Two Koreas, many troubles

The Korean Peninsula is where the US-China rivalry is the most evident. In the last few weeks both Koreas are facing several issues

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018. Korea Summit Press Pool/Pool via Reuters

Since the end of the Cold War, the geopolitical center of gravity has shifted towards the Pacific region. At the center of this area lays the Korean Peninsula, and not just geographically: here the security issue is most explosive (literally) and where the US-China rivalry is the most evident. The last few weeks have been eventful for both Koreas.

Troubles in the South

Now trending in international relations discussions is the Quad, the loose and informal alliance between the US, Japan, India and Australia, whose main purpose is to contain China within its own region. South Korea is one of the main US allies in the region, so much so that the wartime control of its own forces (OPCON) has been under US authority since the Korean war. Yet, Seoul has repeatedly declined to take a neutral side in the US-China confrontation. In September 2020, foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha had the following to say regarding Quad-plus (the original four democracies and a rotating fifth or “plus” country): “We don't think anything that automatically shuts out, and is exclusive of, the interests of others is a good idea”.

The reason for S. Korean reluctance is threefold: first, Seoul’s economic dependency on China is just too great for S. K. to do anything that could anger Beijing with no second thoughts. In 2016, due to Chinese boycott (following S. Korean decision to deploy the American THAAD missile system), Seoul’s economy suffered a $15.6 billion loss just in tourism alone. Second, what is paramount in the foreign affairs field for South Korean President Moon Jae-in is not China, but North Korea: peace and denuclearization in the Peninsula have been the two guiding lights of his presidency since the beginning. Antagonizing China, the senior ally and patron of North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), would make these already difficult goals impossible to achieve. Lastly, the (South) Korean Democratic Party of President Moon seeks more autonomy from the US. In fact, Moon aims to achieve OPCON transfer by 2022, even though public opinion, once vocal in requesting more autonomy, has now shifted towards a more US friendly position.

President Moon is due to leave the Blue House, the executive office of the SK government and Moon’s official residence as head of state, in March 2022  as S. Korean presidencies last just one mandate. Until last summer, it seemed that his successor would have been a fellow democrat. Then, sex scandals concerning Seoul and Busan mayors (both democratic) rocked S. K.’s political world. After Busan’s resignation and the suicide of Seoul’s mayor, the elections held on April 7th rewarded the two People Power Party candidates. These scandals, coupled with an unsatisfying vaccination campaign, gave a huge boost to the conservative party, which is now ahead in the most recent pools. A P.P.P. president would probably be more inclined to stand firmly with the US against China, even at the cost of deteriorating the peace process with the North.

Troubles in the North

Officially, Covid-19 did not reach North Korea, although several unofficial sources claim the opposite. What is sure is that the already strained population was hit hard by the economic repercussion of the pandemic. Even Kim Jong-un indirectly admitted that the country is in a precarious condition, saying that it will “wage another more difficult arduous march,” a sentence evocative of the great famine of the 1990s. To crippling US-led international sanctions, Covid has added the closing of the northern border, that brought to a fall of 95% of commerce with China, to which N.K. is completely dependent. Human rights organizations are deeply concerned about the situation and fear a humanitarian catastrophe and a tightening of the state control on the population.

On March 25th, N.K. capital Pyongyang welcomed the new US administration with the first missile test since Biden took office. To be precise, they tested two short-range ballistic missiles. This test does not change anything from a strategic point of view, but it is a signal intended to intimidate the US and its allies. N.K. desperately needs relief from economic sanctions while the US needs to settle one of the major threats to its allies and, as of 2017, its own territory. Yet, neither Obama’s “strategic patience” (leaving the sanctions) nor Trump’s “fire and fury” approaches brought home any concrete results. President Biden has not yet made clear what his approach will be, but Eric Brewer and Sue Mi Terry of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think it is now time for a more pragmatic approach: instead of an “all or nothing” deal, they believe the new administration should seek a much smaller (but attainable) result, such as the “freeze or a partial rollback of North Korea’s capabilities and a lessening of tensions”. This would not be a great victory for US diplomacy, but a useful compromise, something at which President Biden is extremely experienced.

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