‘Geography is destiny’ goes the aphorism. While it generally shines true—be it for Israel in the Middle East, Horn of Africa in Africa or closer home Pakistan and in the waters of the Strait of Malacca (the bulk of oil trade is carried out in its waters)—nowhere is this more obvious than in the Northeast Asian peninsula, occupied by Korea. But is there a discernible shift in the geopolitics of the peninsula with increasing economic interdependence amongst stakeholders?
Korea, long described as the ‘shrimp among whales,’ has worn the crown of its ‘geographical destiny’ as great powers, the ‘whales’—the US, Japan, Russia and China—intersect here. Three nuclear powers (China, Russia and North Korea), two aspiring nuclear powers (Japan and South Korea) and the US meet in the peninsula.
Historically, as scholar Balbina Hwang writes, the peninsula has been “valued more for its strategic attributes than its intrinsic ones,” having suffered 900 or more foreign invasions throughout its 1,300 years of unified history.
With North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) and South Korea (Republic of Korea, ROK) on opposite sides of the fence, the peninsula has become a proxy battleground where stakes run high and where a ‘zero-sum’ game with one clear winner would clearly destabilise Asia and the rest of the world.
There vests a status quo, but the changing power status of the stakeholders and changing equations between the stakeholders has complicated the situation.
Rise of China and South Korea
What is dramatic is the economic rise and, coupled with it, rising aspirations of China and South Korea since the conclusion of the Korean War (in the 1950s, without a formal treaty), much like the proverbial phoenix from the ashes.
China has stepped out as a formidable player, as the world’s second largest economy with a whopping $3.5 trillion foreign exchange surplus, buoyed by its large internal market, alternative financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and New Development Bank (NDP)—formerly BRICS Development Bank—and a stable political leadership. Commensurate with China’s rise has been a shift in its foreign policy, which is aggressive—a departure from when China was ‘rising peacefully’. For China, North Korea adjoining it is as much a strategic ‘pivot’ as South Korea is for the US, which maintains Camp Humphreys (the largest US Army base in Asia with an estimated 40,000 service members).
The US has invested in ‘pivot’ South Korea, which has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis, partly thanks to its benefactor. South Korea, once impoverished by war and high rates of illiteracy, has taken flight—as scholars say—as the “world’s greatest economic success.”
South Korea’s rise is buttressed by its geographical destiny and cemented by an unbeatable combination of military dictatorship (democratisation began in the late 1980s), ‘export or die’ tenet, neo-liberalism (free market), developmental state (called state-led milestones in development), large family-owned conglomerates (chaebol), a national strategy of globalisation (segyehwa), topped by what scholars call an “American implantation of the capitalist system.”
The long and short of South Korea’s rise is that it has joined ranks as a rising middle power, which has reached ‘growth with equity’ (boasting a low Gini coefficient, unlike China where inequality is high).
South Korea has a larger economy than Brazil and a larger nominal GDP than Russia. Scholar Jonathan Krieckhaus argues that South Korea could (and should) join ranks with the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), making it a more formidable partnership BRICK (with the addition of South Korea). But this is yet to be seen. It’s no surprise that South Korea’s rise has augmented its aspirations of an independent foreign policy as well as becoming a nuclear power (since 2010).
What has added a third dimension to China and South Korea’s rise is the détente between the two (in 1992), followed by increasing economic engagement. China is now South Korea’s largest bilateral trading partner, with $197 billion investment in South Korea, state visits and the China-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (CKFTA) in 2015.
It is said that South Korea is playing the ‘hedger,’ balancing military/economic partnership (with the US, with whom it concluded the US-Korea FTA called KORUS in 2007, operational since 2012) as well as economic partnership with China.
The US will deploy the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in July 2017 on South Korean soil (in Seongju, 200km southeast of Seoul), much to China’s chagrin.
In the past few months, South Korean Lotte stores (Lotte Group swapped land with South Korea’s defence ministry for THAAD) have been rampaged in China, putting the economic partnership on the threshold of peril.
Recalcitrant US allies together
While China and South Korea have become unlikely partners, key US allies Japan and South Korea, both backing the US’s ‘Asia Rebalance’ (or ‘pivot’ 2011), can’t seem to see eye to eye.
American scholar TJ Pempel reminds us that the US has little empathy for ‘historical memories’. These memories have left a deep imprint on Korea-Japan relations.
The issues of Japanese colonisation of Korea (1910-45) and ‘comfort women’ (sex slaves) have long rankled South Korea-Japan relations. It has not helped either that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has visited the (Shinto) Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo (the first PM to do so since 2006), where along with millions venerated at the shrine are war criminals that singe Korean hearts.
In 2014, in what appears a churlish political tit-for-tat, a memorial was instituted in the city of Harbin in China, venerating a South Korean activist (who killed Japanese Ito Hirobumi, the architect of the Meiji Constitution in the 19th century) whom Japan regards as a terrorist. This and a statue of a bronze comfort woman placed outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul have turned thorny in recent times.
Domestic politics in South Korea has been fuelled by the stand politicians take vis-à-vis Japan—it seems the harder the stance the more their popularity.
In 2015, the statue of the comfort woman (in Seoul) was to be removed after negotiations whereby the Japanese government conceded to grant 1 billion yen ($8.3 million) to honour the 46 surviving comfort women.
On November 23, 2016, the South Korean government of ex-President Park Geun-hye (2011-17) signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. Just days after, the South Korean National Assembly voted to impeach her.
The US has been helpless bridging the ‘devils’ in the domestic political landscape of Japan and South Korea, which clearly threatens a united trilateral front vis-à-vis North Korea.
North Korea looks China and now Russia?
Bereft of a benefactor of America’s economic standing, North Korea and her 25 million people live a modest life, circa China 1970s, or so it is said. China accounts for more than 70% of food aid and 80% of trade with North Korea.
Though North Korea has been following ‘Look China’, reports say there could be a shift with ‘Look Russia’.
North Korea—isolated, intimidated and worried about the widening economic discrepancy with its southern neighbour (the per-capita income ratio of the North and the South at 1:22; North Korea’s GDP is estimated at $40 billion, South Korea’s at $1.4 trillion) and the security situation—is looking at Russia to expand railway links, oil shortages and dispatch its labour to Russia’s Far East which meets North Korea.
The US would like a de-nuclearised North Korea. North Korea and its benefactor China would want a ‘freeze for freeze,’ whereby the deployment of THAAD is stalled. South Korea would want both the American umbrella and trade with China. Japan would want to break ice with South Korea, trade with China and continue as a US ally.
Recently, scholar Kishore Mahbubani spoke of an Anglo-Saxon view of the Northeast peninsula—where North Korea appears the only rogue. In reality, the picture is complicated and that, despite high-octane posturing, with intimate economic ties amongst all the stakeholders—China-South Korea; China-North Korea; South Korea-US; US-Japan; China-Japan—war has to be at bay, and with diplomacy in the front seat, economics will matter more.