“Forging Autonomy in a Tough Neighborhood: Korea’s Foreign Policy Struggle” (3)

This is the conclusion of my last two posts. It is the oral synopsis of a conference paper on Korea’s strategies to escape its harsh geopolitical neighborhood.

“Finally, what is the likely future course of Korean foreign policy? For the South, the answer is easy. Barring unification, the Southern Republic will almost certainly retain the US alliance as the ultimate guarantor of its autonomy. Going your own way is hugely risky, as NK will find out if the 5 other parties of the 6 party talks can ever coordinate a common front against it. Striking out independently from the US risks Chinese subordination. President Roh’s brief flirtation with China (2004-2007) was more to flatter South Korean ego that the country was a ‘player’ or ‘mediator’ between the US and China. The Chinese blithely rebuffed this, and their Dongbei Manchurian history project and treatment of NK refugees quickly drove the South back to the US under the current conservative President Lee.

The North is clearly much more exposed. Going it alone is extraordinarily difficult for small states, and NK’s economic contraction makes this even harder. Clearly the nuclear program is an extreme measure to preserve autonomy from Chinese encroachment particularly. Unlike the SK’s US alliance, if the NK bandwagons openly and clearly with China, it will be absorbed or dominated. The Chinese have neither the geographic distance nor the democratic scruples to preserve NK autonomy.

A unified Korea would change these calculations. I see two possibilities. One, a unified ROK could aspire to stand on its own, particularly if Russia and Japan continue their relative decline. Massive demobilization would follow unification – the NK People’s Army alone has one million soldiers. That newly freed manpower could fuel a production and baby boom that could put a unified ROK within striking distance of still struggling Russia and Japan.

But that still leaves China, rising China. So possibility two is the increasing likelihood that the Chinese price for unification will be the finlandization of united Korea – strict neutralism. Given the US’ relative decline vis-à-vis China, it is unlikely the US will be able to counterbalance this pressure. When Germany unified, West Germany was stronger than South Korea, and East Germany was not as bad off as North Korea. The US was stronger then than now, and the USSR was much weaker than China is now. So the balance of forces today favors a more sinified outcome, and the likely Chinese price for unification is the termination of the US alliance and the withdrawal of the USFK.”

This conference got some press coverage, as have the others I participated in here. That is quite a change from the US, where no really seems to care much about academic conferences.

My argument that the Chinese will likely force Korea to choose between unity and the US alliance went down badly. People didn’t seem to like that, but the Chinese are certainly taking a a tougher line on Korea. I have been to four of these sorts of conferences with Chinese colleagues this year, and the vibe is increasingly: ‘the Olympics went well; the US is a mess; we’re on the up and up; you will need to start to account for us.’ In fact, one of the Chinese scholars at this conference bluntly said in the discussion, “We are big and rich now. Why should we listen to the US?” By extension, that would include Japan and Korea.


Country Population(Millions) Birth Rate Land Mass(km2) Gross Domestic Product (GDP in billions of US Dollars) GDP(Purchasing Power Parity in billions of USD) Economic Growth Rate Budget(in billions of USD) Military Spending (% of GDP & absolute value in billions of USD) Military Manpower(millions) Army Manpower(millions)
China 1,350 +0.7% 9,569,901 $4,300 $8,000 9% $900 4-4.5%      $200 3 2.2
Japan 127 -0.2% 364,485 $4,900 $4,400 0% $1800 1%              $50 0.250 0.148
Russia 140 -0.5% 16,377,742 $1,800 $2,300 6% $275 4%              $80 1 0.4
ROK 48.6 +0.3 96,920 $900 $1300 2.5% $222 2.7%          $24 0.65 0.5
DPRK 22.6 +0.4 120,408 $26 $40 -2.3% $3 N/A 1.2 1

14 thoughts on ““Forging Autonomy in a Tough Neighborhood: Korea’s Foreign Policy Struggle” (3)

  1. I agree that S. Korea is the most militarily weak kid in a very tough neighborhood. In the past they have been able to count on the U.S. for protection. However, after our government “sold out” the Czech Republic and Poland last week (on the 70th anniversary of them being overran by Nazi Germany no less), I’m not sure how much any small or medium sized allies can count on our help. Over the last 8 months we have made it a habit of doing this. Now that we have become indentured servants of our own making to the Chinese Empire, I don’t see how we can possiably come to the aid of our Pacific Rim allies whether we are talking about S. Korea, Japan or Taiwan. If China ever had any thoughts about “annexing” either Taiwan or the entire Korean peninsula, the time to do it is now! Since the U.S. has taken itself out of this real world game of Risk, our friends would be forced to stand alone without our help!

    I concur that the South is the economically stronger of the two Korea’s, which simply makes it a better prize for the militarily stronger North which should be able to overrun it’s neighbor on a whim. When I lived in W. Berlin I never thought that I would see a united Germany so my mindset has changed somewhat over the decades. I now expect to see a united Korea in my lifetime. Being a freedom loving capitalist I think that a “free Korea” would make more sense. However the way the dominos are now stacking up; short of a N. Korean nuke attack, Kim Jung Joke can own the entire Korean peninsula at will! The way that things stand, only China has the power to stop an invasion of the South! If I were “war gamming” the scenario, I would time the North’s invasion of S. Korea to occur simultaneously with China’s annexation of Taiwan. The U.S. could do little but watch from the sidelines and hope for the safe return of our citizens, soldiers and dependants when the smoke clears. Maybe they will return the Pueblo while their at it!


  2. The American strategy in the Far East will consist of two-parts: 1.) Counter-balance against rising Chinese political and military imperialism and 2.) Maintain the economic autonomy of other players in the region.

    The beauty of playing the balancing role in the Far East is that it can be achieved on the cheap. We can simply support the natural counter-balancing efforts of the region. By extending the pre-existing nuclear agreements with SK/Japan to every other country in the region we can protect them from the existential political/military threat of the Chinese and ensure economic autonomy of the region.

    Protecting the economic autonomy of the region does not require us to be the sole purchaser of the Far East’s economic output, but rather be an “and” proposition. For example, SK sell to the Chinese AND the US. Coupled with a nuclear shield from Chinese aggression the US can negotiate preferential trade agreements and contain the Chinese much like the Soviet Union 70 years ago.

    While I agree that Chinese importance to the global economy, the rise of China will ensure another hundred years of American hegemony, much like the Soviet Union 70 years ago. The Japanese, Koreans, etc. will require the US to sit at the multi-nation discussions in order to ensure that their wishes are being met.

    Before the world starts throwing a hissy fit over what all this means to America, sometimes its good to go to the basics. Our good friend Machiavelli has all the answers.


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