Uncertainty Among U.S. Allies in Northeast Asia

As tensions in Northeast Asia grow over Pyongyang’s nuclear pursuits, collective action is the only way to bring stability to the region.

May 08, 2017

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Usually it is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, or his father before him, who worries Seoul and Tokyo. Today it is not only Kim who rattles U.S. allies, but also new U.S. President Donald J. Trump. To be sure, each transition in the U.S. presidency brings back the phrase “all options are on the table” and a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. But the Trump administration faces a North Korea that has far more lethal force than ever before, and a leader who has demonstrated a far greater willingness to use it.

Military vehicles display missiles during a parade to commemorate the 105th anniversary of country’s founding father Kim Il-sung, Pyongyang, April 15, 2017.
Military vehicles display missiles during a parade to commemorate the 105th anniversary of country’s founding father Kim Il-sung, Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Incentive Diplomacy Loses Its Appeal

For U.S. allies in the region, the danger has grown. South Korea has long felt the brunt of the North’s provocations. In 2010, popular opinion in the South hardened conspicuously against its northern neighbor when the North torpedoed a naval vessel and shelled an island with civilian and military residents. Forty-six South Korean naval personnel on the Cheonan ship and four people on Yeongpyeong Island, including two civilians, died. In turn, Seoul changed its military leadership and reorganized its defense strategy to more readily retaliate should Pyongyang act again. The 2010 incidents occurred near the Northern Limit Line, a contentious maritime boundary determined after a 1953 cease-fire ended the Korean War.

In 2016, Pyongyang again asserted its military muscle, launching long-range missiles, conducting two nuclear tests, and even planting new land mines at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). In February, South Korea closed the economic zone that had been its signature effort to find common cause between the two Koreas. Diplomatic exchange has since lost its charm for many in South Korea, the country that has the most to lose should conflict erupt.

Tokyo, on the other hand, is a sea away from the Korean peninsula. Japan, too, had long advocated for diplomacy and economic incentives to steer North Korea away from its nuclear path. However, Tokyo has also given up on the notion that economic carrots will win over Pyongyang after bilateral talks with Kim Jong-il revealed the North Korean government had carried out widespread abductions of Japanese citizens. While some have been repatriated to Japan, the Japanese government believes many more are unaccounted for in North Korea. Thus, the promise of Japanese financial assistance in exchange for negotiated denuclearization has evaporated as the fates of missing Japanese remain unresolved.

It is war on the Korean peninsula that has always been seen as the gravest threat to peace in the region.

The economic leverage of U.S. allies in Northeast Asia has thus been spent. Only China has sufficient economic links that, if suspended, could cause North Korea pain. At the same time, China’s belief that the North might one day follow the Chinese model of market opening seems to have been chastened, as Kim has only accelerated his military confrontation with the United States and its regional allies.

Seoul and Tokyo are uneasy with Beijing’s laggard response to Kim’s use of lethal force. Both U.S. allies are chafing under the growing Chinese opposition to their defense preparations, using economic leverage to exact strategic compromise. China has reacted harshly to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployment in South Korea. It publicly targeted Lotte, the conglomerate whose land is being used to house the new missile defense system, costing it the shutdown of eighty-seven stores and the halt of a multi-billion-dollar real estate project in China. Japan and China continue to struggle with diplomatic recovery, as Chinese forces continue to assert themselves in the East China Sea.

High Costs of Conflict

It is war on the Korean peninsula that has always been seen as the gravest threat to peace in the region. The regime in Pyongyang has long been troublesome for all in Northeast Asia: China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation puts new pressures on the defenses of Seoul and Tokyo and undermines the delicate security balance that has maintained peace since the cessation of hostilities in 1953.

Kim now has what his father did not—a viable means of wreaking damage not only on South Korea but also on Japan, and thus on the U.S. military bases that house the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the Fifth Air Force. Kim has launched seventy-four missiles since he came to power. The U.S.-South Korea decision to deploy THAAD was prompted by the North’s persistent missile launches. Japan has already invested at least $14 billion in missile defenses, and its system must now be upgraded to cope with the growing number of missiles North Korea has aimed in Japan’s direction. The Japanese government is also considering new capabilities that would allow it to retaliate should Pyongyang attack Japan.

Japanese citizens are now being asked to prepare for a missile strike. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month informed his legislature that if North Korea uses its mobile missile launchers, which could just as easily be armed with chemical and biological weapons as with nuclear warheads, Tokyo would have only a ten-minute warning. Corporations, municipalities, and schools alike are planning for civil defenses, much like Cold War drills held in the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Despite all of this tension in Northeast Asia, it would be a mistake to assume that U.S. allies hope for a U.S. military strike against North Korea. Like Washington’s security planners, policymakers in Seoul and Tokyo understand the costs of preemption. A Korean War today would be far more lethal than it was in the 1950s. Few think that Kim would limit the use of his weaponry, especially weapons of mass destruction. Over twenty-five million people now live within striking distance of the thirty-eighth parallel, the border between the North and South. From Seoul, it is only thirty miles to the DMZ and North Korean artillery, stored deep in the North’s hills, threatens the civilian population of one of Asia’s most prosperous and vibrant cities.

Developing U.S. Policy Under Trump

Amid Kim’s expansion of his military capabilities, the Trump administration’s statements on North Korea have deepened concerns in Seoul and Tokyo. Trump’s public comments on the prospects for war rang alarm bells, even among informed policymakers who were uncertain about the United States’ willingness to significantly change its approach toward North Korea. The lack of normal consultations, due largely to a dearth of staff within the new U.S. administration, have amplified these concerns. Both the South Korean and Japanese governments requested that the United States commit to prior consultation should it consider the use of force against North Korea.

However, Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to both capitals eased worries about U.S. policy goals, lessening the palpable anxiety that had taken hold of the regional media. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s appearance at the United Nations’ Security Council on April 28 also offered reassurance that Washington would continue to use all of the foreign policy instruments at its disposal. Beyond the UN sanctions already outlined, punishing Pyongyang through secondary sanctions, which would target entities that do business with the North, could be a more attractive option for U.S. friends and allies.

A Korean War today would be far more lethal than it was in the 1950s.

In late April, Abe set out on a diplomatic tour of his own. On April 27, he and Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the involved parties to refrain from “belligerent rhetoric” and to work toward a peaceful dialogue, in a message that seemed aimed at Washington as much as at Pyongyang. Meanwhile, Abe has sought to build a consensus among European countries to confront Japan’s rogue neighbor. On April 29, a French warship arrived in Japan to be joined by a British warship for military exercises with the Japanese and U.S. navies.

If South Korea has seemed muted in its diplomatic push, it is only because of its extraordinary political vacuum of the moment. President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment on March 10 has left South Korea with a caretaker government and without a national leader poised to speak on behalf of the country. On May 9, South Koreans will choose a new president, with progressive Moon Jae-in as the front-runner, according to recent polls. Moon openly called on Trump to calm U.S. rhetoric and stated that the United States is legally bound to consult with South Korea before any military action. Moon and other candidates continue to see dialogue with Pyongyang as Seoul’s best chance to avoid conflict. When a new South Korean president assumes office, the Trump administration will need to reach out quickly to clarify its approach toward the North and to work on building a shared understanding of how to move forward.

Consensus Building to Thwart Pyongyang

Trump’s phone conversations with Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping seem to have shaped his approach to North Korea thus far. Xi seems to have most of the cards when it comes to pressing Kim to come to the negotiating table. Abe finds his country in a bind militarily, caught between the public’s desire for limiting Japan’s military capabilities and the growing missile gap that could make fighting a war, even a defensive one, difficult.

Amid ongoing warnings from Trump, senior U.S. administration officials urge calm in Northeast Asia. Neither Seoul nor Tokyo finds it easy to gauge the dynamics within the new U.S. administration. China may seek solace in this disruption to allied cohesion, but China, too, has much to lose if it underplays its hand in response to the North’s behavior. Washington wants to hold Beijing’s feet to the fire on its promise of implementing UN sanctions.

As every U.S. administration has learned, there are no magic bullets that can solve the North Korea problem. Tolerance for Pyongyang’s behavior is wearing thin in Northeast Asia and the prospect of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) looms large. North Korea accused the United States of pushing the peninsula “to the brink of nuclear war” after two B-1B bombers conducted exercises with the South Korean Air Force on May 1 and charged Beijing with “absurd and reckless remarks” that only worsened the situation. Lashing out at Washington is not new, but Pyongyang’s criticism of Beijing is rare, suggesting that Kim may be worried most about how far Xi will go to curb his ability to unleash nuclear weapons.

Tolerance for Pyongyang’s behavior is wearing thin in Northeast Asia.

At the end of the day, collective action is the only way forward in Northeast Asia. Over the past two decades, a variety of diplomatic settings have been created to negotiate with Pyongyang. The new Kim, however, seems uninterested in negotiating away his growing military arsenal. If anything, he seems determined to demonstrate its power. Today, his neighbors are in the midst of a new wave of military fortification.

The risk that a North Korean provocation will trigger a major military conflict in Northeast Asia can only grow as the prospect of the North’s military soon having the capability to hold Los Angeles hostage for Seoul or Tokyo draws nearer. Should the U.S. homeland be threatened, many in Asia worry that a U.S. president would put American lives before theirs, undermining the extended deterrent that has long kept the region’s peace.

Without a credible U.S. deterrent, South Korea and Japan will have to reconsider their own military strategies. In Seoul, some politicians and media are already calling for a nuclear option, although strategic planners are less enthusiastic. Tokyo is far less likely to go that route given domestic antinuclear sentiment, and yet, Japan will also have to consider broader regional dynamics.

Northeast Asia has been transformed by North Korea’s insistence on proliferation. The threshold Washington focuses on—the acquisition of an ICBM capable of reaching its homeland—is not the only threshold that matters to U.S. allies, but it does focus the region’s mind. If that capability were to be achieved by Pyongyang, the U.S. president will have a far, far worse hand to play, and potentially fewer partners who are able (or willing) to help.

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