Author: Nate Kerkhoff, Yonsei University
As the curtain closed on 2017, the Korean Peninsula and surrounding nations transitioned into a new period of power relations. South Korea decided to install the American-made and -operated Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, China engaged in economic retaliation against Seoul for that decision and North Korea successfully executed several missile launches.
To the north of the demilitarised zone, the volatile leaders of North Korea and the United States reinflamed the relationship between their two countries. In particular, international continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) gave North Korea the ability to strike the US mainland directly. This caused new discussions regarding priorities in Washington and prompted real talk of preventative war on the Korean Peninsula. Unless long-term de-escalation efforts are taken, 2018 will see the situation worsen.
The first major test will be the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. After Kim Jong-un made overtures to the South in his New Year’s speech, the two Koreas reopened several lines of communication and held high-level talks. North Korea will send a large contingency of athletes, artists and cheerleaders to the Games. The United States and South Korea have postponed joint military drills until the conclusion of the Paralympics in mid-March.
Whatever Pyongyang’s intentions may be, the ongoing North–South talks have not yet addressed denuclearisation. There will likely not be provocative weapons tests until well into the spring or even early summer, though this is hardly a sign of Pyongyang caving into sanctions. Instead, North Korea will use this time to concentrate on its byungjin policy of joint military and economic development as well as on taking the next step with its missile program: the development of a functioning atmospheric re-entry device for its ICBMs.
A more militarily capable North Korea also affects Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s long-desired military normalisation. A revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution (which limits Japan’s military capabilities) must begin with a referendum. This may happen in 2018 before the abdication of Emperor Akihito in spring 2019.
Although Japan’s public is still against military renormalisation, if North Korea continues to shoot missiles over Japan (as it did twice in 2017), Abe may finally gain the domestic support necessary to push the referendum through. Abe will express the need for enhanced military capabilities, which have already begun with the incoming Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defence systems, the recently ordered cruise missiles and the domestically produced supersonic anti-ship missiles. The increasing possibility of constitutional revision and new military hardware indicates that this year may be definitive for Tokyo’s 21st century defence posture.
Japan’s military trajectory certainly has Beijing concerned. China’s desire to be the dominant military power in East Asia is no secret. Beijing learned a tough lesson in 2017 through its difficulties in pressuring South Korea to remove the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system: it will not be able to remake the regional order in its own vision yet. In order to completely draw Seoul to its side, China must provide some form of security guarantee — which is impossible to do so long as Beijing protects North Korea.
Beijing’s conundrum will continue in 2018. China supported the latest round of UN sanctions against North Korea (this round was the toughest yet). There are now no options short of an oil embargo left for Beijing for when Pyongyang performs its next major weapon test. Meanwhile, China is continuing to publicly state its intentions for peace while it increases its military capabilities and refines its military doctrine. Beijing is flashing its own military muscle by increasing its air force and naval runs around Taiwan, Japan and now South Korea.
Territory disputes are ongoing in East Asia. Beijing and Tokyo remain directly at odds in the East China Sea, so given the pre-existing close encounters between each country’s fighter jets, Japan’s military normalisation combined with nationalist sentiment over disputed territories may cause a standoff between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.
The most polarising scenario for 2018 will be if South Korea and Japan begin to seriously explore the development of nuclear weapons, which would escalate regional tensions to new levels. The likelihood of this happening in either country is low — poll data from both countries show little support for the weapons — but nothing can be entirely discounted. Tokyo and Seoul are still wary of Washington’s commitment to the region now that US territory is a potential target for North Korean ICBMs. Japan and South Korea will continue to explore all security options as North Korea’s capabilities increase and the United States remains unclear in its Pacific strategy.
There are some reasons for optimism. Tensions between South Korea and China began to subside late in the year after Beijing’s overtures to Seoul. After consolidating domestic power, China’s and Japan’s leaders have more room to operate abroad and have been quietly improving bilateral relations.
No matter how much individual countries tinker with their bilateral relations, North Korea is still the axis upon which the security wheel in Northeast Asia spins. Pyongyang’s push for nuclear deterrence is nearing completion, and when the program is finally brought to fruition, this will force difficult security decisions for all surrounding nations. The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will provide a few weeks’ respite, but tensions will likely return to normal after their conclusion.
Nate Kerkhoff is a student at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies.