The Korean Peninsula and Security Dynamics in East Asia
The Korean Peninsula is a theater for great power competition between U.S. and China and a recurring source of regional security anxiety in East Asia. The military and politico-economic ties between China and North Korea on the one hand and military antagonisms between U.S. and North Korea on the other lead the two great powers powers to hold contrasting views of Pyongyang while placing the Korean Peninsula security dilemma as an important factor in their respective strategies. Washington not only recognizes the existential threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program to U.S. and its allies but also sees a strategic challenge to its force projection capabilities based in South Korea and Japan.
Meanwhile, anxious about U.S. troops and military assets in South Korea, China views North Korea as a strategic buffer and supports a freeze-for-freeze approach in managing tensions in the Peninsula. Relatedly, other facets of the U.S.-China great power rivalry tend to influence their North Korea policies. For instance, Beijing suggested to lift international economic sanctions against North Korea and loosened restrictions on trading with Pyongyang after the U.S.-China Trade War gained traction.
Notwithstanding the progress made by U.S. and South Korea in engaging North Korea, Pyongyang also continues to be a security threat not only for U.S. Allies in East Asia but likewise for Southeast Asian countries that fall within the radius of its nuclear and ballistic missile reach. While the dismantlement of the Punggye-ri and Sohae facilities may indicate that North Korea shows signs of commitment to initiatives towards denuclearization, it is not a guarantee that Kim Jong-un will abandon the treasured sword given that similar actions in the past have not barred Pyongyang from reversing its policy.
This observation is supported by the fact that one of the challenges that had been encountered during the recent round of talks is North Korea’s refusal to disclose the actual size of its nuclear stockpile. In this regard, similar to China’s territorial and maritime assertiveness, the security dilemma in the Korean Peninsula will continue to enmesh Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia into a single regional security complex.
US-North Korea Policy and Alliances in East Asia
Since the early 1950s until the end of the Cold War, U.S. had sought to develop a system of bilateral alliances and security partnerships in the Asia-Pacific to prevent the spread of communism in the region. However, since the beginning of the 21st century this system has evolved to deter the rise of potential U.S. rivals, most prominently China, and promote regional stability, especially in conflict hot-spots such as the Korean Peninsula. Given China’s great power ambitions and burgeoning military capabilities and North Korea’s significant progress in developing nuclear and inter-continental ballistic missiles, now more than ever, the U.S. bilateral alliances with South Korea and Japan must remain strong and stable. In this regard, as a security issue involving the U.S and its East Asian allies, the management of the security dilemma in the Korean Peninsula becomes more crucial.
As can be observed from recent initiatives, the current U.S. North Korea policy appears to have three components: 1) maximum economic pressure against North Korea; 2) increased diplomatic engagements with Pyongyang; and 3) low key joint military activities with South Korea. Under this approach, the U.S. was able to deter North Korean ballistic missile tests; hold a successful summit with Kim Jong-un and issue a joint statement towards denuclearization; and begin diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang to operationalize its commitments. Nonetheless, while the current U.S. North Korea policy has brought Pyongyang to the negotiating table, it may be constrained by challenges surrounding U.S. alliances in East Asia. Such challenges exist on two levels: 1) U.S. bilateral relations with South Korea and Japan; and 2) trilateral policy coordination between and among U.S. and its allies.
In the case of the U.S.-South Korea Alliance, two military challenges exist. First, as regards the establishment of an enduring peace regime, South Korea appears to be in favor of declaring the end of the Korean War prior to North Korea’s denuclearization while the U.S. intends the latter to be settled first. Since an unconcluded Korean War serves as one of the premises for maintaining U.S. troops and military assets in South Korea, Washington’s preference for a denuclearization-first model is understandable from a military point of view. Next, U.S. and South Korea hold strategic beliefs that may reduce their interoperability.
On the part of U.S., President Trump believes that Seoul should increase its share in the cost of maintaining U.S. military presence in South Korea and that joint military exercises with the South Korean forces are tremendously expensive. On the other hand, President Moon Jae-in believes that South Korean defense policy should refrain from antagonizing North Korea, as can be gleaned from Seoul’s Defense Reform 2.0 project which aims to lessen tensions with Pyongyang and seeks to transfer the war operational control from the U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces Command to the South Korean forces. Given these strategic beliefs, there might be lesser push factors for closer U.S.-South Korea defense ties thereby potentially reducing the number of military exchanges and affecting the interoperability of forces.
In the case of the U.S.-Japan Alliance, one political challenge is Tokyo’s seeming isolation from the recent diplomatic initiatives of Washington to engage Pyongyang. As a country that is geostrategically threatened by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, Japan has an important stake in the future of the Korean Peninsula. However, notwithstanding Japan’s geographical propinquity to the source of threat and its previous role as part of the Six-Party Talks, the recent round of U.S.-North Korea talks seems to be muted as far as Japan’s interests are concerned (e.g., North Korea’s ballistic missile tests in 2017 and the abduction of Japanese nationals).
A related challenge is securing Japan’s support to future economic incentives that the U.S. and South Korea may be inclined to offer North Korea as part of the negotiations. In one interview, President Trump expressed that he expects Japan’s assistance in extending economic aid to North Korea. However, unless Pyongyang issues a concrete basis for a long-term moratorium on ballistic missile testing and works with Tokyo to resolve the case of abducted Japanese nationals, Japan may be less inclined to extend its support, be it in the form of energy assistance or development aid.
In addressing the Korean Peninsula security dilemma, U.S., South Korea, and Japan must also align their policies to reinforce the U.S.-led system of alliances in East Asia. Such trilateral policy coordination will need to address the following challenges. First, the allies must coordinate in determining whether the U.S. should sign a non-aggression pact with North Korea prior to its complete denuclearization. Such agreement would not only normalize U.S.-North Korea relations but also limit the diplomatic space for U.S. to justify joint military exercises to deter North Korea let alone the conduct of hostilities with Pyongyang should negotiations breakdown.
Likewise, the allies must coordinate on how they can advantageously engage China in holding diplomatic talks with North Korea and in the implementation of possible agreements on denuclearization. Given China’s great power interests in the future of the Korean Peninsula, the allies must recognize that Beijing may use its indispensable role in engaging North Korea as a political leverage to influence the behavior of its competitors in other issues such as the trade war and the East China and South China Sea disputes. Finally, the allies must also coordinate on whether denuclearization should include the removal of U.S. military assets from South Korea. In deliberating on the issue, the allies must be guided by the strategic relevance of such assets in the overall force projection capabilities of U.S. which underpins a rules-based regional order. In understanding the negative impact of any form of reduction in U.S. extended deterrence, the allies must also revisit how China became increasingly assertive in the South China Sea after the Philippines decided not to renew its Military Bases Agreement with the U.S. in 1991.
Indeed, the allies must enhance their defense policy coordination and discuss issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula security dilemma to adopt a shared approach that will maintain strategic deterrence against North Korea which continues to pose a nuclear threat to East Asia and maintain U.S. power projection in the region as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China. Accordingly, the U.S. must balance its interests with that of South Korea and Japan to ensure that the allies have a coordinated agenda should an opportunity for a multilateral dialogue involving other relevant actors such as China and Russia arise.
*Christian Vicedo is an independent defense and security analyst based in Manila. His writings have appeared in Eurasia Review, Pacific Forum, and The Diplomat.