Asia Needs Its Own North Korea Strategy

Rachael Willis
August 16, 2017

As US-North Korea relations ebb to their lowest point in years, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham has added his voice to the jingoistic rhetoric, confirming that Donald Trump will go to war with North Korea if Pyongyang continues the development of an intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Sen. Graham sent shockwaves running throughout East Asia when he emphasized that the president will choose “homeland defense over regional stability.” This shocking display of realpolitik should serve as a wake up call for every regional stakeholder in East Asia: America’s East Asia allies shouldn’t rely solely on the US to act as an agent of regional stability. Japan, South Korea and even China must take steps to guarantee their own national security and collectively formulate a strategy to engage with Pyongyang.

Japan and South Korea – A Divided Response

After threatening to attack Pyongyang with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” it’s clear that President Trump isn’t capable of de-escalating the bellicose rhetoric between the US and North Korea. However, if hostilities commence, it’s Tokyo and Seoul – not Washington – that will be in the line of fire. Setting aside nuclear weapons, North Korea has enough conventional weaponry aimed at Seoul to deliver half a million artillery rounds in the first hour of hostilities. Moreover, following a slew of missile tests, there’s a very high chance that North Korea’s ballistic missile are capable of accurately reaching Japanese population centers.

While missile defense systems are widely available in the region – from South Korea’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to Japan’s freshly deployed Patriot missiles – they are far from being the successful deterrent that would render Pyongyang’s nukes toothless. Since the program is quickly advancing, instead of remilitarizing their armies, Seoul and Tokyo need to strengthen bilateral relations and reinforce their own security relationship. The goal? A show of regional unity would dramatically increase the costs for the North to continue its aggressive saber rattling and could push it back to the negotiating table.

Despite promising developments in this area, such as the signing of the GSOMIA intelligence-sharing deal, a deep alliance between Seoul and Tokyo has proven elusive. Historical grievances dating back to the Second World War are partly to blame, with South Korea stubbornly refusing to put aside Imperial Japan’s exploitation of Korean women during the war. In 2015, the Japanese Government agreed to settle the diplomatic sore spot, delivering a landmark apology and providing 1 billion yen in compensation to family members of the victims.

However, despite the settlement, the ‘comfort woman’ issue – which has become a staple of South Korea’s nationalist movements – continues to undermine the existing relationship between the two countries. Now, newly inducted South Korean President Moon Jae-in has capitalized on the domestic outrage by threatening to renege on the agreement with Japan, while also taking a softer line towards Pyongyang. Indeed, due to this desire détente, some are now openly calling Moon a communist. With North Korea posing an immediate threat to regional stability, the left-leaning Moon shouldn’t drive a wedge between South Korea and Japan, hamstringing both countries’ tentative steps towards deeper trilateral cooperation with the US.

Can China Be Relied Upon?

China, the most important player in East Asia, has enormous geo-strategic stakes in ensuring stability along the Korean Peninsula. President Trump’s engagement with China – aimed at convincing Beijing to leverage Pyongyang into abandoning its weapons programs – has so far yielded limited results. The truth is, unless Beijing is willing to radically re-align their strategic interests, there isn’t much more that China can do to moderate North Korea. So far, Beijing has halted North Korean coal imports, approved a comprehensive package of UN sanctions and urged Pyongyang to end its sabre rattling and return to the negotiating table. Evidently, in light of current events, Pyongyang is undeterred by the threat of further punitive action from the international community.

With the North Korean regime remaining defiant, China’s President Xi Jinping, knowing that China cannot afford open war on the Korean Peninsula, is hesitant to push the unpredictable Supreme Leader too hard. Not only would war destroy Beijing’s regional calculus, it would also lead to the displacement of millions of starving North Koreans into one of the most populous regions in China. China’s ongoing fortification efforts on the border with North Korea illustrate just how seriously Beijing views the ongoing crisis. For years, the Middle Kingdom has been content to prop up and trade with the North Korean regime, claiming to use its ‘moderating influence’ over Pyongyang to extract concessions from the US. However, times have changed and North Korea, a country on the precipice of developing vastly more powerful nuclear and missile technology, is no longer the malleable puppet it once was.

As long as North Korea remains a maverick player in international affairs, China will be reluctant to completely isolate or turn against its ally on the Korean Peninsula. But circumstances are beginning to shift and China’s interests are rapidly falling out of alignment with Pyongyang’s. The current situation on the Korean Peninsula is economically untenable and even Beijing has guaranteed neutrality if North Korea starts a war. Although it is difficult to fathom, China, Japan and South Korea need to form a united East Asian front against North Korea. Starved from cash and (covert) support from Seoul and Beijing, Pyongyang would eventually realize that holding talks is the only way to steer clear of state collapse. And if Tokyo and Seoul can present Beijing with a multilateral framework for defusing the crisis and establishing a more stable regional status quo, the Middle Kingdom might just turn on North Korea.