Random posts on all sorts of things designed to inform and provoke.
The increasing terse back and forth between North and South Korean leaders has raised alarms in the world’s diplomatic centers and press rooms. While there is always a slight chance this verbal conflict will expand into something more physical, it’s more likely this tête-à-tête is largely due to new leadership in both countries setting up a baseline for future dealings. Consequently, this crisis – in its current iteration – is unlikely to venture beyond words and token actions to something more substantive.
The most recent iteration of this longstanding quarrel between the two Koreas began on 12 February when North Korea announced it had conducted an underground nuclear test – its third in seven years. Reacting to this test, Japan summoned an emergency meeting of the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) and South Korea raised the alert status of its military.
The UNSC subsequently imposed new sanctions on North Korea causing Pyongyang to threaten not just South Korea but also the United States. Furthermore, the North also nullified the 60 year old Korean War armistice and discontinued the Red Cross hot line between the two countries.
Tensions also rose as South Korea and the United States began their annual military exercises – mirrored by those in North Korea. While it’s unclear how many North Korean troops are participating in their drills, the US-South Korean exercises, which, in one form or another, will continue for the next two months, involve 2,500 US and 10,000 South Korean troops.
Consequently, I project tensions will continue for the next two months but its unlikely any significant violent incident will take place between the two countries. I base my assessment on a number of factors, the first of which is the current state of the North-South border, which, despite higher tensions, remains peaceful.
Furthermore, nationals from both countries continue to commute to the Gaesong Industrial Complex – operated in and by a largely North Korean workforce but funded by South Korea – signaling the current nature of this crisis is more verbal than explicit.
The next question then is what caused this bellicosity between the two countries. To begin with, both nations have relatively new leadership. South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, recently held her inaugural cabinet meeting while North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un continues to try and live up to his father’s legacy (such as it was).
It’s most likely the latter leader supported the test and reaction to the military exercises largely to consolidate his support among the military and the country’s elite. The South’s reaction is due to the new leader’s acknowledgement that she has to project strength particularly since North Korea already “got away” with an artillery attack on a border island in 2010 that killed four South Koreans.
Hence Seoul’s comment that if a nuclear weapon was used on it, the North’s government would “evaporate from the face of the Earth.” However, reflecting the need for balance, the prime minister also said her government was working to build “trust” with its neighbor.
Externally, China continues to be the most influential player in this scenario. While its support for Pyongyang remains unvarnished, Beijing’s decision to support the UNSC’s sanctions gives some insight into how its strategic outlook may affect this longstanding relationship.
Reports state that China’s strategic plan is based on a growing economy. This, obviously, depends on a stable international environment – especially in its own neighborhood. Consequently, Beijing will not support any action by any nation that affects this plan.
Furthermore, China is well aware of the US’ pivot to Asia and knows that North Korea’s actions give Washington more reasons to increase its presence in the region. This reduces Chinese influence and is something the government does not want.
Finally, Japanese Prime Minister Abe has already increased his defense budget and more provocation by Pyongyang will give him more reasons to continue on this path. Given that China and Japan continue to argue over islands in the East and South China seas, the last thing Beijing wants is a stronger Japanese security presence.
China’s displeasure with Pyongyang could be delivered through a number of channels such as its political support in international forums, supplies of resources (such as food, energy and/or funds) or trade. The challenge, however, will be to find a balance between supporting the international community’s goals and North Korea’s concerns because otherwise Beijing will be left in the middle of no man’s land.
The bottom-line is that the current crisis between the two Koreas is unlikely to result in any significant military reaction. Even if there is an attack, it will be similar to the one in 2010 (not too significant) and its impact will depend entirely on reaction from South Korea and China.
The tensions will likely continue for the next few months – at least until the end of the military exercises. However, pressure from both allies and opponents, and possible carrots could easily resolve this situation.