Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, once said, “I would destroy the world or take the world with me before accepting defeat on the battlefield.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently warned that South and North Korea are on a collision course. At their first meeting Donald Trump and Xi Jinping failed to reach any new agreement on the North Korean nuclear issue. Soon after Trump ordered a US Navy strike group o the Western Pacific, to counter North Korea’s escalating military threat. All indications are that South Korea is facing the calm before the storm. The question is, what should Seoul do at this crucial moment? The answer: it must locate the origin of this storm.
Since the International Atomic Energy Agency discovered in 1992 that North Korea had begun to produce nuclear bombs, South Korea and the US have tried to stop North Korea’s nuclear programme, through US-North Korea bilateral negotiations (1993-1994) and the six-party talks (2003-2008). But both efforts failed to denuclearise North Korea.
Each side has since blamed the other for this failure in an ongoing war of words. Pyongyang has been hit by two forms of economic sanctions: UN Security Council economic sanctions and secondary boycotts by UN member states. But these two measures are ineffective because they are not comprehensive economic sanctions and not universally applied.
More importantly, China and Russia do not observe UN Security Council resolutions as strictly as do the US and South Korea. Seoul and Washington have pressured Beijing and Moscow to impose the secondary boycotts more strictly, but to no avail. As such UN sanctions lack the power to force North Korea to the negotiating table.
Throughout history the Korean Peninsula has been a victim of the power struggles among and between the surrounding great powers – China, Russia and Japan. After World War II, the new global hegemon America joined this power struggle.
With the Korean War, the division between the Western democratic camp and the communist bloc split the four great powers and the two Koreas into four power group complexes: the northern triangle (the Soviet Union, China and North Korea), the southern triangle (the US, Japan and South Korea), the big power quadrangle (the US, Japan, the Soviet Union and China), and the inter-Korean complex. These complexes influenced one another.
Changes in the four power relations brought about changes in the two regional triangles and the inter-Korean complex. On the other hand, the inter-Korean complex and the two triangles influenced each other. The end of the cold war has not changed the dynamics of these geopolitical complexes.
Since the cold war began in 1948, the northern triangle has gone through the following changes: the alliance between China and the Soviet Union and its complete support of North Korea (1945-1963); the Sino-Soviet split (1963-1990) and North Korea’s policy of equidistance toward the two powers; and the Sino-Russian-North Korean cooperative relationships (1990-the present).
Now, a new cold war period has emerged in Northeast Asia. Despite the changes within the big power quadrangle and the northern triangle, there have been few changes within the southern triangle and the inter-Korean complex. Japan is bound by its peace constitution but also almost completely depends on the US nuclear umbrella.
The above geopolitical dynamics explain why China is taking an ambiguous position toward North Korea and why Russia cannot be trusted as far as the North Korean nuclear issue is concerned.
After North Korea conducted its second nuclear test in 2009 China adopted the principles of its Korean Peninsula policy in the following order of importance: peace and stability; stability of the Pyongyang regime; and denuclearisation. However, given the geopolitical dynamics of Northeast Asia, denuclearisation is needed first for both peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and stability of the Pyongyang regime, not vice versa.
The same can be said about China’s strong opposition to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence anti-missile system in South Korea. This kind of equivocal policy of China is tantamount to China’s support of North Korea as a nuclear power. China’s basic policy toward the Korean Peninsula is to maintain the status quo, which means China wants to have North Korea as a buffer against the other big powers, as it is impossible to have the entire Korean Peninsula under its influence. It is also beneficial to China to complicate the US regional strategy and undermine America’s position in Asia. Russia can also benefit from this dualist strategy.
In the final analysis, South Korea’s best strategic choice is to consolidate the southern triangle and form a three-power joint strategy to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue. China and Japan are both former rulers of Korea. But in geopolitics there is neither a permanent friend nor a permanent enemy. Considering the complex geopolitical characteristics and the nature of the North Korean regime, a negotiated solution is better than a confrontational one.
Park Sang-seek is a former rector of the Graduate Institute of Peace Studies, Kyung Hee University, Seoul and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localised Globe”.