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The Korean Linchpin: The Korean Peninsula’s Enduring Centrality in U.S. Indo-Pacific Geostrategy

Closeup of the Korean Demilitarized Zone that surrounds the Military Demarcation Line

Closeup of the Korean Demilitarized Zone that surrounds the Military Demarcation Line. By Rishabh Tatiraju - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link.

Tim Beal is a retired New Zealand academic with a special interest in U.S. imperialism, mainly but not exclusively with respect to Asia. He is the author of North Korea: The Struggle Against American Power (Pluto Press, 2005), Crisis in Korea: America, China, and the Risk of War (Pluto Press, 2011), and numerous articles. He has traveled to North and South Korea and is chair of the NZ-DPRK Society. His website, Asian Geopolitics, has more information and links to his recent publications.

General Paul LaCamera, testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on March 20, 2024, stated:

The U.S.-ROK [United States-Republic of Korea] Alliance serves as a linchpin for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Our two nations share common values and democratic norms, value human rights, and abide by the rules-based international order. We also share significant economic and cultural ties that benefit both nations. The ROK sits at the heart of Northeast Asia, a region of significant security and economic interest for the United States. The presence of U.S. forces in the ROK and Japan demonstrates our ironclad commitment to the people of Korea and protects our strategic interests in Northeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.1

Stripping aside the cant, what LaCamera is saying is that Korea is the linchpin of U.S. strategy in Northeast Asia, and thus across the Indo-Pacific. This strategy is aimed at preserving and expanding U.S. hegemony by containing China and Russia, and destroying them as challenges to U.S. domination.

Admittedly, LaCamera is Commander of U.S. Forces in (South) Korea, and so has reason to exaggerate the importance of Korea, but geography does support his assertion. The Korean Peninsula is situated at the point where the four major powers of the contemporary world meet and contest. It is contiguous with China and Russia, physically adjacent to Japan, and effectively adjacent to the United States on the other side of the “American lake.” Historically, the peninsula has been the conduit through which Indian Buddhism and Chinese culture flowed to Japan. It was the route by which the Mongols attempted to conquer Japan and the Japanese, in turn, colonized in their attempts to subjugate China. Geography gave Korea a location with huge potential as the hub joining the major economies of the northern hemisphere, from Western Europe through Eurasia and on to the United States. History has tended to thwart this beneficence as the major powers fought each other in, and over, Korea.

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It is necessary to look at recent history to understand how the United States utilized geography to make Korea so important in U.S. strategy, and why it has continuing centrality.

The American Century and Its Challenges

In the mid-1940s, the Second World War was coming to an end and the American Century, proclaimed by Henry Luce in 1941, was in its infancy.2 The American elite had many issues, usually interlocked and overlapping, to confront as it established its new empire. This was a strange beast. Although it contained many elements of its predecessors throughout history, it was the first truly global one—having been born out of one, if not two, world wars—and of a distinctly different character. It was informal and uncodified, and many denied, and still deny, its existence. Its edges were blurred: Which countries were within and which without and its depth uncertain. How much control does the United States have over Britain or France? These parameters also changed over time; in 1945, China was in, and, four years later, it was out.

There were major challenges, including: how to deal with the conquered enemy states, Germany and Japan; how to manage the client states; how to cope with the wave of anticolonialism and socialism; and what to do about the Soviet Union?

The Soviet Union was seen as the main obstacle to the implementation of the American Century and its geographical position, straddling Eurasia, leading to the division of the world into four theaters. To the west of the Soviet Union was the rest of Europe and the Atlantic (hence the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO), to the east was the Pacific, the subject of this essay, and to the south was the Middle East, which had its own specific dynamics, especially regarding oil and Israel. That left the rest of the world—Latin America (as still seen as dominated by the United States via the Monroe Doctrine), Oceania, Africa, and South Asia—as peripheral to the main struggle centered on Eurasia. The “Loss of China” in 1949 reinforced this division and raised the importance of the Pacific theater. In 2018, then U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis extended the remit of the Pacific Command to cover South Asia and the Indian Ocean and it was redesignated the Indo-Pacific Command.3 However, this change reflected not so much the intrinsic importance of the Indian Ocean, and South Asia (mainly India), but rather its role in the U.S. confrontation with China. India was seen as a counterbalance to China, and the Indian Ocean offered great opportunities for the interdiction (hopefully with help from India) of Chinese imports of oil from the Middle East.4 The focus here is on the two theaters of greatest relevance, the Atlantic and the Pacific, and their position in the struggle to protect and expand U.S. imperialism against the resurgence of Russia and the rise of China.

The Atlantic Theater and NATO

History presented the United States with a political environment and a civilizational cohesion conducive to the creation of a vehicle for control of the Atlantic theater: NATO. The quip of Lord Ismay, its first Secretary-General, about the purpose of NATO is often quoted: “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”5 In reality, the Russians were not trying to get into Western Europe, and the Americans were not trying to get out, but his formulation served the trans-Atlantic elite and was widely accepted. The ease with which NATO survived the removal of its ostensible raison d’être after the collapse of the Soviet Union indicates its deeper, more resilient function as an instrument of U.S. imperial power articulated through a European client elite. The continued success of NATO as such an instrument serves as a beacon in more perilous, declining times. In February 2024, the publication Foreign Affairs, concerned at the way things were going and fearful of a return to Trumpian disruption of imperial management, republished Dean Acheson’s 1963 essay “The Practice of Partnership,” noting with approval that he had realized that a military alliance was not sufficient, but what was required was “a strategic plan that combined military, political, and economic policies—one that every member of the alliance could stand behind.”6 In other words, Acheson was calling for an enmeshing of the European elite into an enduring subservient relationship to the United States using the full spectrum of power, not least soft power. The most striking success story here has been the co-option of the European Greens, most notably the Germans such as Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, as fervent servants of U.S. strategy against Russia, sacrificing their own societies in the process.7

History presented the United States with a more difficult task in the Pacific theater.

The Pacific Theater

The United States had a very different canvas with which to work in the Pacific. The Soviet Union had borne the brunt of the war against Germany. It had suffered the most human and material damage, inflicted the most casualties, and taken Berlin. Its role in the peace settlement might be contested, but could not be ignored. By contrast, the United States was the paramount power in the Pacific War, with the Soviet Union playing a far smaller (but in actuality a very significant) role.

Although the atom bomb was in the pipeline, tests were not complete, and no one could be sure what devastation nuclear weapons might produce or the effect this would have on Japanese decisions. Accordingly, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been pressing Joseph Stalin to enter the war against Japan, and at Yalta in February 1945, Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would do so three months after victory in Europe. This it did, and the Red Army routed the once-famed Japanese Kwantung Army, producing “Japan’s Greatest Defeat.”8 Indeed, so impressive was the Soviet campaign that it is argued that: “The fear that the Soviet Union would replicate its Manchurian exploits in Europe became the foundational anxiety of the Cold War.”9

The Soviet entry into the Pacific War was overshadowed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and nuclear weapons have been a dominant feature of geopolitics since then. However, the necessity of bringing the Soviet Union into the war, and the fear of the consequences, led to the U.S. division of Korea, which has had a profound impact, both globally and on U.S. Pacific strategy in particular.

The bilateral division had not been discussed at Yalta, but was a last-minute decision to forestall Soviet participation in the Japanese peace settlement and to ensure as much U.S. control over the Korean Peninsula as possible. Harry S. Truman, who had become president upon Roosevelt’s death during this crucial period, had hoped that the atomic bomb would force Japan’s surrender before the Soviet Union entered the war, and that the United States would gain unilateral control over Japan, China (via the dependent government of Chiang Kai-shek), and the Korean Peninsula. The State Department feared that, if left to their own devices, the Koreans would establish a socialist regime which “might easily receive popular support.”10 Moreover, the only Korean military force was Kim Il-Sung’s guerrilla army—the United States had no surrogate force such as the Republic of China (ROC) army. The Soviet entry into the war and rapid invasion of Manchuria precipitated a change in policy. Truman dumped Roosevelt’s trusteeship in favor of pushing a bilateral deal with Stalin to divide Korea; better, in the words of James I. Matray, “to settle for half a loaf since its troops were over six hundred miles away.” Colonels Charles H. Bonesteel (who later commanded the U.S. forces in Korea, USFK) and Dean Rusk (subsequently Secretary of State during the Vietnam War) were to find a dividing line as far north as possible. According to Rusk, they tore a map out of a National Geographic magazine and chose the Thirty-Eighth Parallel, giving the United States the capital, Seoul.11

To the Americans’ surprise, Stalin acquiesced to the division at the Thirty-Eighth parallel. In reality, the United States would not have accepted Soviet occupation of the peninsula with equanimity. It is likely that Stalin was acutely conscious of the weakness of the USSR compared with the United States and its allies, and was anxious to avoid unnecessary confrontation. Control of Poland and the western borderlands of the Soviet Union were vitally important for defense of the country; Korea was not.12 Moreover, although the Red Army had shattered the Japanese defense forces (though not without some bitter fighting), it was a long way from the Soviet heartland. Geography is more than distance on a map and while the Soviets had local superiority at the time, the United States would have the logistical advantage in a protracted war—the waters of the Pacific would have provided easier transit than the steppes of Siberia. Moreover, the United States was at the time the “Arsenal of Democracy” and the behemoth of production for industrial warfare. This is true no longer, and its current weakness has made control of South Korea particularly important.13

Consequences of the Division of Korea

Although overshadowed by the advent of nuclear weapons, the division of the Korean peninsula was to have momentous and continuing consequences. First of all, it led to the Korean War, which was both a civil war and an anticolonial war. The U.S.-installed president in the South, the Korean-American Syngman Rhee, did not have a political base of his own (unlike Kim Il-Sung in the North) and needed to rely on an administration inherited from the Japanese and run by collaborators.

The U.S. occupation prevented the eradication of Japanese colonialism from the southern part of Korea, while in the north, the Soviet occupation allowed Kim Il-Sung to consummate decolonization. In Bruce Cumings’s view, this unfinished business inexorably led to the Korean War.14 The heritage of Japanese colonialism has bedeviled South Korea ever since and today is resurfacing strongly in the Yoon Suk Yeol administration to much public criticism.15 The United States did not sweep away Japanese colonialism, but rather incorporated it into its own neocolonial control of South Korea.

The Korean War was the first modern U.S. war that it did not win, which led to the conflict being shunted aside in U.S. memory (though not of that of Korean or Chinese) and becoming the “Forgotten War.”16 It was also the first U.S. war against China, with a second, and arguably more consequential one, looming.17 The U.S. division of Korea also led to the division of China, because, in the early days of the Korean War, the United States reversed course and directly intervened in the Chinese Civil War by sending the Seventh Fleet to protect the rump Chiang Kai-shek government that was holed up in the province of Taiwan (which had been returned to China from Japan upon U.S. insistence in 1945). The two interconnected divisions of Korea and China are hugely important because they both in their various ways create an inherently unstable situation, and one which is used by Washington to justify its forward military presence in East Asia (and by extension now the whole Indo-Pacific), and which provides the United States with a mechanism to escalate tension whenever required.

The Korean War, firmly bedded in the Cold War, created the Permanent War Economy, changing the business of the United States from business, as in President Calvin Coolidge’s days, to war.18 The United States became a state constantly at war, be it economic, political, informational, or kinetic, either directly or by proxy. Undoubtedly, this would have happened even without the war in Korea. If not there and in that way, then it would have happened elsewhere, in some way or another because it was inherent in the concept of the American Century. However, it did happen in Korea, and that forged the specific characteristics of U.S. imperialism. It also placed the Korean Peninsula at the core of evolving U.S. imperial strategy in the region, through which the major objectives of U.S. policy—the subordination of Japan and the destruction of the Soviet Union/Russia and China as challenges to global hegemony—could be achieved. In short, it transformed U.S. policy in the Pacific theater.

The Transformation of U.S. Pacific Policy

Prior to the Korean War, U.S. policy toward China had been somewhat ambivalent. It had wisely refrained from direct involvement in the Chinese Civil War and had reconciled itself to the fall of Taiwan, the ROC’s last stronghold, to the Communists. The Korean War changed that. The United States intervened, but in a way that posed no danger to U.S. forces, since it was confined to naval protection of the island. Chiang Kai-shek, of course, wanted the United States to take back the mainland on his behalf, but the Joint Chiefs of Staff dismissed that fantasy.19

However, buttressed by McCarthyism at home, the Korean War also solidified hostility to the newly established People’s Republic of China (PRC). Instead of coming to some sort of terms with Beijing, which was put on hold until the Henry Kissinger/Richard Nixon démarche in the early 1970s, Washington continued to recognize the ROC as the legitimate government of China and to block the PRC from taking up the China seat in the United Nations Security Council. Not for the first or last time, a state that the United States could not control was transmogrified in both elite and popular consciousness into a fantastical parody of reality. Chester Bowles, writing in Foreign Affairs in 1960, gives a typical prediction: “That mainland China, with an inadequate resource base, spiraling population, ruthless Communist leadership and intense nationalist spirit, will develop fiercely expansionist tendencies directed toward the weaker neighboring states to the south.”20

This perception led to the war in Indochina, complicity in the massacres in Indonesia, and general support of repression in Southeast Asia. It also has echoes in Cold War discourse about “Soviet expansionism” then and in current warnings that Vladimir Putin will “invade Europe.”21 All of this has strong elements of psychological projection about it, since it was the U.S. empire that was expanding and the Soviet Union, later Russia, and China were reacting to that. Interventions across the border—in Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union, in Ukraine by Russia, and in the Korean War by China—were essentially defensive.

More than any empire in history, the American one is curiously lacking in self-awareness. Others may have happily conflated plunder with the altruistic promotion of their religion, or a “civilizing mission,” but they did not deny empire.22 The United States does, and this fact makes it particularly important to disregard surface froth and to attempt to analyze the actual functions of policies and actions, even though they may be hidden from the principal actors themselves. In this case, we have the United States constructing a network of alliances and a latticework of institutions whose function is to preserve hegemony and to expand it by defeating any challenges to its rule. This is often identified as the Wolfowitz Doctrine, but it is more than the exultation of the triumphalist unipolar moment. Rather, it is the constant purpose, with variations, of the American Century.23 How could it be otherwise post-1945 for an empire with global aspirations?

The Network of Alliances and a Latticework of Institutions

A defining characteristic of an empire is that it combines its own power with a hierarchal architecture of subordinate states and, in the modern world, with institutions that transcend state boundaries. No power is absolute and, in the case of countries, must be shared with local elites and, in the case of institutions, other countries, even adversaries, the United Nations being the major example. Moreover, there is always the danger that countries outside the empire might coalesce; thus the first rule of imperial management is divide et impera. The Nixon/Kissinger move to enlarge the split between China and the Soviet Union is a classic, if belated, example. Recent U.S. administrations, perhaps out of arrogance and entitlement, have been bad at this, driving their adversaries together rather than apart—leading to the growth of the BRICS+ (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and several more recently joined states); the China-Russia partnership, now bringing in Iran; and a strengthening of the relationship among North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK), China, and Russia.24

U.S. Pacific policy originally focused on the defeat of Japan and aimed at the exclusion of the Soviet Union, with the division of Korea being a part of that. The “Loss of China” in 1949 and the subsequent rise of China led to adjustments in policy, and over time China has become the chief focus. Japan has remained the major component of what might be termed “American Asia,” with Australia playing a subsidiary role to the south.

The United States was very lucky with respect to Japan. Not merely had they kept the Soviet Union out, but their vassal allies had little say in the governance of Japan. By keeping the imperial state in place, they have been able to rule Japan without much difficulty since 1945. The initial policy to demilitarize Japan was abandoned—another result of the Korean War—and today, Japan is on its way to having the third largest military budget in the world.25

The Korean Peninsula was not in itself considered important in 1945. It was its location that provided value.26 While location has continued to be a major factor, Korea—North and South—has assumed great importance in differing ways in U.S. strategy.

Although North Korea achieved significant growth in its early decades, the collapse of the Soviet Union, coupled with ongoing U.S. sanctions, devastated its economy and, although recovering, it is still far short of its potential. While its economic and societal resilience has surprised and exasperated the United States, it is the development of its nuclear missile deterrence that has been the main issue. Both the economic problems of North Korea and its pursuit of a nuclear deterrent are the result of U.S. policy. The first can be judged as deliberate on the U.S. part; if it produced the collapse of the DPRK and its absorption by the South Korea, thus extending U.S. control over the whole peninsula up to the borders of China, then that would be well and good. If it did not actually precipitate collapse, it would demonstrate the sorry fate that awaited those who defied Washington. The deliberateness of the second is more complex. Clearly, for most, the development of the North Korean deterrent was unwelcome, but there may have been those in the U.S. strategic community who saw the value of it—and valuable for U.S. grand strategy it certainly is. Although portrayed as a huge threat to the United States, it is not. Except in the unlikely case of a truly “accidental war” (that is, a war that has not simply been made more likely by the deliberate construction of a situation so as to increase the chances of a triggering incident), a weak country’s deterrent is not a real threat to the United States. Its offensive use would be not only unproductive, but also suicidal.27 However, the myth of a North Korean aggressive threat is the cornerstone for the justification for the U.S. forward military position in Asia, primarily aimed at China.28

The U.S. domination of South Korea, together with the concomitant “North Korean threat,” has produced a number of benefits—bases, control of the ROK military, and ROK nominal sovereignty as a political asset and utilization of its economy as a resource, a weapon, and a munitions manufacturer.

The main U.S. base in South Korea, Camp Humphreys, is the largest U.S. overseas base, and the one closest to Beijing.29 South Korea also serves as a virtual base for the U.S. military alliance. One aspect of this is the constant stream of joint military exercises involving countries throughout the empire, from Australia to the United Kingdom.30 In addition, the ROK participates in exercises held outside the region, in Europe or the United States.31 The overriding objective of these exercises is to enhance interoperability and U.S. control and command of alliance forces.32 More substantial are the underlying linkages being developed under parental supervision among these various militaries and that of the ROK. Two in particular stand out: Japan and NATO.

Legacy of Colonialism—Japan-South Korea Antagonism

A classic management problem, from empires to corporations (and families), is how to bring fractious subordinates together for a common purpose. The enmity between Japan and South Korea at the popular level and, frequently, at the government level—a legacy of Japanese colonialism—has long bedeviled the United States, for which the integration of the two, militarily and politically, under its leadership is a priority. The greatest gift that Yoon has brought the United States is his willingness to flout popular opinion to forge a close, junior relationship with Japan.33 This has led to the U.S.-Japan-ROK Trilateral Alliance, formalized at the Camp David summit among U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and Yoon in August 2023.34 This is clearly aimed at China, and its area of operation is described as the Indo-Pacific, with sometimes the words “and beyond” added, signifying that the United States is a global power, and it seeks to utilize its assets worldwide.35

Asian NATO—the Integration of the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters

So far this integration of global assets has focused on bringing the Atlantic to the Pacific. Leaders of American-influenced Asia—Japan, ROK, Australia, and New Zealand—have been summoned to Europe as attendees at NATO summits. The talk has been of NATO extending its role to Asia, frequently using terms such as “Global NATO” and “Asian NATO.”36 Although the idea of a Tokyo Liaison Office had currency for a time, this fell through because of objections from French President Emmanuel Macron, and it is South Korea that is becoming the linchpin of NATO’s Asian expansion.37 Western European countries are also projecting power eastward and developing Indo-Pacific strategies to counter China, both individually and as members of the European Union.38 Nevertheless, NATO has been the main instrument for this meshing of the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, in particular establishing Individually Tailored Partnership Programs with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and possibly New Zealand: the “Indo-Pacific Four.”39

The United Nations Command

However, this may change with the “revitalization” of the South Korea-based United Nations Command (UNC).40 NATO has various drawbacks as an instrument of U.S. strategy, and the UNC may well provide a preferable alternative. NATO is too democratic, constraining U.S. power. Decisions have to be taken by consensus and so leaders, if they can withstand U.S. pressure, have a veto. Macron scuttled the Tokyo Liaison Office, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delayed the accession of Sweden in order to do some horse-trading.41 Then there are Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, and Slovak prime minister Robert Fico. In the late 1940s, when NATO was established, subordinate states knew their place. NATO is also redolent of European imperialism. More importantly, Asian NATO seems to be driven not by the United States, where there are voices in the strategic community who see it as a distraction.42 Rather, its most active proponents are those (mainly European countries) in the huge NATO apparatus who are desperate to demonstrate to Washington their continued relevance (hence guaranteeing their employment) in the face of the collapse of the proxy war in Ukraine, the lackluster remilitarization of the European powers, and the looming possibility of a second Donald Trump administration.43 All this is epitomized by the franticness of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. NATO has been here before. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a desperate need to justify NATO. The solution was to follow Senator Richard Lugar’s injunction “go out of area or out of business.”44 That led to war against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya; now it leads to confrontation, perhaps war, with China.

The so-called UNC offers an elegant solution to the need to harness European power—military but also political—to fortify U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. It is best articulated by Clint Work in an article in Foreign Policy titled “South Korea Offers a Chance to Modernize Old Alliances”: “The United Nations Command (UNC), a U.S.-led multinational command headquartered in South Korea (formally named the Republic of Korea, or ROK), is often overlooked in discussions of the minilateral architecture that Washington hopes to construct in the Indo-Pacific.”45 “Modernization” here essentially means utilizing the UNC as the core of an expanded and repurposed global alliance structure to be deployed against China. Admittedly, there is an element of special pleading here in that Work is director of academic affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America, a Washington-based, American-staffed think tank owned by the South Korean government.46

The UNC has three characteristics that make it eminently suitable as a vehicle for U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. First, despite its name, it is not an organization under the control of the United Nations, but, in fact, a U.S.-controlled military alliance that got its deliberately misleading title during the early stages of the Korean War, when the Soviet Union was boycotting the UN Security Council over the United States blocking the PRC assuming China’s seat.47 Second, because of its name and its illegal use of the UN flag and logo, the UNC can be portrayed as a UN body, an expression of “the international community,” rather than of the U.S. military. One ploy is to embed officers of dependable vassals in subordinate roles: a Canadian was made Deputy Commander of the UNC in 2018. He was followed by an Australian, a Brit, and, currently, another Canadian.48

Third, the UNC is scalable, with membership not being limited to original countries or constrained by geography. The United States has been making efforts over recent years to rejuvenate it and reactivate the involvement of the “Sending States,” the original sixteen participating countries, and any new ones that might be added “solely within the discretion of the U.S. Government.”49 The Sending States are, in Work’s phrase, “The Forgotten Parties in the Korean War,” who fought China in the 1950s and need to be remembered in the context of the present challenge.50 The original impetus for this program was to find a solution to how to retain de facto control over the South Korean military if the United States were forced to make good its promise to transfer operational control back to the South Korean government.51 The United States had taken over direct control during the Korean War, and so-called peacetime control was transferred in 1994, but the jewel in the crown, wartime control, still lies with the United States via the Combined Forces Command (CFC). The UNC is a superior and separate body to the CFC. LaCamera, when testifying to the House Armed Services Committee, described himself as “Commander, United Nations Command; Commander, United States-Republic of Korea Combined Forces Command; Commander, United States Forces Korea.” The order of titles by UNC, CFC, and USFK is significant. Accordingly, when the role of CFC was under challenge, its reactivation became imperative.52 The South Korean military is a major force multiplier for the United States, so control over it is not to be relinquished easily. However, the potential of the UNC stretches far beyond the Korean Peninsula.

The Sending States, in theory, comprise a formidable military asset, comprising sixteen countries, ranging from Australia to the United Kingdom. Some, such as Turkey, are unlikely to return for a second war against China; others probably would, with Australia, Canada, and Britain in the vanguard. It was not without reason that their senior military personnel have been appointed to the post of Deputy Commander.

However, as Work suggests, the UNC can be expanded by invitation to those countries, which, for a variety of reasons, were not able to be utilized in 1950—including Japan, Germany, Poland, and, the holy grail of U.S. desire, India. In other words, these bodies (NATO, Asian NATO, and more) would all be under direct U.S. control. Ironically, the one entity that cannot be brought into the UNC is the Republic of China on Taiwan because it is not a recognized state, even by the United States, and so is not a member of the United Nations.

None of this may yet come to pass. The U.S. government may not take up the idea; U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has not publicly commented on the UNC. India is proving a difficult prize, one moment aligning with the United States, then edging toward China, Russia, and BRICS+, keeping its options open.53 The United States military command in Korea might be stripped of its UN camouflage, with the use of the UN flag and logo the first to go.

The United States has tried many minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific over the years, but none has matched NATO for sustainability, and bilateral alliances have tended to be more dependable.54 Bilateral relationships are limited and the search for suitable minilaterals continues. Current frontrunners are AUKUS (the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom), the Quad (the United States, Japan, Australia, and India), and the Trilateral Alliance (the United States, Japan, and South Korea). These may be expanded, merged, or supplanted, but none really answers the challenge of linking the vassal militaries of the Atlantic and Pacific theaters into an integrated whole that can be deployed as required against China, Russia, and minor adversaries.

The U.S.-ROK Bilateral Relationship

The Washington-Seoul alliance provides substantial benefits in its own right to the United States over four dimensions:


The United States currently has direct control, when required, over the very large ROK military, the fifth most powerful worldwide according to one league table, although there are doubts about the capabilities of its reservists.55 This may be deployed globally—it has been used in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan—but in the event of a war with China, its primary use, apart from logistical support, would be to create a crisis on the Korean Peninsula to tie down Chinese forces in the north.56


As a middle power and a major economy, and nominally sovereign, South Korea has or could have considerable political heft. It hosted the third “Summit for Democracy,” an annual jamboree thrown by the Biden administration’s “Democracy versus Autocracy” campaign in March 2024. This was a damp squib, which may have been due to the inherent falsity of the concept, the declining status of Biden’s United States, and its being overshadowed by wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. Nevertheless, President Yoon, basking in U.S. approval, is an inveterate globetrotter and has grandiose plans for South Korea to become a “global pivot state.”57 In fact, this is a charade. South Korea is merely a surrogate for the United States, not an independent player. However, Yoon can be portrayed by the U.S.-dominated media as a global statesman, enjoying “major foreign policy successes.”58


South Korea’s astounding industrial growth has led it to become one of the world’s major centers for information technology and semi-conductors, both of these sectors, as well as military production, are of great importance to the United States. Its technology sector has been used as a pawn against China, especially in the “Chip War.”59 It has assumed a major role in the provision of munitions, especially in the context of the hollowing out of U.S. and European capability, and is fast becoming the “Arsenal of Imperialism.”60

Geostrategic Instrument

The division of Korea into an U.S.-dominated South and an independent North provides the United States with a powerful instrument to influence the geopolitical environment and climate in Northeast Asia and beyond. The construction of a threatening North Korea provides justification for the U.S.-forward military presence.61 It is noticeable that any time there is a danger of peace breaking out, someone like John Bolton, National Security Advisor under Trump, steps in to save the day.62 The United States also has the ability to adjust the temperature, especially through the use of threatening military exercises on North Korea’s borders, with the propaganda machine inverting the chain of causality.63 The Pentagon is fully aware that North Korea’s military posture and policy are defensive—how could it be otherwise with such a disparity in military power? LaCamera admitted as much in his testimony to Congress: “North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s top priorities are ‘regime survivability’ and ‘preparing to defend his nation.’”64

The Linchpin

Ever since 1945, Korea has played a central role in U.S. Pacific theater strategy. The principal target of that strategy was initially the Soviet Union, but since 1949–1950 China has taken its place. The theater was renamed the “Indo-Pacific” in 2018, but this extension was primarily to outflank China. While the division of the world into two major oceanic theaters was a necessary organizational construction for a traditional seapower, it should not obscure the global underpinning of U.S. strategy. The United States is a global empire and all parts of the world, and all the countries in it—friend, nonaligned or foe—are interconnected. The four main U.S. enemies at the moment, China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, are joined together in Eurasia. The struggle can be conceptualized as the United States deploying two giant oceanic pincers to contain, subjugate, and dismember Eurasia, a replay of the debate between Alfred Mahan and Halford Mackinder for our times.65 Thus, we have seen South Korea being used to supply artillery shells to Ukraine and to host European militaries either bilaterally, or via the Asian NATO/UNC.

All countries are interconnected through geopolitics. Korea’s position in this giant mechanism is due to its role as a linchpin of U.S.-China strategy in Northeast Asia, and thus inevitably throughout the Indo-Pacific theater, and further into the global struggle between U.S. imperialism and the emerging multipolar world.


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2024, Volume 76, Number 03 (July-August 2024)
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