Above Photo: In this handout image released by the South Korean Defense Ministry, a U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber and F-16 fighter jets fly over the South Korea Peninsula during a joint air drill on February 19, 2023, at an undisclosed location in South Korea. Simone Chun.
The greatest threat to peace and stability in northeast Asia is the U.S. Indo-Pacific military encirclement of China.
The U.S. military encirclement of China threatens to escalate into an Asia-Pacific war, with the Korean Peninsula at the focal point of this dangerous path. Garrisoned with nearly 30,000 combat-ready U.S. forces manning the astonishing 73 U.S. military bases dotting its tiny landmass, South Korea is the most critical frontline component of U.S. military escalation in northeast Asia.
Since the Obama administration’s 2012 “pivot to Asia,” Washington has intensified tensions with Beijing, doubling down on a “full-scale multi-pronged new Cold War” through the Indo-Pacific Strategy pursued by both the Trump and Biden administrations. Sixty percent of U.S. naval capacity has been transferred to the Asia-Pacific region, and 400 out of 800 U.S. worldwide military bases and 130,000 troops are now circling China.
This is a reflection of Washington’s Asia-Pacific grand strategy, which views China as the U.S.’s top security challenge and prioritizes the maintenance of U.S. regional hegemony through military force by “defending the homeland, paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the PRC [People’s Republic of China].”
It promotes the vision of an empire with unipolar hegemonic ambitions, expanding the theater of war in northeast Asia and distributing the totality of threats facing China. Its goal is to force China’s hand by triggering and escalating a hybrid war on multiple fronts, including military, technology, economy, information and media.
This strategy is based on chaining together a regional “anti-hegemonic coalition” of U.S.-armed allies encircling China from South Korea and Japan in the north to Australia and Indonesia in the south. In spite of the significant state-level and public resistance in these nations toward U.S. pressure to choose between allegiance to Beijing and allegiance to Washington, this vision has been largely realized thanks to unrelenting U.S. coercion through successive administrations.
Three important implications of this grand strategy, which places the Korean Peninsula at the pernicious center of intensified China-U.S. competition, merit attention: 1) the accelerated remilitarization of Japan; 2) the revitalization of extremist hardline North Korea policies in both Washington and Seoul; and 3) the intensification and expansion of belligerent wargames targeted at China and North Korea.
First, Washington’s military encirclement of China strategy bolsters Japan’s military build-up program. The U.S., despite having imposed a “pacifist” constitution on Japan in the wake of WWII, has for decades aggressively pushed for Japanese rearmament as a necessary adjunct of Washington’s efforts to dominate the Asia-Pacific. Labeling Japan a “failed peace state,” Gavan McCormack points out the ironic trajectory of its transformation into “one of the world’s great military powers” as a state actively girding for war under a so-called pacifist constitution. “With US encouragement, over time Japan built formidable land, sea, and air forces, evading the constitutional proscription by calling them ‘Self-Defence’ forces (rather than Army, Navy, and so on),” McCormack writes. “Other states with good reason to know and fear Japanese militarism (Australia included) also abandoned their commitment to the idea of its permanent demilitarisation…. [Its] constitution steadily sidelined, by early 21st century Japan was one of the world’s great military powers.”
Thus, Japan’s Security Policy echoes U.S. goals such as the complete denuclearization of North Korea, the stoking of tensions on Taiwan and the continued U.S. military presence in Okinawa. Home to more than 50,000 U.S. troops, Tokyo has steadily laid the groundwork for its own remilitarization program by characterizing North Korea as an existential threat, and designating Beijing’s regional activities as a danger to its homeland. According to the retired Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) Admiral Tomohisa Takei, China has been the main target for Japanese rearmament, “using North Korea’s threat as cover.”
At their most recent summit in January, President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to work together to “transform Japan into a potent military power” to counterbalance China. Tokyo’s defense budget will grow 56 percent over the next five years, from $215 billion to $324 billion, raising its military spending to parity with that of NATO countries. Tokyo is also adopting a new policy of acquiring “counterstrike” capabilities against other nations as part of a recharacterized “self-defense” posture — an alarming development in a region still suffering from the historical legacy of Japan’s brutal imperial policy during WWII, and raising the fear that Japan may decide to carry out a unilateral attack against North Korea. Washington considers the remilitarization of Japan — which aspires to become the world’s third-largest military power after the U.S. and China — to be the linchpin of U.S. security interests in Asia.
Second, Washington’s zero-sum stance against China obstructs its ability to craft a sensible North Korea policy. Thus far, despite Washington’s rhetoric of “seeking diplomacy and deterrence with North Korea,” and repeated claims of having “reached out to Pyongyang multiple times,” the Biden administration has not moved beyond its standing offer for talks with no preconditions. Moreover, the Biden administration’s recent appointment of a new special envoy for North Korean human rights issues shows that Washington intends to maintain its heavy handed policy of employing military threats and economic sanctions against Pyongyang. In other words, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated, the United States will “maintain pressure on North Korea until Pyongyang changes course,” i.e. surrenders to U.S. terms. Even moderate experts have warned against the Biden administration’s preference for relying on “ineffective [and] ill-suited tools” such as “isolation, pressure, and deterrence,” intensifying U.S.-South Korea military exercises, and redeploying U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula. The goal of Washington’s North Korea policy, however, is not to achieve rapprochement with Pyongyang or establish peace in the Korean Peninsula, but rather to nurture and even enhance the purported “North Korean threat” as a pretext to rally South Korea and Japan behind its goal of containing China.
Washington’s anti-China policy, which binds South Korea to the service of U.S. geopolitical strategic interests and keeps it in a subservient client-patron relationship with the U.S., also has the ancillary effect of empowering extremist far right factions in South Korea. These politicians exploit the North Korean threat as justification for domestic repression under South Korea’s National Security Laws — among the most draconian in the world — empowering them to leverage red-baiting and worse against any critics or perceived threats to their grip on power.
Case in point: South Korea’s far right president, Yoon Suk-yeol, who was elected by a razor-thin margin of 0.7 percent barely eight months ago, is already leaving his mark, having established a “republic of prosecution” that pursues the politics of fear and prosecution domestically on the one hand, and subordinates South Korea’s sovereignty to Washington’s interests on the other. The “most disliked leader in the world” garnered a disapproval rating of 70 percent in a recent Morning Consulting survey, and faces massive and sustained public demand for his immediate resignation. It is noteworthy that in spite of Washington’s stated foreign policy goal of promoting democracy, freedom and human rights, the U.S. remains silent on Yoon’s “atavistic reversion” of vitally democratic South Korea into a newly repressive national security state. According to K.J. Noh, “South Korea’s essential role as the closest and largest military force projection platform against China, its role in a ‘JAKUS’ (Japan-South Korea-U.S. military alliance), its cooperation with NATO, its stated plans to join a Quad-plus, and its assumption of a submissive position toward U.S. decoupling and economic enclosure against China make it far too valuable to criticize or undermine regardless of its excesses.”
Indeed, Yoon has tirelessly pressed ahead with dangerous hawkish foreign policies. Against the absolute majority of Korean public opinion (over 65 percent) who prefer neutrality and a “balanced policy,” Yoon has unwaveringly committed to stand with the U.S. in its hegemonic strategic rivalry with China. During the 2022 Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, Yoon unveiled Korea’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which is effectively cribbed from Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy designed to contain China. Moreover, Yoon has repeatedly advocated not only the redeployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea, but has also declared his intention to arm South Korea with nuclear weapons, significantly raising the danger of a regional nuclear arms race.
Third, Washington’s stance against China fuels belligerent ongoing wargames targeted at China and North Korea on the Korean Peninsula. The U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises — the world’s largest bilateral peacetime military drills — involve live fire drills, carrier battle group and submarine maneuvers and strategic nuclear bombing raids by aircraft. They have also explicitly included the rehearsed attack and occupation of North Korea as well as the “decapitation” of its leadership: a “plan for regime collapse and occupation.”
Since the 2022 Biden-Yoon summit when Yoon agreed to the repositioning U.S. strategic nuclear-capable assets closer to the Korean Peninsula, South Korea has conducted near-monthly joint military exercises with U.S. forces. Under the GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement), which aims to create a “three eyes” intelligence-sharing grouping against China, these exercises also include joint maneuvers with the Japanese military. Coupled with the deployment of U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries in South Korea, these drills form a crucial aspect of regional U.S. war preparations. Leveraging South Korea and Japan to collect and share military intelligence as military subcontractors is a principal component of U.S.-led military action. In the case of South Korea, the reduction of sovereign military assets to virtual pawns in a U.S.-led conflict goes even further, with Washington explicitly accorded the authority to take full control of the South Korean military in the event of any war.
The frequency and intensity of regional U.S.-led joint exercises have increased exponentially in the past year, ramping up tensions. In June 2022, the U.S. and South Korean militaries, for the first time in more than four years, held a three-day joint naval exercise involving U.S. strategic nuclear assets with the stated purpose of “reinforcing allies” against “North Korea’s mounting weapons ambitions.” Two months later, South Korea and Japan participated in the U.S.-led RIMPAC — the “grandest of all war games” — with the nominal goal of countering “North Korea’s evolving missile threats.”
In spite of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s claim that Washington does not “seek a new Cold War, an Asian NATO, or a region split into hostile blocs,” the U.S. is promoting NATO’s Asia-Pacific expansion to close the military circle around China, as demonstrated by its drive to extend NATO’s influence to Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. South Korea is fast becoming an important part of NATO’s Asia-Pacific expansion, as attested by Yoon’s attendance at the 2022 NATO meeting in Spain, in which China was singled out as a state that “challenge[s] our interests, security, and values and seek[s] to undermine the rules-based international order.” South Korea also became the first Asian country to join NATO’s Cyber Defense Group, a move that critics argue is laying the groundwork for war in Asia.
Moreover, the scope and scale of U.S. regional military exercises will increase by a factor of 20 for the first six months of 2023 alone. The resumption of U.S.-South Korean joint live-fire exercises will be augmented by the addition of new and highly provocative “nuclear table-top drills,” which simulate region-wide nuclear conflict under the guise of deterring a North Korean nuclear attack. The proliferation of these U.S.-led military exercises in the Korean Peninsula and the Asia-Pacific region reveal Washington’s mounting resolve to drag South Korea into conflicts beyond the Korean Peninsula for the simple reason that South Korea, which has remained a U.S. garrison state since the Korean War, hosts the most lethal U.S. military footprint proximate to Beijing, including the world’s newest and largest U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek.
U.S. officials have been quite blunt about South Korea’s subordinate role in Washington’s imperial quest. Gen. Robert Abrams, U.S. Forces Korea commander from 2018 to 2021, stated in 2021 that in addition to “threats from North Korea,” South Korea must join the U.S. in developing “new operational war plans” to counter China’s military influence in the region. Accordingly, former U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper predicted in 2022 that South Korea would inevitably “intervene with the United States in the Taiwan Strait should a conflict break out between Taiwan and China.” There is little doubt that under the far right Yoon administration, U.S. pressure on South Korea to serve in a vanguard role as a pawn against China will increase. Washington’s resolve to push its exorbitant imperial privilege by any means necessary is forcing South Korea down a risky and self-destructive path that promises little benefit for the Korean nation itself.
What is happening now is the U.S. empire’s response to its most significant challenge to date, and represents an evolution of its militaristic posture in order to prevent its demise. As Tim Beal points out:
For American hegemony the struggle is existential, and without hegemony the United States will be much diminished and poorer; it will have to live within its means rather than drawing sustenance from its empire. Hegemonic power has various dimensions — political, military, ideational, economic and financial. The US is being challenged, indeed is faltering, in each of these in various ways and to differing degrees.
First and foremost, in intensifying its offensive against Beijing, Washington has shifted both risk and burden to allies that form its “vanguard against China,” enabling the U.S. to dictate decisions and procure imperial benefits while distributing the costs to vassal states. In order to justify its burgeoning military regional presence and intensified control over South Korea, Japan and Taiwan to bolster its posture against China, the U.S. needs to keep regional tension high. Despite the U.S. position that it is “open to talks” with North Korea, continued sanctions (including those targeting the civilian and medical sector), expansion of the U.S. military presence in the region, intensification of multinational military drills, and continued political rhetoric from Washington ensure that tensions with the north remain elevated. This benefits both Washington and the extremist regime in Seoul, and ensures South Korea’s perpetual relegation to the status of a U.S. neocolonial state.
The greatest threat to peace and stability in northeast Asia is the U.S. Indo-Pacific military encirclement of China, which by design serves to escalate tensions and create a dangerous cycle of provocation and response. Washington’s hegemonic quest — the highest manifestation of 21st-century imperialism — is the antithesis of peace in the Korean Peninsula, the Asia-Pacific region, and beyond. When one factors in the Pentagon’s openly aggressive National Defense Strategy, which sanctions the use of nuclear weapons against non-adversaries, the intensified U.S. focus on maintaining hegemony and regional dominance at all costs takes on an even more ominous character, suggesting that the Korean Peninsula has the potential to serve as the flashpoint for a conflict of much wider scale and scope.
Hawkish U.S. policies have consistently failed to garner public support in South Korea. According to a series of polls conducted in 2021, 61 percent of South Koreans support relaxing sanctions against the north and 79 percent support peace with Pyongyang, with an additional 71 percent supporting a formal end-of-war declaration between the two Koreas. These sentiments persist even among Yoon supporters, a majority of whom support an inter-Korean peace treaty, breaking with his rhetoric of a tougher stance toward North Korea. The South Korean Democratic and Progressive Parties, as well as major civil and labor organizations, support military deescalation with the North and maintenance of neutrality in the Washington-Beijing competition. Democratic Party Chairman Lee Jae-myung has repeatedly warned against South Korea becoming a “pawn in the plans of other states,” pledging his party to the principles of independence and sovereignty.
A few years from now, after the Biden and Yoon administrations have ended, North Korea will likely not have been denuclearized and South Korea may emerge as the nuclear front line in the U.S. rivalry with China and Russia, setting the stage for the Korean Peninsula to serve as the main battleground in a new Cold War. If Biden has a genuine interest in achieving lasting regional security, he should pursue a broader vision in which nations can coexist. According to the latest poll, a significant majority of Americans support tension-reducing policies with North Korea and China, and 7 in 10 Americans are supportive of a summit between Biden and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Over half of those polled support a full-fledged peace agreement to finally end the 73-year-old Korean War — an unresolved conflict that has left nearly 5 million casualties and forcibly separated 10 million Korean families on either side of the 38th parallel, including more than 100,000 Korean Americans.
Instead of narrowly focusing on the threat of China and exploiting the North Korean threat as a cover for a militaristic and volatile anti-China policy, the Biden administration should recognize that peace in the Korean Peninsula is not only obtainable, but can lay the groundwork for a broader and more stable regional order based on coexistence.