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An Increasingly Dangerous Korean Peninsula

Apr 28, 2023
  • Zhong Yin

    Research Professor, Research Institute of Global Chinese and Area Studies, Beijing Language and Culture University

Recently, whether at the macro geopolitical level or micro technical level, developments regarding the Korean peninsula have become increasingly negative. Three categories of factors can be listed as the underlying reasons explaining this relatively dangerous trajectory.

First, the dramatic strengthening of U.S.-ROK ties has further aggravated the already tense situation since U.S.-DPRK detente failed during the Donald Trump years, a time when the former U.S. president sought to reach a compromise through dialogue. After Joe Biden took office, although he claims to be open to dialogue without preconditions, the DPRK doesn’t buy it. In its eyes, America’s maximum pressure approach with sanctions and military hostility excludes any possibility for meaningful dialogue. Since the new president of the Republic of Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, took office last year, the situation has further deteriorated because of his relatively harsh rhetoric and policies concerning the North. He has taken the ROK-U.S. alliance, which he said was “forged in blood,” to new heights, not only through tighter defense collaboration but also through closer economic cooperation in chips, batteries and clean technology. He has also pursued improved relations with Tokyo, a move welcomed by Washington as it tries to shore up trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korea cooperation.

All these developments have further stirred up the already deepening suspicions and hostility the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea holds toward its opponents. The strategic atmosphere in the region has also been worsened by the further Western alienation of China and Russia, making the deadlock on the Korean Peninsula even more complex and thorny.

Second, with the rising possibility of confrontation between the North and the South, as well as between the United States and the DPRK, the prospect for denuclearization has become even gloomier. Tensions on the Korean peninsula are now regarded as their worst since 2017, when Trump threatened North Korea with “fire and fury.”

Last year, North Korea fired more missiles than ever in a single year, and the country made significant progress in weapons development. According to the DPRK’s leader, Kim Jong-un, the country has become an irreversible nuclear weapons state, which means that these weapons are no longer designed just to prevent war but could be used preemptively and offensively.

This year, the DPRK said it will “exponentially increase” the production of nuclear weapons. In March, it said it launched a Hwasong-17 ICBM to “give a stronger warning” to the U.S. and South Korea, which were escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula with large-scale military drills. In mid-April, the country announced that it had tested a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile and warned it would make enemies “experience a clearer security crisis, and constantly strike extreme uneasiness and horror into them.”

On the other hand, U.S. policy has not only been a cause for DPRK actions but also useless in curbing the situation and moving back to the track of denuclearization. Biden’s approach, borrowing both from Obama’s “strategic patience” and Trump’s summit-level diplomacy, has proved to be of no use. During the recent visit to the U.S. by the ROK’s president, Biden reassured his counterpart by announcing specific new nuclear deterrence efforts to “deter a North Korean attack on South Korea.” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that any nuclear attack by North Korea on the U.S. or its allies “will result in the end of the Kim regime.”

However, with dialogue rejected, deterrence, per se, can only make the situation worse. Moreover, with the Sino-U.S. relationship deteriorating, it’s hard for the U.S. to expect cooperation with China on new multilateral sanctions. In addition, U.S. preoccupation over Ukraine and China also hampers its ability to focus on North Korea.

Third, the camp politics pursued by United States in the region has broadened the strategic divide between the countries concerned, further generating uncertainty and instability with regard to the peninsula. Strategically, the U.S. intends to draw its foremost allies in East Asia into its anti-China cause, tapping their potential to the full.

Both Japan and South Korea have expressed their concerns over Taiwan. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, once called Taiwan the “linchpin” of any U.S. operation in the region. And Japan’s new National Security Strategy declares it will roughly double defense spending over the next five years and for the first time deploy missiles that can hit military targets in other countries. The clear connotation is the defense of Taiwan. The ROK has also shown its interest in this regard. President Yoon recently said increased tensions surrounding Taiwan were the result of threats to change the status quo by force, and he opposed such a change, arousing serious opposition from the Chinese side.

South Korea’s newly published Indo-Pacific Strategy also calls for “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and emphasizes the importance of upholding the “rule-based” order.

Economically, Japan’s decision to join the U.S. and the Netherlands in restricting exports of chip-making gear to China — as well as Japan and South Korea joining talks arranged by the U.S. — was supposed to form a Chip 4 alliance to isolate their semiconductor supply chains from China. In the larger context of geopolitical competition between the U.S. and Russia in Ukraine, both Japan and the ROK see Ukraine as a possible “future of Asia.”

Japan provided Kyiv with protective equipment and financial aid, and South Korea has emerged as a major weapons supplier to Poland, which is becoming NATO’s most important military front-line state. The presence of the so-called AP4 (Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) at NATO meetings is becoming routine. All these illustrate that a clear demarcation line has been established between U.S.-Japan-ROK alignment and the China-Russia-DPRK alignment intentionally.

However, the poor approval rating inside both Japan and the ROK shows a lack of internal support for forcing a new iron curtain to fall in Northeast Asia. Mutual respect for each other’s core interests is the only way to finally resolve the Korean issue and to sustain the well-being of Northeast Asia as a whole.  

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