3 April 2018

What All Sides Want on the Korean Peninsula

While tensions have been very high on the Korean Peninsula for as long as anyone today has been alive, the pace of change with regards to the various disputes there appears to be gaining momentum.  On one side, North Korea is pushing ahead with its efforts to developed advanced nuclear weapons as well as missile system designed to carry these weapons to all corners of the earth.  On the other side, the United States has ramped up its pressure on North Korea, with its recent threats of military action against the country carrying much more weight than they did in the past.  These tensions have North Korea’s neighbors extremely concerned.  This is evident by the recent meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.  Furthermore, as tensions remain high, North Korea’s young leader appears likely to meet with both South Korean President Moon Jae-in and United States President Donald Trump in the coming months.  So, as events progress, what do the six main players involved with the Korean Peninsula flashpoint want with regards to the situation there?

North Korea: North Korea’s aims are rather obvious.  First and foremost, the Kim regime that has led North Korea since the Second World War will do anything to ensure that its grip on power in that country is not weakened.  This is why North Korea is desperately racing to develop long-range nuclear missile capabilities, so that it can persuade potential enemies, most notably the United States, that it could inflict terrible damage on them in the event of a military attack against North Korea.  However, while Pyongyang focuses on North Korea’s military capabilities, it cannot lose sight off the poor shape of the country’s economy.  In fact, while North Korea spends vast sums on its armed forces and its nuclear weapons program, the country’s economy is now one of the poorest in the world, with most North Korea’s barely living above the sustenance level, despite the fact that the country is located at the heart of one of the world’s most important economic centers.  Ideally, Kim Jong-un and his government would like to emulate China, while the Communists have remained in total control of the country’s political system, even while abandoning Communist economics in order to boost China’s economic well-being.  At the same time, Pyongyang knows that it is at the mercy of Beijing when it comes to the economy, and this will weigh heavily on North Korea, even as it faces the threat of military action from the United States.

South Korea: While North Korea’s government is focused on survival, South Korea’s government is focused on prosperity.  As such, Seoul simply wants peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula so that South Korea can continue to record some of the highest rates of growth of any developed economy in the world.  At the same time, no country would suffer more than South Korea should North Korea become involved in a full-scale war for survival.  Likewise, most policymakers in South Korea realize that their country is not quite ready to absorb a collapsed North Korean state, given the dire position of that country’s economy and the mental condition of its people, who have suffered under one of the world’s most brutal regimes.  Over the longer-term, South Korea’s main concern is its geographic position, as it lies between much stronger powers such as China and Japan, powers that have often exercised great control over the Korean Peninsula.  As such, as long as North Korea exists and the United States maintains a large military presence in South Korea, the country’s independence is guaranteed.

China: China’s rising economic and military power is placing that country in a position where it can reasonably foresee that it will be able to dominate much of Asia.  However, as long as the United States maintains a major presence in the region, these ambitions will be thwarted.  As long as North Korea continues with its belligerence, the United States will maintain a large presence in South Korea, reducing China’s influence there.  Worse, should North Korea suddenly collapse, China fears that US troops would then be based along the Yalu River, which currently marks border between China and North Korea.  Furthermore, China is concerned that a sudden collapse of North Korea could lead to millions of refugees from that country flooding into northeastern China.  As such, the best-case scenario for China is a quiet and peaceful collapse of North Korea, one similar to the collapse of East Germany, a development that could give China greater influence in South Korea and could lead to a reduction in the US presence there, much as has happened in Germany since the end of the Cold War.

United States: As the United States is quite distant from the Korean Peninsula, its first priority is to prevent Pyongyang from developing the capability to carry out long-range nuclear strikes on US territory, or the territory of its allies.  In addition, the US is greatly concerned about the threat of nuclear proliferation emanating from North Korea, as it was that country that helped countries such as Pakistan and Libya to develop their own nuclear programs.  While North Korea’s weapons programs are the main concern for the US, Washington is also aware that North Korean hostility helps to unite its two leading allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea, two countries that would otherwise have a very tense relationship.  Furthermore, the United States’ military presence in South Korea helps to keep Chinese ambitions on the Korean Peninsula in check, something that is becoming more important as China’s power rises and its ambitions grow.

Japan: With regards to the situation on the Korean Peninsula, Japan’s focus is also on its own security.  There is little doubt that North Korea has already developed the means of striking Japan with various types of weapons of mass destruction.  Furthermore, Japan is concerned that, should a war break out on the Korean Peninsula, it would inevitably be drawn into the conflict.  Meanwhile, should North Korea collapse, Japan’s strategic position in East Asia would change significantly.  For example, such a development would allow China to focus more of its attention on its aims in East Asia, aims that are often in conflict with Japan’s strategic goals.  As a result, Japan recognizes that, as long as North Korea poses a threat to the region, the United States will maintain a large military presence in South Korea, and the threat from Pyongyang will keep the US focused on the region, and its interests there, interests that largely coincide with those of Tokyo.

Russia: Russia’s role on the Korean Peninsula is much smaller today than it was during the time of the Soviet Union.  This is due largely to the fact that Russia’s presence in the region has diminished greatly over the past few decades, and today, Russia exercises very little military or economic power there.  Nevertheless, Russia still shares a border with North Korea, and Pyongyang views Moscow as a potential partner should China move to reduce its support for North Korea.  At the same time, Russia sees North Korea’s provocations as a useful tool in distracting the United States and China, allowing Russia to move to regain influence in other areas of the world that are more important to Moscow. 

As the situation on the Korean Peninsula becomes increasingly more fluid, two main dangers are emerging.  One is the growing threat of a military conflict there, one that could result in the large-scale use of weapons of mass destruction and the deaths of millions of people.  The other is the fact that this flashpoint brings together so many of the world’s leading political, economic and military powers, including the 21st century’s two superpowers, the United States and China.  Looking ahead, the next few months could prove to be a turning point for the Korean Peninsula.  Both the United States and China will, in their own ways, attempt to pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program.  With many high-profile meetings taking place, the possibility of a breakthrough cannot be ruled out.  However, hopes for such breakthroughs existed in the past, and each time these hopes were dashed.  As a result, while these efforts at negotiations should be encouraged, it will take more than just a few meetings to resolve what has been one of the world’s most intractable disputes.