“In the dynamic world of international relations in which the struggle for power among the great is the basic reality, the ultimate fate of the small buffer state is precarious at best.”
Nicholas J. Spykman, “Geography and Foreign Policy, II,” 1938
The approach of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, may bring a respite, however brief, from the perception of imminent war on the Korean Peninsula. Feeling squeezed by the United States and China, the two sides of the 38th parallel agreed to resume talks with each other. Seoul and Pyongyang alike face economic pressure from Beijing, after all, and both fear Washington’s military posturing, because while North Korea would be the target of a U.S. preventive war, South Korea would be its battleground. As the dialogue kicked off, Pyongyang and Seoul set out to shape their positions not only with regard to each other, but also in relation to other countries in the region. North Korea, for example, noted that it would not discuss its nuclear program because its missiles are aimed not at South Korea (or China or Russia) but only at the United States. And South Korea welcomed a dialogue limited to issues of mutual interest, such as the Olympics and ways to ease tensions in the demilitarized zone, while making clear that it would keep the United States and China in the loop about the talks. Both Koreas are playing a defensive game against larger powers.
The need for Pyongyang and Seoul to frame even their bilateral dialogue in regional terms reflects Korea’s long-standing reality as a nation trapped between larger powers. Throughout history, Korea has been at times a buffer state, at times a bridgehead — the proverbial minnow between whales. The role of a buffer state is to create a space between bigger competing countries, to ease the political, economic, social and military tensions between its larger neighbors.
Caught in the Middle
As a peninsula, Korea frequently has served as a buffer between land powers as well as maritime powers. The Korean Peninsula, jutting out from the intersection of the Russian and Chinese empires, provides a protective shield around the Yellow Sea, guarding the passage to Tianjin and to the ports closest to Beijing. From the continent, it points toward the Japanese islands — the peninsula lies only 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from Tsushima island and another hundred from the tangent point between Honshu and Kyushu. Though Japan’s population and port infrastructure are concentrated largely on the Pacific coast, the country has sometimes regarded the Korean Peninsula as a dagger pointed at it, a bridge from the Asian continent. At various points in its history, Korea has acted as a buffer between China and Japan, Japan and Russia, China and the United States, and even the European imperial powers and China.
Serving as a buffer offers a sense of national security, deterring larger powers from dominating the country they depend on for strategic depth. That security, however, often comes at a cost to sovereignty. For several hundred years, Korea accepted Chinese suzerainty as a way to discourage other powers from encroaching on its territory. North Korea similarly has depended on China and Russia for its security since the Cold War, while South Korea has relied on the United States — each to the detriment of its freedom of action. Both North and South Korea, and the unified state they once were, have often chafed at their semidependent relationships and tried to strengthen their national economies, societies and militaries to reassert their independence. Korea tried to expand at times, mainly into what is now Northeast China, in response to nomadic threats from the north or to China’s internal weakness. In the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea, against the advice of the United States, worked to develop heavy industry and briefly pursued a nuclear weapon of its own. And North Korea has turned to military might and an advancing nuclear missile program to ensure its national security and independence.
A Transitory State
The problem for buffer states like Korea is that they are often in transitory positions, subject to the changing dynamics of the larger powers around. A buffer serves a purpose so long as the powers competing around it are more or less evenly matched, or so long as they have an interest in ensuring a defensive space between them. But it can quickly become a bridge, a path between powers, when that balance is knocked off kilter.
After conquering northern China in the 13th century, for instance, the Mongols overran Korea and used it as a jumping off point for their (ultimately abortive) invasion of Japan. Japan, in turn, invaded Korea in the late 1500s in a failed attempt to take China. A few hundred years later in the late 1800s, a weakening China left Korea vulnerable to the advances of competing European and Asian powers. France and the United States made moves on the peninsula through political means; Moscow, too, eyed Korea — then the buffer between the expanding Russian Empire and Japan — as a potential location for ice-free ports. Once Japan defeated first the Chinese navy in 1894 and then the Russian navy in 1905, it finally absorbed Korea, the bridgehead in its broader attempt to overtake China and expand its empire across Asia. And the end of World War II left Korea divided, a buffer between the Soviet and U.S. blocs.
Today, China continues to treat North Korea as a buffer space that separates the Chinese borders from U.S. forces in South Korea and from any future Japanese expansion. The United States, meanwhile, sees South Korea as part of a buffer between the expanding Asian powers and the U.S. mainland. Although the two Koreas, and North Korea in particular, have been able at times to exploit the differences among the competing regional powers, they have not been able to fully shape their own security environment.
Divided, North and South are inherently weak, fighting each other and serving as the front line in a contest between regional powers. Even unified, it’s unclear whether Korea would be able to proactively influence its own security environment. Geography has placed Korea at the confluence of bigger powers, and each of these powers has an interest in discouraging the nation’s reunification, or at least in making sure rival powers don’t exert inordinate sway over the peninsula. A truly strong and independent Korea is something no regional power wants. A unified but weak Korea, on the other hand, may be acceptable as a defensive buffer; even without the social and economic challenges inherent in reunification, a united Korea would likely find itself back in a defensive role.
An Evolving Struggle
Historically, Korea has responded to its position either by taking an isolationist approach to foreign policy — earning the reputation of “hermit kingdom” — or by trying to play the larger regional powers off one another. The tactics remain at the core of the strategies North and South Korea employ to this day: Pyongyang still pursues isolation, while South Korea prefers to deflect the competition around it. Decades of division, rivalry, warfare and subversion, however, have complicated these policies.
Today each Korea is struggling with its geographic and historical reality. South Korean President Moon Jae In walks a fine line between his outreach to Pyongyang and his security relationship with Washington; between his country’s ties with China and its ties with the United States; and between South Korea’s historical antagonism toward Japan and the need to work within the U.S. alliance structure. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, likewise, may have tried to back away from Beijing’s influence, but his country cannot simply turn against China or Russia. What’s more, though North Korea is closer than ever to achieving a nuclear program it hopes will give it the strength to reshape its relations with the larger powers, it is also vulnerable to Moscow’s and Beijing’s perception that its nuclear program is threatening their interests.
It is in this context that we must consider the current round of inter-Korean dialogue. Seoul and Pyongyang are trying to reclaim some control over their own fates, but they remain reliant on, and thus constrained by, their primary economic and military partners. The Cold War may be over, but Korea remains at the center of a competition between China and Russia on one side and the United States and Japan on the other. And though their circumstances can change, their location won’t.