The Dorasan-Station at the frontier between North and South Korea.

North Korea and the US, analysis of a global shakeup: why they meet now

There is a lot of movement around US and North Korean relations. But, what are the different parties’ interests, who are the primary actors, what do they hope to achieve, and how do they seek to meet their goals?

The existing tensions, the historical background, and the resulting consequences of actions taken have broad impact on all of Korea, the US, China, Japan, and Russia. They even impact the global balance of power along with its underlying practices, norms and rules. Political and economic blocs are influenced by the current and future situation on that small peninsula, as are military deployments and alliance structures.

The concrete conditions of and the ideological legitimation for regional and world order are being fought over. So, the case of Korea is a pertinent example and subject of notice for the illustration of power politics.

The world has been reminded that the peninsula has been at war for nearly 68 years, even if this was apparent to those who lived with it in the north and south of the once united Korea. Pressure has mounted for some response to this otherwise persistent situation, especially after the further weaponised nuclearisation of North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).

Actually, the war wasn’t without its deep international traces prior to the current uptick of its visibility. It’s just that it was normalised and its surrounding instruments taken for granted as a part of the existing international situation. Nearly 25,000 active duty military personnel from the US are stationed in South Korea (the Republic of Korea). A multitude of US military bases, armaments, and fighters have been there ever since the Korean War of 1950. And the South Korean military is legally and formally under wartime US command: quite something under any circumstance including during this decades long period of war with North Korea.

Likewise, Japan is home to US military bases, and an even larger military force of about 39,000 personnel (see previous link for the source). That island nation has been represented as America’s large “aircraft carrier” in the Pacific. It was also said that this great machine of war should be “equipped with a tremendous bulwark of defence against the infiltration of” Soviet bombers, and that it should have “complete and full control of four straits that go through the Japanese islands so that there should be no passage of Soviet” naval activities. This comparison was made by once Japanese prime minister, former World War Two naval officer, and long serving politican, Nakasone Yasuhiro. Nakasone made that statement as prime minister during the time of his strong relations with US president Ronald Reagan. This military function preceded the statement, and it persists to this day. The Soviet bloc is instead replaced by China and Russia. meanwhile, the continuing state of war with North Korea has been given as a prime reason for this foreign militarisation of Japan, since it’s so very close to that mainland nation.

It isn’t just that there is yet formal war on the peninsula that supports the US military presence in that region. Its political leadership is taken as given in a post World War Two period in which the international order has the US alliance system as a global hegemon, one that after the fall of the Soviet Union was largely uncontested until recently.

Remember that not long ago, under the presidency of Barack Obama, emphasis was placed on the importance of heightened involvement in East Asia. This was called the Pivot to Asia. This spike in US presence in a land half a planet away from their national borders is justified under that country’s role as leader of a world order: as “the indispensable nation”, “leaders of the free world”, and “policemen of the world”. This is a function and role created and taken on after much deliberation, strategic consideration, and with innovations in the fields of economy, diplomacy, and the military combined.

The dominant political leaders of that country decided upon the achievement of hegemony and they have successfully implemented it for decades since. This very hegemony is now in question: at the least it’s being pushed to share power with others, either under a new general world order, or via a conglomerate of coexisting systems that relate to each other in formal and informal manner.

The most obvious East Asian contestant is China. Very briefly, the arc of Korean historyhas passed through Chinese regional hegemony, Japanese occupation, World War Two, the country’s partition between Soviet and US allied camps, its purpose for the projection of US power, and the return of China as a great power that seeks to remold the global order.

The “American Century” and Korea’s role in it

Former US president, Barack Obama, had this to say during a 2012 speech to his country’s Air Force Academy:

[W]e’ve laid the foundation for a new era of American leadership.

[…] Let’s start by putting aside the tired notion that says our influence has waned or that America is in decline. We’ve heard that talk before.

[…] After all this, you would think folks understand a basic truth — never bet against the United States of America. And one of the reasons is that the United States has been, and will always be, the one indispensable nation in world affairs. It’s one of the many examples of why America is exceptional. It’s why I firmly believe that if we rise to this moment in history, if we meet our responsibilities, then — just like the 20th century — the 21st century will be another great American Century.

[…] I see an American Century because we have the resilience to make it through these tough economic times. We’re going to put America back to work by investing in the things that keep us competitive[…] I see an American Century because you are part of the finest, most capable military the world has ever known. No other nation even comes close.

[…] I see an American Century because we have the strongest alliances of any nation. From Europe to Asia, our alliances are the foundation of global security.

[…] I see an American Century because no other nation seeks the role that we play in global affairs, and no other nation can play the role that we play in global affairs. That includes shaping the global institutions of the 20th century to meet the challenges of the 21st.

The shape of “global institutions” privilege the US as “the one indispensable nation in world affairs”. The US is exceptional because it’s not only the prime author of this world order, but its political institutions and those of its subsidiary allies play the role of medium for international relations. This is accomplished via:

  • the institutions of financial transactions;
  • the role of the US dollar as the singular and global reserve currency;
  • economic systems that relate the practice of global capital with the US as its fulcrum;
  • an alliance system, or a central leader complemented by subservient nations;
  • the establishment of trade routes along its militarily supervised passages;
  • power of denial and disruption thanks to an unnmatched military that can swiftly reach into every corner of the planet; and
  • by way of standards, rules and norms of international law predicated on the hegemonic position of the US…
  • etc.

A succint history of the US rise to power is provided to us by Zbigniew Brzezinski. He was one of that country’s preeminent strategists and served under many governments, helping to shape international policy over a long period of time.

He states that: “America’s current global supremacy is distinctive in the rapidity of its emergence, in its global scope, and in the manner of its exercise. In the course of a single century, America has transformed itself—and has also been transformed by international dynamics—from a country relatively isolated in the Western Hemisphere into a power of unprecedented worldwide reach and grasp.”

The basis for America’s expanding geopolitical ambitions was provided by the rapid industrialization of the country’s economy.

[…] World War I provided the first occasion for the massive projection of American military force into Europe[…] Just as important, the war also prompted the first major American diplomatic effort to apply American principles in seeking a solution to Europe’s international problems. Woodrow Wilson’s famous Fourteen Points represented the injection into European geopolitics of American idealism, reinforced by American might[…] The fusion of American idealism and American power thus made itself fully felt on the world scene. […] Thereafter, Europe would become increasingly the object, rather than the subject, of global power politics.

[…] The European era in world politics came to a final end in the course of World War II[…] Germany’s defeat was sealed largely by the two extra-European victors, the United States and the Soviet Union, which became the successors to Europe’s unfulfilled quest for global supremacy[…] The next fifty years were dominated by the bipolar American-Soviet contest for global supremacy[…] The geopolitical dimension could not have been clearer: North America versus Eurasia, with the world at stake. The winner would truly dominate the globe. There was no one else to stand in the way, once victory was finally grasped.

[…] each used its ideology to reinforce its hold over its respective vassals and tributaries, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the age of religious warfare.

[…] In the geopolitical realm, the conflict was waged largely on the peripheries of Eurasia itself. The Sino-Soviet bloc dominated most of Eurasia but did not control its peripheries. North America succeeded in entrenching itself on both the extreme western and extreme eastern shores of the great Eurasian continent. The defense of these continental bridgeheads (epitomized on the western “front” by the Berlin blockade and on the eastern by the Korean War) was thus the first strategic test of what came to be known as the Cold War. (From: Zbigniew Brzezinski. The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. Basic Books, 1998, Chapter 1: Hegemony of a New Type, para. 13)

The Soviet Union no longer exists yet we see that the US has maintained its East Asian bridgehead in South Korea (as well as in Japan, and the Phillipines). The ruling elite of the US never lost sight of the great effort it must take to maintain global power, and the erosion of this hold on power would likely come from Asia, as long as Europe remained subservient or slid into relative decline. Indeed, an Asian challenger – China – has risen, and the division of Korea along one that is somewhat similar as that of the two Germanies plays its part in a grand struggle for global power.

The division of Germany did play a role that that of Korea does not. Germany was and now is again a significant power. So, it’s breakup would limit the scope of its capacity. Korea, meanwhile, was never a major power.

China, however, is another story. The Chinese civil war was an opportunity to split that Asian giant asunder. That civil war extended into and was related to the Korean War (see an earlier background article for details). The war between the Chinese Communist Party and the liberal Kuomintang resulted in the latter’s loss. However, the US intervened in time to prevent the Kuomintang’s total defeat. At around the same time as the launch of the Korean War, the US Seventh Fleet was placed between the island of Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. This blocked the advance of the communist armies and retained the division of warring parties between the People’s Republic of China (the mainland) and the Republic of China (Taiwan).

There is no evidence that the US has lost interest in maintaining its global hegemony. If, against its designs, it must share a large portion of power or if it loses the mantle of leadership entirely is another affair. This very question is being grappled over with brain and brawn, and the current case of US and North Korean tensions cum negotiations over possible peace are expositions of this struggle.

The Korean “spoiler”

The two Koreas have their own interests, designs, and desires. They’re also ‘spoilers’. The division of Korea into north and south was and is a reflection of the division of the world between great powers. This national breakup now constitutes a projection of US power into what they sometimes call the Indo-Pacific. This is a broad swath of territory that borders both China and Russia, hemming them in. But this has political and diplomatic consequences: despite the US mainland being far away, their active presence in Asia maintains them as a political force and as a regional partner that must by force be included in regional plans, negotiations, decision-making processes, and so on.

Conversely, US presence in South Korea (and Japan), obligates it to respond to activities on the peninsula, unless it decides to depart the region. This means that the US may be compelled to respond when North Korea seemingly troubles the status quo, or when an external power such as Russia or China do the same via the Korean peninsula. At the same time, when the US or South Korea threatens to disturb the status quo, North Korea, China, and Russia may themselves feel compelled to respond.

It’s rather difficult to keep the status quo these days, however. It should be clear by now that the status quo is one in which the US is the “indispensible nation” in a world forged under the attractions and compulsions of the “American Century”. But US superpower status is being challenged: not only by the rise of China or the occasional efforts of Russia to exhaust US might, but also by the gradual hollowing out and transformation of the very system that has privileged US interest. The US is no longer the world’s producer, and it’s increasingly dependent on but two pillars of its multi-pillar world system: finance and military. The US dominated international financial system is a complex tributary system that sucks rents, free loans, and interests from the economic activity of other countries. The US military is unrivaled in scope and is spread the world over. Both of these pillars, however, are also under threat these days, regionally and globally.

So, any sudden symbolic or real change in the balance of forces in the Korean peninsula can compel the region’s countries and global powers to respond, whether the change was intentional or driven by the organic transformation of the world system.

Former commander of the US Pacific Command, admiral of the Pacific Fleet, and expected ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris spoke the following at the 20 March 2018 Senate Armed Services Committee: “China’s ongoing military buildup, advancement, and modernization are core elements of their strategy to supplant the United States as the security partner of choice for countries in the Indo-Pacific. China also holds global ambition[…] I’m concerned China will now work to undermine the rules-based international order – not just in the Indo-Pacific, but on a global scale, as China expands its presence in Central Asia, the Arctic, Africa, South America, and Europe[…] Russia intends to impose additional costs on the U.S. whenever and wherever possible by playing the role of spoiler, especially with respect to North Korea.”

The war conditions

All of Korea is technically at war, with the US and China as major external parties, Russia as a minor party, and Japan as an informal one. This war footing has resulted in the deployment of enormous quantities of military personnel and armaments to the region. Though the period of conventional war ended in 1953 after the signing of an armistice, the war persists and legitimates the existing status quo of military deployments and political stances.

We might say that the persistence of war helps to maintain militarisation, while militarisation helps the war and the international political order to persist.

The armistice of 1953 was signed by North Korea, the US, China, and the now nonexistent Soviet Union. South Korea refused to sign it though they have abided by it.

The conflict between South and North Korea was conditioned by and grew out of an earlier period of Japanese imperialism and Korean designs for national liberation vs. imperial integration. It should be remembered that the kernel of the existing northern state was chiefly composed of guerrillas fighting against the 20th century occupation and colonisation of Korea. After Japanese defeat, Korea was divided between north and south. This was supposed to have been a temporary situation.

During the early period of division, the US chose to empower South Korean political figures that were largely administering the violent rule of Japan over Korea. Certainly, this made it very difficult to imagine that the long-time northern and southern enemies would then be able to put differences aside and forge a unified country. Perhaps the inherent antagonism of these opposed parties was a reason the particular South Korean leaders of that time were chosen, if from early on the US intent was to establish a long-term foothold on the Korean peninsula, or in Japan. Given the significant popular South Korean rebellions of the early post World War Two years, it may be that the US was concerned that the country would be united under a lefist government that would demand the expulsion of all foreign influence or even solidly align itself with the Soviet Union.

Today, the formal parties involved are naturally the two Koreas, plus the US, and China since they remain as direct parties of the war, and they’re signatories of the armistice (except for South Korea). Russia has informally inherited an aspect of the Soviet Union though it is no longer a required participant in the peace process. While Japan is affected by the geopolitical situation and its alliance with the US. Japan often justifies its military armament by pointing to the ongoing Korean conflict.

Speculative Analysis

I’ll now anlyse the current situation of Korea and various other participants, relying on recent and past events, policies, and speculating on the course of actions based on facts that are shrouded in secrecy and duplicity. There is a lot at stake here, and the various actors are not all on the same page in their attempts to influence outcomes.

I’d like to underline some of the reasons for the spike in international attention paid to the Korean peninsula, and the resulting discussions, tensions, threats, promises, and negotiations on the subject of peace and war in Korea. North Korea has supposedly improved its nuclear weapons capacity by getting access to nuclear-capable intercontinental missiles that may threaten the US with direct strikes. Furthermore, the wider region is seeing a great rise in militarised tensions with Chinese deployments in the South China Sea, interventions against Taiwan, restrictions and claims on extended air space in the region, and various economic and diplomatic responses to expansion of US military assets in South Korea. Furthermore, China is expanding its naval capacity, extending the reach of its missiles, has reorganised its military, and is making promises of improving its air force. Take all these with the economic, financial and infrastructural deployment of Chinese-led programmes, chiefly under the umbrella of the Belt and Road Initiative, and you are faced with the strains of an emergent new order that may regionally or even globally challenge, transform, or supplant that of the US.

At the same time, the US has and is itself questioning the nature and framework of existing international systems. This is evident in its pressure for change in economic relations with its allies, and in its demands for greater military deployment on the part of its allies. Of course, in both of these cases, it demands that the allies retain a submissive role. These US demands may be prompted by a transition period in the distribution of power: that the US could be reacting to its time as the unilateral power coming to a close. As its productive economy stagnates and its reliance on expensive military power deepens, it becomes increasingly fragile. It would need to rely on rents via such things a intellectual property to absorb the profits from the production of others, or similar rents and fees by way of finance capital to do the same. If the US fears such a situation, we may have evidence of a partial reason for its current demands toward other state actors.

These conditions make it an opportune moment at which to probe and act for change on the part of both North Korea and China.

North Korea

North Korea has pushed for a peace treaty in the past. They’ve regularly demanded a withdrawal of US troops from Korea as a condition of peace. It seems that such a preliminary demand has been dropped this time around. However, this does not mean that US military departure is not an ultimate goal, but that they may well be planning a multi-staged approach. Such as, (1) reach a peace agreement, (2) press for US departure following the end to war, having undermined one of the legitimating factors in favour of US military presence.

They are likely coordinating their plans and activities with China, and perhaps also with Russia. The pressing question of the wavering strength of US global dominance is a catalyst. The US established world order is being questioned by allies and adversaries alike. This is thanks to conditions that are organically transforming, but also due to the willful objections of rising powers in a period that shows signs of a shift from a uni-polar to a multi-polar world. This is therefore an opportune moment to test the capacity of the US, but also to put pressure on the US in order to sew doubt in the minds of the international community of states and leaders.

Regularly, North Korea has demanded negotiations with the US, relegating South Korea to the position of a subject nation in thrall to that greater power. It’s possible that the North Korean elite hopes for a division within that of the South, between those who wish to maintain current relations with the US and those who seek a change in their sovereign status.

South Korea

South Korea has perhaps a more complex domestic situation. Their capacity as an independent nation is limited since they’re effectively a US protectorate. It defies imagination to believe that a country can act in full indepence when its military forces are under the command of a foreign power, namely that of the US.

The domestic politics of South Korea has had periods of very significant internal conflict, with coups, popular mass rebellions, massacres, regimes of terror, attempts at legal and liberal-democratic reform, as well as efforts to come to terms with the horrors inflicted upon the population by domestic agents. These internal conflicts are understandable responses to the residue of Japanese occupation from a people that has suffered much and has desired genuine liberation. The trauma of occupation has been extended by the decisions of the US to empower past collaborators of Japanese Empire as leaders of a new republic.

Unsurprisingly, patriotic and nationalist sentiments are not lacking in that country. It’s indeed possible that the elite of that society are themselves split among the inheritors of past collaborators and those of past resistors. Today, that would likely translate into those who would wish a continuation of the status quo and those who may wish for greater room for independent South Korean action. The second group mentioned may well be taking advantage of the complex of present conditions to challenge the status quo. So, they may see some points of common interest with China and even North Korea, even if they were to also desire distance and difference from them.

What can the Koreas do togther?

The armistice agreement ending conventional war on the peninsula includes foreign powers as signatories and guarantors. This means that any decision on the part of the Koreas would be complicated by the requirement that the remainining foreign powers of China and the US agree to comply to the terms of a peace treaty.

Additionally, North Korea is dependent on China for its economic health, while South Korea is politically tied to the US as a protectorate.

Any dramatic decision made between the two Koreas alone would require a great effort to compell outside parties to agree to the terms or somehow to deliver an agreement that’s agreeable to all. The first means creating facts on the ground, the second essentially means including other parties interests in any decision. Any forceful decision by the Koreas that excludes outside powers would heavily rely on unity of action within each government. This means that dissenters would need to be sidelined and their efforts made inoperable. The Korean governments would then have to resist potental internal and external resistance long enough to realise a sovereign decision on their parts by raising the cost of resistance high enough that opponents decide to back down.

It will be hard to pull off any independent decision that excludes the US and China when the stakes include the global distribution of power.

The United States of America

A great deal has already been said about the US, since they are the architect of the current international system of norms and rules and the greatest power on the planet. However, I’ll speculate on some dimensions of their strategy here.

They didn’t initiate the immediate situation that’s resulted in the drama of negotiations with North Korea. They were pushed into it by the world being reminded that the peninsula is actually at war, and by raising at least the symbolic consequences of that war.

It’s likely that the pressure of nuclearisation coming out of North Korea and that of diplomatic pressure from China were timed and coordinated. Though it may seem otherwise, I think that the intended audience of these actions was not the US itself, but rather other peoples, leaders, and countries in Asia and other parts. For the US to ignore North Korea at this stage risks being perceived as US withdrawal from international leadership. They would also risk appearing crass and careless in the face of an international crisis. They wouldn’t want current events on the Korean peninsula to undermine their legitimacy or to leave an opening for exhibition of leadership on the part of another. So, even if they don’t wish for a change in the status quo, they feel compelled to respond and put on the airs of being open to change.

That said, the US has proven to be a dynamic and capable power in the past, or they wouldn’t have achieved or retained their position of strength. They’re most likely to seek to turn the situation to their advantage or at the least to force a return to previous conditions.

If they wish to keep a military presence in South Korea, then they may decide to undermine any possibility of formal peace in order to justify their continued involvement. Alternatively, they may decide that a peace treaty won’t inevitably result in a withdrawal of troops, especially if, on the whole, the South Korean governing elite continues to support it. The specter of Chinese and Russian power may well be employed to further this end.

The prospect of peace, or its realisation, can also open the door to subtle influence over North Korea. The US may seek to bribe the senior members of North Korea’s governing elite by promising them personal gain and wealth. Such a bribe could come in the form of select economic and industrial zones that tap into North Korea’s highly educated yet cheap labour force. Profits from such activity could then be divided between South Korean capitalists, perhaps US capitalists, and also shared with managing political elites of North Korea. This enticement may be used to tether North Korea to US interest via the economy and leveraging the monopoly of political power in the hands of North Korean state actors. It would likewise diminish North Korea’s dependence on China for its economic wellbeing at the same time as certain North Korean individuals are enriched.

If such a tactic of economic enticement is used, it’s in no way certain that the North Korean leadership would go along with it. In the past, they’ve proven to stick to their own beliefs and have forgone such bait. But it may well be worth trying, especially if enough of the ruling elite have been replaced by a new generation with different principles.

Another scenario could be that the US envisons eventual military departure from South Korea, which would not necessitate political distance between the two countries. The US already has significant military assets in Japan and other Pacific islands. I can’t estimate, however, on the impact of military withdrawl from the East Asian mainland. This requires further study in order to gauge any persistent opportunities in favour of the US in the case of this scenario.


China clearly intends to facilitate the emergence of a new regional and global order. They are coasting on the currents of change and encouraging transformation where possible. They seem to have expected such an opportunity would come and have been biding their time with strategies at hand.

They’ve grown bolder and more persistent in their efforts, going so far as to forge new international regimes, rules, norms, and institutions. They recognise that to strike out from under the shadow of the US requires an exhertion of power that then generates a new international order. Such an order is these day commonly called a ‘rules-based system’. Any new international regime of this sort would then have to reduce the singular privilege of the US and plant China as a great power. So, China would desire its own international rules and norms to cement its as chief medium of political and economic exchange.

In the short years pervious, they concentrated westward, establishing new realities via various instruments such as the Belt and Road Initiative in Central Asia, West Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa, etc. That was at a time that the US was shifting its focus from West Asia to the East (consider the Obama era Pivot to Asia). Following US deemphasis of East Asia and refocus on the West, China has made inroads into East Asia. They appear to be striking where the US is not concentrating its attention while simultaniously spreading their influence in such a way as to divert US attention and resources over an expanding geopgraphic and conceptual terrain. Essentially, they’re deploying staged concentrations of their own resouces while attempting to tax the US over a growing field of contest.

The timeliness of crises in Korea seems peculiar. It’s likely that Chinese and North Korean leaders separately or together assessed the time ripe for action in East Asia.

China would want to extend its area of influence and remove US military presence in East Asia, perhaps also from Central Asia (Afghanisgtan). This would increase the resilience and security of the People’s Republic of China because they’d have to worry less about US interest and be less concerned of US interference.

This is about more than Korea

We’re witness to a grand contest for power. South and North Korea have their own cares, but they’re simultaneously caught up in the geopolitical ambitons of more powerful actors. Current events in the Koreas are important indicators of the future form of the coming world order.

This article is the fourth of a series of four. The following provide historical background: Part 1 on late 19th and early 20th century history, Part 2 on Japanese occupation, and Part 3 on the Korean War.

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