Trouble on the Han River – Possible Scenarios For The Future Of The Korean Peninsula
The recent news that North Korea is on a fast-track to develop nuclear-armed ICBMs that could reach downtown LA should not come as a surprise to anyone. Pyongyang has been working single-mindedly toward making this possible for a number of years. Despite being a US priority since the Nixon Administration, the ability of the US and other actors throughout the West to influence North Korean actions has been relatively futile; the use of sanctions, threats, military exercises and placing pressure on China has done little to quash the nuclear ambitions of the Kim Jong-un regime. The fluid power-dynamics of the great powers of the Pacific, never since before the 1953 armistice, has further exacerbated tensions on the Korean Peninsula begging the question – how does it end?
To begin with, let’s look at the key stakeholders. The first, and perhaps most easiest to understand, is that of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) – or more specifically Kim Jong-un. At its essence, the KWP has a laser like focus on the survival of the regime. Kim Jong-un has observed the fates of other dictators who gave up nuclear ambitions, notably Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Guadaffi, and does not wish to meet a similar fate. With this in mind he, and by extension the KWP, view nuclear deterrence as vital to their survival. Whilst international sanctions may have intended to weaken the state, countless studies have shown how these same sanctions often weaken the ability of the masses to rise up against oppressive dictatorships whilst those in power are insulated from the impacts of diplomatic actions. When combined with China’s skirting of the rules to maintain economic relations with North Korea, the KWP seems more than likely to be able circumvent the plans and actions of the US within the next coming months if given conditions are maintained.
Moving south across the Han River, the Republic of Korea is stuck between a rock and a hard place regarding its future. With a US ally that is currently difficult to anticipate, South Korea is desperately attempting to maintain the bilateral alliance to deter its northern neighbour, whilst simultaneously accommodating a rising China which is key to its future economic security. An example of this strategic tension is its recent deployment of the US THAAD missile system on a golf course in its southern region. Whilst it can be argued it was a vital move as part of a broader strategy for the nations’ security, at the same time it had dramatic effects on the South Korean economy. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took retaliatory measures against South Korean-owned businesses in China, restricted tourist travel and used its nationalist propaganda machine to encourage anti-South Korean sentiment throughout the Chinese population. Clearly, South Korea must find a way to reduce the likelihood of conflict without attracting Chinese aggression. The current solution appears to be a revival of support for the ‘Sunshine Policy’. The recently elected President Moon Jae-In was a key architect of this early 2000’s policy, which saw a unilateral de-escalation in the face of North Korean aggression in the hope of a positive result. Whilst this strategy may seem ridiculously optimistic at this point in time the alternatives look bleak. A unilateral or coalition strike into North Korea to dismantle its nuclear capabilities would be catastrophic for the South Korean capital – and with a population roughly the size of Australia, casualties would be significant.
This then leaves us with the two major actors in the region. The US, publicly, is currently inclined to not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. As the president has tweeted – “It won’t happen!” However, in reality it is largely hamstrung. Previous policies such as sanctions, as well as suggested US sabotage programs (both cyber-based and old-fashioned techniques such as feeding faulty parts into the missile supply chain) may have slowed the program; yet they have failed to halt the inexorable creep to nuclear capability. As mentioned above, the humanitarian considerations of any direct attack on North Korea also weigh heavily against intervention, with the potential destruction of large parts of Seoul by the estimated 8000 conventional artillery pieces lining the DMZ.
Even a limited strike on certain North Korean capabilities is seen as unpalatable, due to the difficulty in assuring the complete neutralisation of all of Pyongyang’s arsenal. Not only does Kim Jong-un have a dizzying array of other weapons (chemical, biological and conventional missiles that can reach Tokyo) but the North Korean military has utilised numerous means to ensure their survivability in the face of overwhelming US/Coalition airpower (mobile, hardened bunkers, mountainous terrain). It can therefore be assumed that a conventional pre-emptive strike would not mitigate the risk of mass civilian deaths in a North Korean counter-strike. And as various analysts have rightly pointed out, even if a preventative strike was able to somehow topple the North Korean government without a retaliatory shot being fired (and the Chinese were willing to allow this to occur without interfering) – consider the situation postbellum. A stateless North Korea, its economy and infrastructure in ruins, a starving population of 25 million, refugees streaming across into China and South Korea, and stockpiles of some of the most terrifying weapons mankind has to offer hidden around the country. Therefore whilst North Korea would very likely lose any conflict with the South and the US, its aim is not to win; it wishes to make any strike so costly that it can never be seriously considered. With the rapid development of its ICBM capabilities, this seems like a more realistic aim by the day. This leaves the US with two feasible options. The first is to place enough pressure on the CCP that it takes measures to influence North Korea to reduce its hostilities and ICBM development. So far, this strategy has achieved little if no results. As one Seoul-based analyst noted “It’s almost as if the Chinese want the Americans to own the North Korea problem”. Whilst there may be future opportunities to shape China into a (somewhat unwilling) partner, it seems that at this point in time China is willing to accept a nuclearized North Korea.
The second, more uncomfortable however increasingly realistic option, is a scenario where the US accepts a nuclearized North Korea. Increasingly, US politics is moving towards a focus on domestic issues and an isolationist policy. Given the high levels of inequality, reduction in public good services and years of fighting in complex, far-away and often irrelevant (in the eyes of the US population) conflicts, the US appetite to continue to fulfil the role as a world hegemony is weak. Of course, having an openly-hostile nuclear-armed and capable nation ruled by a dictator who executes his own officials via anti-aircraft gun is less than ideal – not to mention an abrupt abandonment of traditional allies South Korea and Japan – but without China’s assistance, this scenario may emerge as the least unattractive option.
Clearly then, at this point in time, the US is looking to China to resolve this crisis on its behalf. It is North Korea’s largest economic partner and could easily bring the country to its knees within a matter of weeks simply by cutting off trade – particularly through its energy supplies. Kim Jong-un relies on China for everything from oil to grain to maintain his rule. So if it has the ability to influence North Korea to such an extent – then why doesn’t it? The most likely answer lies in understanding what it is the CCP truly wants; economic prosperity and the ability to control its borders.
The CCP has over 1.3 billion people to govern and has made astounding economic leaps in the last 20 years whilst maintaining tight control of its population (arguably needed for such dramatic changes). Yet its strength is also its fundamental weakness – the CCP has entered into an agreement with its population – acceptance of one-party rule in exchange for economic prosperity. And by and large, this has been relatively successful. However in order to keep its bargain, particularly in the face of skyrocketing debt and accusations of currency manipulation, China needs to secure its borders and sea routes so that trade can be assured for the future. This has played out in various soft and hard power campaigns – the belt and roads initiative, large-scale investment in the developing world, the South-China Sea issue – and now North Korea.
China has never been a nation that was driven by a desire for conquest. Ever since its unification under the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC, its foreign policy has largely been preoccupied with keeping the barbarians out. From the Great Wall through to its perception of the ‘Century of Humiliation’, China has never tended towards expansion, however has and still does - as a result of its history - view outside powers as inherently hostile. In the case of Korea, this issue is further complicated by its historic role as a Chinese vassal state. The Korean Peninsula is ideally located for invasion into mainland China – something which the Japanese tried, with various successes, on a number of occasions throughout history. As a result, the development of Korea as a vassal state was an ideal solution for China – culturally and linguistically distinct; it was an ideal buffer between China and any invading sea forces. Developing Korea into a friendly vassal state allowed China to reduce its risk of invasion and complex war fighting campaigns, whilst at the same time securing its borders via a friendly neighbour.
It is therefore through this lens that we should analyse China’s actions regarding North Korea. As the friction points between the US global hegemony and rising China increase, China increasingly seeks to secure its borders and trade routes. In the case of North Korea, this is reinforced by China’s concern of a unified democratic Korea on its borders as an example of successful prosperity that could disrupt the CCP’s grip on power. It can therefore be summarised that China will seek any alternative to US or US-allied forces being established on its borders. This is the paramount strategic objective that China will base all its decision-making on regarding the North Korean issue, stemming from the context of a secure and peaceful Chinese border. This also provides us with insight in as to why the Chinese continue to skirt international sanctions relating to North Korea and are reluctant to commit to support the US and wider international community on de-nuclearisation – North Korea is not an isolated rogue nation, but a key piece in a broader strategy for China’s security and prosperous future.
However, using this logic, neither can it accept a failed state in North Korea. Furthermore, as its premised strategic objective is based on the actions of its ‘adversary’ – or more accurately what actions the Chinese think the US will take – it leaves a number of potential future scenarios:
If the Chinese believe the US will not strike North Korean nuclear establishments, North Korea will likely gain ICBM deployable nuclear capability. In this scenario, China aims to reign-in and control North Korea whilst at the same time effectively deter any US-aligned forces on its borders for the foreseeable future. The risk that China runs is that it will not be able to control a nuclear-capable North Korea, resulting in likely war with the South and the potential for US-forces reaching the Yalu River. This also highlights the risk of another Korean proxy war with Chinese and US forces once again facing each other on the Peninsula – which would not be in the interest of either superpower.
In terms of how the US may react to a nuclear-capable DRPK, a number of courses of action present themselves based on the traditional US-Korea-Japan alliance. Whilst the US may have become ‘war weary’ for global interventions and other ‘wars of choice’, North Korea represents a direct threat to US interests. It can therefore be seen that the US could use a number of methods to increase deterrence of the North; a mix of forward-deployed and missile capabilities; enhanced pre-emptive strike options; and strengthened defence relations with the ROK and Japan seem to be the most likely outcome. However, given the decline in US domestic support for foreign intervention, this does not necessarily mean the traditional expectation of more US troops or weapons systems on South Korean soil. Instead, the US may choose to prefer to take the role of ‘offshore balancer’, and expect the Japanese, South Koreans and other regional allies to share a greater burden to achieve deterrence.
Looking to the longer-term, if the US does truly choose to follow its current trend of isolationism to the full extent, then this burden-share could result in a complete withdrawal of US military support and the development of a nuclear-armed North Asia.
If the Chinese believe the US is willing to take offensive action to de-nuclearise North Korea, OR (more likely) the US utilises significantly powerful economic policies to coerce China to take action against North Korea, China will ensure the North Korean nuclear threat is neutralised. The more likely of these two scenarios (given the catastrophic devastation Seoul will suffer if the US strikes on North Korean soil) plays to the heart of the CCP’s weakness; targeting its economic growth would be a direct threat to both its strategic aims and its fundamental contract with the Chinese people. Any significant economic upheaval would create instability in the Middle Kingdom and the threat of this occurring would be considered unacceptable by the CCP. If this threat were to conceptualise, it is likely that the Chinese would neutralise the North Korean threat to a level that would ensure targeting of the Chinese economy is eliminated. Whether this be through Chinese economic pressure on North Korea (very likely), a form of hybrid warfare under the guise of peacekeeping operations (potentially), a Chinese-backed North Korean coup (risky but achievable), or another means is uncertain.
However, both the US and Chinese economies are currently bound together for mutual prosperity; any weakening of one would have negative consequences on the other. And at a time when US politics is preoccupied with the Middle East, the threat of terrorism and (increasingly) domestic politics, the question remains – does the US have the will to threaten a rising superpower – and its own economy – for another far-flung threat that may never eventuate?
Finally, there lies third option; a political solution through ‘quid pro quo’ bargaining. As both superpowers economies are inextricably linked, neither wants to see either a trade-war or a heavily-militarised North Asia. As such the option exists to come to a condominium. In this scenario, China’s inaction can be seen not as disinterest but rather a cheap sales trick; it is holding off dealing with the North Korea issue until it feels its value as a bargaining chip to the US has reached its peak. More specifically, what if China was willing to neutralise the threat of a nuclear North Korea in exchange for say, the US agreeing to withdraw from Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea? This opens a far more interesting debate – how valuable is the concept of a restrained North Korea in contrast to the US ability to control the seas? Or in fact it’s relationship with other allies in the Asia-Pacific region? Of course the (rather large) assumption in this scenario is that the CCP actually possesses the ability to influence North Korea to such an extent.
Clearly then at this point in time, it seems that the most likely and least unattractive option is the acceptance of North Korea as a nuclear power. Whilst this may result in the development of a number of nuclear powers in North Asia, and certainly a direct threat to the US, it is the option that at this point in time offers the best solution to a difficult situation. If anything at least some reassurance can be gained from a nuclear-capable Pyongyang; as with all dictators, Kim Jong-un’s primary aim is to survive and as long as striking the US or one of its allies remains a suicidal option it is unlikely that he would ever deliberately take action. Yet this also paves the way for Kim Jong-un to negotiate from a position of strength in the future – potentially leading to the removal of US forces from the Peninsula (a move which would be gladly welcomed in China). Of more immediate concern – it significantly increase the risk of appalling losses of life from a simple misunderstanding or misinterpretation of intent. Whatever prospects time may offer for potential resolution - now more than ever all parties must tread carefully.
As the proverb goes – May you live in interesting times.
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The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.
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