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Estonia’s Take on North Korea

By Mark Tokola

Similar to the U.S. “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service has published its 2018 report, “International Security and Estonia.”  It is an estimable report because, as Bloomberg reports, the Estonians have rich insights on Russia.  The report also has an interesting perspective on North Korea, to which it devotes a chapter, “North Korea’s Weapons Program Continues.”  Within the introduction is this explanation, “In spite of the fact that the Korean Peninsula is geographically far from us, increased tensions in that region also impact our security.  We are therefore keeping a close eye on the situation…”

On Russia, Estonia’s predominant interest, the report states: “Regarding intervention in the North Korean crisis, Russia’s ambition is clear: to become an internationally recognized global actor, and to undermine the role of the U.S at the same time.  Russia is exploiting the conflict to spread a narrative that the U.S. is principally to blame in the North Korea question.  Russia volunteers itself as a ‘peace dove’ which prefers diplomatic channels and could possibly broker talks.”

The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service believes that China has increased economic pressure on North Korea and has implemented UN sanctions, but also believes that China will not push North Korea to the brink, “as it fears regime collapse, war and refugee flows.  China is probably not prepared to completely cut off North Korea economically before the U.S. is prepared to hold talks or the U.S. and China have a joint future plan for North Korea if the regime should indeed crumble.”  The report states that “security considerations” have led Beijing to adopt an increasingly critical position towards Pyongyang, because North Korea’s actions are strengthening relations among the U.S., Japan and South Korea – a development that China “does not view favorably.”  The Estonian report says that China also fears that secondary sanctions imposed on China by the U.S. could hurt China’s integration into the international financial and economic system, something it seeks.

Regarding North Korea itself, the reports judges that “For Kim, the development of the weapons systems takes top priority and it will continue in 2018, especially now that he is closer to achieving his goal.”  “It is possible that Kim is satisfied with the current state of the nuclear program and will henceforth put more emphasis on improving its missile (in particular re-entry) technology.  This will require further tests that will in turn increase the chance of something going wrong.”  The Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service is skeptical that sanctions will force Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program in the near future, but believes they are effective enough that North Korean is being forced to find alternative sources of hard currency.  They predict that North Korean cyberattacks with economic motives may increase.  Estonia is a world leader on cyber issues and includes North Korean ransomware as a significant threat along with Russian cyber-espionage and Chinese industrial cyber-espionage.  The report also flags the possibility of North Korea selling weapons technology to terrorist groups.

Again reflecting Estonia’s emphasis on understanding Russia, another chapter of the report is titled “The FIFA World Cup in Russia – Putin’s PR Project.”  The report describes Russian preparations for the World Cup as being marred by incidents of corruption and other scandals.  The so-called ‘super-stadium’ in St. Petersburg in particular is structurally flawed, potentially unsafe, and six times over budget.  The nexus with North Korea is that, “In spring 2017, the international media reported on the difficult working and living conditions faced by the foreign workforce – mainly from North Korea – used for construction of the St. Petersburg stadium…the football federations in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland [have] raised the issue with FIFA.”

The U.S. and South Korean effort to exert maximum pressure on North Korea will be aided by third countries’ understanding of the situation on the peninsula.  The Estonian report concludes its chapter on North Korea with, “The increase in tensions on the Korean Peninsula in particular and in Asia in general require the full attention of Europe.”

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Jonathan’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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