The March 9, 2022, South Korean presidential election is an appropriate time to review the geopolitics around Korea.
Korea is the geopolitical pivot point of Asia. When China wants to invade Japan, it launches from Korea. When Japan invades China, it launches from Korea. When Japan and Russia fight, Korea is in the middle. The only extended war where the US has fought China directly was the Korean War. Along with Taiwan, the worst risks of great-power war in Asia are the North Korean nuclear program and potential Sino-American disagreement in the aftermath of a North Korean political crisis.
Americans and most of the world see Korea as a little place in the shadow of Japan. But average South Korean incomes are now higher than those of Japanese and the South Korean military budget is about 10 percent larger than Japan’s. Korea’s military is much more experienced and ready than Japan’s. Yes, South Korea has smaller territory and less than half the population of its neighbor, but in some ways, it packs more punch. Its economic management is more capable than Japan’s; that is why, although it started far behind Japan, its incomes are now higher. Its infrastructure is also superior to that of the US. It is also, along with Taiwan, Asia’s most democratic democracy; its vigorous competition is much more responsive to the citizenry than Japan’s dominant-party system, and its highly educated citizenry knows what they are voting about, unlike India’s.
North Korea, of course, looms large over politics in the South and the geopolitics of the Korean Peninsula. Washington views the North as a dangerous nuclear tiger. A few years ago, otherwise serious US officials talked about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as part of a plot to unify Korea under Pyongyang in some kind of re-run of the Korean War. But in 1950 North Korea was economically and militarily superior to South Korea.
Today, North Korea’s economy is two percent of South Korea’s and its people are malnourished and now further beleaguered by its efforts to isolate the country from Covid-19. North Korea’s entire GDP is smaller than South Korea’s military budget. Its conventional military includes large numbers of men, planes and tanks, but those forces are hapless because they do not have the fuel for training. North Korea’s surge advantage, from having huge forces poised a short drive north of Seoul, has eroded. It has no friends. In reality it is a frightened mouse trapped in a corner. It is an annoying and unpredictable mouse whose frightened bites can draw some blood, but it is still a mouse. Its leader is beset by international hostility, by economic catastrophe, and by domestic infighting.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program developed in this context. Currently, North Korea is naked and helpless without nuclear weapons. Those weapons are the only way the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, has to get the world to take him seriously. In addition the nuclear program enables some reduction of conventional military personnel to alleviate a serious labor shortage.
That South Koreans are at the confluence of great-power rivalries complicates their lives. Korean journalists always ask me how South Korea can remain economically dependent on China and yet rely on the US for its security. It is not really complicated, just delicate. As long as Korea remains politically united and economically resilient, it can in principle manage the balance. The paradox is that South Korea is a very polarized society, and it fights like crazy over foreign policy. But if something threatens it, no society comes together more resolutely.
The complexities just begin there. Take China’s role. China’s public face sometimes says that Beijing and Pyongyang are as close as lips and teeth. Privately, senior officials usually say how much they despise North Korea. Conversely, North Korea is an ally of China but North Korea’s attitude toward China is a shifting mixture of fear and anger. North Korea rightly fears Chinese domination, and the sanctions that really hurt North Korea are China’s, not those imposed by the US.
For me, an iconic moment expressing the Chinese attitude toward North Korea’s provocative leaders occurred at a lunch I had with a relatively senior Chinese official in Hong Kong’s Bank of China tower in 1994. An aide came in the door and handed the official a note. The official read it, pumped his arms in the air and gleefully declared: “Yes, we did it.” “What happened?”, I asked. A Chinese delegation was in Pyongyang forcefully pressing Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, about his nuclear weapon program. Kim Il-sung left the room and dropped dead. The Chinese official thought that was just wonderful.
China’s North Korea policy is a delicate balance that never quite works. Beijing is determined to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. It fears a Korean nuclear conflict that might engulf part or all of China. It fears that North Korea might one day threaten Beijing with nuclear weapons. And it watches with horror the proliferation of children born with no arms or legs near the unsafe nuclear program’s site, right on China’s border. So it imposes sanctions, sometimes screamingly painful, on North Korea, but it fears destabilizing a regime that neighbors a Chinese province with a large ethnic Korean population. Because the North Koreans are tough, only destabilizing sanctions would work. So, as one Korean professor summarized it, China can smash North Korea but it cannot bend it.
China, meanwhile, has immense shared interests with South Korea. It needs South Korean trade, investment and technology, and it needs a workable security relationship with this powerful neighbor. Until recently, the relationship worked pretty well despite some friction. In most respects, China was closer to South Korea than to nominal ally North Korea. South Korean polls showed much greater trust in China than Japan. The two countries downplayed their conflicts and emphasized their enormous shared interests. For instance, South Korea has an island territorial dispute with China and a very similar one with Japan, but tension over the Japanese one was quite intense whereas the Chinese one was rarely mentioned. “Why?”, I asked a senior South Korean official. He responded that they hated the Japanese so much that they preferred to downplay the China problem.