Four geopolitical risks for Korea

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Four geopolitical risks for Korea



Kim Byung-yeon
The author is a professor of economics and head of the Institute for Future Strategy at Seoul National University.

South Korea faces four grave geopolitical risks. First is Russian President Vladmir Putin, who threatened to use “all available means of destruction,” suggesting the use of nuclear weapons to end the drawn-out war with Ukraine. Putin would wish to avoid turning to a nuclear arsenal that could be destructive to himself and Russia. But if his nuclear blackmail does not scare the West as he had hopes — and if his weapons do not work to tame Europe — Putin could be tempted to push the nuclear button. Even a low-yield nuclear strike can cause a radioactive tsunami. If the United States and Europe decide to punish Russia, the world could see another mass-scale war.

Second is Chinese President Xi Jinping. The question is how the policy on Taiwan will change after he starts his third term. Will he turn more docile on foreign policy since he has achieved so much on the personal level? Or will Xi go after Taiwan as he did with Hong Kong to achieve the ultimate goal toward a unified China? Given his principles and character, Xi could turn more aggressive towards Taiwan. China could blockade Taiwan out or even attempt an attack. Chinese sentiment has changed. A study on Chinese school curriculum from 2004 to 2010 showed that students have come to trust the government and Chinese systems more. Japanese experts singled out China’s invasion of Taiwan as the biggest geopolitical risk for Korea. The U.S. and Japan could go to war with China over Taiwan.

Third is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The North’s seventh nuclear test would be less alarming than the previous cases. But Pyongyang could attempt to magnify its provocation. Another nuclear test could draw greater attention if the North follows Russia’s use of nuclear weapons. In tandem with China’s attack plan for Taiwan, North Korea could threaten Seoul, Washington and Tokyo with its nuclear weapons. Pyongyang could think that if it sides with Russia or China, it could draw economic, diplomatic and military support from them. Russia and China also would like to use North Korea to shake the U.S.-led front.

Another risk comes from instability in the Pyongyang regime. North Korea sought international aid in 1995 when its GDP shriveled. Its GDP is projected to fall to 70 to 80 percent of the 2015 level, but Kim still resists outside help by claiming the country can survive on its own. During the Arduous March from the famine after a length drought, North Korea desperately needed food aid. However, since today’s crisis involves foreign exchange reserves and industries, the country can endure. When the Covid-19 threat ends, the country could resume bilateral trade with China. It could send North Korean laborers to the Far East of Russia — and the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk known as the Donbas in eastern Ukraine that Moscow unilaterally claims — to bring home hard currency. But its plans may not work. How long can its residents and elite tolerate economic hardship? Does Kim know the reality of his country?

Lastly, U.S. politics also pose a risk. What if the top person in the White House stays aloof to the geopolitical challenges as long as they do not damage America? In that case, Russia would already have won over Ukraine and China also could have become more aggressive toward Taiwan. Even U.S. troops could be pulled out of South Korea. Such a U.S. president would have been unimaginable in the past. However, with income inequalities in the U.S. at the levels of the Great Depression, things may be different. The U.S. has impressive resilience based on the world’s best education and research capabilities. However, could the U.S. economy based on finances and services succeed in high-tech manufacturing of chips and batteries? Could the U.S. education system prioritizing freedom and creativity breed highly-skilled workers? Could America solve deepening polarization that has reached a dangerous level?

We are living in a dangerous period. If the U.S. does not respond well, the danger will be amplified. Such geopolitical risks can be fatal to Korea. Putin’s nuclear war can further worsen the energy crisis and China’s invasion of Taiwan can destabilize the global economy.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin toast each other at a reception at the Far Eastern Federal University on Russky Island, April 25, 2019. [TASS/YONHAP]

The 21st century has already been an epoch of complex clashes. Hegemonic contests, geopolitical risks, security, economy, politics, and technologies are intricately intertwined. The challenges cannot be combated under the current divisive government and policies. Such a time calls for experts armed with an ability to analyze.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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