2. South Korea and the Order in Transition in East Asia

Chair: Matteo Dian (University of Bologna)
Discussant: Ted Hopf (National University of Singapore) 

Date: Thursday 29th, 2017
Room: Sala Grande FBK 

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Contemporary South Korea is a middle power navigating through the dangerous waters of an order transition, determined by a reconfiguration of power and authority between the main great powers of the region. Key elements of this process are the rise of China and the US will to uphold its role of leadership in Asia.
The competition between US and China is the main but not the only relevant dynamic influencing contemporary Asia. Japan, Russia and ASEAN remain significant actors for the evolution of the regional order in Asia, under the political, institutional and normative point of view.

On the one hand, this increasing regional complexity generates a number of dilemmas as well as several opportunities for middle powers such as Korea. Seoul faces the constant need to adapt their foreign policy strategy and to find a equilibrium between China, a fundamental economic partners, but also a potential disruptor or the regional order, and its main security provider, the United States. On the other hand the realities of the order transition open a window of opportunity for middle powers to contribute with their own ideas and solutions in the realm of security, regionalism and economic development.

The panel welcomes both papers dealing with the Korean role in the region as well as papers dealing with the topic of order transition in East Asia.

Key words: East Asia, South Korea, regional order, rising powers, order transition.

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Confirmed Papers: 

  1. Matteo Dian (University of Bologna), US-Korea alliance in the Trump-Moon period. Uncertainty and mixed signals
    The present paper proposes a theoretically informed analysis of the recent evolution of the US-Korea alliance.  Firstly, the paper includes a theoretical part on alliance politics and in particular on the role of costly signals in security alliances. Secondly, it analyses the process of consolidation of the alliance during the Lee and Park presidencies. Finally, it advances some considerations on the future bilateral relations between Seoul and Washington after the recent Presidential elections in South Korea, that led to the success of the Progressive candidate Moon Jae-in. The frequent changes of approach proposed by the Trump administration and the will of the new Progressive government to achieve a détente with Pyongyang are likely to cause some significant friction  between the United States and South Korea.

     Key words: Security alliances, uncertainty and mixed signals, Trump, South Korea. 

  2. Sergio Miracola (IMT – Lucca), North Korean nuclear strategy: the nature and the characteristics of an embryonic paradigm
    The constantly growing North Korean nuclear program raises two fundamental, central questions: why is North Korea developing its nuclear program and what are its defining characteristics in terms of military strategy? This paper tries to clearly answer these questions, especially considering the controversial role of North Korea in East Asia, the high secrecy surrounding this country, and the associated difficulty to extrapolate the necessary information. Specifically, between 2016 and 2017, for example, we witnessed a profound, significant shift in the overall North Korean nuclear program, with nuclear tests on one hand and the associated, inevitable technological development on the other. According to this context, therefore, in order to understand the reasons behind North Korea’s decision to build the bomb, the first part of this paper would answer this question by offering three different explanations, each of which analyzed through the three major IR paradigms, such as the Security, Domestic, and Norms Model. 

    Once the historical context leading to the building of the bomb has been dealt with (analyzed through three different IR paradigms), analyzing DPRK’s nuclear strategy therefore becomes necessary. The second part of the paper, by relying on the previous historical evaluation, would define the nature and characteristics of the North Korean nuclear doctrine and specifically why DPRK has adopted a specific military strategy. In fact, along with the already widely known assumptions that argue that the nuclear arsenal has been also serving the purpose to extract diplomatic leverage to the extent that DPRK would be using nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip, it is also important to evaluate, at this stage, – especially after the April 2017 military parade which displayed embryonic ICBMs – how North Korea is planning to employ nuclear weapons at the strategic and tactical level, since they have now fully become “central to its identity and security planning.”

    Keywords: DPRK, nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence, first strike capability, second strike capability, ICBMs, existential deterrence, bargaining chip.

  3. Anna Kireeva (MGIMO University), Russia-South Korea relations in the context of Russia's Asian pivot
    Russia is striving to establish itself as a full-fledged regional power and independent player in East Asia. Russia’s Asian pivot is aimed at providing stimulus for developing Russia’s regions of Siberia and the Far East, with Ukrainian crisis facilitating Russia’s Asian pivot. Russia’s East Asian strategy has been focused on strategic partnership with China, while diversifying relations with other regional states, including Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, India, North Korea, etc. Although the relations between the two states were established only in 1990, South Korea has been regarded as one of the key regional partners of Russia in East Asia. Russian elite believes that relations with South Korea have the potential to promote modernization and economic development of Russia as well as contribute to the peaceful resolution of conflict on the Korean peninsula. Russia and South Korea have developed a number of projects in high-tech sphere, including space exploration and atomic energy production, with South Korea becoming the third major economic partner of Russia in Asia after China and Japan. On the Korean Peninsula Russia’s policy has been promoting peaceful resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue, construction of a new security architecture in the region and revival of the Six-Party Talks. Russia has also proposed a number of major trilateral economic projects including the linking of the Trans-Siberian railroad to the Korean railroad infrastructure, constructing powerlines through North Korea to South Korea and a natural gas pipeline throughout the Korean peninsula. Of these, only Khasan-Rajin railway project became a reality, but South Korea pulled from it in 2016 due to the North Korean nuclear tests. After the Ukrainian crisis, however, cooperation in political sphere has not been very active and the positions of the two countries in politics and security differ considerably, especially regarding the situation on the Korean Peninsula and South Korea’s support of America’s position on the deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense systems. Russia sees the deployment of the U.S. missile defense system in Asia as a strategic game-changer in the region, aggravating security situation even further, views it with concern and strongly disapproves of the South Korean decision. As far as the economic relations are concerned, trade between Russia and South Korea suffered considerably, as did the investment, and the trade turnover has decreased almost two times comparing with 2014. However, the potential of relations recovering remains very strong, as South Korea expressed its desire to promote economic cooperation and has interest in the Russia’s Far East projects. In the political dimension the power transition in South Korea could pave the way for the improvement of relations between Russia and South Korea, strained against the THAAD deployment, as well as a change in the South Korea’s policy regarding North Korea with the possibility of a discussion of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula other than single-minded pressure with the goal of regime breakdown. Under a positive scenario, Russia could make progress in both improving its relations with South Korea and realizing its projects with both Korean states with a view to the reduction of tensions in the region.

  4. Axel Berkofsky (University of Pavia), China and North Korea-The Past and Present of an Awkward Alliance
    China today remains North Korea’s only ‘semi-friend’, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and energy. Through its economic and trade ties – up to 90% of North Korea’s external trade takes place with China – Beijing helps to sustain Pyongyang dictatorship and its track record of implementing UN-sponsored economic and financial sanctions is indeed very patchy. However, recently Beijing has grown tired of North Korean belligerency, i.e. its missile and nuclear testing, is seemingly re-evaluating its close ties with Pyongyang, which date back to the Korean War when Mao Zedong deployed more than a million Chinese soldiers to the Korean Peninsula to fight against the U.S.-led military UN troops during the Korean War. While up to 600.000 Chinese soldiers lost their lives on the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang early in the early 1960s sought to erase the Chinese contribution to the Korean Peninsula from the country’s collective memory. Pyongyang continues to test missiles and nukes and China –at least so it seems – is unable to do anything about. Whether it is unable or ‘only’ unwilling to do about Pyongyang’s increasing belligerency is – due to complete lack of transparency as regards Beijing’s policies towards North Korea – unclear and subject to guesswork for outside observers and analysts. After the recent North Korean missile testing, Beijing decided to interrupt coal imports from North Korea until the end of this year. While analysts argue that deciding to stop buying North Korean (China is de facto Pyongyang’s only client, buying 98-99% of the coal North Korea is selling) is by Chinese standards a drastic policy, aimed imposing economic pain on the rogue in Pyongyang. Today, there is a vivid inner-Chinese discourse on what to do with China: either continue to support and finance the troublesome neighbour or instead abandon the ‘bad asset’ in Pyongyang which is threatening Chinese regional security interests.  Shen Zhihua China’s most prominent Korean War historian e.g. was this year allowed to give an ‘enough-is-enough’ speech in April and the Chinese censors and authorities did not intervene. Shen wrote that it is time for Beijing to radically change policies towards Pyongyang, as North Korea is China’s ‘latent enemy (1).   “The fundamental interests of China and North Korea are at odds,” the historian said in a public lecture. “China’s fundamental interest lies in achieving a stability on its borders and developing outward. But since North Korea acquired nuclear weapons, that periphery has never been stable, so inevitably Chinese and North Korean interests are at odds.” Such an assessment is not only remarkable because it openly contradicts Beijing’s official policies towards North Korea but also - and maybe more importantly - because the transcript of his lecture was not censored and taken off the web (2). That does not mean that Beijing all of a sudden is endorsing freedom of speech and expression allowing scholars to question government policies, but it rather means that there is indeed an influential group within Chinese policymakers who share the assessment that North Korea has turned into a ‘bad asset’, which Beijing should get rid of rather sooner than later.


    (1) See Buckley, Chris, Criticism of Beijing’s North Korea Policy Comes From Unlikely Place: China; in: The New York Times April 18, 2017; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/world/asia/china-north-korea-war.html...
    (2) The Chinese version of the lecture is available on the website of Center for Cold War International History Studies at the East China Normal University in Shanghai  at: http://ccwihs.ecnu.edu.cn/5f/c9/c5469a90057/page.htm?from=timeline&isapp...