The Crisis in East Asia: Korea or Taiwan?

B-1B Lancer makes closest flight ever to North Korea

During his New Year’s Eve address, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping said that “China will surely be reunified” and that “all Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common purpose.” In stark contrast, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced that “re-unification with South Korea is no longer possible” and that the constitution should be revised to designate the South as “principle enemy.” One might ponder which of these statements is a more ominous sign: Xi Jinping’s usual remark to pursue unification, or Kim Jong-un’s unusual statement to abandon it?

By comparing changing perspectives and the conditions that will enable or hinder a surprise attack, one can evaluate where a contingency is more likely to occur between the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. The comparative analysis suggests that a crisis in northeast Asia is more likely to start on the Korean Peninsula, not in Taiwan.



Comparing the Changing Perspectives

For the past two months, Kim Jong-un has conveyed unusually aggressive messages. During a year-end policy meeting in December 2023, Kim said to “newly formulate” North Korea’s stance toward South Korea, labeling it as “the enemy.” Then, at the Supreme People’s Assembly on Jan. 15, 2024, he announced the dismantling of all organizations engaging with South Korea, such as the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification. Beyond rhetoric, through January 2024, North Korea tested a nuclear-capable underwater attack drone and a hypersonic glide vehicle, and it fired approximately 200 artillery shells into the sea near South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, prompting the evacuation of South Korean citizens to shelters.

Why has Kim Jong-un heightened his aggression toward South Korea at the start of 2024? Scholars have proposed various interpretations. First, it may be related to South Korea’s general elections in April and the U.S. presidential election in November. According to data compiled by researchers at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, North Korea tends to increase provocations in election years. Second, increased support from Russia and China might have emboldened Pyongyang in confronting South Korea and the United States further than it otherwise would. Third, identifying South Korea as an enemy would help justify North Korea’s further aggression and weapons development. Fourth, the North Korean people’s growing admiration of rich and democratic South Korea, especially among young North Koreans, might compel Kim Jong-un to eradicate the concept of “fellow countrymen” with South Koreans.

While there is no consensus on which cause is the most significant among these, scholars generally agree on one observation: Regardless of the cause, a surge in North Korea’s belligerence is highly likely in 2024. Han Ki-bum, a former analyst with over 30 years of service at South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, anticipates that North Korea will engage in “high-intensity provocations that hold South Korea hostage, creating a sense of threat even for American citizens.” Such a provocation could take the form of a seventh nuclear test, missile tests near Guam or Hawaii, a limited attack on South Korean territory, or a combination of these events. For a surprise attack, Pyongyang may engage in something that analysts in Seoul and Washington have not contemplated before.

Compared to these developments on the Korean Peninsula, the situation across the Taiwan Strait suddenly appears more stable. Although Beijing is expected to maintain a military presence around Taiwan and continue economic and diplomatic offensives, as demonstrated by Nauru’s cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan, no surprising crisis is anticipated. Taiwan watchers also agree that the new Democratic Progressive Party administration is unlikely to make any radical moves toward formal independence.

There are several reasons to believe that a major crisis is unlikely to occur in the Taiwan Strait for the time being. First, the Chinese Communist Party is preoccupied with domestic issues, particularly economic challenges. It needs to avoid unnecessary confrontation with the United States and its developed allies, especially when seeking foreign investments. Second, the Chinese leaders should be concerned about the combat readiness of the People’s Liberation Army. Recent reports of widespread corruption suggest that it is not the best time for the Chinese military to attack Taiwan and face the risk of potential conflict with U.S. forces. Third, the new administration in Taipei will also be busy handling domestic affairs. It must tackle Taiwan’s economic challenges, such as stagnant wages and high housing prices. This task is further complicated with a divided legislature, as the opposition Kuomintang Party holds one more seat than the Democratic Progressive Party, while the Taiwan People’s Party holds eight seats, positioning this third party as the swing caucus.

In short, although there are few indications that tension will decrease in the Taiwan Strait, both Beijing and Taipei would prefer to maintain a status quo without a major crisis, largely for domestic reasons. In contrast, Kim Jong-un seems determined to take riskier actions than his already belligerent provocations. North Korea’s changing perspective is particularly concerning, when comparing the conditions and pathways to crisis between the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait.

Comparing the Conditions and Pathways to Crisis

In terms of geography, Taiwan enjoys the advantage of the protection of the Taiwan Strait. For the People’s Liberation Army to invade Taiwan, it has to cross the 80-mile-wide strait, which has difficult weather for most of the year. Further, an amphibious attack requires time for mobilization, which would be detectable by intelligence means such as satellite imagery. Chinese preparations for what would be the largest and most distant  amphibious invasion in modern history would therefore hardly go unnoticed. In contrast, North and South Korea share an approximately 160-mile-long border on land, densely packed with ammunition and weaponry in the demilitarized zone. Additionally, the two countries have a track record of naval skirmishes near the northern limit line in the Yellow Sea. This comparison of geographical features indicates that the North and South Korean militaries have more chances of accidental clashes on land or at sea adjacent to the peninsula than the Chinese and the Taiwan militaries across the Taiwan Strait.

The Korean Peninsula also presents more pathways to a major crisis compared to the Taiwan Strait due to the scale and frequency of military exercises. Past records show that North Korea increases military provocations around U.S.-South Korean military exercises. The People’s Liberation Army also tends to conduct military exercises whenever Taiwan does. However, Taiwan’s conventional forces are no match for the size of the Chinese military. Therefore, Taiwan’s exercise is unlikely to evoke the same sense of threat in Beijing that the U.S.-South Korean military exercises might in Pyongyang. In terms of frequency, South Korea conducts two combined exercises with U.S. forces and three national-level joint exercises annually. Taiwan executes one national-level joint exercise named Han Kuang per year. This implies that North Korea has five times more opportunities to use South Korea’s exercises as an excuse to justify its military provocations than China does with Taiwan’s exercises.

A conflict on the Korean Peninsula can also spiral out of control faster due to South Korean doctrine being more offensive than that of Taiwan. According to 2022 defense white paper, the South Korean military has developed a strategy called “the three-axis system” since 2012. This offensive military strategy features preemptive strikes against North Korean bases associated with nuclear or missile attacks and retaliatory attack such as precision missile attacks or infiltration of special operation forces for leadership decapitation. In comparison, Taiwan’s military strategy is defensive in nature. According to Taiwan’s defense white paper, its strategy is designed to “fully take advantage of Taiwan Strait’s geography” and attack the enemy during “its most vulnerable strait-crossing phase.” Taiwan’s strategy does not envision preemptive or retaliatory strikes against key facilities on the Chinese mainland or leaders in Beijing, like South Korea’s does.

Strategic Assessment and Adjustment

All these elements — the geographical features of the Korean Peninsula, the heightened state of military confrontation, and South Korea’s offensive military strategy — suggest that, first, the Korean Peninsula has a greater likelihood of a military conflict, whether intentional or accidental, than the Taiwan Strait, and, second, such a conflict can escalate into a larger crisis more rapidly than a conflict might over Taiwan.

Some might disagree. A critic might argue that China could be planning to escalate tensions soon, around May 20, the inauguration day of the new president in Taipei. Beijing might use the occasion to manufacture a crisis with Taiwan to divert the Chinese people’s attention away from internal problems and bolster support for Xi Jinping’s nationalist legitimacy. And the increasing activity of the Chinese Coast Guard near Taiwan’s Kinmen Island in February might signal this outcome. A critic might also argue that Kim Jong-un has no intent to initiate a major crisis. Given the asymmetry between North Korea’s military power and the combined forces of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, Kim stands to lose more than he would gain by instigating a crisis on the peninsula. Many analysts point to North Korea’s provision of large amounts of munitions to Russia as evidence that Kim Jong-un is not preparing to start a war against South Korea. As such, critics might surmise that a crisis and war over Taiwan are more likely than one involving the Korean Peninsula.

However, the nature of potential crises in these two regions needs to be reassessed in terms of predictability and controllability. Indeed, China will likely continue a “new normal” level of military activities around Taiwan. Beijing will adhere to its playbook, employing various tools in economic, diplomatic, legal, and psychological realms, in addition to military measures. Nonetheless, the People’s Liberation Army is unlikely to launch a military attack against Taiwanese islands or kill Taiwanese citizens, as North Korea did against South Korea. As Robert Sutter argues, China’s actions leading up to Lai Ching-Te’s inauguration in May seem likely to fall “within the parameters of pressure and intimidation Beijing has applied to the Democratic Progressive Party administration since the party assumed leadership in 2016.” Historical records also show a pattern that Beijing prefers to control an external crisis rather than initiate one when faced with domestic challenges. The geography of the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan’s defensive military strategy would be helpful in controlling an escalation of the crisis.

The Korean Peninsula has an opposite structure: North Korea’s behavior is unpredictable, and a crisis is likely to be uncontrollable this time. Yes, Kim Jong-un might have no intent to start a war on the peninsula, but a provocation short of war or a local conflict is still likely in 2024. Kim’s announcement of abandoning unification is a sign of an unusual level or type of provocation: Whether to match his announcement with military actions for the domestic audience or to use the new rhetoric to justify further aggression, either way, Kim Jong-un would do something. The challenge is that the level or type of provocations he would undertake is highly unpredictable. The unpredictability worsens due to the geographical feature of South and North Korea’s shared border and both Koreas’ highly offensive military strategies. A crisis will quickly spiral out of control through an action-reaction dynamic. Even if Kim Jong-un does not intend to initiate a major crisis, a limited conflict can rapidly escalate into a bigger crisis than Kim himself may anticipate.

In recent years, analysts concerned about simultaneous crises in these two regions have debated the question of what North Korea would do if there is a contingency in the Taiwan Strait. Now they need to ask the question in reversed order: If there is a contingency on the Korean Peninsula, what would Beijing do in the Taiwan Strait? Would China exploit the Korean crisis and take opportunistic actions against Taiwan? If not, would Beijing be willing to discuss with Washington how to control a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, as it did in 2017, instead? The reassessment of threat levels on the Korean Peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait raises these significant questions that will impact U.S. deterrence and diplomacy vis-á-vis China.



Sungmin Cho, PhD, is a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, an academic institute of the U.S. Department of Defense, based in Honolulu, Hawaii. This essay was presented at a workshop organized by the Perry World House and has benefited from the feedback received. The views expressed in this essay represent only those of the author, not those of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Image: 51st Fighter Wing