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Research Report


Copyright Date: Nov. 1, 2015
Published by: Atlantic Council
Pages: 24
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 3-3)

    Situated at the heart of Northeast Asia, the Korean peninsula has historically been the pivot of contention whenever great power competitions emerged in the region. Chinese and Japanese political and military involvement in Korea goes back to antiquity; the Mongol invasion of Japan, the only invasion of Japan’s home islands before World War II, came through Korea in 1274 and 1281; the second major conflict between China and Japan was fought in Korea between 1592 and 1598. During the modern era, three major wars, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), and the Korean War (1950–...

  2. (pp. 3-5)

    An old proverb describing Korea’s unfortunate geopolitical position says that “a shrimp breaks its back in a fight between whales.” Even today, the two Koreas are surrounded by the world’s first, second, and third largest economies (US presence in Northeast Asia, China, and Japan respectively), and Russia, which is still a great military power. To survive in such a difficult environment, Korea has traditionally aligned closely with dominant great powers in the region or has sought to manipulate and navigate between them in pursuit of security and sovereignty.

    During the pre-modern era, Korea, particularly during the Joseon period (1392–1897),...

  3. (pp. 5-8)

    As tensions increase in Northeast Asia with the continued reemergence of China, the gradual normalization of Japan’s military, and the rebalancing of the United States, dynamics on the Korean peninsula, too, could shift. The full return of great power politics in the region will prompt China to improve its relations with North Korea, allowing the latter to act in more assertive and aggressive ways; South Korea’s strategy of hedging will become unsustainable, as pressure to choose between China and the United States increases.

    Signs of increasing great power engagement on the Korean peninsula have been evident over the last couple...

  4. (pp. 8-11)

    The totalitarian nature of the Kim regime, combined with its failed economic model, makes it highly likely that the system will eventually collapse. Some may counter that predictions about the regime’s collapse have proven wrong before. This logic is flawed because the fact that an event has not happened yet does not mean that it will never happen. Moreover, North Korean society has been changing gradually since the famine of 1994–98 with the introduction of a pervasive black market economy and the rise of massive corruption.23 These trends are irreversible and are likely to lead to the Kim regime’s...

  5. (pp. 11-12)

    The brinkmanship strategy pursued by the Kim regime and its internal contradictions mean that there is always a risk of a sudden North Korean collapse or even a second Korean War. Both scenarios would be severely destabilizing and could create massive problems for all the players involved in Northeast Asia. Will North Korea, which is heavily armed and is continuously improving its nuclear and missile technology, collapse with a bang or with a whimper? How will the global community deal with a humanitarian crisis in an underdeveloped failed state? How will China deal with a unified Korea allied to the...

  6. (pp. 12-14)

    Korea has been part of the US grand strategy in East Asia since the Korean War. As a treaty ally, Seoul was an integral part of Washington’s attempts to contain communism in the region. Yet, the Cold War has been over for more than two decades. Beijing is a rising power in a region considered the most important in the world in strategic terms by scholars and policymakers alike.55 The United States and its allies, however, do not have the same kind of extraordinarily antagonistic relations with China as Washington and its allies did with Moscow during the Cold War....

  7. (pp. 14-18)

    The United States needs a comprehensive strategy to simultaneously achieve stability on the Korean peninsula and bring about regime change in North Korea. The strategy laid out in this report consists of four elements.

    Increasing the defense budget to at least 4 percent of the GDP in order to buttress the rebalance to Asia and to maintain a robust military presence and capability on the Korean peninsula for stability and deterrence.

    Pursuit of grassroots engagement toward North Korea by covertly facilitating the black market flow of goods and information into the country to empower ordinary North Koreans and to weaken...

  8. (pp. 18-18)

    During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, an isolationist United States refused to become directly involved in Northeast Asia. The result was a series of conflicts that began with the contestations over Korea, eventually leading to an Asia-wide war and, finally, the attack on Pearl Harbor. Today, the United States is deeply involved on the Korean peninsula, but the Washington community focuses too much on the North Korean issue. Instead, the United States should treat the Korean peninsula, not as a stand-alone issue, but as an integral component in Northeast Asia’s great power politics. Late-South Korean President Park Chung-hee...