The crisis on the Korean Peninsula and the effects on the geopolitical balance in the East China Sea

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 ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 25 Issue 2
Author: Riccardo Rossi

Over the past few days, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), in response to the Vigilant Storm military manoeuvre organised by Washington and Seoul between October 31st,2022, and November 4th, 2022, has deployed part of its Korean People’s Army Strategic Rocket Force (KPASRF), launching 23 missiles.

Consequently, Pyongyang raised the level of tension on the Korean peninsula, involving the principal state actors of the Asia-Pacific region with political-strategic interests related to the East China Sea geo-maritime area, such as South Korea, China, the United States and the Russian Federation.

Geopolitical scenario

The United States Indo-Pacific Command, in agreement with the South Korean Air Force, carried out the joint Vigilant Storm manoeuvre from October 31st, 2022, until November 4th, 2022, deploying around 240 aircraft. Specifically, the U.S. Airforce is participating in the exercise with 100 aircraft, including several F-35 Bs from the Japan-based Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, EA-18s, KC-135s, and a squadron of U2s designed for high-altitude reconnaissance missions.

Washington and Seoul intend to improve the interoperability between their respective air forces concerning reconnaissance and defence operations in South Korean airspace, with a focus on the Korean Demilitarised Zone and the Korea Sea Strait, which is a necessary passage for Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) interconnecting part of the South Korean and Japanese port network to the East China Sea.

Since the beginning of the Vigilant Storm, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has voiced its concerns for its national security, believing that the real intent of the United States and South Korea was to engage in power projection operations, simulating attacks against possible strategic targets present DPRK.

After these statements, Pyongyang conducted training activities involving some artillery batteries and the Korean People’s Army Strategic Rocket Force, deploying 23 short-range (SRBM) and medium-range (MRBM) ballistic missiles. Regarding the launch of the SRBM and MRBM, the South Korean authorities noted that one of them fell about 60 km (37 miles) from the coastal town of Sokcho.

Through this exercise, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea wanted to show the United States and its main allies in the north-western Asia-Pacific region (the Republic of Korea and Japan) the missile capabilities of the Korean People’s Army Strategic Rocket Force, as was the case with the successful test of the Hwasong-17 on March 24th, 2022. In addition, Pyongyang confirmed the necessity to protect its national integrity from the U.S. threat posed by the U.S. Navy, Army and Air Force bases in the Japanese archipelago and South Korea. Indeed, supporting a conflict with Seoul, Pyongyang fears being the target of U.S. power projection operations aimed at striking military installations and significant strategic infrastructure.

Risk Assessment

Rising tensions in Korea represent an element of instability in the geo-maritime space of the East China Sea, affecting countries with special interests in the Northwest Asia-Pacific, such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Russian Federation, the United States, Japan, and South Korea.

Both Beijing and Moscow consider Pyongyang an essential strategic value in defence of its national interests, similar in some cases to the island of Taiwan, as Chinese President Xi Jinping stated on the occasion of the opening speech of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on October 16th, 2022.

Indeed, Beijing aims to mitigate the risk of a conflict between Pyongyang and Seoul involving the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation. Indeed, Beijing considers the war in Korea an event that would compromise the stability of the Asia-Pacific region, causing severe damage to its own industrial-financial apparatus, considering its high degree of interconnection with the most technologically advanced countries in the north-western Asia-Pacific, namely Japan and South Korea.

Regarding the volume of business between Beijing-Tokyo, data from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs showed that, in 2021, Japanese exports to the PRC were $ 206.2 billion, while imports from China stood at $165.9 billion. To these figures, one must add the economic importance of the Chinese market for large Japanese companies, which in 2020 was quantified by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan as $3.4 billion in foreign direct investment.

Also, South Korea and the PRC have registered a positive and increasing trade and commercial exchange trend. In this regard, in August 2022, Beijing’s exports to Seoul included the following products: integrated circuits ($2.08 billion), electric batteries ($561 million), computers ($466 million), inorganic salts ($347 million) and other inorganic acid salts ($309 million).

Since China considers economic and financial relations important with Japan and South Korea, Beijing has developed an articulated strategy for the Korean peninsula to maintain a high level of interference with the Kim Jong-Un regime while preserving its stability. This strategy combines a soft-power policy with increased military resources for the Northern Theatre Command, located on the border with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

In this regard, China wants to influence the development of the North Korean economy because of the total dependence of Pyongyang’s industrial apparatus on Chinese support and develop a collaborative approach with the United States, identifiable with the doctrine of the double freeze, aimed at peacefully resolving the continuing tensions on the Korean peninsula due to the Kim Jong-Un regime’s provocations towards Seoul.

On the other hand, since the Obama Administration and the adoption of the Pivot to Asia doctrine, the United States has identified the North Korean nuclear missile programme as the main geopolitical risk factor on the peninsula. Therefore, Washington promotes a strategy which seeks to: push Beijing to approve economic sanctions against North Korea in the United Nations Security Council to weaken Pyongyang’s economic-industrial system and, consequently, damage the North Korean missile development programmes; support the military development of Seoul and Tokyo and to increase its military resources in these two countries. In this regard, one can consider the constant exercises that the U.S. conducts in the East China Sea.

Conclusions

The current situation in the Korean Peninsula represents a severe threat to economic-strategic stability in the East China Sea geo-maritime space for the United States, the People’s Republic of China, and the Russian Federation.

Therefore, the current crisis might push Washington and Beijing to reach an understanding based on the double freeze doctrine, i.e., a simultaneous stop to military exercises by Seoul and Pyongyang, or urge a unilateral Chinese soft-power action against the Kim Jong-Un regime, mainly through a further reduction of industrial-military support.

Considering these two options, the possibility of a conflict in Korea is to be judged as highly unlikely.