Smoldering Tensions on the Korean Peninsula: Will 2017 see landmark changes?

On 6 March 2017 North Korea fired four missiles in the Japanese See; three landed in Japan’s EEZ 300km off Japan’s northwest coast. All four missiles had been launched within 10 minutes.[1] About the last missile test in February 2017 it was said that solid-fuel and the cold launch technology were used. Missiles using these technologies are easily hidden underground and rapidly made ready to launch.[2] After the missile test in March, North Korea said that it was a drill for attacking the US military bases in Japan.[3] This announcement and the technological developments have sent the serious message to Japan to rethink its missile defense system. It is not feasible to intercept and destroy all of these incoming missiles.

In South Korea, the scandal of the dismissed president Park Geun-hye and China’s persistent pressure against the deployment of the US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missiles have been the most important issues. A promising candidate for the next president is reportedly pro-North Korea and anti-Japan as well as against the THAAD deployment. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Japan, South Korea and China in mid-March. How to handle North Korea might have been the main topic of his visit.

Neither North Korea nor China commented on the mysterious assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia in February 2017. The family of the half-brother is reportedly under the protection of the US, China and the Netherlands. Since North Korea is going to hold the Supreme People’s Assembly (the legislature) on 11 April 2017 and both the 105th birthday of Kim Il-sung and the 85th anniversary of the North Korean Military establishment are also in April, more missiles might again be fired during this festive period.

Is North Korea out of Chinese control or still within? The Chinese president Xi Jinping and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have never held any meetings yet. The USA might take action to devastate North Korea if the Americans feel an imminent danger of being attacked by it. However, a North Korean collapse on the doorsteps of China impacts it differently than the faraway US. China, the USA and Russia might reach an agreement about the future of North Korea and the Korean Peninsula because of power shifts on the peninsula. The Korean War has still not formally ended; the cease-fire agreement was signed by the USA, China and North Korea. Since the US Navy SEALs have joined the joint drill between South Korea and the US, and South Korea is also establishing a decapitation unit, pressure might be put on Kim Jong-un to make decisions to either stop further nuclear development or just carry it on.

In any case, North Korea needs gradual industrialization to survive and remain a nation. Thus, its relationships with China and South Korea would become much more essential than before. If South Korea elects a pro-North Korea candidate to the presidency, China could have a strong impact on the Korean Peninsula. The US military might withdraw from South Korea. This scenario would see a dramatically changed East Asian power balance, and Japan in particular needs to change its defense strategy. Such a situation would also make Russia uneasy because of China’s deep penetration into Siberia. Whether US president Trump takes steps to hold meetings with North Korea or makes a deal with China to handle or contain North Korea. Xi Jinping meets Trump in April. One might think of a trade-off whereby both countries make concessions in economic and military issues. The South Korean presidential election is held in May. Keeping a keen eye on the Korean Peninsula is essential.


[1] Reuters: North Korea fires four ballistic missiles into sea, angering Japan and South, March 6, 2017. [accessed March 6, 2017]

[2] The New York Times: North Korea Claims Progress on Long-Range Goal With Missile Test, February 13, 2017. [accessed March 6, 2017]

[3] AP: North Korea says missiles were drill for strike on US bases, March 7, 2017. [accessed March 7, 2017]

Related Posts: