Following President Trump’s Singapore summit agreement , the frame has been set for all sides to begin a period of reciprocal, negotiated, and incremental force posture draw-downs and an end to “provocative” coercive acts . However, while the uneasy armed truce produced by the Korean War may finally be formally ending, stabilizing the balance of power will remain a going concern in a distrustful and fragmented East Asia. At issue are the inter-Korean or U.S.-North Korea relations and how the two sides relate to China and Japan, which in turn is complicated by the fact that Kim Jong-un is not modernizing so as to end his regime but rather to strengthen it for the long haul. While relations are changing, deterrence tied to the balance of power will remain a security challenge with high potential for gaffs, misperceptions, and slights that could reverberate negatively back on the nuclear deal.
Strategic Bottom Lines
The North means to survive and survive separately from the designs of Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. To accept otherwise would go against its autarkic political ideology and political-cultural identity . As long as the regime does not dump its entire core identity , it will not want to be the handmaiden of any neighbor, and thaws with the South will only go so far towards true unification. In fact, if it became too attached to any one power, then its caste-based rigid structure at the center of elite power would likely whither in the face of the inevitably heavy transnational social ties that would develop. The North is already facing a reality in which strict, ideologically-based caste categories underlying the entire system are being undermined by growing transnational free-market networks , whether via illicit payoff of officials or “winked at” street-level markets that sprang into being after failure of the command-economy food distribution systems in the original great famines of the mid-1990s. Thus, current active explorations with neighbors to open up special economic zones for ports, railways, highways and manufacturing are in our view most likely a desired way to shore up an economically-challenged system without having to change that system at its core. The regime is setting itself up to be a gatekeeper and toll-taker for huge new flows of globalized goods to flow back and forth between Central and Northeast Asia via China’s “ One Belt One Road ” plan, thereby ensuring an indefinite reality of “ peaceful coexistence ” rather than “ reunification” with a South Korea that has long been the superior party and therefore would organically dominate any attempts at union.
In the South, Moon Jae-in’s progressive bloc is hoping that as per the Helsinki Accords in the Cold War, transnational engagement such as money and people flows will rust the foundation of the North’s sclerotic regime and bring DPRK to the same place as East Germany (i.e., inertial domestic reforms or failing that, peaceful collapse). Indeed, one of the progressive bloc’s main foreign-policy advisors, noted academic Chung-in Moon , has written a book on the transformative effects of society-to-society engagement. Meanwhile, if U.S. forces completely leave the peninsula , the sheer demographic and economic might of China, already manifesting in a dense transnational commercial presence in Seoul, would bring the peninsula under Beijing’s strategic remit, which the South hardly wants any more than the North. With the shadow of the dragon looming , even progressive leaders in the South are unlikely to turn into anti-alliance doves any time soon.
Also lurking in between the lines of talks on four-way economic openings is Japan’s always latent strategic struggle with the PRC. Japan wants any new economic openings it can get to make its stagnating conglomerates as competitive as possible against China, while also hoping that gradual denuclearization, alongside possible North Korean economic openings and engagements, will tame DPRK missile-wielding provocations for good. Such flights towards and over Japanese territory matter a great deal for a Japanese citizenry that is understandably traumatized by memories of bombing campaigns.
But lest we forget the trauma of the “ 100 Years of Humiliation ” that was capped by a war with Japan, which killed up to twenty million people, followed quickly by a march by General MacArthur up to the Yalu River border: China just wants a buffer, any buffer please, between the Yalu and U.S. forces. If and when Korea unifies, if there is no strategic region-wide understanding on the U.S.-China balance of power overall, then the simple equation is: U.S. forces + Korean Unification = instant crisis, given Beijing’s existential fears of hostile forces controlling the peninsula. This was shown in 2010 in the touchy area of the Yellow Sea , when North Korea killed forty-six sailors and even four citizens via sinking of a South Korean corvette and artillery shelling of an island in disputed maritime territory, which then led to U.S.-ROK large naval-combined arms patrols that drew Chinese ire . China reacted vehemently by calling it a bold play for aggressive power projection aimed at a Beijing and Tinjian within easy potential striking distance. Thus, in China’s historically-tinged strategic worldview , U.S. defense of the South is actually a latent play for aggressive, pressure-based containment via threatening of commercial and energy sea lanes, using Korea’s strategic geographic position.
Too Early for a Farewell to Arms?
In short: the simple fact that the Northeast Asian balance of power and balance of geopolitical interests has for seventy years been predicated on two things: a strong U.S. combined force on the peninsula that guards latently against infringements on peninsular autonomy in general, alongside a DPRK “buffer” that assures an existentially fearful China that it will never experience the “100 Years of Humiliation” ever again. This sets up a perfect security dilemma: if U.S. forces stay absent any agreements on demilitarization in general, then China will continue to be a less-than-positive player, focused on reigning in the North and returning it to reliable proxy status. But if U.S. forces leave the area, then China dominates. Neither promises a reliable, predictable level of regional stability.