Suddenly the health and safety of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has become a hot topic.
North Korea has shot numerous missiles and been engaged in the development of nuclear weaponry. A country that has been one of the main characters of the “Trump show,” has been somewhat quiet these days, but suddenly a strange death rumor arose and created some noise (we don’t know if it’s true yet).
For Japan, the relationship with Korea is clearly important politically. It is often argued that Japan is unique in that the Imperial House of Japan is the oldest continuing monarchical house in the world. Put simply, the Imperial House of Japan may have survived because of the following two geopolitical aspects:
- Ancient China, the East Asia’s hegemony, was not an expansionist nation (due to its Hua and Yi [華夷] philosophy).
- The geographic presence of Korean peninsula between China and Japan.
The Hua-Yi distinction asserts that China is superior, and the Chinese Emperor radiates virtue to surrounding countries. In a sense, ruling the surrounding nations with its virtue was China’s focus, so it had less interest in conquering with arms. In a sense, imagine a college education. If the professor offers an interesting class, even students sitting in the very back of the classroom will be intrigued, but if the class is boring, everyone will fall asleep. The concept that virtue determines the extent of nation’s power, which in a way is self-controlled, worked favorably for Japan’s national security.
Korea’s presence was of critical importance in terms of functioning as a geographical buffer. The Korean peninsula is part of the continent, which continually exposed them to the menace of the ruling force. Nevertheless, it somehow generally maintained its independence. In order for China to attack Japan, it would be necessary to conquer Korea beforehand. The fact that nations of the Korean peninsula were powerful was also significant for the security of Japan (in fact, during the time Korea was ruled by Yuan dynasty, Japan was invaded by China twice, known as the Mongol Invasions).
The current Korea is divided into northern and southern parts at 38 degrees latitude. If an emergency related to North Korea occurred, what would be the worst thing that can happen to Japan?
For South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration, reunification of the Koreas is a much-desired goal. Furthermore, owning North Korea’s nuclear weaponry and manpower to enhance export and increase global competitiveness are also part of the administration’s wish (but South Korea wouldn’t have the financial power to support North Korea like West Germany did for East Germany).
Even if South Korea wouldn’t be able to do anything, yet another possible scenario is that China establishes a puppet government. At the least, the US has been trying to decrease its presence in East Asia, and the country’s military operational capacity might be reduced at the moment due to the pandemic. In that case, it will be a direct battle between North Korea and the United States Forces Korea (USFK) at the 38 degree line, but there is a chance that the role of the American force, which was put in place since the Korean War, may change.
If the USFK disengages, the worst case for Japan would be to necessitate Okinawa as Japan’s military frontier.
On the ground, the US military has been disengaging strategic bombers in Guam. While they were originally installed to prepare for attacks by North Korea, it may be that the defense line has been pushed back to Hawaii now. If that is the case, what would happen to the US military in Japan?
If the US military withdraws from East Asia, the power structure will change, and China will surely try to expand its power to fill the emptied space. While the rumor about the health of Kim Jong-un came out of the blue, it certainly made me feel the sensitive balance of national security that we are facing.
So, what will Japan do in terms of its national security? Clearly, this is a matter that concerns every citizen. Each and all of us must be aware of it.