The greatest threat to peace and stability in northeast Asia is the U.S. Indo-Pacific military encirclement of China.
By Simone Chun
March 3, 2023
Published in TruthOut
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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