Since the end of the War in 1953, the Korean peninsula is divided by a frozen conflict that still awaits a definitive settlement. The recent developments as the signs of detente between North and South Korea or the meeting between the former’s leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump leave some hope of a peaceful resolution of the Korean issue. But will it actually be the case?
After having been under Japanese domination for nearly four decades, in 1945 Korea was divided in two occupation zones separated by the 38th parallel: the Soviet one to the north, and the US-led Allied one in the south. While the original plan was to ultimately restore an independent and unified Korean state, in practice things unfolded differently. As the Cold War emerged, the disagreements between Moscow and Washington led to the establishment of two different states: a pro-communist one ruled by Kim Il-sung in the north, with Pyongyang as capital, and an authoritarian but pro-American one in the south, whose government was based in Seoul. The former took the name of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, while the latter became known as the Republic of Korea, shortened in RoK. The efforts to reach a common agreement over the reunification of the Peninsula were all unproductive, and the situation stalled until 1950 when North Korea invaded the South.
Exploiting the surprise effect, its troops captured Seoul and almost managed to occupy the whole Peninsula. The international coalition created to defend the South, patronised by the United Nations and headed by the US, struggled to stop the advancing enemy. But then, the US organized a counter offensive. With a bold amphibious landing at Inchon, they cut the supply lines of the North’s armies and pushed them back to the initial positions. Acting beyond the UN directive, the allied forces proceeded further north, taking Pyongyang and almost reaching the Yalu river, Korea’s border with China. Feeling threatened, the PRC intervened in support of its North Korean ally in December 1950. The coalition was expelled from the North’s territory, and the communist troops conquered Seoul a second time. But once again, the US and its allies counterattacked and retook the city in March 1951. the situation stabilized along the 38th parallel, and no notable changes occurred until the signature of an armistice in 1953. While this practically put an end to the conflict, a true peace treaty was never signed, and as such the Korean War is officially still unresolved.
Since then, the situation has stalled. The South maintained an authoritarian regime for several decades, before becoming a democracy in 1987 and beginning a period of rapid economic growth that turned it in one of the world’s most dynamic economies. The North, under the leadership of the Kim family, has remained a ruthless, isolationist, heavily-militarized and economically fragile dictatorship centred upon the Juche ideology; a peculiar combination of communism, nationalism, Korean tradition and cult for the ruler.
As of today, the Korean peninsula remains divided, and this deeply influences the foreign policy of the two Korean states and of the other powers implied in the area.
First, since Korea is relatively small, both states are exposed to a potential attack coming from the other and/or its allies; notably as both capitals, and especially Seoul, are close to the border. This “proximity curse” is a central factor in the security dilemma that they face and that will be examined later. Second, there are the political factors. South Korea is allied with the US, which maintains bases and troops on its territory and that has even the power to take command of the South Korean military in case of war. The two countries regularly hold joint manoeuvres that anger the DPRK; who, on its part, is allied with China. The two states are tied by a 1961 treaty that establishes that the PRC is the security guarantor of the North. Its commitment is not total, however, as it would intervene only if the DPRK were attacked, and not if it would launch an offensive. In this regard, it is notable that amid the tensions between Washington and Pyongyang in 2017, the Chinese communicated that they would defend North Korea if the US attacked it.
As a matter of fact, the Korean Peninsula holds a particular geostrategic significance for both China and America, especially now that they are engaged in a broader competition in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. For the PRC, North Korea is a buffer zone separating its territory from the US-allied South, and therefore do not want the Pyongyang regime to collapse. This is why it keeps the 1961 treaty alive and continues supplying the DPRK with essential goods without which its economy would collapse. But at the same time, the division of Korea is also a problem, the risk remains that a war involving the US may break out in China’s backyard; in which case it would have to choose between seeing the American forces reaching the Yalu and creating a unified Korea under Washington’s influence or intervening and battle the US military to prevent this outcome. On it part, America is also facing a dilemma in Korea: remaining committed to protecting the South is important to preserve the credibility of its security engagements and to maintain a useful military presence in the area; but at the same time it also faces the risk of being involved in a conflict that may escalate to include China.
Finally, there are two other powers that have some interests at stake in the Peninsula. The first is Japan, who is equally concerned over the possibility of being directly or indirectly involved in a war and who sees North Korea’s missiles and nuclear program as a threat to its security. The second is Russia, who would not see favourably a further extension of America’s influence in the region.
In short, all the powers involved in the issue do not want a conflict. Yet, the risk of war remains real; because the two Korean states and their allies are trapped into a complicated security dilemma.
Both the RoK and the DPRK continue to live as if the war could restart at any time. The two states maintain considerable military forces along the border, ready to respond in case of attack; even though no party wants to launch an offensive. But the looming threat of an escalation, most likely during a crisis, remains sufficient to keep both in alert. As a matter of fact, the security dilemma is very strong here; also because of the aforementioned “proximity curse”, Most of the DPRK’s forces are concentrated along the frontier. In particular, it has massed hundreds of artillery pieces ready to unleash a rain of fire on the highly-populated Seoul area; which would cause uncountable victims and terrible material damage, with huge repercussions on the financial-economic plan as well. This is already a very powerful deterrent against any attack on the North by the South or its main ally, the US; but at the same time it is the reason why the RoK wants to be ready for war and maintains its close alliance with the Americans: it considers this as the only way to dissuade the North from attempting to reunify the Peninsula by force. But this and the US presence in South Korea, in turn, is what motivates Pyongyang to keep its armed forces ready for attack: the massive damage it could inflict on the South is an extremely effective mean of dissuasion; probably equal and even superior to its nuclear weapons.
This security dilemma is the main driver at the base of North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons, as from its perspective it is the only way it can ensure its security in a challenging geopolitical environment.
During the Cold War, the South was still poor and militarily weak, and the DPRK could benefit from the support of two powerful allies, namely China and the USSR. Considering also that it already had formidable conventional retaliation means, it felt safe enough not to need nuclear weapons to guarantee its safety. But the balance of power in the Peninsula gradually changed with time as the RoK developed its economy and filled the military gap with its northern neighbour. In this context, in the late 80s the DPRK was first suspected of having a military nuclear programme. Things turned more complicated for the North in 1991: the Soviet Union fell; and China, whose relations with the US had much improved, was just beginning its economic boom. So, the DPRK was left virtually alone to face the possibility of a conflict, and this reinforced its determination to obtain nuclear weapons. In practice, this choice just worsened the security dilemma, but in the optic of Pyongyang’s regime it was the only guarantee that no one would try to attack the country and topple its government. Moreover, it also gave the DPRK a powerful tool to attract the world’s attention and obtain much-needed economic aid from the international community. As a matter of fact, an agreement with the US was initially reached in 1994, according to which Pyongyang pledged to stop its nuclear programme in exchange of diplomatic recognition and economic assistance.
At first, the deal worked, but things changed once again in the early 2000s. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, US President G.W. Bush pledged to counter WMD proliferation with all means and started implementing a preventive war doctrine to eliminate the “Axis of Evil” that threatened America. The DPRK, who was explicitly included in the list and who was already suspected of running a clandestine nuclear programme in spite of the pacts, felt menaced and decided to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and openly admit its quest for nuclear weapons. Being already engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington opted for diplomacy in the context of the Six-Party Talks (or SPT), that included the two Korean States plus the US, China, Japan and Russia. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, which showed that it had achieved its goal and therefore reinforced its position both strategically and diplomatically; as now the point was to disarm it rather than preventing proliferation. After long negotiations, the DPRK accepted once again to end its nuclear programme if it received economic aid. But no actual progress was made afterwards, and the DPRK ultimately abandoned the SPT in 2009. In the meanwhile, it continued making progress and testing nuclear warheads as well as ballistic missiles. When President Trump entered in office in 2017, he decided to apply a “maximum pressure” policy to push North Korea to dismantle its small but dangerous arsenal. After a crisis marked by verbal attacks and military shows of force, Trump and Kim Jong-un decided to talk directly. After meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim went to Singapore in June 2018 to personally discuss with Trump; and negotiations have been under way since then.
While the recent meetings were certainly historic events, the road ahead still appears to be long. The North has shown some goodwill, but the fundamental issues are still unresolved and most importantly the underlying geopolitical situation has not changed. Korea remains divided, the North’s regime is still in power and wants to remain there, and there is no agreement over the future asset of the Peninsula.
Moreover, the current status quo is somehow convenient for all, as any alteration may result in less convenient outcomes and even in an all-out war. Also, if the US used its military force to attack a foreign country and enforce regime change, the DPRK would once again feel threatened and would probably decide to resume its nuclear programme. Finally, apart from geopolitics, the reunification of Korea would also imply very high cost to develop the former North, and no one really wants to sustain these expenses.
Yet, it cannot be excluded that progress will be made, that the nuclear issue will be solved and that Korea will eventually reunite. But in the short term, no breakthrough is to be expected in the Peninsula.