North Korea. The Russian Federation. Kim Jong-un. Vladimir Putin. Two nations, both anti-American now and historically. Both on the precipice between success and failure. Both with great futures and great potential loss. And their fate rests with one another. For North Korea is Russia’s Pacific Pivot and its way out of an Asian encirclement, and Russia is North Korea’s guarantee of future prosperity.
This part of East Asia is characterized by three major powers and three lesser powers. The major ones are the Russian Federation, China, and the United States of America. Each of these nations has enough nuclear weaponry to wipe out the other. The three lesser powers are South Korea, North Korea, and Japan. While South Korea presently lacks a nuclear weapons program the North Korean program has been a major success. The Japanese have a ‘bomb in the basement’ program and stockpile a massive amount of weapons grade plutonium. All of them have large and formidable militaries with the Japanese and Koreans maintaining powerful navies as well.
Today the USA uses Japan and South Korea as a great shield protecting its western flank and hemming in two powerful rivals: China and Russia. Between the three of them China and Russia are thoroughly trapped. By encouraging the development of their collective militaries and maintaining America’s network of bases in the area the Pentagon keeps a close on their Asian neighbors.
Contrary to public thought, North Korea is a distraction. It provides a justification for the mass militarization of the DMZ and Japan’s considerable investment in naval forces, air defense, and fighter jets. But the real prize is the opportunity to station unique American forces so close to the borders of rivals, all the while maintaining a massive reserve in the form of the allied nations military. For the Americans this situation is beautiful; they hold all the cards. And at any moment they are capable of inflicting on China that great nightmare scenario of naval embargo via the massive and powerful Japanese navy.
There are only two chinks in the American strategy here: For one, South Korea is Sinophilic and have few problems with integrating into the Tianxia sphere which they’ve historically been part of. China need only apply a little leverage to cause diplomatic problems between South Korea and the rest of the alliance here.
The second gap is North Korea’s finicky nature. One can’t even trust them to be consistent in their hostility. This unpredictability is a deliberate strength of their foreign policy because it gives them enormous freedom of action. They’ve undertaken countless risky activities and escaped scot-free as a result.
This brings us to Russia’s pivot to Asia. Russia and China are clear allies now, so a Chinese weakness is a Russian weakness. A Chinese weakness is massive embargo and the rapid strangulation of their economy. A Russian weakness is an American dominated East Asia. Both weaknesses converge on an opportunity: Disarm North Korea.
The disarmament of North Korea would be the first step towards unification with the South. The South Koreans have voiced many times their desire to absorb their northern brethren despite historical differences. They certainly have the economic and industrial means to do so. The disarmament of North Korea and the opening of its markets would be a massive carrot for the South Koreans, one for which they’d pay almost any cost, including a turn towards the Russian-Chinese alliance.
America would then be left in a tricky situation: Decades of troops and hardware now stuck in a country amenable to the hegemon’s greatest rival whilst the justification of the presence of these troops would be stripped aside. A disarmed North Korea is not one that requires 30,000 troops armed with the latest in destructive equipment to watch over it.
The justification for the Okinawa and other American bases, notoriously unpopular among the Japanese, would also be stripped away. Japan, regional power of east Asia, would thus be left in a tricky position. It would be friendless in the region, with only a corrupted Taiwan and stubborn Phillipines to count on while America remains across the sea. And America’s bases would present a suddenly enormous PR problem for the state.
All at once the Japanese would have a domestic crisis on their hand while one of the worlds most formidable militaries, that of South Korea, will have turned to join its elder patron’s greatest rivals. A stunning turn around to rival America’s Maidan coup in the Ukraine.
But is this scenario occurring as described? Well yes, and as fast as it can too. The one difficult part for the Russians and the one the Americans love to encourage is the finicky nature of the North Koreans, fearful and concerned of being hung out to dry. Russia has been carefully bolstering ties for the last year to alleviate these fears with 2015 finally resulting in an official visit-to-be from Kim Jong-Un and the establishment of a Russo-Korean Joint Business Council. Both are immensely notable actions and when combined with the prospect of joint military drills we see that all signs are present.
Russia is pivoting towards North Korea as fast as it can, and the Koreans are happy to oblige. By 2020 the Korea that the West has counted among its own may very well be in the camp of its greatest rivals. Time will tell.