Friday, 2 January 2015

North Korea and the New Great Game in East Asia.

The US decision to impose economic sanctions on North Korea is not based only the alleged cyber attacks on Sony Corporation. The decision to ratchet up the economic pressure on Pyongyang is part of a broader strategy to provoke North Korea into further public reactions that play into Washington's hands.

By making much of North Korea's unproven role in the cyber attack, Washington aims to try to force China's hand by indicating that China's failure to exercise more control over Pyongyang would mean the US would step in to increase its cyber warfare capacities against China.

One other benefit is that the threat of North Korea and China's supposed tolerance of North Korean cyber warfare could be used to bring together South Korea and Japan in intelligence sharing but also on maintaining the need to reaffirm the US's military role in East Asia

The US is concerned that North Korea has been able to revert to its old Cold War policy of playing off China and Russia ( before 1991 the Soviet Union ). Kim Il Sung's policy towards the two powers was effective in the 1960s and 70s in gaining trade and aid: Kim Jong-Un wants to revive this tradition.

Kim Jong-Un's decision to purge from the regime those like his uncle Jang Song Taek , who had close ties with China and was the key regime figure liaising with Beijing, occurred in December 2013 and by the New Year a policy re-orientation back towards Russia was already occurring.

By provoking North Korea into belligerent postures, Washington can counteract the pressure within South Korea for the US to return peacetime control over the military to Seoul by 2012. This process had already been set back by the 2010 when North Korea was accused of torpedoing a South Korean warship.

As with the allegations of North Korea's cyber warfare against Sony, the truth about who sunk the Cheonan is less important than the geopolitical advantages that could be gained from exploiting the outrage and fears of North Korean intentions to reassert the need for a strong US military presence.

Washington's strategy is part of Obama's Pivot to Asia since 2010-11. The US aims at building up the naval and military power of Asian states to the east of China under its aegis as a way of controlling sea lanes and oil supply routes and thereby reassert its ability to contain China and ensure global supremacy.

As US economic power declines the US has feared losing influence in Asia. Indeed, Seoul could start to align more with China in the longer term as a consequence of the growing economic interdependence between the two East Asian economies and disputes with Japan over the Liancourt Rocks.

The US has no interest in a Korean strategy of d├ętente if that would remove the need for a strong US military presence in East Asia. To that end a situation of controlled yet heightened tension with North Korea, one that requires a prolonged US role in the Korean Peninsula, is considered vital.

The US not only fears that China's subtle strategy of absorbing North Korea's economy with its own would lead to an extension of its influence at its expense but also Russia's rival Pivot towards Asia strategy which would see increased trade ties with North Korea and an increase in its bargaining position.

With the US resorting to global economic warfare through use of the oil price weapon and the quest for control over energy transit routes, Russia has countered that and the sanctions policy by putting forward plans for a gas pipeline that would run through the DPRK though to South Korea.

In 2014 Russia wrote off nearly $10 billion in debt held over from the Soviet period, promised.to provide $1 billion towards a trans-Siberian railway through North Korea to the south which would provide a land route for good to the west as well as an energy supply that would not depend on using sea lanes.

Control of the sea lanes bringing in oil and LNG from the Greater Middle East towards East Asia is the major US foreign policy goal, one paralleled by the attempt to shift US and NATO power eastwards in Ukraine so as to control energy routes from Central Asia into Europe away from Russia.

The danger with this strategy is that it makes the Global Powers ( especially Russia and China ) more distrustful and pathologically competitive over perceived moves and counter-moves to control energy supply routes and more vigorously assertive over the right to tap new energy sources.

China is already reacting to US containment strategies by asserting its sovereignty over the Senkaku islands with Japan because of the huge oil reserves below the East China Sea. The Liancourt Rocks argued over by South Korea and Japan has large deposits of natural gas.

The New Great Game in East Asia could also end up allowing North Korea to bolster its power by playing off rival powers in the region, though none have any interest in allowing Pyongyang to accelerate its nuclear programme. And all this could end up triggering off some serious instability.

It was Korea, after all, between 1950 and 1953 which could have brought about World War Three. The war between north and south has never officially ended and it is far less likely to if the entire Asia-Pacific region is embarked on a dangerous reversion to a power struggle over resources.

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