North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China: Security Competition in Northeast Asia

Today, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies hosted a panel discussion with the center’s visiting fellows from China, Japan and Korea to examine China’s increasingly important role in Northeast Asian security. Panelists addressed maritime issues, regional security and, especially, the potential implications of the recent execution in North Korea of JANG Song-thaek, uncle of ruler KIM Jong-un. Center director Richard Bush moderated the conversation, a presentation of the projects that each of the visiting fellows worked on during their time with the center.

Zhenming Zhong, an associate professor at Tongji University in Shanghai, spoke about “how to establish an analysis framework to respond to some critical security challenges” in the region, especially those on the Korean Peninsula. He also introduced his hypothesis of “security competition” in analysis of the North Korea nuclear issue. “Security competition,” he said, is “phenomenon when states have competing visions of security objectives and pursue different and at least partially contradictory approaches to realize them.” It lies somewhere between security cooperation and security dilemma.

The different approaches by the two Koreas, the United States and China is an example of a security competition. On denuclearization, he said that a “combination of carrots and sticks would be conducive to induce North Korea to accept denuclearization.” He said that it is “practical for the key players in the nuclear issue to return to six party talks” and necessary for them, and especially for the United States and China, to “initiate discussion on how to cooperate and responde to some potential unexpected scenarios.”

Jaeho Hwang, dean of the division of international studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, addressed South Korea’s relations with China in light of recent security developments in the region. He pointed to Japan’s new assertion of its right to collective self-defense, China’s declaration of a new exclusive air defense military zone, and the sudden execution of Jang in North Korea, as reasons that “the tensions in the region are more heightened than before.”

He said that the brutality of the execution “has aggravated instability on the Korean peninsula.” For South Korea, while the relationship with the United States is very important, “cooperation with China is also very important.” He said that “The development of Korea-China relations will have a major impact on prevention and reduction of crisis from North Korea as well as other challenges facing Korea and China.” The “relationship will greatly contribute to peace and stability in Northeast Asia.”

“The countries must be able to maintain the relationship at the time of the conflict,” Hwang said, but then pointed to two security incidents in 2010 that “showed the so-called friendship between Korea and China has been more rhetoric rather than real.” However, the “once awkward relationship has considerably changed” lately after South Korean President Park’s visit to China and he hopes that China’s President Xi Jinping’s visit to Korea next year “will be another tour of heart and trust so to change the unhappy history of the Korean peninsula into a happy history of the Korean peninsula.”

Jun Osawa, a senior research fellow at the Institute for International Policy Studies in Tokyo, spoke to the U.S.-China rivalry being played out in the maritime arena in the region, as well as China-Japan relations.

In his research, Osawa is looking at the rise of emerging powers. In 11 of 15 cases he has examined, he said, confrontation and war broke out between the emerging and the established powers. “The big question is,” he said, “will this great rivalry between rising power and the ruling power in world history be applicable to the U.S. and China relations?” Osawa spoke about the problem of misperceptions, actions and reactions, such as in the maritime arena and cyber domain in which both of these powers interact.

Osawa also described China’s latest actions in the maritime areas and in the new Air Defense Identification Zone as creation of a buffer, a “Great Wall in the air and in the sea” [read his opinion piece on this].

After the presentations, Bush asked Zhong to comment on how he thought the execution of Jang in North Korea would affect the security competition among the countries in the region. Zhong speculated that after the removal of the once-powerful uncle of North Korea’s leader, “North Korea is likely to be more uncertain” in addressing the nuclear issue. “It remains to be seen,” he said, “if this will create more difficulties [for the] international community to persuade DPRK leaders to abandon a nuclear weapons program.” 

Bush asked Hwang how the episode might affect the trust-building process between Seoul and Beijing. Hwang observed that Jang may have been executed for a variety of reasons, and he “may be a scapegoat to take responsibility for North Korea’s economic difficulties.” However, he said, “there must be some other reasons we just don’t know. … There must be something KIM Kyong-hui must have agreed with KIM Jong-un” [KIM Kyong-hui is KIM Jong-il’s younger sister, the wife of the executed official, and therefore the current leader’s aunt].

“How can we understand in North Korea such brutal behavior?” Hwang asked. He explained an interesting phenomenon that occurs when transposing Chinese characters in the North Korean slogan: 

I would like to start with my understanding of the character of North Korea first. North Korea’s slogan “Kang Song Dae Guk” is “Strong, Prosperous, Big Country.” However when you change Song and Dae, two characters with the same pronunciation with different Chinese characters, it takes a different meaning. It means “Fake Country with a Strong Personality.”

A question and answer session with the audience followed.

Full event audio is now available.