This is a long post by any standard. The reason this is so is because I discuss a brief history of the Korean Peninsula, the motivations and the fears that each player holds closest to its heart and briefly consider major flare-ups in the past and their impact on stability in the peninsula. Once we have these laid out, the stage is all set to reason about whether the current chain of events could send the peninsula into the abyss of instability. I talk about the base case scenario - a starting point from where one could reason about plausible alternatives that could look a lot worse. Happy reading!
RISING TENSIONS (2009-2H2010)
The Korean peninsula is in the news and the chain of events does not look good. Back in April 5, 2009, North Korea (NK) test launched Taepodong-2, a multi-stage ballistic missile with a range of 4,000km. A week later the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) unanimously authorized additional sanctions on
- an embargo on arms trade was imposed and member states were authorized to interdict North Korean vessels on the high seas. Two days later, North Korea responded in a manner that is, ironically, widely characterized as ‘unpredictable’ - it announced the cessation of the Six Party Talks (SPT) , declared it would no longer feel bounded by agreements reached at the SPT, expelled all nuclear weapons inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and informed the agency that it would resume work on its nuclear weapons program. North Korea
 Six Party Talks refers to the series of joint-diplomatic engagements involving
China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the that were launched in August 2003. The principal goal of these engagements was to agree to a framework for achieving a non-reversible and verifiable rollback of US North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities, for bringing within international financial and trading systems. North Korea
In May 2010, a fresh round of tensions were trigged by investigations that concluded  that a North Korean torpedo was responsible for the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean anti-submarine patrol corvette, and the consequent death of 46 onboard sailors.
has vehemently denied its involvement in the sinking of the corvette and has declared that should it be attacked, it would defend itself with all available means, including the use of nuclear weapons. On July 28, the US and South Korean military concluded a four-day exercise in the East Sea , the first in a series of coercive diplomacy acts intended to deter North Korea from carrying out further attacks. Perhaps the only relief over the past one-and-a-half years was a private visit to Pyongyang by the former US President, Bill Clinton, that secured the release of two US citizens, journalists who were jailed by North Korea on charges of having illegally entered that country. North Korea
has denied involvement in the incident. North Korea China and have questioned the validity of the claim that ROKS Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo fired by the North Korean navy. Russia
 The sea between
Japan and the peninsula is referred to as ‘ East Sea’ by South Korea, ‘ East Korean Sea’ by North Korea and ‘Sea of Japan’ by . Japan
What do these events mean for peace in the Korean peninsula? In the strict sense of the word ‘peace’ the question is meaningless as the two Koreas continue to be officially at war since 1950 as the July 1953 armistice was never followed through with a peace treaty. Therefore in the current context, we define peace as a state wherein there is no material violation of the land, sea or air space of either country. In our view the chance that peace is shattered is slim; it is no higher than it has been prior to earlier periods of escalating coercive posturing and fatal skirmishes. To see this, we discuss the strategic interests of the main players in the region, their reactions to past outbreaks of hostilities in the peninsula and review the impact of current events on the interlocking geopolitical interests in the region.
THE KOREAN PENINSULA OVER THE PAST 150 YEARS
With the Treaty of Ganghwa signed in February 1876, the Korean peninsula passed from being a Qing Dynasty  protectorate to a Japanese protectorate.
established complete sovereign rights over the peninsula through the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty of August 1910. The defeat of Japan in World War II in August 1945 ended its 35 year rule over the peninsula and the de facto partition of the peninsula along the 38th parallel, into the Soviet and the American spheres of influence. The Koreans were not happy with the division and both the provisional Korean governments claimed the peninsula in its entirety. In the backdrop of these events and with Soviet backing, Japan North Korea invaded in 1950 leading to the outbreak of the Korean War. The war ended in June 1953 with an armistice that formalized a border between the two South Korea close to the 38th Parallel. Koreas however did not sign the armistice agreement and the agreement was never followed by a peace treaty. The two South Korea therefore continue to remain technically at war since June 1950. Koreas
 Its successor state is the modern day
The Chinese language has an idiom - “if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold”. It is used to mean that when a protective element fails, the one that is protected, despite its apparent strength, runs a high risk of failing. This is how the Qing Dynasty and its successor, the present day
, have viewed its relationship with the Korean peninsula since 1870s, and with good reason. China
China however remains concerned that the North Korean regime’s rhetoric and irrational military acts might precipitate a crisis leading to a full blown invasion of North Korea by the led allies. Therefore we expect that US China would exercise the leverage of its considerable economic, diplomatic and defense linkages with to talk it down should it appear that the latter’s antics might force a showdown. North Korea
The Meiji Restoration of 1868 produced an outward-looking, modern industrial state of Japan . In 1876,
forced the Joseon Dynasty that ruled the Korean peninsula to a protectorate status which resulted in the Joseon Dynasty proclaiming independence from the Qing Dynasty in matters relating to foreign affairs. Thus Japan Japan gained a foothold in the peninsula which allowed it to launch two major attacks on the Qing Dynasty in the subsequent decades - the first resulted in the loss of the Liaodong Peninsula and Taiwan in 1885 to Japan and the second took place in 1937 resulting in the loss of the resource rich Manchuria.
Following its defeat in
adopted a pacifist constitution . World War II, Japan China however continues to view the Korean Peninsula through the prism of the teeth and lips metaphor, with the US replacing as the potential threat. Japan China’s principal goal in the Korean Peninsula is the maintenance of the status quo whereby the peninsula remains partitioned between the two . The reason for this is that the status quo puts a buffer between Koreas China and the 30,000 US troops stationed in . It additionally permits South Korea China to focus on vis-à-vis naval defense matters in the East. Furthermore, the buffer state acts as a natural hedge against a future rise of military power in Taiwan . The status quo is beneficial from an economic perspective as well since a reunification would deprive Japan China of a significant portion of the FDI from as these funds would flow into the impoverished North. South Korea
 China’s security perceptions over the Peninsula are rooted in Japan’s actions during the late 19th century through the end of WWI. We therefore briefly discuss Japan in this section.
 Article 9 of the Japanese constitution specifically prohibits
from maintaining armed forces with war potential or using threat or force to settle international disputes. Japan
China expects that a reunified would fall squarely within the American sphere of influence. And in the unlikely case that it allies with Korea China, the reunification will trigger a rapid nuclearization of . Thus from the Japan China’s perspective, two in the peninsula are eminently more desirable than one. Koreas
Over the years however, South Korean elites have developed a view that the North Korean regime is essentially a force for bad; the reasons for which are many:
· 1950-53: The North Korean invasion of
killed over 350,000 Koreans of which 140,000 were South Korean citizens. South Korea
· 1950-till date:
has been unwilling to give up the use of force to achieve a Korean reunification. North Korea
· 1953-early 2000s:
is reported to have abducted about 3,800 South Koreans in the period following the armistice. Some of the abductees have been released upon extraction of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the South. North Korea
· 1971 and 1974: North Korean agents made an assassination attempt on the then South Korean President, Park Chung Hee. While the President survived both attempts, the second attempt killed his wife.
· 1987: North Korean agents planted explosives in a Korean Airlines flight that killed all 115 people on board. The attack is purported to have been triggered by
South Korea’s decision to exclude from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. North Korea
· 1990s-till date: North Korean has repeatedly threatened
with the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict between the two. South Korea
South Korea has five principal goals in the peninsula - nudge the North Korean government towards democratization, bring about a considerable improvement of human rights situation in the North, prevent an economic implosion in the North Korea, prevent the reignition of open hostilities and, over a longer term, achieve a reunification between the two Koreas.
The first goal bears ideological importance and rhymes with the view of the other major powers. Besides,
South Korea believes that without incremental democratization, will become even more unstable in the coming years. An unstable North Korea is much more likely to launch into war against the South . Even if North Korea North Korea does not initiate a war, destabilization would cause millions of refugees to pour into , a situation that the latter is ill-prepared to handle. An economic implosion would do the same and therefore preventing an economic implosion in South Korea is important to the South. The second goal relates to the issue of abductees and is important from the viewpoint of eventual reunification. North Korea
maintains a formidable army and a growing array of weapons of mass destruction. North Korea
The Soviet Union’s interest in the
was the result of its long-held desire to gain access to warm water ports. It was the principal backer of the North Korean regime for over 40 years and the Korean War would not have occurred without the active encouragement it provided to Korean Peninsula . North Korea
In the modern context however,
Russia’s contribution is no longer the major component in ’s aid package. The size of North Korea North Korea’s trade relations with is an insignificant fraction of its total trade. Russia Russia’s focus since its recovery in early 2000s from the debilitating effects of the Soviet breakup has been the Balkans, the Caucasus region and Central Asia. Each of these regions is far away from the Korean Peninsula and, the peninsula itself is separated from ’s core by over 7,000km. These facts therefore raise the question why Russia is even involved in the Six Party Talks. The reason for Russia ’s participation is that it is one of the five permanent members at the UNSC. Thus any Security Council resolution against Russia North Korea would require a positive vote from . Russia
Russia generally agrees with the international community that respect for human rights and greater societal openness is important in , its paramount goals in the region are - ensure stability in the peninsula and prevent the emergence of a new nuclear power in its neighborhood. The first goal is however far more important to China and South Korea than to Russia and the issue of preventing North Korea from becoming a full-fledged nuclear power gives many more sleepless nights to Japan and the US, than to Russia. Its main interests in the peninsula will therefore be well taken care by the eager pounding of hearts of other capable, interested parties. North Korea
The diplomatic surplus that
Russia generates out of the choices it makes with regards to North Korea will be put to work elsewhere - on the tradeoffs it needs to make in the Caucasus region, in Eastern Europe and issues with the concerning strategic weapons deployment. United States
The US can easily address the problem in the Korean Peninsula - it could sign a bilateral nonaggression pact with North Korea and pave way for normalization of the North Korea’s trade relations in return for the latter’s abjuration of the use of force against South Korea and Japan, its cooperation for the implementation of mechanisms to allow a verifiable, non-reversible and an externally enforceable rollback of its (NK’s) own nuclear weapons capabilities and its bringing about a visible improvement in the human rights situation (in NK). One might wonder then why this has not been done yet. There are several reasons for this.
North Korea has a paranoid distrust of the . Thus, any deal such as the one outlined above will require multilateral guarantees and multilateral trust verification mechanisms and therefore, will be complicated, require prolonged negotiations and involve trade-offs, many of which may not have even a remote connection with the North Korea issue. Second, US has frequently reneged on its international commitments under prior concluded negotiations. Third, while North Korea is prepared to give up the weapons of mass destruction, its regime feels that the elite power structure would not survive democratization. Fourth, there is a strong constituency of strategic thinkers in the US that believe the death of its current President who is reportedly not in good health could open opportunities in the near future for dealing with factions that are more amenable. North Korea
US has five objectives in the interim - prevent an implosion of the North Korean regime until an amenable faction emerges, prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technologies by North Korea, remain committed to not making any material concessions until irreversible mechanisms for a complete rollback of North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities have been put in place, encourage China to use its considerable leverage with the regime to prevent the latter from forcing a showdown in the peninsula and tighten the screws on money laundering channels and financial institutions that the North Korean regime uses to settle its foreign transactions .
 The North Korean regime is heavily dependent on such transactions. Besides, access to such transactions reduces the effectiveness of aid and trade and levers that
China, Japan and South Korea have with . North Korea
THE QUESTION OF PEACE
We have noted right in the beginning that the chain of events over the past five quarters has been rather grim. However, when one considers the recent events in the light of past patches of flare-ups in the
(see below), they do not stand out as particularly bad. In the past, the flare-ups remained just that - they never escalated into a sustained military conflict or an invasion of either of the two Korean Peninsula . This observation is particularly noteworthy when viewed in the light of the grim nature of such flare-ups (assassination of the South Korean President’s wife, 1974) and that the flare-ups have spanned both periods, when North Korea was relatively much weaker (1993, North Korea withdrew from the NPT) and when it has been relatively much stronger (later part of Nixon’s Presidency) than it is today. Koreas
Flare-ups Since the 1953 Armistice
Flare-ups Since the 1953 Armistice
· 1968: North Korean patrol boats seize a
ship that was on an intelligence mission and hold its crew, including 80 officers, captive for 11 months. U.S.
· Jan 19, 1968: North Korean army unit enters
to assassinate President Park Chung Hee. The attempt failed and ended in the death of nearly a hundred people including 68 South Koreans and 3 Americans. Seoul
· Apr 15, 1969: A US Navy reconnaissance plane was shot down over the
by a North Korean MiG-17 aircraft killing all 31 Americans on board. East Sea
· 1974: North Korean agents kill
South Korea’s first lady in their second attempt to assassinate . President Park
· 1993: Just two years after the dissolution of its major backer, the Soviet Union,
withdraws from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and prevents international inspectors from reaching the Yongbyon nuclear plant. North Korea
· 1996: A
North Korea submarine runs aground the ’s coast. The manhunt for the sub’s crew kills 24 North Koreans and 13 South Koreans. South Korea
· 1999: Sea skirmish between North and
navies leaves dozens of North Korean personnel dead. South Korea
· 2001: President Bush halts all diplomatic talks with
claiming evidence that the latter was attempting to enrich Uranium. North Korea
Yellow Sea skirmish leads to the death of six South Korean and a dozen North Koreans. US President George Bush designates North Korea as being part of an “Axis of Evil” in his State of the Union address and suspends oil shipments to the North. US retaliates by reactivating the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and (again) expelling all nuclear weapons inspectors. North Korea
· Oct 9, 2006:
conducts its first nuclear test. North Korea
· 2008: The newly elected South Korean President, Lee Myung-Bak, reverses the decade-old Sunshine Policy and links further improvement in ties between the two
to the North’s compliance in the ongoing process of denuclearization. The North reacts furiously and cuts off all official dialogue. Koreas
· May 25, 2009:
conducts its second nuclear test. North Korea
was assassinated in Oct 1979 by Kim Jaegyu, the director of the (South) Korean CIA. President Park
In Recent Times
In the present times we are watching an increasingly hardened stance on the North by
South Korea which is however being balanced by an increasingly accommodative, and at times, supportive . China remains aloof though occasionally use its weight in international affairs to limit internationally coordinated measures against the North from going too far. Russia maintains little direct leverage over the North due to its pacifist constitution, because it has all but ceased providing aid, and because trade links with the North are now all but severed . Japan
With the knowledge that it cannot be pushed too hard,
appears to play the same old game wherein gap periods in diplomatic contacts are followed by a demonstration of its nuisance potential, leading to a revival of the diplomatic process and the extraction of aid. North Korea
 Dick K. Nanto and Emma Chanlett-Avery, “
: Economic Leverage and Policy Analysis,” Congressional Research Service, Jan 22, 2010. North Korea
Will the Peninsula Heat Up Further?
A nuclear armed
North Korea is unacceptable to the . However a rollback need not be achieved with the current regime. In fact rollbacks in the past, most notably in US South Africa and , were achieved only once the regimes there changed. Besides, while the US could easily militarily dominate North Korea, the war would likely throw the global economy into a tailspin, severely undermine the already delicate economies of its European partners, and, in all likelihood, the European project itself. Even if South Korea (miraculously) escapes relatively unharmed in the military showdown, it remains entirely ill-equipped to handle the consequences of a refugee influx from the North. China’s paramount interest is in maintaining its lips. Thus it will not brook an invasion of North Korea. And, if it appears that intra-elite relationships in North Korea are going sour beyond what is considered as a norm, China would arrest the spiral through intervention in North Korea’s domestic politics or even, through limited-military intervention on grounds that regime collapse would send refugees packing into its north eastern territories. Japan would find it extremely difficult to support strong military measures until a roll-back of North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities has been achieved. Besides, to whet Japan’s appetite for war, the US would need to present it with more than just a plan for a “Mission Accomplished” speech - Japan does not want an Iraq in its neighborhood . With so many imponderables, the US is unable to provide guarantees that such a war would be quick and would not lead to a power vacuum in North Korea. Unless North Korea itself initiates major hostilities, a status quo in the peninsula remains Russia’s most desired scenario. Brazil
Thus the latest round is likely to be as exciting as watching paint dry. A key assumption is that the key parties follow an information-complete rational behavior. What could happen should this assumption fail to hold? How far can
push before war descends on the Korean peninsula? These questions are more interesting. North Korea
 On May 1, 2003, in a speech delivered on board the USS Abraham Lincoln, US President G.W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations relating to the second US-led invasion of Iraq. Iraq continues to fester, still.