Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
The most recent escalation of the US-DPRK stand-off, while ostensibly pertaining to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, has implications for the entire region and the US role in it. US officials’ actions, statements, and tweets suggest they view escalation of tensions as more consistent with achieving the overarching US goals in the region than de-escalation and peacemaking. The US has not yet found for itself a role or raison d’etre in the emerging multipolar world. “US global leadership” has achieved the status of ideological dogma to the point neither its desirability nor its actual existence can be put into doubt without the risk of political marginalization. This naturally creates a demand for narratives that explain US actions in terms other than its perceived hegemonic self-interest. If US media is to believed, every US action around the world is performed in the name of freedom, democracy, and apple pie. A closer look at the situation suggests the US is pursuing the same policy in the Pacific Rim region that it does in the Middle East and Europe. In each of these regions, it is attempting to reverse its trend toward decline by forcing its ostensible allies into economic and military dependency to ensure the preservation of its empire. Also in each of these cases, it is attempting to do so by promoting conflict with a major regional actor in the hopes the resulting instability forces US allies and non-aligned states to adopt policies more deferential to US economic interests. While in Europe the chosen villain is Russia and in the Middle East–Iran, in Pacific this role has been assigned to North Korea. Even though DPRK’s nuclear and missile assets do not appear to be meant for warfighting but rather as bargaining chips in the process of ending the division of the peninsula, the US government appears determined they are never to be cashed in.
Republic of Korea
Preserving a state of frozen war with the DPRK is absolutely necessary in order to not only keep ROK in US orbit but also to persuade it to accept US-proposed corrections to the bilateral trade agreement. To be sure, the government of ROK is divided on what to do with its northern neighbor. There does exist a powerful faction of hardliners who favor a combination of economic and military measures to subdue the DPRK, and this faction has historically aligned itself with the United States as it does not wish to see closer economic ties with the PRC. At the same time, US increasingly frantic efforts to preserve own hegemony are weakening the hand of the ROK hardliners, to the point that the president of ROK has recently stated that he would be willing to walk away from the Trump-demanded renegotiation US-ROK free trade agreement and abandon the agreement altogether rather than succumb to US pressure to accept unfair terms. If the ROK is genuinely willing to weaken its economic ties to the US, it would imply a decisive “pivot” in the direction of China in particular and Eurasia in general. It would also remove one of the main obstacles to peace on the Korean Peninsula: US influence over ROK politics. Because as long as ROK is a junior partner to the US, any agreement DPRK and ROK sign could be abrogated at the whim of Washington, which makes it highly undesirable for the DPRK to give up its bargaining chips until it is certain ROK truly is the master of its political destiny.
People’s Republic of China
From the perspective of Beijing, the continued conflict on the peninsula is an irritant since it serves as an excuse for the maintenance of significant US military presence in direct proximity to Chinese mainland. At the same time, Beijing’s recent actions in support of UNSC-imposed sanctions suggest a certain degree of irritation with Pyongyang whose provocative actions and statements intended to bolster its negotiating position in the short term solidify US positions on the peninsula and the region as a whole by strengthening the hand of hardliners in both ROK and Japan. But to the extent that there exists a difference of opinion between Beijing and Pyongyang, it is only concerning the degree to which the terms of the final peace settlement will favor Pyongyang. On Beijing and Pyongyang being in agreement concerning the final and permanent withdrawal of US forces from ROK and the abrogation of the US-ROK security arrangements there can be no doubt.
Tokyo’s position is quite different from Seoul’s in that not only the hardliners but also the mainstream Japanese political establishment does not wish to see the conflict to end. If it ends, it will naturally strengthen the economic and political influence of both ROK and PRC, to the detriment of Japan’s interests. Moreover, a US military drawdown in the Pacific would render Japan of less importance to the US, compelling it to deal face-to-face with the PRC. Therefore, if anything, Japan’s leaders are more likely to attempt to escalate tensions with DPRK and PRC in order to keep the US involved in the region’s politics, with Japan being the main ally. To be sure, there are irritants in the US-Japan relations, including the question of military bases and the trade deficit which the US will attempt to address in the same way it’s seeking to do with the ROK. At the moment, however, it does not appear likely Japan’s establishment is willing to contemplate turning away from the US in favor of Eurasia. It might do so in the future if US economic pressure becomes too great to tolerate and China, together with Russia, provide a superior model of economic integration.
Its efforts to maintain regional dominance notwithstanding, Washington has a much weaker hand in this round than during the previous post-Cold War US administrations. Its frenetic activity in Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East does contain a fair element of bluff, since the cost of maintaining the current presence and of subsidizing US satellites in those regions is too great to sustain. The middle-term US aim at this point appears to be retrenchment, with the short-term goal of sacrificing as few positions as possible while keeping an eye on a long-term comeback. ROK is an important position to abandon, the US withdrawal from the Korean peninsula could easily trigger a major round of intra-US recriminations in the style of “who lost China?” and “who lost Vietnam”. Still, if Chinese and Russian diplomacy offer the US a way to “honorable retreat” from Korea, the Trump Administration would be hard-pressed to reject it even in the face of “deep state” opposition to any form of retrenchment whatsoever.