The Importance of History in Northeast Asia

Robert E. McCoy | October 13, 2017

Few problems in international relations have proven as intractable as convincing Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program, embrace economic reform, and move toward reunification of the Korean Peninsula. However, looking at the dissimilar perspectives of the nations in Northeast Asia explains why progress has been so elusive.

Playwright William Shakespeare observed in the early 1600s that “the past is prologue.” Three hundred years later, philosopher George Santayana noted that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Both statements are as true today as when they were first penned, for history provides the context in which the present takes place, and history serves as the foundation upon which the future is built.

Understanding the history of Northeast Asia is key to dealing with North Korea today, because the complex and interwoven pasts of the region provide the contexts in which regional players act and react. Those contexts determine how the actions of one are perceived by the others. The nations of Northeast Asia hold disparate understandings about their common history. They also have unique national interests. It should therefore be no surprise that regional players do not see North Korea – or even each other – through the same eyes.

However, a number of academicians, diplomats, and politicians want to use historical analogies in explaining the complex issues of Northeast Asia. That is intellectual laziness. Moreover, as has been recently recognized, it can be misleading – and dangerously so. There is no substitute for real knowledge, and there is no shortcut to true understanding.

History Matters

One needs to go back no further than just prior to World War in order to understand how badly things have gone due to not understanding history.

By failing to know Northeast Asian history, the West and its allies failed to grasp the geopolitical importance of the Korean Peninsula. Then, the failure of not considering Moscow’s long-standing ambitions in Far East Asia resulted in lack of intelligence about Soviet intentions toward Japan as World War II came precipitously to an end. Such information would have aided the Western allies in freeing most – if not all – of Korea, rather than dividing it without much thought at the 38th parallel to share the peninsula equally with the Soviets.

Another failure in understanding history was not recognizing that Korea was a legitimate country in its own right with centuries of its own culture and history prior to seizure by Japan in the early 1900s. Korea was not just another Nipponese prefecture. This shocking lack of knowledge led the senior U.S. commander in Korea at the end of World War II to declare that Koreans were also an enemy and to consequently prevent the Provisional Korean Government in exile from governing the newly liberated country even temporarily.

Subsequently, those failures and a lack of recognition as to what Stalin’s post World War II activities in Europe presaged for Soviet-occupied North Korea resulted in a state of total unpreparedness for what was soon to follow. The fledgling South Korean government and its Western supporters were taken by complete surprise when conflict broke out in 1950.

As U.N. forces engaged in the Korean War, they failed to consider Chinese concerns about hostile troops approaching its border with North Korea. After all, the West had supported the Nationalist Chinese faction in China during World War II over the Communists, much to the annoyance of Mao Zedong.

As Western troops approached the Yalu River separating China from North Korea, the Chinese Peoples Volunteer Army surged into Korea and swiftly routed U.N. forces southward, once again deep back into South Korea. As the U.N. forces rallied to push their way northward yet again, there was talk of taking the war into China itself. That fortuitously did not happen, but China remembers history very well and does not trust the U.S. because of it.

As for the present, current affairs for each country in the region have been discussed a number of times in various publications – but mostly without historical contexts. Moreover, there are few efforts to gather such commentaries into one concise piece. What is needed is an understanding of each regional player’s specific interests and concerns, and how they often do not mesh with those of the others. Here I briefly set out the issues for each of the nation-states involved in the North Korea problem.


Beijing wants a buffer state between its northeast provinces and U.S.-backed South Korea. It does not want a unified pro-West Korean Peninsula on its doorstep. Despite the difficulties that North Korea presents to China, North Korea does serve as that buffer.

China does not want any chaos or instability on its borders. Therefore, Beijing only nominally supports sanctions against North Korea, which is why China continues to donate food and fuel to keep North Korea afloat. China also worries about the hundreds of thousands of refugees that could flee North Korea should that government falter. Accordingly, Beijing has in the recent past strengthened its military garrisons in the areas adjacent to North Korea.

China does not want a nuclear-ICBM capable North Korea. Beijing fears were that to happen, eventually both Japan and South Korea would develop their own nuclear forces to counter North Korea’s atomic arsenal. The prospect of having two U.S.-aligned nuclear powers in its own neighborhood greatly alarms China.

Further, China does not want Japan, with or without nuclear weapons, becoming even more nationalistic and turning further to the political right, which might lead to an increased foreign presence in the East China and Yellow Seas. This would challenge Beijing’s regional hegemony, and it clearly wants to be a player that can influence both Koreas to counter Japan and the U.S. 

China too has enduring memories of Japanese atrocities during World War II. The barbarisms committed in Nanking come to mind, and this is one reason why Beijing sides with Seoul in the South’s issue with Tokyo over “comfort women.” Further, it is an attempt to drive a wedge between two potential allies that could align against China.

Despite some Western perceptions that China exercises considerable sway over North Korea, Beijing recognizes that it is losing influence over Pyongyang. When North Korea walked out of the Six-Party Talks some years ago, it was a great loss of face for the Chinese, who had sponsored the meetings. China strongly discourages the North from conducting nuclear tests and missile launches, yet Pyongyang proceeds with both anyway.

Beijing has a deep interest in Northeast Asia, only some of which is part of modern China. In particular, China is concerned about the two million ethnic Koreans in its northeast provinces, the old Manchuria. While those two million Koreans are indeed Chinese citizens, they have never fully assimilated into Chinese society, and many of them still speak Korean and observe Korean customs.

Consequently, China is apprehensive that a heavy influx of North Korean refugees might be enough to ignite a sense of Korean nationalism in the area, which some Koreans still view as their home. As it is, there are thought to be from 60,000 to 100,000 North Koreans illegally in Northeast China already.

To be sure, China enjoys cheap North Korean labor and extractive raw materials from North Korea as it develops its northeast provinces just across the border. And at least three-fourths of the trade between China and North Korea goes through the Chinese city of Dandong at the mouth of the Yalu River in the Yellow Sea.

Beijing wants to influence South Korea so as to blunt Seoul’s alliance with the U.S. By increasing trade with South Korea, China is pursuing economic means to accomplish precisely that. Furthermore, China recently dedicated a monument to An Jung-kun, the Korean nationalist in China who assassinated the Japanese Resident-General of Korea during Japan’s occupation of Korea. South Korea has been maneuvered into recognizing this act, though doing so creates yet another obstacle to cooperation between Japan and South Korea against the North.

Beijing has not forgotten that it was through the support of Moscow at the end of World War II that Outer Mongolia gained complete independence from China. From the late 1950s onward, China and the U.S.SR have been political adversaries, engaging in open border hostilities in 1969.

Westerners have the impression that Beijing is willing to discuss unification of the Koreas. However, it is never China that brings this up. China is willing to listen, which costs it nothing, while doing little except paying lip service to the subject.

It is quite likely that Beijing would be involved in any conflict on the Korean Peninsula, if only to stem refugee flows into China. It is only logical to expect that China would quickly move to make significant areas – if not all – of North Korea into another Chinese province as a permanent buffer.

Reflecting its interests and concerns, Beijing is reluctantly willing to endure the status quo – but it is noteworthy that there have been a few Chinese scholars mentioning that perhaps it is time to change the thinking on Pyongyang. Even so, Beijing recently began embargoing goods from South Korea as a means of showing its displeasure with Seoul’s decision to allow U.S. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missiles being positioned in South Korea. It is a form of economic blackmail to keep things as they are.


Like other regional states, Japan doesn’t want a nuclear-ICBM capable North Korea. Aside from the threat of nuclear weapons aimed at its islands, Tokyo fears radioactive fallout from North Korean nuclear mishaps as well as the effects of conflict on the Korean Peninsula reaching its shores.

Furthermore, Japan is still resentful of North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In addition, Tokyo wants closure on the fate of Japanese wives of the Koreans that returned to the North at the conclusion of World War II. No useful information on those two issues has been forthcoming from Pyongyang.

Anxious about the economic power of a unified Korea, Japan does not want a prosperous competitor having ready access to the North’s raw materials and cheap labor. Although reunification would undoubtedly tax South Korea’s economy for some years, Tokyo takes a much longer view. An expanded and invigorated Korean tiger would be a serious and unwanted trade rival.

Partly in response to North Korean nuclear and missile programs and the North’s belligerence, Japan is showing a stronger sense of nationalism along with a demand for a greater regional voice. Its political personality is turning to the right and, in the eyes of many of its neighbors, it is becoming more militaristic. In truth, Japan simply yearns to be a normal country with all traditional military rights.

Additionally, the Japanese government must squash the anti-Korean sentiment that arises from Japan’s failure to permanently resolve the lingering Korean “comfort women” issue. While previous Japanese administration apologized for Imperial Japan’s crimes, Tokyo’s current government has backtracked and undermined those statements of atonement. To be expected, South Koreans protest, and this leads to counter protests in Japan.

Japan is locked into a territorial dispute with South Korea over the uninhabited islands of Dokdo (to Koreans) or Takeshima (to Japanese) in the waters between them. In fact, there is argument about the very name of those waters, Tokyo demanding that they continue to be called the Sea of Japan, while Seoul insisting that is actually their East Sea. At the same time, Japan finds itself embroiled in a clash with China over the Senkaku (to Japan) or Diaoyu (to China) Islands in the East China Sea. Furthermore, it has recently failed in touchy deliberations with Russia over “the northern territories,” four small island to the north of Hokkaido that were lost to the Soviet Union in 1945.

On the other hand, Japan is working closely with the U.S. in order to contain Beijing. In doing so, it recently snookered the naïve Americans into acknowledging Tokyo’s claim on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and into pledging Washington’s support to defend the islets from any Chinese incursion.

Japan, as well, wants a buffer state between itself and China. The history between the two nations goes back at least to the 1590s, and it is not a peaceful narrative. Although divided, the Korean Peninsula still shields Japan from China. However, should North Korea fail and China invades the North, Japan would be faced with an ancient enemy just across a relatively narrow sea. Considering this, even divided, North Korea poses a security threat to Tokyo.

Some Japanese in recent years have brought up the right of a pre-emptive first strike against North Korea, just to get the matter over with. At the moment, though, Tokyo is likely to tolerate even a nuclear missile-ICBM capable North Korea, but it is difficult to say how long that will be the case. Japan does have the ability to develop its own nuclear weapons, probably within months rather than years.


Still distressed by collapse of the Soviet empire, Moscow wants to be seen as a world power again. Its economy is not strong and it is already occupied by military face-offs in Eastern Europe. Thus, it is unwilling to open up another dispute on its furthest border. Worried about losing influence in Northeast Asia, Russia sees the Korean Peninsula as an area where it can play a major role and serve its own interests. 

To begin, Russia covets a year-round ice-free port like Rajin or Wonsan on North Korea’s east coast. Vladivostok is ice-free only in the summer. And Moscow would benefit tremendously from having a direct land route to South Korean energy markets.

Russia does not want China to be in control of North Korea. Recall the Soviet-Chinese border tensions of the 1960s that culminated in actual hostilities during much of 1969; they are hardly friends, despite appearances otherwise on occasion.

Additionally, Japan is the historical enemy of Russia. Remembering its defeat in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, Moscow doesn’t want Tokyo becoming more militaristic with a new “interpretation” of Article 9 of its Constitution that would allow expanded roles for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

Due in part to its weakened power and its current economic frailty, Russia is likely to wait on the sidelines for economic or political opportunities should North Korea collapse. In the meantime, the North’s cheap labor is very attractive, and tens of thousands of North Korea laborers are already working in the sparsely populated Russian Far East.

But North Korea is reaching out to Russia for assistance since the North’s relations with China have soured. Russia, in turn, has agreed to conditionally fund transportation projects that would facilitate Russian energy exports. Relations between the two players seem upward bound, and Moscow seems less concerned than others about Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missiles.  

However, Russia doesn’t want the burden of North Korean refugees. It too prefers the status quo, since any change to the current balance would be seen as benefiting China, Japan or the U.S.

South Korea

Reports that desire for reunification is waning notwithstanding, Seoul would prefer a unified Korean Peninsula under its control, but is greatly worried about the cost of reunification. Needing to deal more effectively with Pyongyang, the current South Korean administration has signaled its intent to revive the Sunshine Policy of past liberal governments through discussions and economic engagement with North Korea.

However, South Korea clearly doesn’t want a nuclear-ICBM capable North Korea. Equally worrisome, Seoul does not want to be neighbor to a bellicose country aiming thousands of artillery pieces and rocket launchers at its major population centers.

Furthermore, Seoul desires to be free of any foreign influence, specifically from China and Japan, but also from the U.S., for the nearly 30,000 American troops stationed in the South often leave an offensive footprint. At the same time, however, South Korea recognizes that U.S. support in the form of American troops and weaponry helps to deter – or in the event of conflict, defeat – North Korea. 

South Korea bristles at claims that areas of Korea are ancient Chinese territories. And being labeled as a “little brother” of China is patronizing, given the political enlightenment and economic successes of the South. While the South’s businesses look to grow their trade with China, commerce with the giant across the Yellow Sea already accounts for 25 percent of South Korea’s total foreign exchange. Some in South Korea are beginning to see that as an over-dependency.

In light of Tokyo’s efforts to re-interpret Article 9 of its Constitution, Seoul is particularly perturbed about Japan’s refusal to face its own history from the late 1800s to 1945. Predictably, South Korea does not want any help from Tokyo regarding North Korea, and certainly not any Japanese presence anywhere on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea is concerned that the drain on its resources caused by reunification with the North would have lengthy opportunity costs affecting its competitive standing with China and Japan. While the entire region would benefit immediately from improved political stability and a unified Korea would eventually emerge much stronger economically, Seoul is mindful that its competitors would be forging ahead while it would be occupied with absorbing the North.

The South is gravely aware that northern parts of South Korea, including its capital Seoul, would suffer grievous civilian casualties and heavy infrastructural damage in a conflict of any size with the North. Even so, there have been quiet discussions about the right of a pre-emptive first strike against North Korea. Moreover, Seoul has made no secret of its joint drills with the U.S. that include practice for decapitation strikes against Pyongyang’s leaders.

At the same time, South Korea must keep U.S. plans for preventative strikes from happening so as to not trigger a devastating artillery and rocket barrage from the North. In this regard, Seoul and its environs are hostage to North Korea’s conventional forces.

Seoul has yet to develop a long-term strategic balance between itself and other Northeast Asian players. This thwarts multilateral efforts by China, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to work together against North Korea. As a consequence, the South is likely to endure the status quo, hoping to somehow reach consensus with other regional players in dealing with North Korea.

United States

The U.S. perceives the foundation for regional security as coming from regime change in North Korea, a stance that doesn’t win negotiating points with the North. Meanwhile, Washington acknowledges its obligation to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression, which is only proper since the U.S. is largely responsible for the division of the Korean Peninsula in 1945.

However, the U.S. would like to reduce its presence in South Korea to lessen military expenditures. Additionally, it really does not want to get involved in another Asian land war, the stalemate of the Korean conflict and the fiasco of Vietnam apparently being enough. Nonetheless, American troops will continue to be stationed near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates South from North.

In keeping with its self-imposed mission of preserving peace and stability in Northeast Asia, the U.S. doesn’t want to give up its role of hegemon in the western Pacific Ocean. Despite claims to the contrary, it is very wary regarding China’s intentions as Beijing begins to flex its new economic, political, and military muscle – often in very indelicate ways. 

Seeking support in its now-unwanted role as guardian of the world, the U.S. is unwilling to discourage Japan, whose intent to remove Constitutional restrictions on its Self-Defense Forces would bolster any American efforts at addressing a conflict in Northeast Asia.

The U.S. has most likely been covertly preparing for some level of military intervention on the Korean Peninsula, should the situation deteriorate into chaos or actual war. Witness the U.S. Department of Defense’s contract with the Mansfield Center in 2012 to provide Korean language and cultural training for soldiers stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, a major embarkation point in the U.S. Northwest for troops and war material destined for the Korean Peninsula.

Statements about North Korean possession of nuclear weapons and long range missiles being unacceptable and the need for regime change in North Korea notwithstanding, the U.S. is likely to endure the status quo, simply because no one in Washington has yet figured out any achievable alternatives. Even so, pre-emptive strikes are being openly discussed as military options are said to still be on the table, strong objections by South Korea notwithstanding.

Clearly, the U.S. doesn’t want a nuclear-ICBM capable North Korea. This, of course, ignores the bedrock belief held by North Korea that only its nuclear deterrence keeps the regime alive.

North Korea

North Korea relies upon China, plus non-governmental organizations such as the World Food Program, for nutritional provisions and fuel supplies. South Korea and the United States also contribute as their political climates allow. However, despite its reliance upon China, North Korea tends to act independently, without regard to consequences. As a result, relations between Beijing and Pyongyang are at an all-time low.

North Korea rejects the Chinese claim that much of Northeast Asia, including parts of the Korean Peninsula, was once Chinese territory, and that Korea actually belongs to China. Depending upon what historical period one looks at, Pyongyang could make a counter-claim that much of Northeast China is actually ancient Korean territory and that the northeastern Chinese provinces belong instead to North Korea.  

Japan is seen as a tool of the United States, and Pyongyang is still quite aggrieved by the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945. There are vivid memories of Tokyo’s campaign to wipe out Korean culture and language during the annexation.

Nonetheless, North Korea reached out to Japan, offering to resolve the decades-long concern over the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by the North. In offering information about a long-standing concern held by Tokyo, North Korea is obliging Japan’s good will toward Pyongyang, thus attempting to drive wedge between Japan and other potential allies in Northeast Asia. That effort, however, faltered when Pyongyang did not deliver on its promise.

The general population in the North is thought to have been highly indoctrinated against the West, particularly Americans, though this may be changing as information about the outside world penetrates the North. Inroads are being made through smuggled cellphones, news via trade across the Chinese border, and small electronic devices that receive South Korean broadcasts or use thumb drives – easier to conceal than VCR tapes or DVDs. This makes it next to impossible to keep awareness of the South’s prosperity and the emancipations of the world from spreading.

One of Pyongyang’s greatest fears is that its citizens will learn of the astonishing success of South Korea. The regime cannot explain why North Koreans must sacrifice and remain poor while South Koreans are doing so well. Thus, the North make concerted efforts to tightly control the flow of information into the hermetic country and contact with the outside world.

Pyongyang’s only objective is for the very top leaders to survive – through continued support from senior military staff and inner circle party “elites” who benefit from the regime’s largess. North Korea’s nascent nuclear-ICBM capability – along with its formidable array of South-facing artillery and rockets along the DMZ – is seen as the only barrier to US or South Korean invasion.

In case of conflict, North Korea would likely launch heavy waves of rockets and artillery fire into South Korea, and possibly missiles to Japan and U.S. bases in the western Pacific Ocean. The regime is unlikely to go down without a fight. To bolster its position, Pyongyang is developing a small but survivable “second strike” capability.

Decades of dithering and ineffectual negotiations by its enemies has allowed North Korea to develop nuclear weapons – likely already miniaturized enough for ICBMs, but if not, they soon will be. Worse, Pyongyang is speeding toward attaining an intercontinental delivery system. Pyongyang knows what transpired in Libya when its nuclear program was abandoned, and it is aware of what happened in Iraq because it did not have a nuclear arsenal. Thus, any expectation that North Korea would give up its trump card is absurd.


The lessons of history counter the overly optimistic view that all we need to do is arm ourselves with good will as we engage our enemies in dialog. The evidence clearly shows that such an approach is frightfully misguided. It is what author Shirley Abbott cautioned against when she wrote about “an era of delicious, fatuous optimism shaped by the belief that enough good will on the part of people like ourselves could repair anything.”

With that understanding, there is little reason to believe that merely holding discussions between or among China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, and South Korea – with or without the U.S. – would yield any substantive improvement in relations leading to a sustainable regional peace. Failure to achieve progress in stabilizing international relations between and among regional players is the reverberation of a collective lack of understanding of – and appreciation for – the widely-disparate national experiences and perspectives of all nation-states involved.

From this, one can see that the interests and concerns of Northeast Asian players do not align, and that makes coordination and collaboration in solving the North Korean problem very difficult, if not outright impossible. In the absence of some innovative political thinking, the divergent historical perceptions and differences in national interests will continue to make effective teamwork regarding North Korea by China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States improbable.

Image: The Korean peninsula at night, showing almost total darkness over North Korea. NASA space photograph ISSO38-E-38300, January 30, 2014  

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