Last week, Washington hosted the meeting between U.S. President D. Trump and Republic of Korea President Moon Jae-In, the latter recently elected after several months of political crisis that ended with the impeachment of his predecessor. The presidential meeting had special importance, since the Korean peninsula has become, after D. Trump took over the White House, one of the biggest flashpoints on the globe. A crisis which, in its evolution, threatens more than any other crisis (whether we are talking about Syria or Afghanistan) to bring about the start of a war that would involve several great systemic powers, hence a global and, of course, nuclear war. Because the Korean peninsula has become, since the start of Trump’s mandate, one of the most complex international affairs dossiers because: 1. It involves communist North Korea, which is in the midst of the process of affirming itself as a nuclear power, as a result of breaking international legislation, an attitude that concerns the whole community of states; 2. The communist North Korean state has a strategic alliance with Beijing, which is in its own turn in the process of redefining its relationship with the U.S. and, similarly, in the midst of an effort to affirm its primacy in the South China Sea, as a first step toward primacy in Western Pacific; 3. Since the start of his mandate, President Trump has put into doubt the “one China” policy, developing close relations with Taiwan, which links the East China and West China Seas to the arc of crisis in Western Pacific. Hence, the situation on the Korean peninsula, where the communist regime from the North is agitating out of fear of regime change (the main preoccupation of the Pyongyang leadership, not just since the third representative of the Kim dynasty became number one but ever since the start of the dynasty, being especially the fear of having the Kim family ousted), now interests all great systemic actors, especially those with direct interests – China, U.S., Russia, Japan – as well as, naturally, all the larger or smaller states located in the mentioned region.
The main players of this crisis are the North Korean regime, whose attitude has already been largely described; the Republic of Korea; the U.S. – Seoul’s main ally; and China, the peninsula’s direct neighbour, basically a historical gateway of invasion of the Chinese continent.
The Republic of Korea, which covers half of the peninsula, is the ally of the U.S., being an important actor in the current circumstances not just because it is in the “first line,” the demilitarized zone that separates it from the communist Northern state, established in 1953 after the first Korean War, being in fact a frontline in case of its resumption. But, similarly, South Korea has in China – the main backer of the Pyongyang regime – its main trade partner, and its economic weight is revealed by the fact that it is one of the world’s top ten economies, hence a veritable force on the international plane. Just as important is the fact that Seoul and the area around the Capital, where no fewer than 10 million people live (the South Korean capital’s metropolitan area has 26 million inhabitants), is within range of North Korean artillery batteries whose impact would amount to the effects of a nuclear weapon, which makes war unthinkable, one could say. Irrational from the standpoint of its calamitous consequences on an U.S. ally and on the whole international system. But is there a rational leadership in Pyongyang?
The U.S. has major interests on the peninsula. Not just as a strategic ally of Seoul but especially because, through its historical attitude, the communist regime in the Northern part of the peninsula considers, ever since the armistice was reached in the previous war, in 1953, that its main enemy is the U.S., and the development of the North Korean arsenal was directed so as to represent a major threat, first through deterrence and then through the ability to cause, in case of war, colossal losses on the American enemy. It’s what American planners are taking into consideration first of all, President Trump recently drawing a veritable “red line” preventing Pyongyang from gaining the capability of delivering a nuclear weapon at intercontinental ranges. As the ‘Financial Times’ was underscoring in a recent editorial, “Mr Trump has repeatedly insisted that North Korea will never be allowed to develop an intercontinental nuclear missile that could threaten the US. In public and private, he and his senior aides have insisted that America will, as a last resort, use military action to counter the North Korean threat.”
China, another major systemic player, has major security interests in the current developments, standing out via its historical influence over the North Korean communist regime, as the main prop for bringing a peaceful solution to the crisis, via the denuclearisation of the peninsula. But, the same historical tradition of major influence over the Northern communist state shows that China has reduced influence when regime change in Pyongyang is being sought. Since the cultural revolution era, when the Maoist “red guards” tried and failed to oust the grandfather of the current leader of the regime, there probably were other minor attempts made, but without public resonance, the most visible occurring during the times of the current leadership, the ousting of the leader of the Chinese party in Pyongyang and his execution. In other words, China has clear limits in influencing Pyongyang, the cause being a veritable political line developed by the Kim dynasty in such difficult times, namely of playing the Russian card as a counterweight.
Undeniably, last week’s talks between the American and South Korean leaders also considered the joint response – in the framework of an ample strategy taken into account to defuse the growing crisis – to a possible affirmation of the intercontinental capability of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. This possibility came sooner than expected, namely on July 4th, when, defying the U.S. national celebration, the Pyongyang leadership launched an intercontinental missile and declared it has the ability to fit it with a nuclear warhead. Hence, of striking U.S. territory. The “red line” that Washington had drawn to deter Pyongyang was crossed and the U.S. reaction is expected. It seems that, before anything, President Trump does not tolerate such sizeable defiance. On the same day, President Trump, already facing a large domestic crisis that is shaking its own administration, wrote on his Twitter account: “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea….. ….and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all.” And the following day (July 5th) he added, also on Twitter, emphasising China’s potential to exert influence, but also adding a critical note of reproach for Beijing: “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!” Which seems to show that, for the time being, Washington has chosen the path of concerting the great powers (in a few days’ time, Trump will also meet President Putin at the G-20 summit in Germany) in order to put an end to the unprecedented crisis on the Korean peninsula. And the stake is China and its influence in Pyongyang. The alternative to the failure of this path that seems to have been taken (unless it’s a strategic cover for a surprise attack on North Korea) seems to be war.