Back To Top

N.K. test to trigger regional strategic moves

U.S. likely to step up missile defense efforts with Seoul, Tokyo 

Despite doubts over North Korea’s self-proclaimed hydrogen bomb test, its evolving nuclear weapons technology is expected to trigger strategic moves by regional powers to secure their security interests, analysts said Thursday.

The U.S. may seek to capitalize on the renewed military tensions to strengthen its military partnerships with South Korea and Japan, while China would likely become wary of the potential impact of the bilateral and trilateral partnerships, they noted.
U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye (Yonhap)
U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye (Yonhap)

These moves are expected to pose a tough strategic challenge to South Korea, as what it is in its best interest to create a more cooperative diplomatic environment rather than aggravate ongoing geopolitical tensions.

Kim Heung-kyu, political scientist at Ajou University, said that all regional powers surrounding the peninsula are “at a crossroads for strategic choices” and may move to enhance their interests amid a potential shift in the security landscape, triggered by a nuclearizing North Korea.

“All neighboring countries may seek to make strategic decisions. For instance, China, which has sought to maintain the status quo with the North, may have to make choices as it is thinking hard about how to respond to the North’s nuclear armament,” he said.

“South Korea may have to conduct a thorough review of its external policy and map out a mid- or long-term strategic vision based on the grounds that its erstwhile policy to curb the growth of the North’s nuclear program did not work.”

For the U.S. and Japan, the North’s latest provocation is expected to serve as a catalyst to strengthen their bilateral cooperation and bring in the South as part of their three-way security cooperation, which has hitherto been hamstrung by historical animosities between Seoul and Tokyo.

Amid the moves to beef up trilateral cooperation, chances are high that the U.S. would step up its efforts to build a holistic integrated air and missile defense program, or IAMD, with the involvement of its two core Asian allies.
Japan has already been a stalwart supporter of the IAMD, while South Korea has rejected the idea of the missile defense integration in consideration of its strategic partnership with China, its largest trading partner.

America’s missile defense program has been a centerpiece of its military project to offset China’s increasing “anti-access/area-denial” capabilities to keep any potential hostile forces from approaching its territory during wartime or in a crisis situation. 

Observers raised the possibility that the U.S. may also move to persuade the South to install an advanced missile defense asset, called the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, on the peninsula on the grounds that it would be necessary to fend off Pyongyang’s missile attacks.

Seoul has so far been reluctant to openly approve of the THAAD deployment as Beijing has stridently opposed it -- considering that the additional U.S. missile defense asset could undermine its security interests, even if THAAD targets only North Korea.

Analysts said that the missile defense issue could escalate the Sino-U.S. rivalry, which would, after all, hurt Seoul’s ongoing efforts to keep friendly ties with Beijing.

“The strengthening of the trilateral security partnership among the U.S., Japan and South Korea could lead to the strengthening of the bilateral relationship between China and North Korea, although China currently opposes and criticizes Pyongyang’s nuclear test,” said Park Won-gon, security expert at Handong Global University.

“Thus, Seoul should make active diplomatic efforts to involve both China and the U.S. in joint efforts to cope with North Korean threats, rather than contributing to the situation in which the trilateral security partnership is pitted against the partnership involving Beijing and Pyongyang.”

The North’s nuclear test could also rekindle the debate over whether the South should call on the U.S. to bring in its tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula. Some dismiss it as far-fetched, given that the U.S. has sought a “nuclear-free” world.

The North’s nuclear detonation is also expected to help hawkish Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe advance his security agenda. Voices against Abe’s agenda could weaken while Abe would step up his efforts to make Japan a “normal” state with a full-fledged military rather than a “self-defense” force.

Abe’s long-cherished goal of revising the pacifist constitution could also gain momentum, analysts pointed out.

“Those in Japan who have been against Abe’s security policy may have a weaker voice in Japanese politics and the momentum to weaken Abe’s influence in the security policy would also be undermined,” said Nam Chang-hee, a Japan expert at Inha University. 

“The nuclear test, after all, justified Abe’s push for a greater security role. Against this backdrop, Abe is expected to signal that Japan and South Korea should make their security cooperation more concrete and practical.”

China, for its part, may seek to take some measures to punish Pyongyang’s provocation. But Nam said it may not press Pyongyang to the point of a regime collapse as it has long sought to maintain stability in the region rather than an abrupt instability that would compromise China’s efforts to address an array of domestic issues including its economic slowdown.

By Song Sang-ho (