Northeast Asia’s security challenges only deepen

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Northeast Asia’s security challenges only deepen


Six decades since the Korean War, South Korea is still faced with countering Pyongyang’s continued military provocations, which some analysts believe have the possibility of escalating into a full-blown war on the Peninsula.

At the same time, Seoul is sandwiched in a volatile security environment in Northeast Asia, especially concerning the rising militarism of Beijing and Tokyo.

In regards to the uncertain regional security situation rooted in territorial and historical tensions, many experts pinpoint China as the decisive player in setting the tone for stability in Northeast Asia as well as reigning in Pyongyang.

But Beijing, with its rising militaristic and economic power, faces territorial struggles with neighbors and ongoing tensions with the United States.


Under the right-wing Shinzo Abe administration, Japan recently enabled rights to exercise collective self-defense through a reinterpretation of its constitution. Combined with its whitewashing of history, this has led to soured diplomatic relations with Seoul and Beijing.

The United States, Seoul’s longtime ally, likewise is struggling to balance obligations across the globe, despite President Barack Obama’s promise of a “pivot to Asia,” or a rebalancing of U.S. policy towards the Asia-Pacific region.

Fellow six-party nation Russia appears to be returning to its imperialistic ways, with the Crimea annexation issue exacerbating tensions with the United States.

And in such a rapidly shifting security environment, South Korea faces continuing tension with Pyongyang as the Kim Jong-un regime pursues its nuclear and missile programs, along with recent diplomatic efforts that appear to be an attempt at easing relations with Seoul and the international community to bolster its economy.

Security and foreign affairs experts from China, Japan, the United States and Korea, interviewed by the Korea JoongAng Daily, weighed in on the risk factors involved in regional stability and identified Pyongyang as the unpredictable factor that could overturn the situation in Northeast Asia.

Hong Seong-min, head of Seoul-based think tank Security Policy Networks, said, “North Korea is the only country in the world that holds the objective of carrying out war.”

He added, “China is expanding its military to bolster its status as a superpower, but is not holding out war as its target, nor is Japan as it tries to reinterpret its peace constitution as a maritime country to counter the rising power of China.”

But for North Korea, he said, the idea of war “is a part of its identity.”

Thus, South Korea has a precarious role in containing the accelerated military tension in the region, struggling to find a diplomatic balance between the United States and China, all the while trying to prevent the worst-case scenario: a full-scale war with the North.

Threat of conflict

Regional security and nuclear expert Zhu Feng, a professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies and deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CISS), said he does not perceive a “high security risk in the near future in East Asia.”

“Leading players in the region all have no intentions to edge towards conflict,” he said. “But the trend could be quite ominous if China and the United States don’t re-establish their base to undergird an endurable cooperation.”

He added, “No one can exclude the potential of a full-scale war scenario on the Korean Peninsula,” but said that such a situation would be “quite unlikely.”

The biggest factor that could overturn the Northeastern region is China’s key security policy in regards to building its superpower status and also in regards to North Korea, said Hong, an advisor to the ruling Saenuri Party on North Korean nuclear issues.

He pointed to China’s unilateral designation of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea last November, which overlaps with both the Korean and the Japanese ADIZ, as an example of such tension, which triggered the United States and Japan to dispatch military jets. “Though the U.S. acknowledges to a certain extent Chinese expansion diplomatically, it still does not accept it militarily.”

Taiwan and the Diaoyu Islands, which Japan claims under the name of the Senkaku Islands, are areas of risk, according to Hong. “But the area that has the highest probability of being triggered into full-blown war is the Korean Peninsula. So, in Northeast Asia, the North Korea issue and its war intentions cannot help but be a key issue.”

Hong says the Kim Jong-un regime has been bolstering its combat readiness for an all-out war with South Korea that would last between three to five days, reviewing various invasion routes.

“North Korea has a population of some 28 million people, and this means at least 50 percent of its people support the ideology of war against the South,” he said. “While it may be less than before, that is why the government is surviving.”

Narushige Michishita, a North Korea and Asia security expert at Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies likewise said he didn’t “rule out the possibility of war.”

Michishita pointed out that peace and stability in East Asia will depend on the region’s countries’ ability and willingness to maintain a balance of power in the face of a rising China, and their “ability to manage crises resulting from mistakes that inexperienced Chinese seamen and pilots might make.”

He added that while the likelihood of a major war on the Korean Peninsula wasn’t high, “North Korea has a young and inexperienced leader, which is a major source of uncertainly.”

North Korea engaging in a full-scale war “will bring about an end to the North Korean regime,” said Kim Heung-kyu, director of Ajou University’s Institute for China Policy Studies. “However, we also will pay a considerable price, so we cannot consider this sort of policy even as an option. South Korea’s policy is ultimately unification through a peaceful method.”

Enduring tensions

The key regional leaders are expected to stay in power for many more years, leading to scant promise of a thaw in frigid diplomatic ties.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe, who recently appointed a more conservative cabinet than ever in his first reshuffle since his inauguration in December 2012, is expected to stay in office until September 2018.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s 10-year term runs until March 2021.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared he may run for a fourth term in 2018, and if he does, he may stay in power until 2024.

Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, is intending to rule North Korea for life.

Hence, the most variable link is in South Korea, as its diplomatic and security policies inevitably change with each administration, as presidents serve single five-year terms. President Park Geun-hye, who came into office in February 2013, introduced key diplomatic policies including a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative, a Eurasia vision and a Korean Peninsula trust-building process.

But Park, Xi and Abe have yet to hold customary talks since their inaugurations, and a Korea-Japan-China trilateral leaders’ summit has been postponed indefinitely, another factor contributing to regional instability and poor future prospects of cooperation.

While North Korea’s denuclearization is a stated diplomatic priority for Seoul and its key allies, there are few realistic hopes of Kim Jong-un giving up his nuclear arsenal after seeing the fates of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Even if the six-party talks involving the Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia resume, they are likely to be used as general diplomatic negotiations rather than being focused on ending the nuclear program.

In regards to Chinese and Japanese tensions, Kurt Campbell, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and CEO of The Asia Group, said in a recent visit to Seoul that Japan has been showing more determination toward diplomacy, but China hasn’t been very responsive to its gestures.

“They either would like to see some preconditions, or some have suggested that the Chinese government has especially written off Prime Minister Abe and wants to wait for the next leadership team,” he said. “And that could be a long time.”

He added that some level of dialogue in the relationship between China and Japan has to be made “because it brings us risks of inadvertent clashes.”

Campbell, however, dismissed any “real worry about war” due to such tensions. On the contrary, “the situation on the Korean Peninsula could rapidly escalate into a much more serious condition.

“The difference between the islands issues and the Korean Peninsula is that the Korean Peninsula is trigger-loaded,” said Campbell. “If there was ever a crisis, things could rapidly escalate out of hand. Most of these areas with patrol boats and the like are not linked to a larger trigger in the relationship.”

South Korea’s military alignment

Seoul remains in an awkward balancing position even in defense cooperation with its allies.

While the United States is Korea’s No. 1 ally, Seoul remains hesitant to deploy the U.S.-designed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile system, which it fears could lead to friction with Beijing.

Since North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, Seoul has also been requesting Washington to delay the transfer of operational control, or Opcon, back to South Korea in the event of war. South Korea was scheduled to receive wartime operational control in December 2015, but has been asking for a postponement due to the unstable security situation on the peninsula. The two sides agreed to the delay and a formal announcement was expected Thursday afternoon Washington time.

“The deployment of the Thaad on the Korean Peninsula will not be helpful for the security and safety of South Korea,” Ajou University’s Kim said. “It will provoke extreme reactions from China and Russia and bolster North Korea’s strategic value.”

Deploying the anti-ballistic missile system here “has a high probability of bringing about a result that will be hard for South Korea to cope with, and impose a big impediment for the unification of the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

The deployment of Thaad batteries to Korea has been a touchy issue because China and Russia have reacted sensitively toward the anti-missile system, designed to shoot down missiles using a hit-to-kill approach and equipped with a radar system that can cover more than a 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) range. They think the United States and South Korea also want to use it as a shield against their own missiles.

“Seoul should stay away from meddling in strategic rivalry between China and the United States,” advised Peking University’s Zhu. “The acquisition of the Thaad is a bad sign that [South Korea] wants to meddle in strategic competition.”

But other analysts see strategic benefits in deploying the Thaad on the Korean Peninsula and for Seoul to bolster its military alliance with Tokyo and Washington.

Japan’s decision to start exercising a right of collective self-defense, alongside revisions of U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, is “expected to make it possible for Japan to take more actions during any contingency on the Korean Peninsula than before,” said Michishita. “This will certainly strengthen Japan’s commitment to South Korea’s defense in the future.”

For example, Japan could be able to protect U.S. vessels on missions to defend South Korea against North Korea’s ballistic missiles or evacuate noncombatants from the Korean Peninsula, he said.

Michishita added Japan could also engage more closely in intelligence sharing on ballistic missile defense with the United States and South Korea. “If such intelligence sharing were to be realized, Japan would be able to use intelligence that South Korea - which has numerous radar installations and sensors in the vicinity of North Korean missile launch sites - has gathered.”

But Michishita pointed out that South Korea was not an important factor in Abe’s push to reinterpret Japan’s constitution to claim a right to collective self-defense.

“There is a concern that Japan’s commitment to the defense of South Korea might dwindle,” he said, because of the risks that Japan would face in hosting U.S. military bases during a contingency on the Korean Peninsula “due to advances in recent years of North Korea’s nuclear and missile development programs.

“North Korea began deploying Rodong missiles - meant for attacking Japan - in the late 1990s, and it has already fielded more than 200 missiles and around 50 mobile launchers,” said Michishita. He pointed out that the nuclear bomb that North Korea detonated in its third atomic test in February 2013 was miniaturized to a certain extent “in terms of both dimensions and mass.”

He said there is a chance that U.S. and Japanese defense cooperation could face difficulties over the use of U.S. military bases in Japan.

“In other words, in the event that a conflict breaks out, North Korea will soon be able to threaten a nuclear strike on Japan in an attempt to coerce it not to allow the U.S. military to use its Japanese bases.”

Hong likewise supported the deployment of the Thaad system and the strengthening of trilateral defense cooperation with Tokyo and Washington, saying that the sharing of military information would be valuable in the case of an emergency involving Pyongyang.

“Defense policy is preparation for the worst case scenario,” said Hong. “Japan and Korea have many diplomatic issues such as Dokdo or the comfort women issue… But on the other side, there is Korea-Japan military cooperation, which is very important.

“Nuclear weapons can only be countered by nuclear weapons,” Hong said. “Objectively, we are in a very dangerous situation but are not able to sort it out ourselves.”

This is why, he said, the delay of the transfer of Opcon is important in heightening security in the region. He said the Thaad system would also be helpful to this overall security posture, though he added, “I’m not sure how the decision will be reached, but it is pressing.”

He added, “In modern society, any warring country, whether powerful or weak, is bound to fail. But it’s foolish to say that if there is war, we will win anyway. The [South Korean] metropolitan area can become a ruin within three days, so what use is there in winning?”

Conflict prevention

Political leaders have a basic responsibility to rank the most serious impending risks, as well as latent risks, and create unity within their people and translate all of that into diplomatic policy, said Hong said. “But that process at the moment is rather lacking.”

In the instances of Pyongyang’s sinking of the South Korean warship in March 2010 or its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island the following November, Hong said, “The international community has a tendency to see it as dispute. But in our perspective, that kind of dispute can always turn into a full-blown war.”

He said it is important to “neither underestimate nor overestimate North Korea.

“Ever since the Roh Tae-woo administration, we have belittled the North Korea issue, thinking that North Korea is on the brink of collapse,” he said. “But in the meantime, North Korea continued to develop nuclear weapons and missiles over the past 20 years.”

Hong said the first step to better understanding the situation with Pyongyang comes with domestic unity on the issue.


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