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In Line of Fire: The Korean Peninsula in U.S.-China Strategy

Korean peninsula

Korean Peninsula. Credit: “Korean peninsula crisis,” China Daily, August 7, 2017.

Tim Beal is a retired New Zealand academic who has written extensively on Asia with a special focus on the Korean Peninsula. Recent publications include the entry on Korea for The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism (New York: Springer, 2019). He has also written some chapters for a forthcoming collection: Immanuel Ness and Stuart Davis, eds., Sanctions as War: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy (Leiden: Brill, 2021).

He is very grateful for the unstinting assistance of Ankie Hoogvelt and Gregory Elich in providing comments and corrections.

In August 1945, Washington’s view of the world was utterly transformed in line with the “gunboat diplomacy” dictum of Lord Palmerston—countries have no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests.1 Countries that had been enemies, such as the United States and Germany, or the United States and Japan, were, once conquered, considered on the way to becoming friends. Once their friendliness was firmly established, they were elevated to allies.2 In the case of Germany, this process involved denazification. No such purge was undertaken in Japan, where the emperor was not hanged but “democratized,” and a new constitution, usually known as the Peace Constitution, was written for the Japanese.3 Those allies not considered friendly were transmogrified into enemies. The main enemy was the Soviet Union, which had done so much to bring about victory but was now seen as an impediment to what Henry Luce had termed “the American Century.”4 Thus, the war against fascism was transformed into what was to be called the Cold War. U.S. imperialism, subdued somewhat by post-First World War isolationism, came into full flower. Washington implemented this sea change in many ways, and one of them was the division of the Korean Peninsula.

The Palmerstonian Calculation and the Division of Korea

Location is the curse of the Korean Peninsula, although it has the potential to be a blessing. It is the place where four great powers meet and contest—Russia, Japan, China, and the United States. Many writers, especially Americans, leave the United States out of that list, thus vitiating their analysis.5 The peninsula has been a conduit of culture from the Asian mainland, mainly China, to Japan, but it has also been the route of invasion—once by the Mongols, but mostly by Japan. In August 1945, with the Pacific War rapidly coming to an end and the Soviet Army mopping up Japan’s famed Kwantung Army, the United States decided it needed a buffer in Korea to protect conquered Japan from its main ally.

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It is frequently stated that the division of the Korean Peninsula was a joint enterprise by the United States and the Soviet Union—“the United States and the Soviet Union had each granted themselves control over one half of Korean territory.”6 This is quite misleading. The division was a U.S. initiative to which Joseph Stalin acquiesced. This is a crucial point because it establishes the foundation for understanding the U.S. motivation for the division as well as its consequences.

The actual operation of deciding on a dividing line and presenting it to the Soviet Union is usually portrayed as a rushed, even amateurish business, with the United States taken aback by the speed of the Soviet advance with colonels Charles Bonesteel and Dean Rusk (later secretary of state) using a map from National Geographic in the course of “frantic deliberations” to choose the thirty-eighth parallel.7 This was less than the United States wanted but it gave them the majority of the population and the capital, Seoul. Stalin accepted the proposal without demur, to the surprise of the officials then and U.S. scholars since.8 The surprise was because Stalin’s acceptance contradicted the central myth of the Cold War, which started in 1945 before the hot one even ended—namely, that it was a matter of the United States and allies responding to Soviet, and later Chinese, expansionism. The myth was a case of psychological projection. Soviet incursions beyond its borders—the construction of the satellite system in Eastern Europe in particular—were primarily defensive, and while some assistance was given to socialist movements in Europe and anticolonialism elsewhere, especially in Asia and Africa, this was limited and cautious.9 The expansionism in reality emanated from Washington, which since 1945 has built up a huge network of subordinate states, bases, and what is euphemistically called a “forward defense” perimeter as close as possible to the borders of adversaries, in particular the Soviet Union/Russia and China.10 While defense is used to obscure the essentially aggressive nature of U.S. imperialism, this perimeter also provides what Jim Mattis describes as “defense in depth.”11

Motivation

The immediate reason for the division of the Korean Peninsula was to protect, militarily, politically, and perhaps ideologically, the war prize of Japan from the Soviet Union. The United States was in no mood to share Japan with even its close allies in the Pacific War—Britain, Netherlands, Australia, France, and the Republic of China under Chiang Kai-shek, let alone its principal adversary, the Soviet Union.

A foothold on the Korean Peninsula consolidated the U.S. strategic position in the Western Pacific. From Korea, the United States could keep an eye on newly conquered Japan, and on China, as yet not “lost.” The U.S. relationship with Chiang had been fractious but the United States could reasonably consider it “owned China,” hence the insistence that those parts Japan had seized, in particular Taiwan and the islands in the South China Sea, be returned. Later, in Palmerstonian fashion, it would decide that they were not really part of China after all.12 After the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Taiwan (still under Chang Kai-shek), Japan, and South Korea would become the three cornerstones of the U.S.-forward military presence in Asia. Although the bases in Taiwan had to be relinquished in 1979 as part of the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC, those in Japan and South Korea remain and are considered essential to U.S. strategy in Asia.13 The giant Camp Humphreys base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, is not merely the largest U.S. overseas base in the world, but it is also the one closest to Beijing.14 Significantly, most of the cost is borne by South Korea, another illustration of the exploitative nature of imperialism.15

The occupation of the southern part of the Korean Peninsula thus afforded the United States both protection of Japan and a platform from which to project power. Over time, South Korea has provided further services and the division of the peninsula has served the United States well.

Consequences

The consequences of the division of the peninsula were momentous, and are still with us. The American Military Government swept aside the Korean People’s Republic—“a polyglot assemblage of communists, anarchists, trade unionists, Christian socialists, and social democrats”—that had been declared in Seoul in September 1945 and instead parachuted in Syngman Rhee from Hawai‘i.16 Had the Koreans been left to arrange their own affairs in an undivided land, no doubt there would have been political turmoil and some bloodletting to assuage decades of Japanese colonialism, but it is unlikely that there would have been anything like the carnage that actually ensued nor the intractable problems of division. With no popular support or political base, Rhee utilized the state apparatus left behind by the Japanese and he is remembered today mainly for his massacres, such as that on the island of Jeju.17 In the north, Kim Il-sung, who had waged a guerrilla war against the Japanese, pursued a policy of anticolonial cleansing and social revolution, the two being linked. The result was two versions of Korea, diametrically opposed and each claiming legitimacy. Many consider that the Korean War was, in some form, inevitable given the situation that division had produced; Bruce Cumings, for instance, sees it as a civil war that began in the 1930s, if not earlier.18 However, it was the division of Korea, and the U.S. geopolitical objectives of which it was an instrument, that transformed that struggle. What began in June 1950 as a Korean civil war soon became a war of U.S. imperialism against Korean nationalism and, then, with Chinese intervention, the first Sino-U.S. war. A new and terrible world was born.

Ramifications

First, there was, of course, the devastation visited on the people and the land of Korea. Millions died, were injured, and displaced. Bombing, far more extensive and undiscriminating than that on Europe or Japan, obliterated the homes, cities, and farms of the north.19 Curtis LeMay, head of Strategic Air Command, commented, seemingly nonchalantly, that his bombers had killed some 20 percent of the population.20

The ramifications of the Korean War extended far beyond the peninsula itself. It provided stimulus to the global economy, especially in East and Southeast Asia, and set three of the four “little dragons” or “Asian tigers” (Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) on the way to rapid economic growth, with the fourth, South Korea, joining them during the Vietnam War. It rescued Japan from economic stagnation and put it on the road to both its “economic miracle” and remilitarization.

Chinese Intervention: Revisionism and the New Realism

Although there has been considerable revisionist criticism within China of its intervention in the Korean War, especially during the now fading rapprochement period when Dengist dreams of a benign United States facilitating China’s peaceful rise held sway, at the time it was a source of pride that the Chinese People’s Volunteers had fought the world’s most powerful military to a standstill. It provided a stimulus to nation-building and enhanced the legitimacy of the PRC as a capable and powerful country. It prevented the United States from attacking, via Taiwan, and made it tread carefully in Vietnam.21

Mao Zedong is attributed with describing the closeness of the relationship between China and North Korea at the time of the Korean War as that between “lips and teeth.”22 Over time, the relationship between the two grew conflicted, with both sides having problems. The conventional opinion was expressed by Alan Romberg in 2009 when he claimed that the lips-and-teeth relationship had long since “certainly faded into nothingness.”23 This was superficially correct and many saw it as evidence that China would not object to South Korea taking over the North, absorbing it, somewhat similar to what happened in Germany.24 This was mistaken for two reasons. First, if South Korea were an independent country, then China would probably reluctantly accept its absorption of the North. But South Korea has limited sovereignty and is subordinate to the United States in many ways, not least of which is the U.S. wartime control of its military. Second, there is no reason to suppose that there would be no resistance, so any takeover would have to be done with some (and probably a great deal of) military force. That would mean U.S. control; a U.S. general standing on the banks of the Yalu looking over the new frontier between the United States and China. The Chinese general on the other side would not be too pleased with that. Moreover, a unified Korea under Seoul’s administration might well generate irredentist claims to the loyalty, and perhaps the land, of the 2.5 million ethnic Koreans in China.25 Given that the United States utilizes the class imperialist strategy of fomenting ethnic and religious divisions to fragment adversaries—Xinjiang and Tibet in the case of China—these claims would have U.S. support.

That the wartime lips-and-teeth relationship between China and North Korea would subsequently fray should come as no surprise. It is a very common phenomenon; with the common enemy gone, or in abeyance, then natural divergences of interest will reemerge. Both Koreas have problems with patrons, but there are important differences between the two. North Korea has two patrons: the Soviet Union/Russia and China. This has given North Korea the advantage of attempting to play one against the other, as well as the disadvantage of being under pressure to declare allegiance, as during the Sino-Soviet schism.26 South Korea has but one patron: the United States. This means that North Korea is fiercely independent while South Korea remains a client of the United States.

There are strong but rather unexplored parallels between the deteriorating Sino-Soviet relationship in the 1950s and that between North Korea and China in more recent years. The Soviet Union wanted to relegate Chinese nationalist aspirations, notably over Taiwan, with what it saw as the need to forge a less threatening relationship with the United States. Similarly, China has been anxious to avoid antagonizing the United States or giving it any reason or pretext for interrupting its “peaceful rise” and has been willing to sacrifice North Korean concerns over U.S. hostility.

Many commentators misinterpret the Chinese position on North Korea. Because Washington and Beijing often say the same thing, they presume that the Chinese are doing it for the same reason as the Americans. U.S. policy toward North Korea is part of a global strategy to preserve hegemony, which includes the need to contain and depower China. In contrast, China wants peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula to avoid conflict with the United States and has been willing both to sacrifice North Korean interests and to compromise on strategic principles, notably by supporting U.S. initiatives in the UN Security Council condemning and sanctioning North Korea. This was predicated on the naive belief, dating back to Deng Xiaoping, that the United States would allow its peaceful rise. Events have confounded that dream and, as a result, China is becoming more resistant to U.S. pressure.27

Both China and North Korea may chafe, for different reasons, at the lips-and-teeth relationship, but neither can escape it. It is somewhat like an arranged marriage, in this case determined by geography and history, which cannot be dissolved despite all the problems. The Korean Peninsula is vitally important to the United States because it is on the border with China. The peninsula is even more important to China precisely because of its location, which was brought home by the Korean War.

The Consolidation of U.S. Imperialism

The effect of the Korean War on the United States was the most consequential in global terms. Because the Soviet delegate was boycotting the UN Security Council in protest of the U.S. blocking of the new Chinese government from the China seat, the United States was able to get the United Nations to endorse its expeditionary force, called even today the UN Command despite being completely U.S. controlled.28 This manipulation of the United Nations was replicated in 2006 with the beginning of UN sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear deterrent program.

The Korean War was a godsend to the U.S. security establishment. It was the hot war that was needed to firmly bed down the Cold War, both functionally and in the popular imagination. It provided an economic stimulus that soon became addictive and established the permanent war economy.29 The military-industrial complex, about which Dwight Eisenhower of all people warned in his valedictory speech, became a central feature of U.S. society.30 This complex encompasses not merely the military and armaments manufacturers, but also the security and intelligence communities, and all those in politics, media, think tanks, academia, and so on, who make a living out of war and the fear of it. The military-industrial complex complements imperialism in informing and driving U.S. foreign policy, and much of U.S. society. The Korean War was thus the genesis of the “forever wars” that presidents promise to abolish but never do.31

Despite its success in promoting militarization, the Korean War was the first war that the United States did not win. It ended in a military stalemate, resulting in an armistice—a suspension of fighting—but neither victory nor peace. For the public, it became the “forgotten war” and for militarists a good reason to increase military expenditure. Despite overwhelming advantages in technology and industrial might, the Pentagon found China to be a formidable power. The fear of kinetic war with China meant that war was to be continued by other means—namely, diplomatic (attempting to keep it out of the UN Security Council and Taiwan in) and economic, with the embargo lasting into the 1970s and continuing sanctions, varying in intensity since 1950 but increasing greatly in recent years as fear of China’s rise has mounted in Washington.32

The Korean War also led the United States to intervene directly in the Chinese Civil War. Washington had bankrolled Chiang and provided him with war materiel (that usually ended up in the hands of the Communists), but now his bolthole on Taiwan was to be protected, producing a running sore in U.S.-China relations.

In his pathbreaking 1952 Monthly Review Press book The Hidden History of the Korean War, I. F. Stone highlighted the close cooperation, perhaps collusion, between Chiang and Rhee, especially in spring 1950 in the buildup to war.33 Both needed U.S. support against their more powerful and popular domestic foes, the Communists.

The war anchored U.S. imperialism to the Korean Peninsula and made its continued antagonistic division a necessary part of the U.S. forward position against China.

The Korean Peninsula

The war completed the construction of the two parts of Korea as separate, adversarial states, competing for legitimacy and each in a relationship, albeit of different characteristics, with patrons—the United States, PRC, and USSR. At the same time, they must be viewed as a symbiotic entity. Neither would have received the same level of aid had the other not existed. Had the North prevailed and unified the peninsula under its control, then, in time, the United States would have come to terms with it, as it would later do with a unified Vietnam.

North Korea

North Korea has seldom been out of the U.S. headlines, especially in recent decades, and it is lodged firmly in the mindset of the foreign policy community. Why it occupies such a prominent position requires explanation beyond the usual cliches. Clearly, the failure of the Korean War rankles, but that of the Vietnam War was more embarrassing and, in China, more consequential. North Korea is clearly no direct danger to the United States, nor to its hold on the South. After the outflanking landing at Inchon, there was little likelihood of the North reigniting the war and pushing down the peninsula as in the mid–1950s. With the United States controlling the sea and air, and showing no real signs of abandoning its beachhead on the Asian mainland, such North Korean efforts would be futile even if they were feasible. Similarly, the hysteria in recent years about North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, probably but not certainly capable of striking the U.S. mainland, is preposterous; its bizarreness nicely captured by the story of defense secretary Jim Mattis sleeping in his gym clothes in expectation of an attack.34 Threatened retaliation, which would be suicidal if needed to be carried out, is one thing, but gratuitous suicide by launching a missile strike is another.35 These constructions have more to do with the dynamics of U.S. domestic politics, helped along of course by a hungry military-industrial complex, than with reality. Nevertheless, perception and belief, however irrational, are very important, and all presidents come into office believing there is a need to “do something about the North Korean threat.”

In fact, North Korea does present U.S. imperialism with two main challenges. One is the example it gives to others. If it were to be destroyed like Iraq or Libya, then that would serve as a warning to others. But its defiant resilience for seventy years demonstrates the limits of U.S. power rather than its ineluctability. The recent development of a nuclear deterrent amplifies that. Furthermore, if North Korea can utilize this deterrent to ward off attack but force the United States into accepting peaceful coexistence, that would provide a very dangerous message to others, starting with Iran.

Then there is the question of China. Vanquishing North Korea and extending U.S. power to the Chinese border might be tempting, but even if achieved would undercut the justification for U.S. presence in Korea and the whole forward military position in Northeast Asia, the core hard power underpinning U.S. strategy toward Asia.36 The United States needs North Korea as a perceived threat to vindicate and consolidate its control over South Korea.

Early indications are that the Joe Biden administration will continue the uncompromising policy of the past, demanding unilateral nuclear disarmament from Pyongyang with nothing substantial in exchange.37 This is not surprising since tension on the Korean Peninsula is a crucial component of the anti-China strategy. The reaction from Pyongyang is predictable and presumably anticipated and desired. First vice foreign minister Choe Son-hui issued a statement on March 18, 2021, as the first Biden-era military exercises were coming to a close, reiterating that “no DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]-U.S. contact and dialogue of any kind can be possible unless the U.S. rolls back its hostile policy towards the DPRK.”38

South Korea

Although greatly overshadowed by North Korea both in elite consciousness and media coverage, South Korea is really the focus of U.S. interest in the peninsula. Being perceived as the subservient “good twin,” in contrast to the defiantly independent “evil twin” to the north, it attracts less attention. This perception of obedience is not quite accurate—Rhee openly defied the United States, especially during Korean War armistice negotiations, and twenty years later Park Chung-hee began a clandestine nuclear weapons program.39 Roh Moo-hyun dreamed of moving toward “autonomy,” but current president Moon Jae-in shows no such independence of spirit.40

Irrespective of presidents, South Korea is a client state with limited sovereignty created by the United States to serve its interests. The United States has direct “wartime control” over the Republic of Korea’s military and, despite promises, this is likely to continue, perhaps through the UN Command.41 That is no minor prize. The Republic of Korea has a standing army of about six hundred thousand troops plus a huge reservoir of trained military manpower.42 Its military expenditure in 2019 was tenth in the world at $40 billion.43 Typical of U.S. “allies,” it does not have a self-reliant capability, but because of the policy of interoperability it is dependent on the United States for key control functions. It cannot wage war on its own, but is a formidable ancillary to U.S. military might.44 Despite the brouhaha about the North Korean threat and the need for U.S. presence, the military strength of South Korea alone is far greater than that of the North.45 Its military budget may be over thirty times that of the North.46 However much its proponents may internalize the myth of defending South Korea against the North, this construct is essentially a pretext for a forward position against China.

South Korea was an important adjunct to the United States in Vietnam, providing three hundred thousand troops—second only to the United States itself.47 It has subsequently supplied largely symbolic contingents to the wars in the Middle East. In what way the South Korean military might be used in a war against China is an open question, but no doubt strategists in Washington are working on it in private.48

South Korea is also a very lucrative market for U.S. arms sales. In the ten years up to 2019, it accounted for one quarter of U.S. sales and in some years it was the largest purchaser.49 Although occasionally the military attempts to buy weapons that are more appropriate for their needs, political pressure usually wins out and some 80 percent of its purchases are American.50 The Republic of Korea as a nominally sovereign middle power has considerable diplomatic importance in Northeast Asia and on the world stage, for instance at the United Nations.

These contingent benefits to the United States are undergirded by a more permanent one. The reason that Washington established itself on the Korean Peninsula in 1945 was above all its strategic location, which still holds, with China now the major focus.

U.S. presence in South Korea provides it with bases, notably Camp Humphreys and Osan Air Base. In addition, there is the Jeju Naval Base, which is ostensibly a South Korean facility but would provide facilities for the U.S. Navy in the case of heightened tension with China.

Although bases are principally an asset from which to project power, they are also gaining in importance as places to facilitate the receiving of reinforcements. As a global empire with a relatively slim standing military but substantial logistic capability, the ability to shift forces around the world is crucial. For at least a couple of decades, the focus has been shifting to the ability to bring in reinforcements as needed, not least to South Korea.51 What is known as Reception, Staging, Onward Movement, and Integration plays an important role in U.S. military strategy and is a key component of the joint U.S.-Republic of Korea military exercises.52

The U.S. military presence in South Korea allows it to deploy and manage assets that benefit from being close to the target. Notable here are the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense units that are ostensibly there to protect South Korea from North Korean missiles. There are good reasons to consider this bogus.53

Probably the main military function of THAAD deployment in Korea is the X-band radar system, which the Chinese fear would enable the United States to detect missile launches from deep inside China and feed the information into the U.S. missile defense system.54 That, in turn, helps the United States to develop a first strike capability against China. U.S. experts tend to downplay the surveillance capability of the THAAD radar, but Chinese ones do not, and that is the important point because it is they who influence Chinese policy.55

A wider concern of the Chinese, and something that U.S. strategists celebrate, is that the deployment of THAAD, against protests in South Korea and retaliation from China, strengthens the U.S. hold over South Korea and advances the U.S. dream of forging a close-knit alliance between it and its two clients in Northeast Asia—South Korea and Japan.56 This strategy is hampered by the ongoing antagonism of South Korea toward Japan, but it remains a key tenet of U.S. policy.57 The deployment of THAAD led to extensive and continuing popular protest, though that did not deter the Moon administration from complying with the U.S. decision.58 The protests have tended to focus on environment and health concerns overlooking the security implications; THAAD increases the danger of South Korea being a target of Chinese retaliation in time of war.

Of course, retaliation can happen in time of peace and China’s response to THAAD was swift, restrained but forceful. It might be seen as a precursor to the steps taken against Australia in 2020, a calibrated warning that threats to China’s security (South Korea) or interfering in China’s internal affairs and undermining its territorial integrity (Australia) in service of U.S. strategy would incur costs. One estimate put the cost to South Korea at over $15 billion by 2019 alone.59 In a pattern replicated with Australia, the government-level economic retaliation was accompanied by a consumer boycott, with tourism and Lotte department stores in China being notable victims.60

The THAAD affair highlights the dilemma facing South Korea, and one shared by many countries around the world, of being forced to choose between its national interest and the demands of U.S. grand strategy.

Perhaps nowhere in the world is this dilemma more acute and consequential than in South Korea. President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee who was ousted by the Candlelight Revolution and is currently in jail, accepted the deployment of THAAD despite Chinese concerns; the Moon Jae-in administration agonizes more, then capitulates.61 To take but one instance, the Pyongyang Declaration that Moon signed with Kim Jong-un on April 27, 2018, promised that: “The two sides will make joint efforts to defuse the acute military tensions and to substantially remove the danger of a war on the Korean Peninsula.… The two sides agreed to completely cease all hostile acts against each other in every domain including land, sea and air.”62

It is difficult to see war exercises with the United States as not violating these sentiments, yet the following month, the United States and South Korea were conducting joint air drills that the North regarded as practicing “a preemptive air strike at the DPRK.”63 While the military exercises were toned down following the Singapore Summit between Donald Trump and Kim in June 2018, the military pushed back and continued at a more subdued, but still provocative, level, with 120 airstrikes in 2020 alone.64 The COVID-19 pandemic imposed its own constraints, but as the military learned to find ways around it and the Trump administration was ending, they have been making a comeback. So much so that Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, who is in charge of relations with South Korea, issued a warning (in a very clunky official translation) that Moon’s dreams of pursuing détente while remaining subservient to the United States was doomed to failure: “Whatever and however the south Korean authorities may do in the future under their master’s instructions, those warm spring days three years ago, which they desire so much, won’t come easily again.”65

The standard argument to justify the military exercises is that they are necessary to deter North Korea, but given the huge disparity in power, this holds no water. They fulfill various functions but the main one is that they are a good way to ramp up the tension while blaming Pyongyang, hence proving the necessity of the U.S. presence in Korea.

Ultimately, the military exercises and indeed the whole U.S.-South Korea “alliance” is about China. In an attack on Trump’s negotiating with Kim Jong-un in 2018, two Australian strategists dismissed North Korea as a “dangerous distraction,” hampering concentration on the real enemy, China. South Korea’s role was clear: “The United States still remains preeminent in Asia, thanks in large part to its regional alliances. Defense networks are a cost-effective force multiplier.”66

South Korea is a force multiplier in so many ways. It has a large, well-equipped, and trained standing military, and a vast reservoir of reservists, all accustomed to following U.S. orders. It provides a base for power projection and surveillance close to China. It is on the Asian mainland, thus complementing Japan, which, like Taiwan, is an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

The much-touted necessity to defend South Korea provides a cover for the U.S. forward military position. Diplomatically, it is a substantial middle power, with a large economy and role in international trade, and can be deployed to consolidate U.S. power in international fora. Its leading role in the manufacture of semiconductor chips (along with Taiwan) is an important component of U.S. economic struggle with China.67 A key aspect of that strategy is to force the South Korean economy to decouple from China, and be entirely part of a U.S.-dominated trading and supply chain system.68 As a bonus, it provides a lucrative market for the U.S. armaments industry.

South Korea is thus far too valuable for the United States to relinquish its presence and control willingly, and indeed establishment U.S. commentators do not even conceive of the possibility.69

Tension and the threat of war, and the manufactured perception of North Korea as an aggressor that only the United States can keep at bay, underpins its forward military presence in Asia centered on confrontation with China, with South Korea as a key node. Reinforcing this was the clear purpose of the first visit of “Biden’s enforcers”—secretary of state Anthony Blinken and National Security Agency Jake Sullivan—to Seoul in March 2021, during the military exercises.70

The Centrality of Korea in U.S.-China Confrontation

For the United States, the Pacific War was essentially over China. For Japan, the objectives were wider. It wanted China but also needed the resources of Southeast Asia, notably oil and rubber. With Japan’s defeat, the United States thought it had won the battle over China, but in 1949 it discovered it had “lost China” and a hunt followed to find those traitorous Americans responsible, fueling McCarthyism.71

If some Americans had lost China, it followed that there might be some to regain it. The prime candidate for that role was Douglas MacArthur, who was eager to use the Korean situation to extend the war to China. The U.S. military establishment stamped on that: “In the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this strategy would involve us in the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy,” its chairman, general Omar Bradley, said.72 The “right enemy” at the time was the Soviet Union.

China in time became the right enemy and the underlying driver of U.S. Asia policy. For a couple of decades, the battle line shifted to Southeast Asia, with lurid, if ahistorical and subsequently invalidated, visions of “Chinese expansionism” being the cause of the anticolonialist movement.73 Nevertheless, Korea was a continuing, and sometimes important, element in what came to be called “the containment of China.” Park Chung-hee’s support for the United States in Vietnam was valuable to the United States and profitable for the South Korean economy, providing the basis for South Korea’s “economic takeoff in the mid–1960s.”74 All the while, North Korea, whatever it might do or not do, was portrayed as a belligerent threat necessitating the massive U.S. political and military presence in Korea, on China’s doorstep. Whenever there were moves to lessen that presence, as with Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, they were foiled. 75 The actual number of U.S. troops in South Korea has declined over time—military power is decreasingly measured in troop levels—but the U.S. strategic presence continues unabated.

In 1899, secretary of state John Hay issued his famous “Open Door Policy” calling for “equality of treatment of all foreign trade throughout China.”76 He did so in confidence that U.S. commercial superiority was such that it had nothing to fear from foreign competitors in the China market, and presumably completely discounted any competition from Chinese industry. A century and a bit later, the situation was completely transformed. Not merely had the United States lost unquestioned superiority over its rivals, but competition from China itself was becoming increasingly successful. This was accompanied by China’s challenge to U.S. hegemony. The two concerns—commercial and geopolitical—were conflated and the United States increasingly had to resort to political power to buttress its failing competitiveness, actions against Huawei being a prime example. Inevitably, U.S. thoughts turned to war. Some warned against it—it was a Thucydides Trap that could be avoided if recognized, argued Graham Allison.77 Others have discounted it entirely, even arguing “There Will Not Be a New Cold War.”78 Others see it looming while yet others unpack the mechanics of it.79 And in the shadows, in the corridors of the Pentagon and throughout the huge U.S. military apparatus, others no doubt are laying plans, which their counterparts in China are seeking ways to defeat.

Whether war might be curtailed, limited, or catastrophic, there is general consensus that the three most likely places where a war between the United States and China might start are the South China Sea, Taiwan Straits, and Korean Peninsula.

Because of the conflicting territorial claims between the littoral states, the United States sees the South China Sea as a useful way of forming an anti-China alliance. However, its main military interest, and the reason for the Freedom of Navigation Operations, is to set a precedent and build capability for interdiction. Much of China’s imports, especially oil, pass through here and it is the transit route for Chinese ballistic submarines to get to the safety of the deep waters of the Pacific.80 A clash here is probable but unlikely to develop into war—for the United States the dangers outweigh the benefits, and for China the issue is important but not existential. A war over Taiwan can only happen with the endorsement and participation of the government in Taipei. However, Taiwan has de facto independence, which the PRC tolerates with pragmatism, and the additional benefits of de jure status are greatly outweighed by the costs and dangers so that is unlikely to be forthcoming.81

The Korean Peninsula is different again. As with Taiwan, the United States has to interact with a client government. However, while the dream of “retaking the Mainland” died in Taiwan decades ago, that of reunifying Korea under Seoul has not. The Moon Jae-in administration clearly wants to improve relations with the North and to maintain friendly ties with China, but it is politically weak. President Moon has been unable to stand up to the United States, which has been decisive.82 There was a considerable degree of détente in 2018 following the opening of Kim Jong-un’s peace offensive and his offer to send a team to the South Korean-hosted Winter Olympics, but ultimately the U.S. state stepped in and quashed cooperation between the two Koreas. This was obscured somewhat at the time by Trump’s fantasies of negotiating with Kim Jong-un. In a very real sense, both Moon and Trump were defeated by John Bolton and the forces he exemplified—the “octopus” that is the U.S. state.83 At the same time, the THAAD affair is an example, albeit a prominent one, of U.S. use of South Korea as a pawn against China. This process looks set to intensify under the Biden administration whose first high-level meeting with Seoul was to reiterate its role in the U.S. anti-China alliance.84

The United States is not the only opposition to détente with the North with which Moon has to contend. Naturally less visible to outside observers, but surely potent nonetheless, is the huge South Korean military establishment and the National Intelligence Service (formerly the Korean CIA), which have had intimate ties with their U.S. counterparts over many decades. Also influencing public opinion and more visible because they have to work front of house are the right-wing parties (such as the main conservative People Power Party) and the media, notably Chojoongdong, the trio of ultra-conservative papers Chosun Ilbo, JoongAng Ilbo, and Dong-A Ilbo.85

While the visible face of South Korean conservatism is virulently anti-North Korea, its position on China is slightly more ambivalent. Chosun Ilbo, for instance, frequently complains about U.S. pressure to join its anti-China campaign without regard for South Korean interests.86

Nevertheless, there appears to be more appetite for war with the PRC in South Korea than in Taiwan, precisely because the reward—conquering of the North—is feasible. It may be far less feasible than the hawks in Seoul anticipate, but the United States and South Korea do have great military superiority. North Korea can retaliate but ultimately not defend itself against attack. However, fantasies about China’s acceptance of a U.S.-led invasion of North Korea are common and dangerous.87 In the case of the Taiwan Straits, there is a direct war with China, but in Korea there is the worrying possibility that decision makers may convince themselves that war with China can be avoided.

However, there is also another possibility. It may not be a case of stumbling into war with China—thinking one is swallowing a minnow but finding that one is choking on a whale—but a deliberate decision. If strategists in Washington decide on a war against China, and there has been no shortage of talk about that, then precipitating it through a crisis on the Korean Peninsula makes admirable sense. There is the substantial South Korean military, already under U.S. command and used to U.S. control. South Korea hosts huge U.S. bases and has facilities for rapidly bringing in and deploying reinforcements, and both have been well practiced. In addition, Japan under Shinzo Abe had long signaled an enthusiasm for intervening in conflict in Korea and there is no reason to suppose Yoshihide Suga is less enthusiastic.88

In either case, the Korean Peninsula is the most likely place for the eruption of the second U.S. war with China.

Hypocrisy, Irrationality, Deep Rationality, and the Contextualization of U.S.-Korea Policy

The literature on U.S.-Korea policy displays dazzling pyrotechnics of hypocrisy. That representatives of the world’s most potent nuclear power, and the only one to have actually used nuclear weapons, can condemn with high moral dudgeon North Korea for developing a small nuclear deterrent, in response to the U.S. threat moreover, is truly astounding. That such hypocrisy garners applause and repetition rather than ridicule is a telling compliment to the power of U.S. global perception management. However, beyond hypocrisy, and mirroring it, there lies irrationality. Much of the discussion of the issues just does not make sense and there is little in the way of rational explanation. For instance, we are frequently told that North Korea is a threat, even an existential one, to the United States, South Korea, and “the region.”89 Yet, we are also told that a North Korean attack on the United States or South Korea would clearly be suicidal and futile, as Colin Powell expressed: “It would be suicidal for North Korea to attack the US.… If North Korea attacked the US, the US would immediately strike back, and the North Korean regime would be no more.”90 How can both statements hold? Why would North Korea commit suicide for no purpose? The threat of retaliation as a deterrent, even if it were suicidal if carried out, does make sense, but that is quite another matter, seldom discussed.91

One way of attempting to resolve this contradiction is to claim that Kim Jong-un (or his father Kim Jong-il before him) is irrational. “We are not dealing with a rational person,” claimed U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.92 Senator John McCain called him a “crazy, fat kid.”93 More informed observers realize this will not work and thus produce more convoluted explanations and prescriptions that ultimately are no more satisfactory.94

A better approach is to move beyond U.S. myopia and analyze U.S.-Korea policy in terms of “deep rationality.” That is, the underlying reasons for behavior not articulated by the actors, perhaps out of prudence, but also quite likely because they are not aware of them themselves. Imperialism is the central characteristic of U.S. foreign policy, but is neither mentioned nor admitted by the establishment. They are socially conditioned not to recognize imperialism even as they practice it.

Three aspects are relevant here.

First, the “North Korea threat” is a domestic political construction, created over decades and with deep purchase in both elite and popular opinion, but has no solid base in reality. It is more properly the subject of political psychology, with its roots in the failure to prevail in the Korean War and thereafter, rather than geopolitics. As a perception, it may seem to determine decision-making (it certainly affects it), but ultimately the reasons for U.S. policy lie elsewhere.

Second, North Korea’s nuclear deterrent, whose efficacy is uncertain, is in itself no danger to the United States unless the United States launches an invasion. If the United States is perceived in Pyongyang to be about to do just that, then that might prompt an attempt at a preemptive strike. In either case, the initiative really lies with Washington; no war then no retaliation. The real issue is global proliferation—a meaningful concern despite tending to be hidden behind a wall of self-serving obfuscation. The spread of nuclear weapons to small countries is portrayed as a danger to the world, and the U.S. crusade against proliferation a noble one. In fact, the possession of a nuclear deterrent by countries threatened by more powerful ones is peace enhancing, as Kenneth Waltz argues in the case of Iran.95 The North Koreans claim, probably rightly, that their deterrence has kept the peace in Korea.96 This forms the basis of the U.S. objection to proliferation. It is an equalizer that helps redress the imbalance of power between it and those countries it wishes to attack, such as Iraq and Libya. If North Korea is successful in forcing the United States into peaceful coexistence, then that would give a “bad” example to other countries, such as Iran.

Third, U.S. desire to defend, maintain, and hopefully enlarge its hegemony against major challengers is key. In the early days, the major challenger was the Soviet Union, as now it is China with Russia being relegated to an important but minor role, especially in East Asia. We have seen how important Korea is in U.S. confrontation with China. “Korea” is in fact a dyad and the relationship between the two is a crucial part of U.S. strategy. Antagonism between the two is to be welcomed and détente to be feared and prevented. North Korea has to be kept belligerent to justify U.S. military presence in South Korea (and to a lesser extent in Japan), and to keep South Korea in line so it may be better harnessed to the anti-China program.

Palmerston would have recognized U.S. achievements in utilizing the Korean Peninsula in its confrontation with China and the challenges it faces. He was, after all, foreign secretary when Britain launched the First Opium War against China in 1839. The war led, among other things, to the British seizure of Hong Kong and the “Century of Humiliation,” which still reverberate in China today.97

Palmerston’s “gunboat diplomacy” was successful because Britain had gunboats and China did not. Now China does.98 The United States has supplanted Britain and Blinken has succeeded Palmerston. Although the balance of power in its various facets, from the military to soft power, still favors the United States, the gap is closing. The United States and China are two whales, one declining in power and the other rising, different in characteristic and in motivation but both huge. This poses great danger for Korea, which is caught in the line of fire, because, as proverb has it, when the whales fight, the shrimp gets its back broken.99

Notes

  1. Susan Ratcliffe, ed., Oxford Essential Quotations, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2016), s.v. “Lord Palmerston 1784–1865, British statesman; Prime Minister, 1855–8, 1859–65.”
  2. Jean-Pierre Lehmann, “Role Reversal: How Japan Became America’s Ally and China Fell from Grace,” East Asia Forum, May 4, 2014.
  3. Hibiki Yamaguchi et al., “What Role Did the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Soviet Entry into the War Play in Japan’s Decision to Surrender in the Pacific War? Conversations with Tsuyoshi Hasegawa,” Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, September 15, 2019.
  4. Henry R. Luce, “American Century,” Life, February 17, 1941.
  5. Oriana Skylar Mastro, “Dynamic Dilemmas: China’s Evolving Northeast Asia Security Strategy,” Joint U.S.-Korea Academic Studies, October 7, 2016.
  6. Charles Kraus, “Failed Diplomacy: Soviet-American Relations and the Division of Korea,” Wilson Center, May 18, 2020.
  7. Judith Munro-Leighton, “The Tokyo Surrender: A Diplomatic Marathon in Washington, August 10–14, 1945,” Pacific Historical Review 65, no. 3 (1996): 455–73; Michael Fry, “National Geographic, Korea, and the 38th Parallel,” National Geographic, August 4, 2013.
  8. James I. Matray, “Captive of the Cold War: The Decision to Divide Korea at the 38th Parallel,” Pacific Historical Review 50, no. 2 (1981): 145–68.
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  12. The U.S. position on the South China Sea and Taiwan is both fraudulent and sometimes risible. “Thus the United States for the past 21 years has been in the anomalous, but little-understood position of recognizing as the government of China a régime whose almost exclusive territorial base it refuses to acknowledge to be Chinese territory” (Jerome Alan Cohen, “Recognizing China,” Foreign Affairs, October 1971).
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Bibliography

2021, Volume 73, Issue 3 (July-August 2021)
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