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by Louie Dane C. Merced

The Korean Peninsula is considered a perennial flashpoint in Asia, and it is not only because of the “unfinished” war between North and South Korea, or the nuclear weapons program of the reclusive North Korean regime. It has long been at the crossroads of major powers– US, China, Japan, and Russia–competing for greater influence and strategic advantage in the region. The stability of the Korean Peninsula has always hinged on the actions being undertaken by these powers, either unilaterally or in concert.

Recent developments in the Peninsula reveal some curious movements and maneuvers by the major powers. For instance, Japan and North Korea appear to head towards a limited rapprochement with the two countries agreeing to reinvestigate the persistently thorny issue of the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents. The Japanese government, for its part, has agreed to relax some of its unilateral economic sanctions against the already heavily sanctioned North Korea. Likewise, Russia wrote off most of North Korea’s Soviet-era debt, indicating its keenness on extending its Trans-Siberian Railway and natural gas pipeline all the way to the Korean Peninsula. Given its estrangement with European countries over Ukraine and Crimea, Russia is now looking at the robust Asian markets as alternative destinations for its natural gas exports.

In contrast, North Korea’s only major power ally, China, is showing signs of impatience with the continued provocations by the Kim Jong Un regime, as well as last year’s execution of Jang Song-Thaek, uncle-in-law of Kim and an advocate of Chinese-style economic reforms. President Xi Jinping’s visit to South Korea in July 2014 was widely interpreted as a snub to the North Korean regime; previous Chinese presidents visited North Korea first before the South. Furthermore, China is also wary about how North Korea’s actions are bringing the US, South Korea, and Japan towards closer military cooperation. Fearing that the US-led alliance system in the region will ultimately be a threat to China, the Chinese leadership is demonstrating cooperativeness by calling on North Korea to rein in its disruptive activities and by proposing the revival of the Six Party Talks (SPT).

Meanwhile, the US continues to have little interest in renewed dialogue with North Korea. Exasperated with how quickly the “Leap Day Agreement” collapsed following North Korea’s rocket test in 2012, the US government insists that no talks would take place unless the regime shows sincerity towards denuclearization and disarmament. Moreover, as the US government’s involvement grows deeper in the crises in Ukraine and Iraq, negotiations over North Korea’s denuclearization become less of a priority. In fact, what appears to be a more pressing concern for the US in Northeast Asia is the heightening of tensions between Japan and South Korea over territorial rifts and unresolved historical disputes.

Gainers and losers

Benefitting most from the ongoing regional dynamics is North Korea, which now appears to be more politically stable and self-assured in the aftermath of Jang’s purge. The absence of multilateral negotiations and the disparate actions of regional powers provide North Korea with some strategic flexibility and leverage to lessen its isolation. The North Korean regime is expected to take advantage of economic concessions or political gains in its engagement with Russia and Japan, as these would also help offset its excessive reliance on China.

More critically, the impasse in negotiations also gives North Korea more time to advance its nuclear weapons and missile programs. The anticipated fourth nuclear test of North Korea has not yet pushed through possibly because the regime knows that any test while South Korea is still reeling from the Sewol tragedy will be counterproductive. North Korea is also cautious that another test at this time would invite greater international condemnation and could prompt regional powers to unify against its nuclear threats. Despite these actual and prospective developments, the unpredictable regime could easily revert to its belligerent behavior when it sees the need, either in protest against the actions by South Korea and the US, or in acquisition of some diplomatic or economic concessions from the international community.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye despite her government’s highly touted trustpolitik, or the incremental building of trust with the North. In particular, her “Dresden Declaration” outlining humanitarian and economic cooperation as the path towards peaceful unification of the Peninsula was immediately denounced by North Korea. Furthermore, military incidents have also continued, with the exchange of artillery fire by the North and South Korean navies along the border in March 2014 and the detection of suspected North Korean drones over areas in South Korea, including the Presidential Blue House.

Given the bleak state of inter-Korean relations, South Korea is turning to the regional powers to urgently address North Korea’s nuclear activities. It is already concerned about how expanded economic contacts between Russia and North Korea and the lifting of some sanctions by Japan – the continued economic lifeline provided by China notwithstanding – could undermine UN Security Council (UNSC) trade sanctions against the regime. Because of this, South Korea now appears to be more receptive to revive the SPT even without strong preconditions imposed on North Korea.

Changing regional dynamics: Sign of broader realignments?

The developments in the Korean Peninsula are unlikely to result in drastic and long-term recalibrations in the strategic calculations of each regional power. The US, Japan, and South Korea will remain united in responding to military provocations from North Korea. China is unlikely to withdraw its support for the Kim regime given its broader interest to have North Korea as a buffer state against the US. Meanwhile, Russia may be seeking a more active economic presence in Asia due to its political tensions with Europe, but it remains to be seen whether or not this will result in a more substantive and sustainable policy.

The current situation in the Korean Peninsula demonstrates how the effective resolution of security issues, particularly the North Korean nuclear threat, is significantly impeded by the individual interests and maneuvers of the regional stakeholders. While there is an apparent consensus about the need to denuclearize North Korea, the regional powers have differing views about the importance and urgency of the issue. The status quo may bring some degree of stability as any serious conflict is averted, but the further delay of a multilateral and coordinated mechanism to address North Korea’s nuclear threats will only create more serious challenges in the future. A North Korea with a credible nuclear weapons arsenal will be more difficult to negotiate with and will exacerbate the already complex security situation in the Korean Peninsula and the region.

Finally, even though the Philippines is not directly involved in the geopolitics in the Korean Peninsula, the unpredictability of the situation compels the country to maintain its vigilance. The Philippines does not have adversarial relations with North Korea, but its geographic proximity means that the country is within the perimeter of North Korea’s expanding missile range. A nuclear armed North Korea would also alter the military balance in the region and could trigger a serious conventional and nuclear arms race. This may result in an even more unstable regional security environment that may inadvertently affect the security interests of the Philippines.

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*Louie Dane C. Merced is a Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute.
Mr. Merced can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this publication are of the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.