On the Korean Peninsula, Toasts Give Way to the Problem

By George Friedman

The leaders of North and South Korea held talks last week, and that in itself is significant. But the talks should not be confused with a solution to the problem on the Korean Peninsula. There are five players involved in these negotiations: North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China and Japan. Each has very different imperatives forcing its hand, and each has varying amounts of influence over the situation. Some can be excluded from the deal but not all, and finding a common basis for an agreement among even three or four players is difficult to imagine. It can be done, but only with concessions that would undermine crucial interests for at least some. Let’s review what each country seems to need.

North Korea wants to secure its regime from outside forces. The outside force that most directly threatens North Korea is the United States. The presence of significant American forces in South Korea and the region is seen as a threat to the regime. They might not be a threat at the moment, but the future is uncertain, and if North Korea is weakened internally, it can’t trust the United States not to take advantage of the opening. North Korea must assume the worst. It therefore wants all or most U.S. forces to withdraw from South Korea, and possibly limitations on U.S. naval forces in the Sea of Japan. In addition, North Korea wants access to South Korean economic capabilities, without allowing the introduction of corrosive ideology into the North, which will be difficult to pull off.

South Korea wants to make certain that nothing threatens its economic well-being, especially not a war on the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, it wants to be certain that North Korea is not in a position to assert military power that South Korea cannot check by itself. South Korea does not want to become subordinate to the North and, therefore, wants to maintain a basic defense relationship with the United States, including some U.S. presence in South Korea, perhaps lightening the U.S. footprint but not removing it altogether.

The United States’ primary imperative is to keep North Korea from having the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile at the continental United States. How North Korea will evolve politically is unknown, and the risks associated with that uncertainty are unacceptable for the U.S. At the same time, the United States also wants to maintain its military presence in the region as a counter to Chinese military power. South Korea is a base from which to project power into the Yellow Sea. A complete American withdrawal is impossible because it would shift the military balance in the región.

China’s core imperative is to see that its coastal seas come under its control. An equally important imperative is for China not to rupture relations with the United States, with whom it has a crucial but currently delicate economic relationship. The Chinese would support any agreement that reduces the U.S. presence in the region and likely would try to manipulate the situation to achieve this, but they would do so with as little visibility as possible, complicating any negotiation.

Finally, Japan has an enormous interest in the Korean Peninsula, as it has historically been a buffer between Japan and China and a base from which Japan could project power. A united Korea that would remove the United States from the equation would be an existential threat to Japan, forcing it to increase its already substantial military force. Given Korean hostility toward Japan, this could firm up South Korean insistence on retaining U.S. forces, or perhaps force an accommodation with the North. These are contradictory but both plausible and, for Japan, risky results.

The question of North Korea’s nuclear capability has opened the door to these negotiations, but this issue is not the real heart of the matter – except from the United States’ perspective. At the heart of the matter is that there is a contradiction between what North Korea needs to ensure its security and what South Korea needs. It is quite possible that they can overcome this problem on their own, but they cannot disregard the strategic interests of the two major powers, the United States and China, both of which could override any agreement that is not in their interest. Meanwhile, Japan, the world’s third-largest economy and a major regional power, also faces a threat from the Korean Peninsula, particularly if it falls under Chinese influence.

I am not arguing that a settlement is unlikely, but merely that reaching a settlement will require major concessions over matters that are at the core of every player’s national strategy, and making those concessions will be extremely difficult. I am reminded of the U.S.-Chinese entente in the 1970s. That situation was relatively simple. There were three powers involved: the United States, China and the Soviet Union. The first two had adversarial relations with the Soviets and, therefore, an interest in collaboration. The issue was relatively clear and the level of trust required was minimal. But today, there is neither simplicity nor clarity. North Korea might well give up its nuclear weapons, but what it would demand in exchange would not only be hard for the other players to concede but would trigger a significant degree of regional unease and instability. It is too early to think of Nobel Prizes.

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