The fact that Kim Jong Il has a long-range ballistic missile that can apparently reach American soil has many people on edge—largely because he is believed to be manufacturing nuclear weapons. North Korea’s July 4 missile testing could not have come at a worse time, with another, apocalyptically motivated leader—Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—playing similar mind games with Western leaders. It’s actually quite perfect timing for Kim and his spin doctors.
The issue is how East Asian politics will be reshaped and already are being reshaped by this development. There are four countries to watch in relation to North Korea: the U.S., Japan, China and South Korea.
Until a few years ago, one could not consider how East Asia worked without factoring in U.S. involvement in the region. Much of America’s presence in Asia had to do with the need to check communism’s southern advances during the Cold War (this was the reason for U.S. presence in Japan in particular). With Korea, the U.S. and the ussr divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel after the Second World War. When the North invaded the South in 1950, the U.S. came to the South’s aid—not decisively winning the war, but helping to bring about a truce and then guarding the border to thwart the spread of communism.
But the Cold War is over, and the fears of communism’s spread long gone. The two Koreas have been increasingly friendly to each other since South Korean President Kim Dae Jung launched his Sunshine Policy toward the North in 1998. Yet 37,000 U.S. soldiers still stand guard on the South’s side of the border.
Many Asians wonder about the ongoing necessity of a U.S. military presence in Asia. With America’s armed forces stretched so thin and foreign policy priorities shifting away from Asia, they need not wonder too much longer.
North Korea’s military antics have kept the U.S. involved in the region, but this involvement is nearing its end. Buried in its own troubles—political division at home, wearying occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan—the U.S. will find itself delegating the North Korea situation to more capable powers already in the region. Since World War ii and the Korean War, America has had a strong alliance with Japan and South Korea.
The U.S.—once avowed to extinguishing Japanese militarism—has, over the years, allowed Japan to sport an army for “self-defense.” What was the impetus for such a force? The Korean War. Japan began to resurrect its military as early as 1950, when it established a National Police Reserve to replace American troops who were sent into the Korean War. This police force was transformed into the Self-Defense Force by the Japanese government in 1954, with the full support of the U.S. So it was the Korean Peninsula that reignited the military fuse in Japan.
Likewise today, Korean politics play a huge part in rearming Asia’s once-most-dangerous nation. Tokyo and Washington are now cooperating on a ballistic missile defense shield. Both countries plan to jointly produce interceptor missiles. A high-resolution radar designed to detect incoming missiles has been deployed at a base in northern Japan (Associated Press, June 23).
Whatever the status of relations between North Korea and Japan, we can be sure Japan will use every opportunity it can to shed its post-war pacifism in favor of having a self-sufficient and formidable military. Will Japan use Pyongyang’s nuclear brinkmanship to pursue nuclear weapons itself? That would be a great historical irony: the only victim of the atomic bomb coming to possess this particular weapon of mass destruction in reaction to a perceived threat to its own security.
While we can expect the U.S. to leave military deterrence to Tokyo, in order to shore up the diplomatic effort, long-time ally South Korea comes into play.
Yet it is unlikely that South Korea’s president will simply march in step with Washington’s wishes on the peninsula. He was, after all, elected on an anti-American platform that included further rapprochement with the North. If not an ally of the North, at the very least Seoul sees itself as a mediator between the U.S. and North Korea—certainly not a pawn of Washington.
If anything, Seoul is more Beijing’s ally than Washington’s. China is South Korea’s most important economic partner. South Korean officials are talking with their Chinese counterparts over this latest drama in North Korea. They want to meet with U.S. officials, but the only thing in the works right now is a summit between presidents this September.
Giving the situation over to South Korea and Japan, the U.S. knows full well that this means China—North Korea’s only remaining ally—will be involved. Ultimately, the power void left by the U.S. in Asia will be filled by the most politically dominant nation in the region: China.
How the situation in North Korea unfolds will reshape the geopolitical landscape of Asia. Watch for Japan to use the situation as an excuse to rearm. Watch for South Korea to draw much closer to China. Watch for Seoul to make further strides toward reunifying the peninsula—regardless of, perhaps even because of, the North’s nuclear capability. The presence of a weakened U.S.—unable to use its diplomatic or military might to quell nuclear fears in Asia—will soon be drastically reduced or even eliminated in the East.
All this gels with the “sure word” of Bible prophecy. God’s Word identifies the Chinese, Korean and Japanese people in a massive military alliance in this end time—a reaction to unprecedented instability in the Middle East and Europe. For more on this, request a free copy of our booklet Russia and China in Prophecy.