What happens in North Korea implicates all of East Asia. The United States may be the arbiter of the coming confrontation – so vested is it in the balance of power of the region, so threatened is it by the existence of a rogue nuclear weapons program, and so uniquely suited is it to do something about it. But it’s a confrontation in which Japan, China, South Korea and even Russia all have interests, so each is trying to shape the outcome to its benefit.
The way they will do so has little to do with ideology. After all, the conflict in North Korea has outlasted every administration of every country – no matter its political affiliation – that has tried to stop it. And it has outlasted them because their competing interests confound resolution. The following report identifies what these interests are and explains why they beget conflict and, at times, cooperation.
Ultimately, North Korea needs to survive, and its government believes a nuclear weapons program is essential to its survival. But a nuclear North Korea is something the United States cannot tolerate. The imperatives of other countries impinge on those of Washington and Pyongyang, but they cannot change the course the two governments are on. The U.S. and North Korea are headed for a fight. Understanding why starts with understanding the imperatives of all the parties involved.
North Korea’s main security focus is the survival of its regime. All its other imperatives revolve around this core objective. North Korea, having been let down in the past by some of its supporters like the Soviet Union, distrusts foreign powers. It sees the world as dominated by a highly unpredictable superpower that acts irrationally. During the Korean War, for example, the U.S. intervened, unexpectedly, to repel the North Korean invasion of the South. The regime feels utterly alone in a world dominated by adversarial powers, and while it currently depends on China for trade and access to hard currency, it has no doubt that China would turn its back on North Korea if the opportunity arose.
The Korean War never officially ended; hostilities ceased after the signing of an armistice, but no peace agreement was ever signed. Since the beginning of that conflict, Pyongyang has pursued its other major objective: the unification of the Korean Peninsula under a North-dominated regime. Pyongyang can achieve this goal only by expelling U.S. forces from the peninsula. One way it can do this is by pursuing its nuclear weapons program and using it as a bargaining chip, offering to halt the program in exchange for the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea. Unification is not inevitable even with the U.S. out of the peninsula, but it is impossible while the U.S. is still there.
But unification would also present another challenge for North Korea. China, seeing unification as a threat to its own position in the region, would once again pose a danger to North Korea. A unified Korea would control more economic and technological resources, be able to expand its military, and sit directly on China’s borders. Increasing its defenses against China, therefore, would become another major objective for the North Korean regime. China wants to avoid being encircled by any power or powers that could form a coalition to challenge it. Though China’s influence over North Korea is likely overplayed in the media, it prefers to have a weak and somewhat dependent neighbor over a larger, more powerful one.
Proximity gives South Korea a unique perspective of the North Korean nuclear program. Unlike other countries in the region, it has lived under the threat of destruction from Pyongyang for some time, just not from nuclear weapons. The North Korean military has massive amounts of artillery aimed squarely at an area in which nearly half the population of South Korea lives. Put simply, preventing North Korea from acquiring a nuclear weapon wouldn’t necessarily prevent Seoul’s annihilation.
Seoul is concerned about North Korea’s nuclearization, but since it wouldn’t materially change its prospects for survival, South Korea’s foremost imperative is to preserve Seoul. South Korea is a wealthy country with robust international trade and technological expertise, and it can’t maintain the high standard of living to which its citizens are accustomed in the face of a sustained artillery barrage – the likely outcome if the U.S. attacks the North. A 2012 study by the Nautilus Institute estimates that if North Korea were to fire its conventional artillery at South Korean population centers – rather than at the military installations that could counter them – casualties could reach 65,000 at the end of the first day.
Nor can South Korea continue to thrive without preserving its trade ties. The country has begun to rely less on exports over the past five years, but exports still account for roughly 40 percent of its gross domestic product, with more exports going to China than to any other country. This creates a problem for South Korea: It depends on the United States for much of its security, and it depends on China for much of its prosperity. The United States may try to compel South Korea to punish China through trade – Washington would do so if it believed China deliberately failed to curb the North Korean program. But Seoul would be reluctant to act against China since it would be acting against its own economic interests.
But this elides a larger point. So long as North Korea and its arsenal exist, Seoul cannot be secure. Its second imperative, therefore, is to eliminate North Korea through unification. Unification, of course, would have to be a slow and carefully managed process lest it create undesired consequences for the South. If done too quickly, Seoul would struggle to reconcile two vastly different political systems, absorb migrants into its society and economy, and stave off potential unrest. Unifying the peninsula can’t come at the expense of a healthy, wealthy society.
Unification is a zero-sum game. It serves Seoul’s purpose only if Seoul is in charge, and its stewardship of the transition would necessarily come at Pyongyang’s expense. And unification would work only if the U.S. military stayed on the peninsula to deter North Korean aggression. North Korea, for its part, would naturally want to control a unified government, and it can’t do that if the U.S. military is still there. At some point, something’s got to give.
China has a complicated history with North Korea. The Korean War is only the most recent episode in a relationship characterized by conflict over the course of millennia. China has usually been the stronger of the two but historically has never managed to dominate or absorb the peninsula into the Han China core. So while China has left an ineffaceable mark on the Koreas, the Koreas have nonetheless maintained a sense of independence that Beijing cannot ignore.
With that independence comes an associated threat. The border between China and Korea is mountainous and therefore difficult to traverse, but it is also the direction from which China is most in danger of a land-based invasion. (In fact, China has been invaded through this route before.) Contemporary China’s buffer zones in Xinjiang, the Himalayas and the jungles to the south insulate it from potential enemies. A Korean Peninsula united and hostile to China would be a significant threat. On the one hand, it would open up the possibility of foreign troops being based even closer to China than they are currently. On the other hand, it would make it much harder for China to project influence on the peninsula. It could even open up the possibility of a unified Korea projecting economic or political influence across the border into China.
China’s first imperative, therefore, is to keep the Korean Peninsula divided. A united Korea loyal to China may be an intriguing prospect for Beijing, but division is the only surefire way to prevent a strong power from rising along its northeastern border.
Its second imperative, relatedly, is to maintain domestic stability. Throughout its history, China has cycled between periods of strong central government control and periods of regional control marked by political infighting. The country is now stable, with a high degree of central control, but threats to its economy could soon incite domestic unrest. This helps to explain why China wouldn’t want to absorb the Korean Peninsula. Beijing has a hard enough time maintaining order in the territory it has; adding more land, and some 75 million more subjects, to its domain would only aggravate its problems. Migration is likewise a concern. If war breaks out, there is a possibility that refugees will cross the Yalu River into China – something Beijing cannot abide.
China’s third imperative is to maintain its global trade ties. China built its economy on cheap exports, and it continues to rely on them despite the signs that it is losing its competitive advantage. Beijing therefore needs strong economic relationships with South Korea, Japan and the United States, which are among its most important trading partners. These are, of course, North Korea’s staunchest adversaries. Beijing cannot afford to forfeit trade with these countries any more than it can betray its strategic interests in North Korea. Prioritizing one comes at the expense of the other.
China’s fourth imperative – keeping foreign powers off the Korean Peninsula – is not one it can accomplish, at least not right now. The U.S. military has had troops in South Korea since 1950, and it is in no danger of leaving. The best China can do is to try to use its economic leverage to persuade South Korea to diminish its relationship with the U.S. It’s easier for Seoul to keep the U.S. involved than it is for Beijing to force its departure. And unlike a country such as the Philippines, which is economically weak and domestically unstable, South Korea is a wealthy, coherent country that has much more to lose from throwing its hat in with China than with maintaining a relationship with the U.S.
But just because China cannot achieve an imperative doesn’t preclude that imperative from informing its behavior. Beijing is always looking for ways to undermine the United States, and the North Korea crisis may give it a small window of opportunity. U.S. and South Korean imperatives do not line up neatly on the issue of North Korea, and that creates some room for China to create leverage for itself.
At the center of the North Korea crisis stands the United States, the country that will ultimately determine the fate of the peninsula. Washington has three imperatives in that regard.
The first is to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This is a strategic imperative, not a moral one. The United States is protected by oceans to the east and west and by friendly powers to the north and south. Short of crossing oceans protected by the world’s greatest navy or first invading Canada or Mexico, America’s enemies can threaten it only with nuclear weapons.
Washington cannot always achieve its first imperative, of course. Large, strong countries such as Pakistan, Israel and China developed nuclear weapons programs, and there was little the United States could do about it. But North Korea is smaller, weaker and more unpredictable than other nuclear powers, and Japan and South Korea, unnerved by their neighbor’s arsenal, may begin to develop nuclear weapons of their own. A nuclear arms race is something the region cannot afford.
Nonproliferation, however, is only one aspect of the U.S. security strategy. An equally important aspect is the balance of power in Asia. The United States needs to dominate the world’s oceans; empowering some nations at the expense of others and playing them off one another is Washington’s preferred way of making sure its maritime power remains intact. The North Korea issue, then, is as much about curbing Chinese power on the Korean Peninsula – the United States’ second imperative – as it is about North Korea itself.
In fact, North Korea is a vestigial conflict for the United States. The Korean War escalated when the U.S. moved its forces to the south to prevent a pro-Soviet regime in Pyongyang from dominating the Korean Peninsula. It was, in other words, driven in part by political ideology. That is no longer the case. The Soviet Union is gone, and China is only nominally communist. But it is more powerful than it has been in the past seven decades, and historically when China is powerful it pushes past the Yalu River into the peninsula. The conflict is now a matter of pure power politics.
South Korea is an important U.S. ally in this respect. Though smaller than China, South Korea has developed respectable defensive military capabilities and is home to a significant number of American troops and materiel. Their alliance prevents North Korea and, by extension, China, from dominating the peninsula. Even if Pyongyang were not trying to develop a nuclear weapons program, Washington would still stand up for South Korea.
Which dovetails into the third imperative: making sure the United States honors its security commitments to its Asian allies – something Washington has frequently strived to do. One of the reasons the United States fought wars in Korea and Vietnam, for example, was to prove to its allies that a U.S. security guarantee was worth something. Since the end of the Cold War, East Asia has generally been an economically vibrant and politically stable environment in a way that has furthered U.S. interests.
The rise of China – and the reactions of those threatened by its rise – has tested the U.S. commitment. China is trying to bring the Philippines, a staunch U.S. ally and key player in the South China Sea dispute, into its camp. Beijing has been modestly successful because Washington refused to defend Philippine claims of sovereignty against China in 2012.
Small islands in the South China Sea are ultimately inconsequential, but the message that a U.S. guarantee is worthless is not. It’s one thing for the U.S. to fail to protect an island from Chinese depredations; it’s another to allow a major U.S. ally like South Korea to be destroyed, especially by a government it allowed to have a nuclear weapon. If Japan and South Korea believe the best the U.S. will do is deploy B-1 bombers and parade its aircraft carriers, they may believe they would be better off with U.S. adversaries such as China. At the very least, they may stop doing Washington’s bidding unquestioningly as they once did.
The United States is in a difficult position, one it doesn’t want to be in and one it cannot withdraw from. It must address the North Korean nuclear program. It must curb the expansion of Chinese influence. And it must show its allies it will protect them.
Japan has three main imperatives when it comes to the situation on the Korean Peninsula. The first is to denuclearize the peninsula. Second, Japan is in the early stages of rebuilding its offensive military capabilities after more than a half-century of self-imposed isolation. Unable to take full responsibility for its own defense, Japan can’t allow the crisis in North Korea to threaten its position beneath the U.S. security umbrella in the Western Pacific. Finally, with an eye toward the more substantial threat over the long term of a rising China, Japan has an imperative to prevent a reunified Korean Peninsula from being drawn firmly into China’s orbit.
At the narrowest point, the Sea of Japan separates North Korea and Japan by just over 300 miles (480 kilometers). North Korea has never posed a significant conventional threat to Japan, especially compared to the countries with which the North shares land borders. Historically, Japanese-Korean tensions were centered in the south of the peninsula, where the sea gap between them is much narrower. Nonetheless, the North has routinely made its presence felt with small-scale hostile acts – such as a spate of kidnappings of Japanese citizens in the 1990s and periodic harassment of Japanese fishing fleets in the Sea of Japan – so Japan is keenly aware of the dangers it would face from North Korea should the North gain the ability to narrow the distance between them. With every North Korean missile test that splashes down on the edge of Japan’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone or sails over the Japanese mainland, the vulnerability of Japan’s high-density urban areas becomes more acute. The trajectory of the North’s nuclear program is an existential threat to Japan, and its advancing missile program has already put Japan well within range.
Japan thus cannot tolerate a nuclear Korean Peninsula. Japan is investing heavily in defensive measures such as anti-missile systems, but these are largely untested and insufficient to eliminate an existential risk. And though Japan has the technological capability to rapidly develop its own nuclear deterrent, doing so will be politically impossible for decades to come.
It could try to tolerate a nuclear North and seek an accommodation with Pyongyang, using the North’s isolation to cultivate an economic dependence that would give Pyongyang pause before considering an attack on Japan. But with Japan lacking the ability to retaliate with nukes of its own, such a plan would prove unstable at best. More important, dealing with the North would undermine Japan’s vital defense relationship with the U.S. and would be politically unpopular at home. Only denuclearization would ensure Japan’s security, and with the North’s capabilities growing, the urgency behind denuclearization is growing as well.
This underscores Tokyo’s second imperative: to prevent the crisis in North Korea from threatening Japan’s place beneath the U.S. security umbrella. Since World War II, Tokyo’s strategy has been to rely on the United States to defend Japanese national interests in ways Japan is constrained from doing itself by its pacifist constitution. To give itself greater freedom of action independent of the U.S., Japan is beginning to build up the capability to project offensive power and attempting to remove legal and political constraints on remilitarization. But this process is still in the early stages, and the country can’t yet take full responsibility for its defense. And since Japan is unlikely to have a nuclear program for the foreseeable future – not to mention that China, the greater long-term concern for Japan, already has nuclear weapons – Japan will rely on U.S. nuclear guarantees for some time to come.
The crisis in North Korea affects this imperative in two primary ways. First, Japan’s military constraints mean it can’t take care of the North Korean nuclear threat itself, and its political constraints would likely even limit its participation in a multilateral campaign against the North. Japan also has very little economic leverage with which to pressure the North toward denuclearization. It banned imports from North Korea after its nuclear test in 2006 and banned exports to North Korea in 2009. It has few options left, and the North is proving exceedingly adept at weathering economic pressure anyway. It’s not enough for the U.S. to help address the North Korean threat; Japan needs the U.S. to be willing and able to shoulder the bulk of the burden itself.
Second, Japan has long feared a scenario in which Washington loses interest in its defense alliance with Tokyo or re-evaluates the benefits of subsidizing Japanese security. North Korea’s development of an intercontinental ballistic missile has revived this fear in Tokyo, which worries that Washington may become reluctant to defend Japan if doing so puts the U.S. mainland at risk. Tokyo also fears the U.S. pursuing an accommodation with Beijing or Pyongyang at its expense.
This picture, taken on Aug. 9, 2017, and released by North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Aug. 10, shows a rally in support of North Korea’s stance against the U.S. in Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang. AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS
Japan’s reliance on U.S. influence in Northeast Asia also ties into its third imperative. Japan benefits from the division of the Korean Peninsula to the extent that it keeps both the North and the South weak and focused largely on each other. Japan would also benefit from a strong, reunified Korea so long as the new state remained committed to the U.S.-led alliance structure, thus potentially serving as a substantial check against China.
What Japan cannot tolerate is a belligerent, reunified Korean Peninsula that gets pulled firmly into China’s orbit, however unlikely this may be. Given its location offshore and its ability to threaten Korea’s export lanes, Japan would be a greater security threat to Korea than vice versa. This, combined with Korean memories of centuries of Japanese imperialism on the peninsula, means Tokyo can’t be sure that Korea, upon unification, would be friendly, however the current crisis plays out. If the U.S. remains committed to a trilateral security architecture in Northeast Asia, however, it would likely deter Japan’s least-favored outcome.
Japan won’t always be so ill-equipped to shape regional events in its favor. But now, it’s left hoping that the U.S. will shape them on its behalf.
In 2000, shortly after coming to power, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the Korean Peninsula had always been within the sphere of Russian geopolitical interests. Though the Korea crisis is hardly the sort that keeps the Russians awake at night, it is indeed presenting opportunities and posing challenges that tie into three of Moscow’s geopolitical imperatives: magnifying its image as a global power, keeping the United States tied down in as many places as possible, and preventing nuclear proliferation.
Despite Moscow’s singular role in North Korean history, the Russians have rarely been capable of dominating Pyongyang. Josef Stalin oversaw the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1945, negotiating its borders, training its leaders and then approving the North’s invasion of the South in 1950. But within a decade, North Korean founding father Kim Il Sung had purged rivals with the closest ties to Moscow. After Russia and China split in 1960, North Korea was able to play its two larger neighbors off one another through the end of the Cold War.
The Soviets weren’t powerful enough to keep North Korea as a client state to themselves, but neither was it of critical importance for Moscow to do so. The border between Russia and North Korea is just 11 miles long and thousands of miles from the Russian heartland. Thus, Russia’s attention on the North has ebbed and flowed in line with shifts in how its interests on the peninsula fit into Moscow’s bigger concerns. After the Soviet Union collapsed and American concern about Russia’s Pacific Fleet eased, Russian aid to the North dried up, and the fragile new regime in Moscow turned its focus to the more lucrative economic prospects in South Korea. If the Korean Peninsula reunified, Moscow would be eager to pivot to resuming long-stalled pipeline and infrastructure projects that would connect Russia’s underdeveloped Far East with the robust economy in southern Korea.
In the current context, Russia remains largely incapable of shaping events on the Korean Peninsula, whether by military force or economic coercion, even if it is serving as an economic lifeline for Pyongyang. But with the world’s strongest powers vying for influence over the direction of the unfolding crisis, Russia has an interest in edging into the spotlight, pursuant to its first imperative: magnifying its image as a global power. Doing so masks the weakness of Russia’s conventional military and amplifies its diplomatic heft. Most important to Moscow, it helps legitimize the regime at home. This is why Russia prefers multilateral attempts at a resolution that give it a seat at the table, such as the six-party talks. It’s also why Russia chafes at Pyongyang when it flouts sanctions set forth by the U.N. Security Council, a body that Moscow likewise uses to magnify its appearance as a pivotal power on the world stage, while furthering its diplomatic influence often at the expense of the U.S.
Russia’s second imperative is to keep the world’s only superpower, the United States, tied down in as many far-flung places as possible. If the U.S. is preoccupied and unable to focus on alternative issues – particularly those that Moscow views as existential – it raises doubts among U.S. allies about whether U.S. security guarantees can be relied upon. In this case, Moscow would prefer that U.S. forces not be on the Korean Peninsula at all, but it can tolerate them if it means the U.S. has fewer resources to devote to Central and Eastern Europe.
And if an interminable crisis in Korea exposes the limits of U.S. willingness or capability to bring about a solution, it could further undermine the American alliance structure. The more distracted the United States is with issues on the periphery, the stronger Russia’s position will be as it tries to reach an accommodation with the U.S. that secures Russian interests, or at the very least appears to secure Russian interests. If Russia can complicate the situation even a little by weakening U.S. attempts to isolate the regime in Pyongyang, it fits with Russia’s overall strategy.
Russia’s third imperative regarding the crisis in North Korea is to prevent nuclear proliferation. It can’t do this alone, and so it has supported nonproliferation initiatives in other states on its periphery only half-heartedly. Nonetheless, proliferation undermines one of Russia’s few major military advantages in the region and diminishes the exclusivity of a club that gives Moscow global prestige and influence. Should North Korea establish itself as a nuclear power, it would further weaken Russia’s deterrent and influence. And though Russia has yet to admit as much publicly, Moscow is well within range of North Korea’s new ICBMs.
It’s difficult to know precisely how each of these countries will navigate the Korea crisis. But it’s impossible to know how they will without understanding what informs their behavior in the first place. Imperatives, in that sense, may not be predictive, but as they anchor the compulsions and constraints that will ultimately shape the coming conflict, they are inescapable.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that the Korean War started when the U.S. moved its forces to the south to prevent a pro-Soviet regime in Pyongyang from dominating the Korean Peninsula. In fact, the Korean War had already been in progress and escalated when the U.S. moved its forces.