Korean Peninsula: A peninsula that determines the status quo of East Asia

The stability of East Asia is still critical for the modern world to function. Without East Asia’s economic capability, the machine of the world economy might cease to operate without its semiconductors and electronic goods. According to the World Bank, the total amount of GDP from East Asia and Pacific was around 30 trillion dollars, much bigger than other regions such as the European Union and Latin America. The three biggest economies of the G20 countries are also from East Asia. Yet, East Asia does have its vulnerability: The Korean Peninsula. The Korean Peninsula is the most strategically important location for not only Japan, the US but also for China and Russia too. It is a unique location where the interests of the world’s great powers could collide.  It is the stronghold where Samsung, Hyundai, LG, CJ corporations are producing its finest goods (including smartphones) for the rest of the world. On the other side of the Korean Peninsula, an isolated nation that possesses humanity’s deadliest weapons kept itself from the keen eyes of the world. A nation that could shake the rocky relations between China, Russia, the US, and Japan: North Korea. North Korea is predominantly known for its fierce military, flashy parades, vertical governance style, and test missiles. Despite its aggressive yet isolated stance, North Korea might be a significant nation that could determine the status-quo of East Asia. 

Before the 38-degree division

In the late 19th century, Korea, as one nation, used to be an isolated and vassal nation of the Qing dynasty. Despite initial attempts of sailors and pastors from Westerners, Korea would take an increasingly hostile stance to drive out these foreigners. As the Qing dynasty’s prestige and power declined gradually, Korea became more and more exposed to the interests of Great Powers, primarily Russia and Japan. When the colonial empires penetrate into China’s coastline, the scramble over North-East China started intensifying. Russia was aggressively expanding to the Far East. In 1860, Qing dynasty ceded its northern territories of Amur region and east region of Ussuri river of Amur to Korean borders.  Russia’s primary interests were having a warm-water port and a foothold to expand into North-East China (Port Arthur was also one of the fundamental factors that sparked the war as it was a warm-water port). On the other side, Japanese interest was putting Korea under its umbrella to withstand the Russian influence and bolster its status as equal among the Great Powers.  As tensions built-up over Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula, Japan initiated sudden naval attacks against Russia. Thus, the infamous war known as “Russo-Japanese war of 1903-1905” occurred. When Japan triumphed over Russia, Japan managed to hold its grasp on the Korean peninsula. As a result, Korea, eventually, was annexed by Japan in 1910 as a colony. During the Interwar period, Korea became more strategically important as it became a gateway between Manchuria and Japan. Therefore, the Japanese government was tightening its grasp over Korea. Not only was it a gateway, Korea was providing necessary materials such as rice and human power to fuel the warmachine of Japan.

The Korean War

When the Second world war came to an end, the Allies liberated the Korean peninsula in 1945. Originally, the Korean Peninsula was meant to be one entity under one government. However, things were becoming trickier as the ideological and geopolitical clashes started to go overboard between the US and Soviet Union. In 1948, the UN adopted  a resolution to acknowledge the government in South Korea as a lawful government which triggered civil unrest and political violence were getting more frequent among the local population in South Korea, particularly rural areas (the most infamous would be Jeju uprising). Kim Il-Sung, who was a leading figure in North Korea, with political and material support from Moscow and lately Beijing, launched the surprise military campaign to subdue the South and merge the country into one entity.  The campaign triggered the Korean War in 1950. Just like the Russo-Japanese conflict, Korea became more strategically (ideologically) important for the US interests instantly.  From the White House’s perspective, losing Korea (south) would leave Japan vulnerable against the influence of communism due to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) becoming a victor of civil war in China in 1949. Plus, America regarded Japan as an essential part of “containment” in Asia to combat the Soviet influence. As the war progressed on, The US military and other expeditionary forces from the UN penetrated deep as far as to Pyongyang prompting the Beijing to send thousands of soldiers in assistance of the North Korea and its security interests (Beijing was still recovering from the civil war and it is a logical action to thwart the American influence from the Korean Peninsula. If Korea falls under a single government that is sympathetic to America’s interest, Beijing will not tolerate the American military presence near its borders).  General Douglas McArthur once requested a nuclear strike against the overwhelming numbers of Chinese soldiers from the White House. But the White House was not keen to expand this conflict into full-blown total war. Yet, the dire situation in the Korean Peninsula illustrated how it can influence the actors into difficult situations which can never be restored to the previous status quo. After three years, the belligerent sides reached a ceasefire at the Panmunjom village in 1953.  Despite the ceasefire, North Korea and South Korea are still technically at each other’s throats. Judging from the Russo-Japanese war and the Korean war showcases the peninsula’s importance of its geo-strategic value as a buffer zone continues to remain.

Contemporary era

Nowadays, it is unlikely that an armed conflict would happen in the Korean Peninsula. Even though the situation in the Korean peninsula is peaceful to a certain extent, the missile tests and nuclear program are challenging the notion of stability in East Asia. 

There are several reasons why North-Korea is taking these reckless actions. Firstly,  North Korea still retains its objective since the Korean war: to unite Korea according to Dan Pinkston from Troy University in his statement on the Deutsche Welle. Secondly, it could be related to its feeling of being surrounded by unfriendly actors that may endanger the regime in North Korea. North Korea could also utilize opportunities such as the US-China rivalry which could aid its progress of attaining its objectives (for example getting restrictions lowered on its trade activities). If North Korea continuously takes aggressive actions like launching missile tests over the East Sea, it would prompt the US and South Korea to take countermeasures such as military exercises and installing anti-missile systems for instance, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense ). However, it could be tricky that systems like THAAD rely on sophisticated radar systems that may raise suspicion from China as it did react negatively back in 2017. If South Korea and the US stubbornly act, it may force China in a complicated situation to take a more cordial stance on North Korea.  South Korea developed faster and more efficiently since the Korean war. It also holds a substantial number of shares on semiconductor chip exports to the global economy.  According to Invest Korea, South Korea is the 2nd biggest supplier after the US with the market share in the global semiconductor market by 17.7% in 2022. Plus, with a market share of 60.9%, South Korea is the biggest contributor of  the global memory market. Keep in mind  its function applied to a wide range of fields such as the civilian, military and medical. As the Russian-Ukrainian war showcased the importance of military application of drones, semiconductors are likely to be in a high demand.  Hence, the industry adds more value to its geo-strategic importance. If the supply line is being disrupted from any foreign interventions, the impact could be consequently negative. Therefore, the Korean Peninsula is the achilles heel of not only East Asia but the whole world.


The Korean Peninsula is an edge of the various interests. As the whole world relies more and more on semiconductors to develop cut-edging technologies, the Korean Peninsula stability should be concerning. However, unpredictable conflicts such as Russo-Ukrainian and Gaza remind us that the stability of the current global world order is becoming fragile. If the US-Chinese tension reaches a breaking point, the Korean peninsula could be the next target after Taiwan.