The Dance of the Five Powers on the Korean Peninsula

Arguably no Asian nation has suffered more in the modern era, or resisted more fiercely, than Korea.  Today it is still the battleground of empires, divided and beset by powerful outside forces.

Five competing agendas intersect on the Korean peninsula: those of South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan, and the United States.  The United States, in order to advance its interests and meet its alliance obligations, has to thread a difficult and winding path.

James Mattis visited South Korea on his first trip as Secretary of Defense.  Here’s what he has to deal with.

North Korea

The biggest dilemma for America, obviously, is North Korea a.k.a. the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK.

The DPRK is cast as a maniacal enemy of the world order in general and the United States in particular.  It is neither.

It is a state that was left adrift by the collapse of its main ally, the Soviet Union, in 1989.  Today, it resents the People’s Republic of China semi-colonial economic and political aggrandizement of North Korea and the PRC’s obvious preference for economic engagement with the South.

One objective of the DPRK’s bomb and missile tests is to compel the PRC to shield the North from the inevitable diplomatic furor, and drive a wedge between the PRC and the South.  This process has borne, for the PRC, the most bitter fruit of the ROK promising to install a US missile defense system, and forcing China to follow through on its pledges of economic retaliation against the South.

North Korea fears the United States, which designated the DPRK as a member of the Axis of Evil in 2002 (apparently primarily to remove the “War on Islam” stigma that the original trio of Iraq/Iran/Syria would have invited), pursued a covert regime change policy during part of the George W. Bush era, has engaged in collective punishment of the DPRK’s people and its economy for well over a decade.

Nevertheless, the DPRK’s foreign policy is predicated upon cultivating the US as a counterweight to the PRC.  This is, potentially, a highly attractive option for the United States, but the policy has never gained traction because of the US insistence under Obama that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons.

The DPRK leadership—with the precedent of the invasion of Libya and the death of Gaddafi—regards denuclearization as an impossibly high price.  Trying to kill two birds with one stone, North Korea hoped that upgrading its WMD deterrent would also compel America’s engagement, but the US ignored North Korea under the doctrine of “strategic patience”.

Until now.

Now, with the DPRK on the cusp of developing a nuclear-tipped ICMB capable of reaching the United States, Uncle Sam may—just may—be ready to talk.

The United States

The United States has maintained an adversarial policy with North Korea for many reasons, including the DPRK’s defiant nuclearization.  There’s also the obligations of standing up for South Korea in its testy relationship with the North.  And there’s the China factor: deterring and containing the DPRK is a convenient proxy for pumping military capabilities into North Asia to deter and contain China—without openly saying so.

This element is symbolized by the aggressive U.S. push to install the “Terminal High Altitude Area Defense” or THAAD missile battery into South Korea.

THAAD irritates the Chinese, with good reason.  The idea that THAAD is part of an effective South Korean defense against North Korea is rather dubious.  The main utility of the system appears to be the powerful radar that allows the system—when reconfigured away from North Korea, apparently a trivial task-- to see thousands of miles into PRC territory, and form part of the Asian radar picket line with installations in and around Japan, Taiwan, Guam, and Hawaii.  We pretend it has to do with the North Korean threat, but I think it’s got to do with degrading China’s strategic nuclear deterrent.  So do the Chinese.

The Chinese announced they were testing a multi-warhead ICBM arrangement—MIRV—to augment their modest nuclear arsenal.  It’s pretty much unmistakable that this escalation is in response to US moves in Asia—not just THAAD but also against the PRC development of a sub based deterrent operating out of the South China Sea.

At the same time, the United States knows the North Korean door is, if not wide open, ajar, and the US and the DPRK have some history of quiet engagement on the recovery of the remains of American servicemen from the Korean War, exchange of visits of delegations, and engagement through the DPRK delegation to the U.N.

There is a growing drumbeat of calls for the United States to abandon its unrealistic demand for North Korean denuclearization as a precondition for negotiations.  However, it is unclear if the Trump administration will take this step since it may lead to South Korea and Japan developing their own nuclear deterrents in pretty short order.


Japan, is widely resented on across the Korean Peninsula for its genocidal colonization during the first half of the 20th century and its arrogant footdragging on the issue of compensation and comfort women.  A more current reasons for resentment, especially in the South, is the increasingly zero-sum relationship between the Japanese and Korean economies and the burden that Abenomics—which pretty much resolved into a depreciation that boosted Japanese exports—placed on competing South Korean businesses.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe built his political career on outrage over North Korean abductees.  His new vision of Japanese self-defense –which includes consideration of a preventive strike or even expeditionary force to North Korea without the consent of South Korea—has not endeared him to anybody on the Peninsula.

As a result, US efforts to broker military and intelligence cooperation between Japan and South Korea have been arduous and only partially successful.

An indicator of the bitter feelings between the two nations is the comfort woman statue erected in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, South Korea.  The Japanese government asserted this statue violated an agreement between Japan and South Korea to close the books on the issue in 2015 with a grudging Japanese apology, $9 million in compensation, and no more insults to Japanese dignity i.e. statues.  In January of this year, the Japanese recalled the consul general and the ambassador, and some South Korean politicians are threatening to put another statue on the Dokdo Islands, which the ROK occupies but Japan claims.

Add to this whole fraught scenario the suspicion, well-founded, I think, that Japan is happy to discourage North-South reunification, since a reunited Korea might become an economic powerhouse with access both to North Korea’s natural riches and its low-wage, tractable work force, and could eclipse Japan’s regional pre-eminence.


The People’s Republic of China, for its part, has testy relations with North Korea as a not-quite client ready to slide off into the arms of the United States.  Testy, as in when Kim Jong Un came to power, he executed his uncle, who was in charge of the PRC portfolio, presumably to signal that the new regime was open for business with Uncle Sam.

China has deeply penetrated into North Korea’s economy, its agents of influence probably riddle the party and government, and the most likely executor of regime change in North Korea is the PRC, not the United States.  China undoubtedly has contingency plans to send its military into North Korea to pre-empt any shenanigans by South Korea, the United States, or Japan in case of a succession crisis or other upheaval in the DPRK.  In recognition of this fact, the DPRK has, in its turn, undoubtedly made it clear to the PRC that its missiles and its nascent nuclear capability could credibly wreak havoc on North China.

In fact, the PRC let it be known  to the Kyodo News agency that North Korea was its second highest security threat, after the United States.

The PRC, in fact, welcomes international ostracization of North Korea via US policy and UN sanctions, since that gives a free hand to China in keeping the DPRK squirming under its thumb but on life support.  That, in turn, gives the PRC the freedom to develop its relationship with South Korea without worrying overmuch about DPRK queering its pitch by inconvenient outreach to the United States, Japan or, for that matter, South Korea—or the regime collapsing and bringing democratic Korean and perhaps US military forces to its Manchurian doorstep.

In 2014, the PRC made economic ties with South Korea—and weaning South Korea from the United States—a priority.  It’s ready to play hardball—with South Korea as the ball and China as the bat.

South Korea

South Korea appears to be experiencing a national crisis.  Google “South Korea unhappiness” or “Chosun hell” and you’ll see. The South Korea’s happiness indices have been declining for the last few years and the UN’s 2016 World Happiness Report placed South Korea at number 58—lower than Kazakhstan!    ROK researchers announced South Korean youths are the unhappiest of 22 countries in the OECD and 26% of them have contemplated suicide.  The malaise seems to be related to crushing work, lack of personal fulfillment, and a profound lack of opportunities.

It’s not just the young.  Here’s an appalling story about impoverished grannies  becoming prostitutes to pay for their medicines.

Analysts are calling for South Korea to make radical changes to overhaul an export-driven economic model that is increasingly unsuited to the new realities of North Asia, but will, unity, and leadership appear to be lacking.

In fact, South Korea presents an unnerving picture of what might happen when an Asian dragon—and for that matter, a functioning democracy, advanced market economy, and a key cog in the globalization machine-- hits the wall…and maybe never gets up.

Recently, South Koreans poured in the streets by the millions to obtain the impeachment of President Park for some mis-steps, questionable judgments, and apparent crimes that, one might think, she could have finessed in a different environment.  A profound Korean commitment to democracy, honesty, and transparency?  Or a profound sense of despair and frustration that found release in a cathartic mass movement?

In any event, on top of everything else, South Korea is facing a crisis of identity as it is increasingly Finlandized by the People’s Republic of China.

The ties of the ROK to the PRC economy are quite large and, perhaps, underappreciated in the West.  China is South Korea’s largest trading destination, accounting for about $230 billion dollars, or 25% of South Korea’s total import/export volume; ROK trade with the United States is half that.  Over four hundred flights per week connect 44 Chinese airports with 8 South Korean airports, making China by far the ROK’s biggest international flight partner.

South Korean enclaves—apartments, restaurants, businesses—can be found in Beijing and other Chinese cities.  Chinese visitors account for almost half of foreign tourists going to South Korea—8 million people.  In 2016 China surpassed the United States for the first time as the premier overseas study destination for South Korean students.

But the PRC is increasingly regarded, with good reason, as an overbearing and unfriendly neighbor.

China is now becoming a producer—and exporter—of the higher tech assemblies and products it used to import from South Korea.  A recent ROK study characterized the decline in exports to China since 2008 as “a collapse”.  And the sunny optimism is gone from South Korea’s “China boom,” judging by this article feeding the “Chosun hell” meme with stories about young South Korean women forced to endure dismal exile in Beijing as their last hope any kind of future.

Then, there’s THAAD.

The Chinese had threatened retaliation as early as 2014 if South Korea if it went with THAAD.  President Park, pressured by the alarming tempo of the North Korean nuclear program and the needs of the US alliance, decided to go with THAAD--and found out that the PRC was fully prepared to follow through on its promise.

The Yonhap News Agency reported that the South Korean government had tallied 43 separate instances of PRC retaliation for THAAD.

The first alleged actions were modest, perhaps even a source of mockery—the PRC stifling the in-country profile of K-Pop bands, who are tremendously popular in China.  But now it’s a matter of allegedly interfering with South Korean cosmetics and dairy businesses in China—a vital market—and refusing requests to operate charter flights, to throttle back tourist dollars. The South Korean government has retaliated, also discreetly, by holding up visas for PRC nationals slated to teach in Confucian Institutes –China’s main soft power gambit—in South Korea.  They are also talking about taking China to the World Trade Organization for erecting non-tariff trade barriers.

But the fact that China’s got plenty more retaliatory gas in the tank—up to and including the concern in South Korea is that the PRC may give the nationalism machine a crank, and start a wave of anti-ROK demonstrations and boycotts inside China—is casting a shadow over the ROK.

Now, with South Korea a political basket case with Park’s impeachment, the PRC is not letting up.

The woes of the PRC-ROK relationship are scheduled to increase with the lead-pipe assurance that the PRC will escalate retaliation when the THAAD system is actually installed.   Which is going to happen in the next few months since the United States, aware that popular opposition to THAAD topped 50% for the first time in December—and may go higher--successfully pushed for South Korea to install the system this year.

The United States hopes that China’s petty retaliation for THAAD is pushing the ROK more securely into the US camp.  However, the Chinese don’t think so and, judging by their results with a harsh maximalist approach to the South China Sea issue with the Philippines and Vietnam, they may be right.

There’s a case to be made that THAAD is just another element in the US missile defense boondoggle, and its value was less in its hoped-for effectiveness than its use as an affirmation of, and catalyst for, the South Korea—US strategic alignment.

There’s also a case to be made that the PRC doesn’t care if THAAD really works or not; it’s more interested in telling North Korea its future, for better or worse, resides with its gigantic near neighbor and not a distant and increasingly distracted American ally.

In the case of THAAD, it looks like warm feelings between the two nations—or care for the supposedly vital soft-power cuddly panda image the PRC was called on to project to the world-- is less important for China than teaching South Korea—and Asia—a lesson that the PRC cannot be defied without severe consequences.

Chinese economic pressure is an inescapable reality for vulnerable Asian states and the intangible psychic benefits that the US can offer—mainly in the areas of enhanced military cooperation—are, well, pretty intangible.  The expectation that Donald Trump may bully South Korea on trade and support for US forces in the ROK is not helping the public mood, either.

Ban Ki-moon, the conservatives’ best hope to replace Park, suddenly announced he wasn’t going to run for President after all, and a left-leaning candidate unenthusiastic about THAAD and more inclined to conciliate China may win the presidency.

So, South Korea finds itself out of step with all of the colonial powers that afflicted it to various degrees—China, Japan, and the United States—threatened by an increasingly confident and now nuclear-armed neighbor, and itself in the midst of an economic, political, and social crisis.

Partnership with China isn’t working for South Korea; neither, apparently, is using THAAD and the US alliance to galvanize South Korean feelings of unity, agency, and independence.  Unsurprisingly, conservatives are looking for stronger medicine: South Korean development of its own nuclear deterrent, an option the ROK has flirted with for decades.

Maybe reunification with the North is the magic elixir South Korea, the peninsula, and the region need; but neither North Korea, China, Japan, or the United States seem interested in taking the stopper out of that bottle.

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Peter Lee, Newsbud Senior Analyst & Commentator, has been involved in East Asian affairs since 1979, first as a businessman and then as a writer.  He has been writing on China with a focus on US policy since 2005.  Mr. Lee’s work has appeared at Asia Times, CounterPunch, Japan Focus: The Asia Pacific Journal, and the South China Morning Post.  He is the proprietor of the China Matters blog.

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