There are more discussions that a so-called new Cold War is on the way. Similar to the Soviet-led communist bloc during the Cold War era, which confronted the US-led capitalist bloc, North Korea, China and Russia could form an international bloc against the US-led one.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's recent visit to Russia drew attention because it was an opportunity to promote discussions of the new Cold War further. North Korea and Russia have mocked the UN Security Council's resolution to impose sanctions on North Korea and the international community's condemnation of Russia. North Korea strongly hinted that it would provide conventional weapons, including 155 millimeter artillery shells, to Russia, which is at war with Ukraine. Russia has half-exposed its plan to provide advanced military technologies such as submarine missile launch tubes, ballistic missile re-entry vehicles, multiple warhead missiles and hypersonic missiles, starting with the reconnaissance satellite launch vehicles needed by North Korea.
These moves of the leaders of North Korea and Russia are aimed at the US. It can be interpreted as an obvious rejection of the role of the US as manager of the international order. Therefore, it is unsurprising to see Kim Jong-un's visit to Russia and interpret that a new Cold War structure has become visible. However, the actual possibility of a new Cold War in 2023 remains very slim. Why is that?
The new Cold War runs counter to trends in human history's development. What are the major movements of human history? Two things stand out. One major movement is the steady change of the protagonist of history from nature to gods, heroic humans, some aristocrats and finally to ordinary individuals. Integrating humanity's activity into one area is also critical. It is a factor that gives us implications while predicting the structure of the world order.
The current international order is a US-led unipolar order. The world order before Pax Americana was the Cold War. The US-led capitalist camp and the Soviet-led communist camp were at odds. The order before it was the imperial era, in which more than five European great powers competed to lead a hierarchical order. The preceding period, the medieval feudal order, had more than eight independent civilizations that were difficult for each other to interfere with. There were probably hundreds of separate civilizations in the previous period, the ancient times. The prospect that the trend of historical development that humanity has passed through for thousands of years will suddenly reverse in 2023 is contrary to common sense.
China's attitude toward the North Korea-Russia summit is a factor that adds to the belief that a new Cold War will not come. More than cooperation and solidarity between North Korea and Russia is needed to form a new Cold War structure. China would have to join. To ensure peace and prosperity while being at odds with the US, it would need to have the capacity to match it. However, China has never expressed its support for being in an anti-American alliance or bloc. Considering its national interests, it would not be advantageous for China to attend an anti-American gathering. Although there are many problems, China has greater possibilities for economic development within the US-led order. Suppose the US is confronted head-on and conducts full-fledged hegemonic competition. In that case, the US would be able to defeat China, and the possibility of national defeat, not national development, would increase rapidly. An anti-American bloc, in which China does not participate, is only an expression of discontent among minorities that does not affect the entire world order.
A new Cold War structure would also be inconvenient for North Korea and Russia. Nevertheless, the two nations are trying to construct it, probably because the US-led international economic sanctions are painful. But Russia cannot withdraw its troops from Ukraine. North Korea also has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons and missiles at no cost. Since there is no other alternative in the dead end, they seem to be making effort to overcome the inconvenient situation by establishing anti-American solidarity. Ultimately, it would be more advantageous for North Korea and Russia to be incorporated into the US-led international order. Suppose North Korea and Russia's efforts to build a new Cold War structure are temporary. In that case, steps may be made to break down the new Cold War structure after the end of this uncomfortable situation. In particular, the possibility of Russia changing its attitude depending on how the war with Ukraine goes is always open.
Why do many people believe a new Cold War structure is coming when the possibility is slim? The biggest problem is that many people's worldviews remain locked in the Cold War structure. Some people who led international politics in the Cold War era viewed the Cold War structure as an extension of the multipolar system in Europe in the 18th or 19th centuries. But the world was a bipolar system then, and with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world changed into a unipolar US-led system. Even though the unipolar order has been in progress since the end of the Cold War, there is a perception that the Cold War system, or bipolar system, persists. It is an illusion from an anachronistic worldview. It is likely that those who talk about the structure of the new Cold War have such an anachronistic worldview.
Therefore, we need to be prepared to see many people discussing the coming of a new Cold War while the possibility of it actually arriving is slim. It might be disturbing because many countries might make futile efforts to handle these erroneous scenarios. However, it is one of serious diplomacy’s responsibilities to introduce accurate knowledge. In this sense, it is encouraging for the US and China to operate high-level dialogue channels steadily and explore the possibility of a summit, as such talks are evidence that a new Cold War will not come.
Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.