Korean Peninsula Potential Flashpoint And Source Of Insecurity Politics Essay

Twenty years after the cold war ended, there seems to be no end to a war that that was fought sixty years ago in Korea. While the Berlin wall fell, the 38th parallel still divides the Korean peninsula not just into two countries but arguably into two worlds. The region is now the last battle field in a war which ended a long time ago.

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Bleiker (2001, page 122) writes, “…after the collapse of global Cold War power structures, the Korean Peninsula remains hermetically divided along the 38th parallel. The presence of weapons of mass destruction, combined with a hostile Cold War rhetoric and the intersection of great-power interests, have created an ever-present danger of military confrontation. Nearly 2 million troops face each other across the demilitarized zone (DMZ).Conventional security approaches based on deterrence have failed to bring lasting security to the region”

This essay aims to look at the reasons, why the Korean Peninsula is still after all these years considered to be such a potential ‘flashpoint’ and source of insecurity in the region and internationally? And what are the prospects for reconciliation? The essay also looks at the reason why United States has approached the problem diplomatically rather than take a military position similar to the one it took in Iraq in 2003. For the purposes of this essay, the focus will largely be on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea. The reason for this is the general assumption is that the North Korea, is usually, considered to be the source of the instability in the regime. Smith, (2000, p. 594) has argued how the dominant approaches to North Korea have been its image as being ‘mad’ and ‘bad’. Even though Smith has argued that, most of the perceptions about North Korea are exaggerated, North Korea later tested Nuclear weapons, which caused unease in the region and led to UN sanctions against it.

Korean Peninsula: Threat Perceptions and Areas of Concern

More than a million people were killed (Nils Petter Gleditsch et al, (2002) P. 623) and an estimated 10 million individuals separated from their families across the borders (Foley, 2003, P. 48) during the three year Korean War. Bruce Cumings ( cited by Roland, 2001, P. 125) notes, “The tragedy is not even the war itself, for it could have solved – as many civil wars do – some of the political tensions that existed in Korea during the 1940s and early 1950s – tensions that were unusually high and linked to such issues as colonial legacies, foreign intervention and national division.” The tragedy, according to Cumings, was ‘that the war solved nothing’, but restores the status quo and set the stage for a volatile future”.

Since then attempts to resolve the Korean issue through either of military deterrence or diplomacy have been failures. The past sixty years of antagonistic relations and negative image on both side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has, in Moon Chung-in’s words (citied in Roland, 2001, P. 125) ‘driven North and South Korea into the trapping structure of a vicious cycle of actions and reactions’. Rolad has argued that this antagonist relationship pushed the region into an arms race that has caused both sides to be exposed to violence. This violence had taken many forms including North Korea’s carrying out of alleged terrorist activities against South Korea (National Police Agency, Japan, Sourced from the website npa.go.jp) and South Korea’s alleged 500,000 cease fire violations (Moon citied by Roland, 2001, p. 125). South Korea’s yearly joint military exercises with the US Army, entitled Team Spirit, have traditionally revolved around an unnecessarily aggressive north bound military scenario (Moon citied by Roland, 2001, p.125).

However, the greatest reason for insecurity from North Korea in the region is the nature of the regime in the North Korea. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is run under a one party system by the elusive Kim Il Jung, who took over from his father Kim Il Sung, who founded the DPRK. Indications are that the Kim Il Jung’s Youngest son will take over from his father (Beaumont, 2010, sourced from Guardian.co.uk). But it is not the hierarchical communist dynasty, which is the sole source of the worry.
Smith (2000, p.594) claims that security paradigms around the North Korea come from the “image” of North Korea in International politics is that of a “mad” and “bad” actor. Smith argues that North Korea is considered by many countries to “bad” or inherently “evil” because of its prioritising of army over civilians during the Korean food crisis. She also argues that the North Korean establishment is also considered “mad” by many analysts especially within the US policy establishment. Even though Smith argues that this approach has anomalies, aspects of the North Korean State like the personality cult around Kim Il Jung ( Macintyre, 2002, Sourced from time.com) do nothing to assuage the security concerns in the region.
Berger (2000, p. 413) argues that according to a realist view of the Asia pacific, ” North Korea would appear to be the only power in the region that might be tempted to challenge the United States. The Steady decline of North Korean Power relative to the south gives it a strong structural incentive to strike before the balance of Power becomes even more unfavourable.” But Berger also argues that North Korea, would not use its military power for any military purposes but for getting more aid from the rest of the world.
The constant militarization on both sides and constant fears of an imminent attack has made not only the two Koreas but also other countries in the region insecure. The increased reliance on six party multilateral talks reflects the same concern in the region.

To top it all, North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear technology combined with its ballistic missile technology have made much of the region vulnerable. Lee (2001, p.86) wrote before North Korea conducted its Nuclear weapon testing that, “Left unchecked, North Korea’s growing ballistic missile capabilities could have significant repercussions for US and South Korean defence plans, long-term strategic stability in Northeast Asia, alliance cohesion, and ongoing confidence-building measures (CBM) such as the four-party talks. Moreover, at a time when several East Asian countries are continuing with selective power projection programs including ballistic and cruise missiles, North Korea’s ballistic missile threat could spur a new and dangerous arms race.”

North Korea’s ballistic missiles are already capable of hitting not only Seoul but also all aprts of japan and have been working actively on getting the western coast of the United States in its range. Lee, (2001, P.87-88) claims that

“North Korea has the capability to hit all major targets in South Korea and Japan, and if it successfully develops a longer range missile such as the Taepodong-2, even parts of the United States. In considering future conflict scenarios or major political-military crises on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s ballistic missiles must be factored into the equation. From Pyongyang’s perspective, its missiles provide a strategic buffer against a worsening ‘correlation of forces’ and also as a shield against external pressures such as the cumulative effects of globalization.”

Korea’s methods of obtaining both missile and nuclear technology have been dubious and have always been seen under a shadow of doubt and are considered to be willing to proliferation of nuclear weapons (Howard, 2004, p. 809). At least part of their Nuclear technology was sourced from Pakistan through the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan (2005, Sourced from bbc.co.uk). North Korea is also seen as major threat for the non proliferation regime. News Reports have been suggesting that North Korea might be selling nuclear technology to another military regime, Mayanmar (Sciutto, 2009, sourced from abcnews.com).

The situation is more complicated by repeated failure of dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. Both the sides seem unrelenting in their stands and in effect maintaining status quo. Lately there has been talk of reinstating North Korea on USA’s sponsors of State terrorism list barely a couple of years after the then President Bush removed Korea from the State department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism in 2008, as a part of an agreement with the North Koreans on the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. (Niksch, 2001, P.2)

At the heart of the insecurity in the region, especially within the United States is North Korea’s nuclear status.

North Korea’s nuclear program had been in focus since a long time. North Korea along with Iran and Iraq were a part of President Bush’s “axis of evil.” ( Litwak, R S, 2003-04,P.8) and as such comparisons between the International response to North Korea, Iraq and Iran’s nuclear program are inevitable. But the approach to all the countries has been widely different.

The Bush Doctrine, which called for pre-emptive action against any potential threat to US security, was used to justify the Iraq invasion and the subsequent toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime. While at the same time, the Bush and later the Obama administration continued to indulge in a bitter war of words with Iran over their nuclear program, a more conciliatory tone was taken with North Korea.

It can however also be argued that the American invasion of Iraq might have also contributed in the North Korean Nuclear effort by making North Korea wary of suffering a similar fate as that of Iraq.

This had raised many questions about the nature of engagement that the United states has with the North Korea. While Howard ( 2004, p. 805) argues that the answer lies in “a language-based constructivist approach” and makes a persuasive argument about the disperencies in the US foreign policy approach towards north Korea, Iran and Iraq.

But there is also another possible argument which derives from realist theory; I would argue that even though North Korea remains inimical to the United States interests and peace in the region, it is serves also as a tactical and strategic advantage for the United States. It serves as buffer against the rising Chinese power in the region.

An unstable or at least an unpredictable North Korea, would keep China worried in the region and hamper its regional hegemonic ambitions. Even though China is one of the oldest allies of North Korea, it has been worried about the nuclear arsenal of its eastern neighbour. This was evident when China supported sanctions on North Korea after it tested Nuclear weapons in 2005 and then in 2009. (Bajoria, 2009, sourced from crf.org).

Furthermore, when compared to Iraq and Iran, both countries with rich energy resources in the politically volatile but energy rich Middle East, North Korea remains in self imposed exile from rest of the world.

Even Though North Korea has the one of the largest standing armies in the world at around one million soldiers, it does not pose an immediate security risk to the United States or United States interests at least not directly, its chances of attacking any other country especially the United States remain slim, not the least because of the precocious nature of the regime and its economy. But at the same time even as a friend, the Kim Il Jong remains a threat to China. This I would argue, sits comfortably with the US policy of trying to ‘contain China’ without needing to be in direct confrontation with it.

Another reason, why the United States has been taking conciliatory steps with regards to North Korea, is that as early as 2003, US had intelligence the North Koreans had nuclear capability. (Howard, 2004, P. 806) this was later proved to be true after the North Korea tested its nuclear weapons in 2005 and again 2009. Any attack on the North Koreans, would risk a Nuclear Strike on the American forces stationed is Seoul and Japan.

Prospects for peace

Peace in the Korean peninsula remains a relative question. If we define peace as the absence of hostilities, then the Korean Peninsula is likely to remain peaceful for the next few years, provided nothing foreseen happens. But at the same time, if the high levels of nuclear threat and two large armies facing each other in a constant state are taken into consideration, then the Korea remains one of the most unsafe areas in the world today.

One of the most common ideas for bringing about peace in the Korean peninsula is of regime change in North Korea. While idea has always been attractive to a the United States, (Litwack, 2003, p.8), it can now be assumed safely that since the North Korea acquired Nuclear weapons, any such move would be foolhardy. Even without the Nuclear weapons, a regime change in North Korea, which would be engineered from outside, would be extremely costly for the region, given the DPRK’s access to ballistic missile technology. Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles serve the same purpose for the North Korean regime, Survival. Lee (2001, p. 88) writes that “Seoul and Washington wanted to avert two worst-case scenarios – a nuclear-armed North Korea and the outbreak of conflict on the peninsula.” Their hopes for the first were frustrated by the Nuclear tests by North Korea, however, Most of the countries in the region are trying to maintain the second condition, that of maintain peace in the region.

Although negotiations continue and in probability will continue, prospects for a resolution of the Korean peninsula remain slim given that North Korean regime has a better bargaining chip for aid through nuclear weapons.

The nuclear weapons have also ensured that South Korea or the United States cannot contemplate an Iraq like pre-emptive military option against Pyongyang.

However Nuclear weapons are not the only reason why the United States cannot go military at this time against Pyongyang. Domestic compulsions in the United States resulting from a shrunken economy and the two expensive drawn out wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have also ruled out any military action from the United States or South Korea.

The political and military costs of coercive strategies and the high costs of pre emptive strikes have made sure that multilateral diplomacy has taken the fore front. Kerr (2005, 411-13) says that even though the United States has become so powerful that all international politics is seen through the prism of US interests, The Korean peninsula is the one place where “concert diplomacy” has replaced the hegemonic approach.

This approach, given the present situation scenario represents the best chance that the peninsula has of getting a peaceful few years, but whether this approach can bring lasting peace with all actors acting in their own interest is in doubt.

Chances of Re-unification

Re-unification of the Korean peninsula has been the stated aim of both Koreas, though with radically different visions. But even though the economic costs of the reunification of the 11th biggest economy with one of the poorest countries in the world will be huge, reunification remains a fundamental issue in Korean identity. Roland (2001, p.123) argues that most analysts ignore the question of Korean identity, “To be more precise, the present security dilemmas can be seen as emerging from a fundamental but largely ignored tension between the idea of Korean identity and its rather different practical application. A strong, almost mythical vision of homogeneity permeates both parts of Korea. It portrays the division of the peninsula as a temporary disruption of Korean identity and assumes that unification will eventually recover the lost national unity.”

Roland argues that the ‘mythical homogeneity’ and ‘actual animosity’ between the two Koreas contains, “the key to understanding both the sources of the existing conflict and the potential for a more peaceful peninsula.”

Kihl (2002, p.9) writes, “Toward the end of the 19th century, the Korean people were caught in the shifting balance of power among the major powers surrounding the peninsula. Today, though, Korea is not a weak and inconsequential state to be sacrificed on the altar of power politics, and the ongoing process of inter-Korean rapprochement and cooperation may end in an eventual reunification of the country further down the road.”


The Korean peninsula represents many security challenges not the least of which are nuclear proliferation concerns. It also presents other security challenges including human security and economic security within North Korea.

Given the diplomatic sparring incidents between China and United States in the recent months, Korea remains at a risk of re-enactment of the Korean War with far more disastrous consequences. But the possibility of a nuclear war has probably made the region and the world more concerned about a armed confrontation in the region. But one thing that remains integral to any solution for the Korean crisis is the reunification of the Korea.