocations and nuclear and missile programs. Russia and China have blamed the US-ROK alliance and its joint military exercises for heightening tensions on the Korean Peninsula and provoking North Korea. There is great concern over the division that prevents the international community from acting against North Korea’s military provocations.


The problem is that as the new Cold War tension intensifies, the North Korean issue can no longer be seen from the post-Cold War framework. If the regional order around the Korean Peninsula is placed in a Cold War rivalry again with the United States, Japan, and South Korea on the one side, and China, Russia, and North Korea on the other side, North Korea is not an isolated nation any longer. It is now a nation strongly dependent on and supported by Russia and China. Of course, Russia nor China neither perceive North Korea as they did before nor are seen North Korea as an ever-reliable patron. However, Russia and China will keep taking advantage of the North Korean issues strategically in dealing with the United States. North Korea understands its position well and will seek to maneuver for its strategic advantage. What embarrasses South Korea the most is that there is no effective leverage for changing North Korean behavior. The US-ROK alliance may deter North Korea from provoking a military conflict but may find it difficult to change its course of action. If the Cold War situation intensifies in the future, North Korean dependence on China and Russia will get bigger. In particular, if the Chinese influence on North Korea grows, its influence on the whole Korean Peninsula will also grow. South Korea needs to come up with a new idea of how to respond to the emerging Cold War situation.



Jihwan Hwang is a Professor in the Department of International Relations at the University of Seoul. Dr. Hwang’s research interests include diplomatic policy and relationship between South and North Korea. He has published articles including “The Paradox of South Korea’s Unification Diplomacy: Moving beyond a State-Centric Approach”, “The Two Koreas after U.S. Unipolarity: In Search of a New North Korea Policy,” “The Political Implications of American Military Policy in Korea: Learning from Theoretical and Empirical Evidences” and so on. He received a B.A. in Diplomacy from Seoul National University and his M.A. in Political Science from Seoul National University and University of Colorado. He received a Ph.D. in Political Science from University of Colorado.



Typeset by Junghoo Park, Research Associate
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