Geostrategy and military competition in the Korean Peninsula

A map of the Korean Peninsula which shows the division between North and South Korea and the geostrategic importance of the region (Credits: Jyusin, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Volume 12 Issue 10
Author: Riccardo Rossi

The political-strategic priorities of the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation and the United States had conferred high geostrategic value to the Korean Peninsula in the North-East Pacific Scenario. In this region, since the totalitarian regime of North Korea hardly coexists with a Western-type State of South Korea, military assets play a fundamental role.

On the whole, the political interests identified by Beijing, Moscow and Washington in the Peninsula have led to an elevated military presence in the area, focused on obtaining or maintaining a determined political-strategic balance.

Within the Asia-Pacific region, the Korean Peninsula is bordered to the north by China, to the west by the waters of the Yellow Sea, to the east by the Sea of Japan, and to the south by the Gulf of Korea. The People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation and the United States have political-strategic solid interests in this region.

With the appointment in 2012 of Xi Jinping as President of the Republic, China recognised Korea as a strategically crucial geo-maritime space, pushing Beijing to develop a political-military partnership with Moscow. Russia is also worried about the growing instability of the Peninsula, which could involve its eastern territories bordering North Korea.

Moscow’s apprehension for the political precariousness in Korea has allowed Beijing in assonance with the Kremlin to draw up a political-strategic doctrine for the area of the Pacific Northwest, opposed to the policy of the American Pivot to Asia whose purpose is to contain the Chinese rise in the China Sea, which oversees the Russian military presence in the waters of the Sea of Japan.

In the case of the Korean Peninsula, this political-strategic doctrine contemplates maintaining an active Sino-Russian posture in order to meet common geopolitical priorities:

  • The supervision of the Korean Strait which is the only junction of maritime lines of communication linking the East China Sea with the waters of the Sea of Japan.
  • The protection of the North Korean territory which is close to the Russian and Chinese border cities.  In the case of a conflict between the United States and North Korea, Moscow and Beijing are concerned that U.S. military operations might target their cities and territories at the borders with North Korea. In order to limit this danger, the Sino-Russian axis is committed to both economically supporting and supervising the nuclear program of the Kim-Jong Un regime so that North Korea continues to perform its function as a buffer state that separates the Russian-Chinese territories from the Republic of Korea and the U.S. military bases, located near Seoul and Japan.

Pursuing the above priorities has required the Russian-Chinese partners to develop a strategic-military theory that can be summarised in two types of intervention. The first foresees the maintenance of a constant dialogue with the United States to resolve, through diplomacy, possible situations of crisis between Pyongyang and Seoul. An example can be considered Beijing’s double freeze proposal addressed to Washington, which formulated the suspension of the North Korean nuclear tests on the condition that the United States and South Korea finish their military exercises. To maintain diplomatic dialogue with Washington, the Sino-Russian strategic-military theory adds the importance of developing military cooperation between the Chinese forces of the Northern Theater Command and the Russian Pacific Fleet based in Vladivostok. An example supporting this assertion can be considered the Vostok exercise, organised in September 2018 by the Russian Federation, in which China took part with 3200 military units.

The Sino-Russian decision to carry out joint military manoeuvres has an essential function for fulfilling different missions. These include the supervision of the land borderline separating them from North Korea, controlling maritime traffic across the Strait of Korea, and the imposition of sea control localised to the waters near the western and eastern sides of the North Korean coastlines.

In the latter case, the success of this operation would guarantee a reduction in U.S. military capabilities in carrying out maritime power projection missions to strike Pyongyang military installations or Russian and Chinese cities close to the borderline with North Korea.

During the Obama administration and the subsequent Trump and Biden presidencies, the Sino-Russian presence in the South Central Pacific Area has been identified as a significant security threat to this geo-maritime space.

The United States has recognised the Korean Peninsula as an area of high geostrategic importance due to the growing North Korean nuclear programs and the constant increase of the Russian-Chinese presence. This evaluation has required Washington to intervene in the Peninsula, pursuing specific geopolitical priorities. Among these can be considered:

  • The importance of protecting Seoul from a possible military attack by the Kim Jong-Un regime. This eventuality represents a source of great preoccupation for Washington because a possible conflict between North and South Korea would cause severe humanitarian and ecological damage, which would involve the Countries close to the Peninsula, China, Russia and Japan.
  • The United States considers Korea strategically crucial because of the Peninsula’s adjacency to important geo-maritime hubs in the China Sea claimed by the People’s Republic of China, such as the Korea Strait and Miyako.
  • By the Obama Administration, the military presence in South Korea has recognised a significant strategic advantage that allows Washington to implement an effective policy of containment against the Russian-Chinese presence both on the Korean Peninsula and in the Pacific Northwest.

To pursue the geopolitical priorities described above, the United States has developed a strategic-military theory that combines two forms of intervention. The first involves deepening industrial-military relations with the South Korean government. In this regard, in recent years, the White House has sold Seoul new military technologies, as happened in 2017 with the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defence system, and organised significant joint military manoeuvres with the South Korean military.

In addition to industrial-military cooperation, the United States has considered the importance of optimising its military bases located near Seoul and Japan to broaden the range of missions that the armed forces can carry out. Among the various forms of operations are: the reconnaissance of the geo-maritime junctions in the Chinese Sea claimed by the People’s Republic of China, such as the Strait of Korea and Miyako, the supervision of the land and sea border separating the two Koreas, and offensive missions. This last type of operation includes maritime power projection missions to strike military installations in North Korea, China or Russia.

Conclusions

In these concluding notes, we will try to summarise the main aspects that allow us to consider the Korean Peninsula a geo-maritime space of particular political-strategic interest for the People’s Republic of China, the Russian Federation and the United States.

The reasons identified in support of this consideration can therefore be traced back to the following considerations. The unanimous Chinese, Russian and American recognition of the high level of geopolitical instability on the Peninsula, primarily due to the North Korean nuclear development program, the implementation of which has accelerated convergence of the three countries’ military assets on the Peninsula. Examples in support of this consideration can be considered the 2015 Russian maritime military doctrine, which asserts the importance of the Pacific Fleet as a tool to ensure Moscow a leading role in Asia, including Korea. In the case of China, with Xi’s appointment in 2012 as President of the Republic, Beijing has increased the command capabilities of the Northern Theater, the closest to the Peninsula, ensuring an effective standby force for the Peninsula should it be needed. Finally, the United States, from the Obama administration and then on to the Trump and Biden presidencies, have progressively increased military resources in the Asia-Pacific, including in bases in Korea and Japan.

The convergence and increase of Chinese, Russian and U.S. military assets near the Korean Peninsula represents an essential indicator of the tactical-strategic importance attributed by these three countries to this geo-maritime space.

The Beijing-Moscow axis recognises Korea, due to the proximity of its territories to North Korea, as extremely important for protecting their respective borders and national interests. This assessment is reflected in the decision of Xi and Putin to protect the integrity of the Kim-Jong Un regime so that it can act as a buffer state, separating the Russian and Chinese territories from South Korea and the U.S. military bases located near Seoul and Japan. In order to pursue this objective, the two countries are cooperating through a strategy of action, which includes the supervision of Pyongyang’s nuclear programs, maintaining a dialogue with the United States and conducting regular joint military exercises.

In turn, the United States, in order to contain Sino-Russian expansionism in the northwest Asia-Pacific, particularly in Korea, has developed a military doctrine that provides for the protection of Seoul’s territorial integrity as well as the leading maritime straits claimed by Beijing located in Korea and Japan and the conduct of constant military exercises and air-naval patrols of the Korean Strait, the Sea of Japan and East China, as a form of pressure and containment of Sino-Russian military activities.

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