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Security and Politics on the Korean Peninsula: Constantly Changing or Forever Constant?

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Security and Politics on the Korean Peninsula: Constantly Changing or Forever Constant?
Victor D. Cha *
Georgetown University
September 2001

Security and Politics on the Korean Peninsula: Constantly Changing or Forever Constant? (Full Text, PDF, 35 pages, 71 KB)

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Introduction: A critical point in time?.

"Forever constant" used to be the preferred adjective for describing Korean security. 1 For decades one could assert without fear of contradiction that, since the Panmunjom armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953, the Cold War standoff between the major powers in the region and the spectacular estrangement between the two Koreas meant that nothing had changed. Korea remained conspicuously untouched by the wave of change brought by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and often dismissed as hopelessly locked in the time warp of the Cold War. 2 Conventional wisdom and theories that described this stagnant situation remained unchallenged: the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea (DPRK) was a reclusive, opaque and threatening regime; unification would come through victory of one side over the other (songong t'ongil); and the United States-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance remained the bedrock of security on the peninsula. A bizarre form of stability grew out of this dangerous yet fundamentally unchanged situation, enduring until the 1990s.

Then in a space of five years a chain of unprecedented events took place. DPRK leader Kim Il-sung died in 1994, leaving a bankrupt economy to his son, Kim Jong-il, a mysterious and untested quantity. Famine conditions and a burgeoning ballistic missile capability raised concerns that the forty-year old stalemate on the peninsula might end in either a North Korean implosion or explosion. The standoff over the North's nuclear program reached the brink of war in June 1994, only to be averted by the Agreed Framework and a new path of U.S.-DPRK engagement. During this same period, the ROK peaked in its postwar development in 1997 with membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only to plummet a year later in economic crisis and become an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout recipient. ROK president Kim Dae-jung, meanwhile, embarked on a new "sunshine" policy aimed at promoting engagement with the North and shedding the isolation and non-dialogue of the Cold War, which culminated in the historic and unprecedented summit between the two Korean leaders in Pyongyang in June 2000 (see Addendum 1). Riding the momentum of this event, the U.S. promptly lifted some sanctions against the DPRK, and Japan sought to resume a long-suspended dialogue on normalization of relations. Jubilance and talk of peaceful unification, as well as murmurs about the "anachronistic" U.S.-ROK alliance, filled the air in Seoul. According to polls taken in the summer of 2000, 90 percent of South Koreans now have a positive image of North Korea and its leadership. An astounding 53 percent of this population — a group that traditionally identified their existence and legitimacy in opposition to the North Korean military threat — now dismiss the possibility of another DPRK invasion. 3

What is one to make of these changes? Is Korea close to unification and an end to the Cold War stalemate? Are many of the conventional truisms about security and politics on the Korean peninsula suddenly on the verge of being overturned? Or does continuity still obtain on the peninsula? This essay begs these sorts of questions by highlighting the theme of constancy on the peninsula. While there has been some change, a great deal has remained the same; moreover, where significant change has taken place on the peninsula, the nature of it has often been misunderstood or overstated in the public debate. I make this argument by debunking three "myths" that have emerged in recent reassessments of conventional thinking on security and politics. These myths relate to the nature of the North Korean threat, the unification issue, and the future of the U.S.-ROK alliance.


Overview of Events: Security and the North Korean Threat

"The bad has only gotten worse" typifies the thinking on the evolution of the North Korean threat. During the Cold War, the threat was that of another attempt by the North to overtake the peninsula by conventional ground force invasion. 4 In the post-Cold War era, it is argued, this threat has been supplemented by potential ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threats. This augmentation of capabilities has occurred with no apparent amelioration of the DPRK's aggressive intentions and is shrouded behind an even darker veil of uncertainty regarding the unpredictability and potential irrationality of the Kim Jong-il regime.

This is a credible assessment. At the same time, though, it appears inconsistent with debates that rage in Washington, Tokyo and Seoul over whether to engage or contain North Korea 5 . That such a vigorous debate exists reveals not consensus but the absence of agreement on the nature of the DPRK threat. In actuality, the DPRK threat is substantively different today than it was during the Cold War.

a Marine corps included
b One missile division included
c Mobile and combat brigades such as infantry, mechanized infantry, tank, special warfare, patrol, marine, and assault brigades included; combat support brigades excluded
d Includes rockets, guided weapons, and MRLS
e Includes about 170 Surface Patrol Boat Forces
f Includes 40 Sang-0-class submersibles
g Includes North Korean helicopters operated by air force
h Includes eighth year reservists
i Includes Reserve Military Training Unit, Worker/Peasant Red Guards, Red Youth Guards and social security agents Source: Ministry of National Defense, The Republic of Korea, Defense White Paper, 1999, p. 245.

If an adversary's threat is measured as an aggregate of intentions, military and economic capabilities, domestic-political stability, and support from allies, then the North Korean threat was indeed formidable during the Cold War. 6 The U.S. and ROK faced a well-trained DPRK conventional force; an economy by that by CIA estimates rivaled, if not surpassed, its southern counterpart in GNP per capita; and the support provided by the economic patronage and security guarantees of China and the Soviet Union. Following the Cold War, however, the "threat" defined in these terms has been greatly reduced. DPRK military training and readiness has been undercut sharply by fuel shortages and falling morale. Its economy is bankrupt, experiencing real negative growth for nine consecutive years, and its society faces chronic energy shortfalls and near-famine conditions. Most important, it has lost Soviet and Chinese patronage.

Source: ROK Ministry of Unification, Korea Institute for National Unification, Annual Report 2000: The Unification Environment and Relations Between South and North Korea (2000), p. 72.

The upshot is that the traditional DPRK threat assessment has been rendered virtually obsolete. U.S. and ROK forces are more than capable of deterring and, if necessary, defending and rolling back a North Korean advance, essentially making North Korean contemplation of such an act suicidal. 7

WMD Proliferation Concerns

Does this mean we can relax, leaving fears of North Korea only to Pentagon-related threat-inflaters? 8 On the contrary, threats still exist and renewed hostility is still possible. But the nature of the problem has changed in two areas: proliferation and bargaining leverage. Regarding the former, since the early 1980s the DPRK ballistic missile program has produced a range of missile systems, either deployed or tested, demonstrating progress beyond most expectations. Despite its dire material constraints, the North accomplished this largely through reverse-engineering of SCUD-B missile technology acquired from the Soviet Union. 9

Source: Compiled from Center for Nonproliferation Studies Joseph Cirincione, "Assessing the Assessment: The 1999 National Intelligence Estimate of the Ballistic Missile Threat," Nonproliferation Review (Spring 2000); and William Carpenter and David Wiencek, eds., Asian Security Handbook (NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996), p. 67.

The August 1998 test flight of the Taepodong-1 over Japan (albeit a failed 3-stage payload launch) demonstrated an unexpected leap in the North's intermediate-range ballistic missile technology. In defiance of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) norms, North Korea has been the most active producer and provider of SCUD missiles and related technology to Iran, Syria, and Pakistan, and concerns abound regarding future proliferation of longer-range systems. 10 Mated with the missile program have been dedicated DPRK efforts at acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. Originating in an agreement on the peaceful uses of atomic energy with the Soviet Union dating from the 1960s that endowed the North with a basic understanding of nuclear physics, engineering and reactor operations, Pyongyang's nuclear industry became capable of supporting a complete nuclear fuel cycle by the 1980s. An initial small nuclear research reactor was subsequently followed by an operational five-megawatt reactor and construction of fifty- and 200-megawatt reactors that presaged an annual reprocessed plutonium production capacity that could sustain in excess of ten nuclear weapons. While these activities remain frozen and are subject to dismantling as a result of the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, suspicions remain regarding the North's plutonium reprocessing history, alleged covert activities outside Yongbyon, and possible possession of crude nuclear devices. 11


Theoretical Relevance: Deterrence and Coercive Bargaining Strategies

The second major change with regard to peninsular security has been subtle but very significant changes to the logic of deterrence. The most worrisome contingency is no longer all-out invasion, but limited acts of belligerence by the North for the purpose of coercive bargaining. By virtually every conceivable calculation of the relative military balance on the Korean Peninsula today, U.S.-ROK defense capabilities overwhelm those of the DPRK, rendering nil the probability of a successful second DPRK offensive.

Source: Ministry of National Defense, The Republic of Korea, Defense White Paper, 1999, p. 33.

Moreover, standing U.S. war plans (Operation plan 5027) promise that any DPRK attempt to replay June 1950 would be met not just with swift defense but a comprehensive and decisive counter-offensive aimed at extinguishing the North Korean regime. 12 Hence, U.S.-ROK deterrence and containment force postures and doctrine deal with the contingency of all-out invasion very well.What is less clear is how effective this strategy is in dealing with limited uses of force by the North to coerce better bargaining positions. Since the end of the Cold War, Pyongyang's modus operandi has been to undertake acts of belligerence that violate the peace and disrupt the status quo, usually highlighting some grievance the DPRK holds. Each individual action is severe enough to raise concerns that it might be the precursor to a larger conflict, but at the same time, the individual violent act alone does not warrant all-out retaliation by the U.S. and ROK. Washington and Seoul are thus manipulated into the awkward position of wanting to punish North Korea for its misbehavior, but also fearing an unnecessary and costly escalation to a larger conflict. The response that obtains is therefore to renegotiate a new status quo, coupled with a token verbal denouncement of or sanction against the initial act.

From Pyongyang's perspective, the objective of this strategy is not to win militarily, but rather to initiate a coercive bargaining process that eventuates in a new negotiation outcome better than the status quo ex ante. This is a dangerous and destabilizing strategy, but it is the sort of high-stakes game that Pyongyang adeptly plays. Two observations about such a strategy require emphasizing: first, basic containment postures designed to deter all-out invasion may not be as effective in discouraging the limited use of force, and; second, and most important, the resort to force under such a strategy is rational. Even if objective factors weigh wholly against military success, the incentive to undertake a belligerent act is still rational because of the anticipated benefits of renegotiating a new status quo more in line with one's interests. 13

The naval altercation off the west coast of the peninsula in June 1999 offered an ominous precedent. Several North Korean patrol boats entered intotransgressed South Korean territorial waters, prompting the ROK Navy to ram the trespassers and leading to an exchange of fire that left twenty to thirty North Koreans dead. This constituted one of the largest losses of life in an altercation since the 1953 armistice, and was a clear demonstration of the ROK's superior naval combat capabilities and training. What grabbed the headlines were the military clash itself and subsequent criticism of the evidently futile engagement policies with the North. But few really stopped to ask why the North took such actions knowing full well it could not win in a naval altercation with the ROK. One could explain these actions as: 1) an underestimation of ROK naval capabilities and resolve, or; 2) plain irrationality. But the most likely explanation lay in a coercive bargaining rationale for hostility. In other words, dissatisfaction with the status quo made it rational for the North to instigate hostile acts even though the objective chance of prevailing was nil. A limited disruption of the status quo (even while incurring substantial losses) thereby enables the North to seek the renegotiation of a new status quo hopefully more in line with its own interests. In the west coast incident, this had to do with the validity of the Northern Limitation Line (NLL) maritime border between South and North Korea. 14 But in other circumstances, it could be several artillery shells or one chemically-armed short-range missile fired into the South (and if possible at a non-American target). The DPRK cannot win a confrontation, but this act could still be rational in the sense that it would not be severe enough to prompt all-out war but would cause enough chaos to raise incentives on the peninsula to renegotiate a new status quo possibly more favorable to DPRK interests. Again, such an act would not be based on a rationale of winning but one of avoiding further loss. Like the gambler who can't catch a break, the more desperate North Korea becomes, the more risk-acceptant it becomes, and the greater the danger of limited uses of force for coercive bargaining.

The upshot of this for American security interests is that the "threat" posed by North Korea is inherently more complex and problematic than it was during the Cold War. While continued deterrence of a traditional ground invasion is undoubtedly still needed, the more salient question concerns what, in addition to baseline containment, is necessary to deal with these problems of proliferation and coercive bargaining. Current strategies of the U.S., ROK, and Japan emphasize engagement layered on top of containment and nonproliferation sanctions, while alternative policies include containment-plus-isolation (practiced during the Cold War) and containment-plus-coercion with regard to the proliferation threat. 15 Whichever one's preference, the point to be noted is that, contrary to popular perception, the June 2000 Korea summit's effect on this threat assessment, at least initially, has been minimal. The potential threats, hence the need to address them, remain, however positive the summit's dynamics and their soothing effects on South Korean public opinion. According to the logic laid out above, the true test of whether the new confidence is justified is not a function of warm toasts, embraces, and other such positive atmospherics but the extent to which material improvements in the North's situation give it more to lose in coercive bargaining attempts, thereby rendering the policy unattractive.



Note 1: An earlier and different version of this paper was presented at the Flashpoints in Asia Conference, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA, May 12, 2000. The author thanks Avery Goldstein, Roy Kim, Samuel Kim, and Alfred Wilhelm for comments.Back.

Note 2: As Secretary of State Albright once stated, "I've always described the DMZ as being on the other side of the moon....It's the last vestige of the Cold War" (quoted in Korea Times, 21 June 2000 ["Albright to Assess Post-Summit Koreas"]).Back.

Note 3: See Choson Ilbo-Korea Gallup and Hankook Ilbo-Media Research polling results reported in Korea Herald, 19 June 2000 ("Summit talks greatly improve image of Kim Jong-il among South Koreans").Back.

Note 4: For historical debates on the extent to which the Korean War was a civil conflict, see Cumings 1981, Whiting 1960, Weathersby 1993, Christensen 1996, and Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue 1995. Back.

Note 5: Arguments against engagement focus on its futility in the face of DPRK intransigence. In short, the regime is still bent on subverting the South and will not change in this objective. It will not respond positively to conciliatory gestures by Seoul. Rather, it will perceive such gestures as signs of weakness, which in turn will reinforce the position of hardliners in Pyongyang. As a result, cooperative behavior is best elicited through containment policies that, in conjunction with the North's dire internal situation, press the regime to capitulate. Pro-engagement arguments start from many of the same premises but reach different conclusions. The Northern regime is in dire straits, but hard-line containment is likely to elicit rash and dangerous reactions rather than conciliatory ones. The primary obstacle to North-South dialogue is no longer the Cold War, but the legacies of this four-decade struggle manifest in deeply-rooted mutual distrust and animosity. Conciliatory acts help to dissipate these barriers and open a road to confidence-building. Containment, on the other hand, only reinforces such barriers. Useful treatments of these debates include Eberstadt 1999, Sigal 1998, and Moon and Steinberg 1999.Back.

Note 6: On the measurement of threats and capabilities, see Walt 1987 and Goldstein 1997/98.Back.

Note 7: Contrary to 50-plus percent popular reactions in South Korea these days expressing no fear of renewed hostilities on the peninsula in the aftermath of the June 2000 North-South summit, what has rendered the likelihood of conflict less probable is the robust deterrence provided by U.S. and ROK forces, not the positive atmospherics of the summit. Back.

Note 8: On this view, see Los Angeles Times 13 June 2000 (David Kang, "We Should not be Afraid of North Koreans.")Back.

Note 9: The North's first indigenous operational missile, the Nodong series, derives from SCUD technology.Back.

Note 10: For example, Pakistan's Ghauri and Shaheen series are derivative of Nodong technology (for further discussions, see Medeiros n.d..Back.

Note 11: Concerns abound regarding possible reprocessing activities in 1989 and May-June 1994 which would have provided the DPRK with enough weapons-grade plutonium for several nuclear weapons. See Mansourov 1995. Back.

Note 12: Earlier battle plans (Operation Plan 5027-95) called for a -ROK counteroffensive against a North Korean invasion that limited the line of attack to the Wonsan and Ch'ongch'on rivers. Operation plan 5027-98 now extends this line of counterattack as far north as the Tumen and Yalu rivers. See Yi 1998 and Halloran 1998. Back.

Note 13: See Cha 1998 and Cha 2000.Back.

Note 14: The NLL was unilaterally declared by the United Nations Command after the 1950-53 Korean War, and for the and ROK, represents the "de facto" maritime border. The DPRK does not recognize the line and claims as its own the resource- and fish-rich disputed waters less than 12 miles away from its western coast (the disputed seas are also located less than 12 miles away from South Korean-owned islands in the West Sea). Back.

Note 15: The policy tools advocated by Washington and Seoul have been outlined in the Kim Dae-jung government's sunshine policy and in the U.S. policy review of North Korea completed by former Secretary of Defense William Perry (see web links). For criticisms see the congressional North Korea Advisory Group's website (see web links); "'Sunshine' or Moonshine?" Wall Street Journal, 2 March 1999 (editorial); Lee 1996; and Ikle 1998.Back.

Note *: Professor Victor D. Cha is Assistant professor in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He holds a Ph.D from Columbia University (1994); an MA/BA (Hons) in PPE from Oxford University, England; and an AB in Economics from Columbia College (1983).

He is the author of Alignment Despite Antagonism: The United States-Korea-Japan Security Triangle (Stanford University Press, 1999), which was the 2000 winner of the Masayoshi Ohira Memorial Foundation Main Book Prize for best books on the Pacific Basin/East Asia, and a nominee for the 2000 Hoover Institution Uncommon Book Award. His articles on international relations and East Asia have appeared in Survival, International Studies Quarterly, Orbis, Armed Forces and Society, Journal of Peace Research, Security Dialogue, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Asian Survey, Asian Perspective, Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Korean Studies, and Japanese Journal of Political Science.

Professor Cha is a former John M. Olin National Security Fellow at Harvard University (1992-94) and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), Stanford University (1994-95). He has also been a two-time Fulbright Scholar (Korea, 1991-92 and 1999) and MacArthur Foundation Fellow. Dr. Cha serves as an independent consultant and lectures to various branches of the U.S. Department of Defense (Office of the Secretary of Defense), Department of State, and SAIC. He has appeared as a guest analyst on various media including CNN, Associated Press TV, Fox-TV, Voice of America, National Public Radio, The Diane Rehm Show, As It Happens, New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, UPI, Mainichi Shimbun, Asahi Shimbun, Japan Times, Asia Times, KBS-TV, Choson Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo, Sisa Journal, Sin Tonga and Korea Herald. In 1999, he was the Edward Teller National Fellow for Security at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University and a recipient of the Fulbright Senior Scholar Award. His current research projects look at the future of American alliances; and globalization and military modernization in Asia.  Back.

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