What’s behind the conflict on the Korean Peninsula?

panmunjom.si South Korean soldiers stand guard in fog at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Korea (AFP Photo / Jung Yeon-Je)

What’s behind the conflict on the Korean Peninsula?

Alexei Fenenko, Valdai, April 19, 2013

This spring has been marked by an unprecedented escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula. The crisis began when North Korea launched the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite on December 12. The UN Security Council accused North Korea of conducting a covert ballistic missile test and imposed fresh sanctions on the country. North Korea responded by testing its third nuclear device: a roughly 5 kiloton bomb was detonated on February 12. On March 11, Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the 1953 armistice agreement. On March 30, North Korean leaders declared that the country was entering a “state of war” with the South. While there is no imminent threat of armed conflict between the two Koreas, it is now much more likely than it was one and a half or two years ago.

The present situation differs from the “nuclear alarms” of 1994 and 2003. In those cases, it was the United States who threatened North Korea with air strikes on its nuclear facilities, whereas now the United States, as well as their allies in the region, Japan and South Korea, are reacting to Pyongyang. Our understanding of when a nuclear weapon could be used, formed in the second half of the 20th century, is less and less relevant in today’s political reality.

Pyongyang’s motivations

The roots of the current conflict extend back to 2011 when Kim Jong-il died and his son Kim Jong-un came to power. The military and the party leadership were wary of the young, European-educated leader. Kim Jong-un needed an international crisis to strengthen his position by demonstrating his staunch support for the political elite and their interests.

The situation is somewhat similar to America in 1960s, when John Kennedy, a young and relatively liberal senator, took over the presidency from General Dwight Eisenhower. Washington’s political establishment, composed mainly of elderly WWII hawks, feared that the “youngster” would give ground on America’s interests. In a show of loyalty, Kennedy provoked a series of crises – from the confrontation over West Berlin to the attempted invasion in the Bay of Pigs. The new president, although personally more inclined to a compromise with the Kremlin than his predecessor had been, actually brought America to the brink of war with the Soviet Union.

Since dialogue between North and South Korea began in 1991, Pyongyang has received regular economic aid from Seoul. However, after Lee Myung-bak won the 2007 presidential election, South Korea downgraded its economic cooperation with the North. President Lee Myung-bak’s stated intention to strengthen the country’s military alliance with the United States, which had been in decline since the early 2000s, was denounced by the North. President Park Geun-hye, elected in 2012, has followed her predecessor’s political course. North Korea’s menacing rhetoric is largely intended to force its southern neighbor to resume providing economic aid.

But South Korea’s security is guaranteed by the United States, and its leaders doubt that North Korea is prepared to go to war. They believe that the North is capable, at most, of border clashes like the November 2010 conflict over Yeonpyeong Island. “Half-threats” such as nuclear tests and vows to “turn Seoul into a sea of fire” do not impress South Koreans, which incites Pyongyang to step up its threats and make them more credible. This is a vicious circle: the more credible the threats, the greater the danger of actual armed conflict.

Seoul’s interests

At first glance, Seoul has nothing to gain from rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. South Korea’s strategic location guarantees that it will become a battlefield in any future war. Its economic aid has not succeeded in dissuading North Korean leaders from developing nuclear weapons and ratcheting up tensions. The only possible result was a decline in economic relations with Pyongyang.

Seoul is skeptical about the idea of yet another agreement with the North. Over the last two decades, Pyongyang has signed a raft of “denuclearization” documents, from the 1991 Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to the 2007 Beijing Agreement. Starting with the 1994 Agreed Framework, all of these documents were based on one principle: Pyongyang was to abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for American guarantees of security and South Korean economic aid. None of these agreements have been fulfilled. Seoul fears that the same fate will befall any new agreement with the North.

Since 1991, the South Korean establishment began to see the two countries’ peaceful reunification as a possibility. Reunification was imagined in Seoul as a progressive “absorption” of the northern neighbor by South Korea, just like Western Germany gradually absorbed the GDR in 1972-1990. However, the Korean situation was much different from the one in Central Europe: the economic aid strengthened North Korea, but the South did not absorb the North. Beginning in the early 2000s, most analysts came to the conclusion that reunification on the Korean peninsula would follow a different course than the German case. The rise of a left-nationalist government, more Northern- than Southern-minded, was at the time regarded as the most likely outcome. The more distant and vague the prospect of change became, the more pointless “inter-Korean dialogue” seemed to Seoul.

Tokyo’s interests

Faced with the threat of North Korean missile strikes, and even with the prospect of a nuclear strike, Japan remains among the countries most deeply involved in the Korean conflict. At the same time, the Korean crisis has allowed Japan to review the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the United States and gain greater military independence. The strategy was formulated in 2006 by the then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who stressed the need to create “deterrence capacity” against North Korea.

The key component of the Japanese strategy is antimissile defense. In contrast to America’s NATO allies in Europe, Japan has created its own antimissile system. The interception of a North Korean missile will most probably take place outside of Japanese airspace. This will serve as a justification for Tokyo to embark on military action beyond the Japanese archipelago.

Washington’s interests

The White House, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, has done its best to create a series of precedents in which “potentially dangerous” – in Washington’s opinion – regimes were forcibly disarmed. The Americans wanted Pyongyang to close its programs of plutonium extraction from spent nuclear fuel and to shut down the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center under the supervision of IAEA inspectors and/or a commission formed by the five other members of the six-party talks. Washington used Iran, North Korea and to some extent Pakistan as testing grounds for its new model of active deterrence which consists of compelling the opponent to take actions that it doesn’t want to take.

In the summer of 2004, however, the Bush administration was forced to rethink its policy on the Korean peninsula. At the time, American experts were not sure whether North Korea had produced a nuclear bomb. As a result, beginning in the winter of 2004-2005, American policy with regard to North Korea began to resemble the traditional passive deterrence. Washington needed to show that it was prepared to defend its allies and to compel North Korea to continue the six-party talks on nuclear disarmament. An attempt was made to reproduce the deterrence model formerly applied to the Soviet Union. North Korea, however, did not follow the Soviets’ behavior after the Caribbean crisis of 1962.

In the first place, Soviet leaders did not intend to initiate a nuclear war. Their efforts were aimed at avoiding war with the United States.

Second, after the Cuban missile crisis the Soviet Union did not regard its nuclear arsenal as a means of putting political pressure on the United States. Apart from some isolated, harsh statements by Yuri Andropov, the Kremlin never threatened the United States or their allies with nuclear attack.

Third, after the 1961 Berlin crisis, the Soviet Union never tested the strength of America’s security guarantees to its allies. The Kremlin did not provoke nuclear crises involving American allies and, in fact, did not undertake a single serious action aimed at breaking up NATO.

North Korea’s strategy is quite different. The country’s nuclear arsenal cannot be compared in size or quality even with that of such “non-NPT nuclear powers” as India and Pakistan, let alone the United States. And yet, Pyongyang threatens to use these weapons, and takes every chance to reaffirm its willingness to act on these threats.

Washington has to give ground, and for good reason: America’s deterrence strategy does not provide for any rational course of action against an opponent who appears ready to go from endless threats to actual war.

Russia’s interests

Moscow’s primary challenge is to prevent an armed conflict on the Korean peninsula, which would most likely cause an environmental catastrophe in the neighboring Russian Far East. Moscow is not interested in an American military operation near Russia’s borders, or in seeing a second example, after Iraq, of a country’s forced disarmament. In this respect, Russia’s aims are nearly identical to China’s interests. The formation of an undeclared coalition to prevent war on the Korean peninsula and to resume talks with North Korea appears again on the agenda, as it did in 2003.
However, such a coalition is more questionable now that it was ten years ago. In 2003-2004, Moscow and Beijing were backed up by South Korea and, to some extent, by Japan. At present, both tend to support Washington. Also, it remains unclear what tools Russia and China possess to influence the North Korean leadership. In order to succeed, Moscow and Beijing must consider creating a negotiation mechanism similar to the six-party talks launched in the summer of 2003.

Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club’s, unless explicitly stated otherwise.