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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Post-Cheonan Tensions in the Korean Peninsula

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!


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 North Korea - 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) [1], 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.

[1] Six Party Talks refers to the series of joint-diplomatic engagements involving China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Russia and the US 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 North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities, for bringing North Korea within international financial and trading systems. 

In May 2010, a fresh round of tensions were trigged by investigations that concluded [1] 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.  North Korea 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 [2], 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.

[1] North Korea has denied involvement in the incident.  China and Russia have questioned the validity of the claim that ROKS Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo fired by the North Korean navy.
[2] 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.


With the Treaty of Ganghwa signed in February 1876, the Korean peninsula passed from being a Qing Dynasty [1] protectorate to a Japanese protectorate.  Japan 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, North Korea invaded South Korea 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 Koreas close to the 38th Parallel.  South Korea however did not sign the armistice agreement and the agreement was never followed by a peace treaty.  The two Koreas therefore continue to remain technically at war since June 1950.

[1] Its successor state is the modern day China


North Korea
The North Korean regime is a totalitarian dictatorship that has outlasted its foundational supporter, the Soviet Union.  It has been on a deathwatch since 1991 [1] and more so since the death of Kim Il-Sung in July 1994, its former President and father of the current President, Kim Il-Jong (KJI).  Those who predicted its imminent demise have had a lot of explaining to do.  Perhaps they were right though if one were to think of demise as a process as opposed to an event.

North Korea is ruled by one of the most isolated regimes in the world today.  It maintains clandestine relationships [2] with Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen and enjoys the diplomatic support of Cuba and Venezuela.  In 1992, China replaced the Soviet Union as its principal backer.  While China’s support has kept the regime alive, it has been insufficient to allow it to adapt or expand.

In recent history no totalitarian regime has survived for long - some have adapted (China, late 1970s), some disintegrated following failed reforms (Soviet Union, 1988-1991), some were overthrown (Romania, 1980s) and some remained in suspended animation prior to collapse (Albania, late 1970s - early 1990s).  The North Korean regime seeks to adapt.  To this end, North Korea has two principal goals - admission into the international trading system and retention of the internal power structure [3].

The normalization of trade links will prevent an economic implosion and grant the regime an implicit legitimacy.  South Korea, Japan and the West have however steadfastly maintained that democratization is a prerequisite for trade normalization.  Besides this insistence, North Korea has a paranoid fear that the US would attack it to affect a regime change.  To remove this fear, it has repeatedly asked the US for a bilateral pact of nonaggression since the early 1990s.  The US has however refused to consider such a pact [4].  To expand its bargaining space in international negotiations, North Korea has therefore vigorously pursued a nuclear weapons program for over 15 years now and has engaged in clandestine trade in missile technologies.  This has allowed it to extract hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid since the early 1990s for its punctuated display of good behavior. 
The regime’s seemingly irrational behavior and frequent reneging on its international commitments can be explained by the hypothesis that it intends to highlight its nuisance potential as a bargaining chip in order to achieve its two principal goals.  The North Korean regime thinks it can do this without attracting military retribution as it knows it cannot push it too hard (as long as it is backed by China or another major power) as else that would plunge the Korean Peninsula into geopolitical instability [5].  At the same time, this puts a bound on the perceived irrationality of the North Korean regime.

[1] The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
[2] These mainly relate to trade in missile and nuclear weapons technologies.
[3] These are no different from what China has pursued over the past 30 years and met with remarkable success.
[4] US’ mutual defense treaties with Japan and South Korea obligate it to defend these two countries against external aggression.  North Korea has repeatedly threatened war against Japan and South Korea.  Thus, a US-North Korea nonaggression pact will seriously undermine the credibility of US’ mutual defense treaties.
[5] Beyond its weapons of mass destruction, North Korea’s naval and air forces pose little threat.  However it maintains a formidable army comprising 1.2 million active personnel and nearly 10 million in reserves.

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 China, have viewed its relationship with the Korean peninsula since 1870s, and with good reason.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 produced an outward-looking, modern industrial state of Japan [1].  In 1876, Japan 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 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 World War II, Japan adopted a pacifist constitution [2]China however continues to view the Korean Peninsula through the prism of the teeth and lips metaphor, with the US replacing Japan as the potential threat.  China’s principal goal in the Korean Peninsula is the maintenance of the status quo whereby the peninsula remains partitioned between the two Koreas.  The reason for this is that the status quo puts a buffer between China and the 30,000 US troops stationed in South Korea [3].  It additionally permits China to focus on Taiwan 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 Japan.  The status quo is beneficial from an economic perspective as well since a reunification would deprive China of a significant portion of the FDI from South Korea as these funds would flow into the impoverished North.

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 US led allies.  Therefore we expect that China would exercise the leverage of its considerable economic, diplomatic and defense linkages with North Korea to talk it down should it appear that the latter’s antics might force a showdown.

[1] 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.
[2] Article 9 of the Japanese constitution specifically prohibits Japan from maintaining armed forces with war potential or using threat or force to settle international disputes.
[3] China expects that a reunified Korea would fall squarely within the American sphere of influence.  And in the unlikely case that it allies with China, the reunification will trigger a rapid nuclearization of Japan.  Thus from the China’s perspective, two Koreas in the peninsula are eminently more desirable than one.

South Korea
South Korea’s view on matters relating to North Korea is rooted in the relatively recent history of the region; the animosity between the Peninsular elites was pretty much a result of the superpower rivalry that followed World War II as the victorious powers competed to redefine their spheres of influences.

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 South Korea killed over 350,000 Koreans of which 140,000 were South Korean citizens.
·       1950-till date: North Korea has been unwilling to give up the use of force to achieve a Korean reunification.
·       1953-early 2000s: North Korea 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.
·       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 North Korea from the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
·       1990s-till date: North Korean has repeatedly threatened South Korea with the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict between the two.

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, North Korea will become even more unstable in the coming years.  An unstable North Korea is much more likely to launch into war against the South [1].  Even if North Korea does not initiate a war, destabilization would cause millions of refugees to pour into South Korea, a situation that the latter is ill-prepared to handle.  An economic implosion would do the same and therefore preventing an economic implosion in North Korea is important to the South.  The second goal relates to the issue of abductees and is important from the viewpoint of eventual reunification.

[1] North Korea maintains a formidable army and a growing array of weapons of mass destruction.

Japan has come a long way from viewing the Korean peninsula as a source of natural resources and as a base point for launching military attacks into China.  It however remains deeply concerned about North Korea’s increasingly threatening posture, particularly as the latter continues to expand its array of weapons of mass destruction.  Japan sees increasing democratization and an increasing respect for human rights in North Korea as important to its own security.  Beyond that, Japan’s key goal vis-à-vis North Korea is a verifiable and non-reversible roll back in the latter’s nuclear weapons and missile capabilities.  Achieving this goal would make Japan risk neutral to the future evolution of North Korea - an unstable North Korea would not be in a position to inflict serious harm as the Japanese mainland is separated from North Korea by at least 600km of sea.  In the alternative case that the two Koreas reunify, Japan would not face a nuclear-armed successor state.

The Soviet Union’s interest in the Korean Peninsula 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 North Korea.

In the modern context however, Russia’s contribution is no longer the major component in North Korea’s aid package.  The size of North Korea’s trade relations with Russia is an insignificant fraction of its total trade.  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 Russia’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 North Korea would require a positive vote from Russia.

While Russia generally agrees with the international community that respect for human rights and greater societal openness is important in North Korea, 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.

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 United States concerning strategic weapons deployment.

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.

First, North Korea has a paranoid distrust of the US.  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, North Korea 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.

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 [1]

[1] 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.

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 Korean Peninsula (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 Koreas.  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.

Flare-ups Since the 1953 Armistice

·       1968: North Korean patrol boats seize a U.S. ship that was on an intelligence mission and hold its crew, including 80 officers, captive for 11 months.
·       Jan 19, 1968: North Korean army unit enters Seoul 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.
·       Apr 15, 1969: A US Navy reconnaissance plane was shot down over the East Sea by a North Korean MiG-17 aircraft killing all 31 Americans on board.
·       1974: North Korean agents kill South Korea’s first lady in their second attempt to assassinate President Park [1].
·       1993: Just two years after the dissolution of its major backer, the Soviet Union, North Korea withdraws from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and prevents international inspectors from reaching the Yongbyon nuclear plant.
·       1996: A North Korea submarine runs aground the South Korea’s coast.  The manhunt for the sub’s crew kills 24 North Koreans and 13 South Koreans.
·       1999: Sea skirmish between North and South Korea navies leaves dozens of North Korean personnel dead.
·       2001: President Bush halts all diplomatic talks with North Korea claiming evidence that the latter was attempting to enrich Uranium.
·       2002: 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 US oil shipments to the North.  North Korea retaliates by reactivating the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and (again) expelling all nuclear weapons inspectors.
·       Oct 9, 2006: North Korea conducts its first nuclear test.
·       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 Koreas to the North’s compliance in the ongoing process of denuclearization. The North reacts furiously and cuts off all official dialogue.
·       May 25, 2009: North Korea conducts its second nuclear test.

[1] Ironically, President Park was assassinated in Oct 1979 by Kim Jaegyu, the director of the (South) Korean CIA.

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 ChinaRussia remains aloof though occasionally use its weight in international affairs to limit internationally coordinated measures against the North from going too far.  Japan 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 [1].

With the knowledge that it cannot be pushed too hard, North Korea 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.

[1] Dick K. Nanto and Emma Chanlett-Avery, “North Korea: Economic Leverage and Policy Analysis,” Congressional Research Service, Jan 22, 2010.

Will the Peninsula Heat Up Further?
A nuclear armed North Korea is unacceptable to the US.  However a rollback need not be achieved with the current regime.  In fact rollbacks in the past, most notably in South Africa and Brazil, 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 [1].  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.

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 North Korea push before war descends on the Korean peninsula?  These questions are more interesting.

[1] 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.

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