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11 August 2017 | Feature Article

North Korea, the United States and the Geopolitics of Northeast Asia: A short analysis 

Geopolitics is the field of study that analysis how a region's importance (geography) combines with international politics to raise the profile of that region. There are currently three important geopolitical regions in the world: Northeast Asia (populated by China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea); West Asia (also called the Middle East) and the South China Sea (contested by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines and other surrounding countries). The most important of all is the Northeast Asia.

Northeast Asia possesses some important characteristics that make it unique and strategically and geopolitically important to the world. The region is made up of three of the world's most important economies. China, Japan and South Korea are respectively the world's second, third and eleventh economies with a combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of more than $17 trillion or 23 percent of the global total of $75 trillion. To put things in perspective, Europe’s five leading economies (Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Spain) have a combined GDP of $11.63 trillion. Indeed, the region can best be described as the workshop of the world because it is a key manufacturing region with some of the world's known products from automobile, shipbuilding, aircraft, telecommunications, construction, home appliances, energy to capital goods produced in Japan, South Korea and China. According to data from the Fortune company which monitors the biggest global companies in the world, four of the top five biggest corporations by revenue are in the Northeast Asia region. They include State Grid of China, Sinopec Group of China, China National Petroleum Corporation and Toyota of Japan. The only company in the top five which is not in the region is Walmart of America. The region is also a hub of innovation, scientific research and technological breakthrough.

The region has more than 1.7 billion people (or about 25 percent of the world's total). That is more than the population of Africa and Europe put together. The region's huge population and fast rising income is a key source of market for all kinds of goods and services produced around the world. Indeed, some of the economies in Africa, Europe South America are growing fast because of huge demand for primary resources by the countries in the region particularly China, while in Europe countries like Germany have escaped recession because of increased export to China. Indeed, the rising income and associated economic power of the people in the region contributed immensely in ending the 2007-2009 global financial and economic crises that emanated from the United States and soon engulfed the world. In short, Northeast Asia is one of the key economic regions if not the most important economic region in the world.

Some countries like the United States are worried about the extent of their national debts. The US total debt is now $20 trillion with much of the debt being held by Northeast Asia countries. The US owes Japan and China $1.13 trillion and $1.12 trillion respectively. The situation is totally different for the Northeast Asia major economies. China and Japan respectively occupy the enviable position as the largest and second biggest holder of foreign currency reserves in the world. China has $3.01 trillion in foreign reserves while Japan holds about $1.2 trillion. These reserves are an important source of investment and explains why China for instance has become a key investor in Europe, Africa and Latin America. China for example is spending nearly $1 trillion to build power plants, airports, roads, railways, ports and telecommunications connecting 60 countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Dubbed the 'One Belt One Road' initiative, the investment proposal if it is carried through will not only generate huge economic growth, but will also increase trade, and accelerate the movement of goods and services around the world.

Northeast Asia is also important for one critical reason: it is strategically located near other important economic and military hubs. The region’s proximity to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other Pacific countries makes it a powerful economic player. The United States with its $18 trillion economy, conducts massive trade activities with China, Japan, and South Korea every year. China is Australia's number one trading partner buying several energy and mineral resources from Canberra every year and is one of the main reasons why Australia's economy continues to grow. In other words the region is very important to other major economic regions.

The region is critically important for the security and stability of the world which suggests that whatever happens in the region could have serious repercussions in the world. To throw a little light on it, the Northeast Asian region is home to two of the world's nine nuclear armed countries (China and North Korea). The other seven nuclear powers are the United States, Russia, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, and Israel. The region is one of the world's most militarised regions on the planet. Particularly, the armies in the region are some of the world's most powerful with advanced weapons and defence systems and capabilities (including aircraft carriers, combat aircrafts, frigates, destroyers, submarines, corvettes, tanks, rockets, and artillery pieces). The combined active personnel of the four countries in the region is in excess of four million soldiers. China for instance has 2.26 million active personnel under arms, North Korea has about one million active soldiers, South Korea also boasts of 627,000 uniform mem and women while Japan has 248,575.

Rivalries among the nations in the region are rampant. Japan and China for instance are locked in a territorial dispute over sovereignty of a group of uninhabited islands located in East China Sea called Diaoyu islands in China and Senkaku islands in Japan. Japan controls the islands which are important to both countries because they are close to important shipping lanes, have potential oil and gas reserves and rich source of fishing. South Korea and North Korea are still technically at war. The 1950-1953 Korea War did not end with victory or defeat for each other and tension between the two neighbours flare up occasionally. China and Japan see one another not only as a economic competitor but also as a geopolitical rival with each of them trying hard to become the regional hegemon. While Japan used to be the main economic and military player in the region, the rise of China as economic and military superpower in the last 25 years has changed the balance of power in the region. South Korea and Japan still have not fully resolved their Second World War differences especially the use of South Korean women as prostitutes by Japanese forces during WWII. Japan's refusal to apologise to South Korea for its war activities is also a source of tension between the two Asia powers. Additionally, frequent visit of hardline Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine (containing the remains of Japan's World War dead including some of the country's war criminals) is a source of tension between the two Asia economic and military giants.

After the end of WWII and the Korea War, the United States formed military alliances with Japan and South Korea to protect them from any attack by any adversary. This explains why the United States has been very vocal and continues to spearhead verbal attacks and condemnation against North Korea. By the terms of the alliance, any war between North Korea and South Korea or North Korea and Japan will automatically bring in the United States. The United States has about 80,000 soldiers stationed in Japan and South Korea. These soldiers are in the direct crosshairs of North Korea's artillery, missiles and nuclear bombs. For example North Korea's recently successfully tested ballistic missiles especially the KN-17 (also called Hwasong-12) can reach the strategically located US military outpost of Guam. The island of Guam located in the Pacific Ocean is home to several US military assets including the Andersen Airforce base, the strategic B-1B bombers, nuclear-powered attack submarines, and defence systems and will definitely be a potential target by North Korea missiles. However, because the United States is a key member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), any attack on US soldiers by North Korea (either in Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, Japan, South Korea or the US mainland) could be treated by other NATO members as attack on all its members. In other words, NATO will potentially get involve to defend their key member.

But that is not all. China also has agreement with North Korea to come to her aid should it be attacked. That means per the agreement, any war between South Korea and North Korea or Japan and North Korea or US and North Korea may draw in China. Per their agreement, China could use a war between North Korea and Japan as a pretext to take revenge on Japan for Tokyo's WWII atrocities in China. Russia (which shares 17 kilometres border with North Korea and has a long running dispute with Japan over some islands which the Japanese call the Northern Territories and the Russians call Southern Kurils) also sees North Korea as an ally and buffer for its own security. In fact, dispute over the islands off the Japanese island of Hokkaido is the reason why Russia and Japan have still not signed a formal treaty to end WWII. Russia and North Korea are economically and ideologically connected and both see the United States as an enemy. In fact, Russia may make any war between US and North Korea difficult for Washington to win by covertly and overtly supporting North Korea as a way of punishing Washington for trying to undermine Moscow's position and influence in Eastern and Central Europe.

It is this geostrategic importance of Northeast Asia which explains why it has become the number one issue in the global media, and why diplomats are trying hard to get Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un to tow down their rhetoric because not only is the region's $17 trillion economy in danger of annihilation, but also a conflict in the region is likely to lead to Third World War by drawing in the world's military and economic superpowers. If that happens it will bring down the entire global economy.

By Lord A. Adusei
Facebook:https://www.facebook.com/lord.adusei

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