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Security

Critical Moment on the Korean Peninsula

Sep 14, 2022
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Academic Committee Member, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

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The situation on the Korean Peninsula has been worsening since 2020 and has reached a new critical point. Strategic stability in Northeast Asia is once again severely challenged.

First, a new nuclear crisis could emerge on the peninsula. After several years of relatively low-key development, the DPRK this year conducted nearly 20 rounds of missile test launches, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. There are also signs of a potential new nuclear test. On the other hand, the United States and the Republic of Korea conducted various military exercises and resumed, after a four-year pause, the massive Ulchi Freedom Shield combined exercises, which were immediately described by the North as “playing with fire on the brink of nuclear war.” The so-called double suspension, the only fruit of relaxed tension in 2018, ceased to exist. Under these circumstances, there are higher voices in Japan and the ROK for strengthened extended deterrence from the U.S. It is foreseeable that once the DPRK conducts another nuclear test, a new nuclear crisis will explode instantly.

Second, the likelihood of contingencies between the North and the South is rising. After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, both the DPRK and the ROK quickly took sides, leading to a further deterioration of their own relations. Since conservative Yoon Suk-yeol took office in May, the ROK has become tougher toward the DPRK and further strengthened its alliance with the U.S. As a result, North-South dialogue and communication have been cut off.

The 2010 Cheonan warship incident and the Yeonpyeong Island incident both led to major military crises between North and South. Fortunately, these were gradually eased, but if a similar incident happens again will the two sides be able to mitigate it and avoid a military conflict? The answer is uncertain.

Third, the new DPRK declaration of its nuclear policy has increased the risk of a crisis, escalation or even losing control on the Korean Peninsula. Over the years, in the face of external threats, the DPRK repeatedly talked about the possibility of preemptive nuclear strikes against the U.S. and South Korea. But at the seventh and eighth congresses of the Korean Workers’ Party in 2016 and 2021, supreme leader Kim Jong-un announced a nuclear policy change. He said the DPRK would not be the first to use nuclear weapons as long as nuclear weapons are not used by hostile forces to violate its sovereignty.

However, at a military parade on April 26 this year, marking the 90th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army, Kim mentioned the possibility of first use, drawing a strong reaction from the U.S., the ROK and Japan. In fact, the U.S. has long considered conducting a surgical first strike against North Korea. The ROK has been developing its three-axis countermeasure system against the DPRK for many years, and Japan is stepping up discussions to develop its own attack capabilities against “enemy” bases. In this situation, once a crisis emerges on the peninsula, the risk of drastic escalation — and even a loss of control — will be very high.

Fourth, with the serious deterioration of China-U.S. and Russia-U.S. relations, it has become more difficult to prevent and control a crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and regional strategic stability may face more severe challenges. China-U.S. relations continued to deteriorate after Joe Biden took office in 2021, carrying over Donald Trump’s China policy of strategic competition. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russia have fallen into all-out confrontation since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war. At present, not only do the three countries no longer prioritize the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula but China’s differences with Russia and the U.S. have widened. For example, China and Russia vetoed the new sanctions proposal in the UN Security Council in July.

In this situation, if the DPRK continues to advance its nuclear program and the U.S. and its allies ramp up their deterrence, regional strategic stability will be seriously disrupted. The peninsula and Northeast Asia at large may well see a standoff between two triangles like the one in the early Cold War years.

In the face of the current tension on the Korean Peninsula, no country can afford a casual attitude. Instead, major efforts to safeguard peace and stability on the peninsula and region should be accelerated.

First, the top priority should be crisis management and an effort to prevent another nuclear standoff or other emergency on the peninsula. If a crisis does occur, there must be an effort to prevent its escalation into a military conflict. Only by doing this first can we open a window of hope for the resumption of the denuclearization dialogue as the next step.

To this end, the U.S. and ROK should stop demanding an unconditional resumption of dialogue and should take positive measures to encourage the DPRK to return to dialogue. Before resuming formal dialogue, moreover, the U.S. should clear the New York channel of communication with the DPRK, and the North and South should resume the military confidence-building measures begun in 2018. In the engagement process, a top priority for the U.S., the ROK and the DPRK is to reach an agreement or tacit understanding to resume the so-called double suspension.

The U.S. and South Korea, as the much stronger party, should also provide clear security assurances that they will not be the first to carry out military attacks against the DPRK, even in a major military crisis. It will be of great significance in preventing the North from taking risks and using nuclear weapons first.

At the same time, China should resume bilateral dialogue on the peninsula question with the other three parties. The DPRK and the ROK are the masters of the peninsula, and China and the U.S. are the two most influential countries. Therefore, it is most important for them to resume dialogue first. The four countries should make it clear that they will jointly make major efforts to prevent a new crisis or military conflict.

In the near future, the UN Security Council should consider providing humanitarian assistance to the DPRK by lifting some sanctions and make clear that if the DPRK wishes to restart the denuclearization process, a gradual reduction of sanctions under the relevant reversible provisions will be considered.

Second, maintaining strategic stability in Northeast Asia must be put on the agenda as soon as possible. In 2017, the DPRK crossed the nuclear threshold and initially came into possession of nuclear weapons, as a result of which the U.S. strengthened its military deterrence and regional missile defense deployments. This, in turn, had a major impact on strategic stability in Northeast Asia.

In the future, if the DPRK continues to expand its nuclear arsenal and develop various nuclear combat capabilities according to the plan announced at the eighth KWP congress, and if the U.S. responds with increased nuclear, missile-defense and offensive missile deployments, as well as expanded extended deterrence for allies, regional strategic stability will suffer even greater damage. Then there will be no sense of security at all between the U.S., Japan and South Korea with regard to the DPRK. China and Russia will have to take strong countermeasures to maintain the strategic balance, and there will be an increasingly tense arms race and nuclear security dilemma in the region.

To avoid this dangerous scenario, the U.S. should state clearly to the DPRK that it will not adjust its tactical nuclear weapons deployments or land-based intermediate-range missiles in Northeast Asia — let alone share nuclear capabilities with Japan or the ROK — and that it will be cautious about the return of its strategic weapons platforms to the peninsula for military exercises, with a view toward dissuading the DPRK from resuming nuclear tests.

The ROK’s new administration should give up any thought of increased THAAD deployments. The system is unable to effectively respond to the DPRK’s intermediate- and short-range missile threat, but in the hands of the U.S. it can weaken China’s secondary nuclear strike capability, forcing China to prepare military countermeasures. Maintaining and strengthening military and security confidence remains an effective means for China and the ROK to manage their serious differences over THAAD.

For a long time, the United States has rejected China’s no-first-use proposal on grounds of opposition by allies. But in fact such an agreement, if concluded as a nuclear confidence-building measure, will not only contribute to strategic stability between the two countries but will also be conducive to the security of South Korea, Japan and the whole region. The U.S. should take it up seriously.

Third, the ultimate goal on the Korean Peninsula should remain achieving denuclearization and establishing a lasting peace mechanism. There should be no change or wavering by any country in this regard. Only by finally achieving the dual goals listed above can long-term peace and stability on the peninsula be fundamentally guaranteed and the strategic stability of Northeast Asia be effectively maintained.

At present, restarting the denuclearization dialogue immediately is unrealistic, but all countries involved should unequivocally declare their pursuit of this ultimate goal.

Think tanks should start exploring a road map for denuclearization and a peace mechanism. Last year, three think tanks — from China, the U.S. and the ROK — conducted several rounds of dialogue and reached many useful common understandings. As the next step, they should try to bring in a DPRK counterpart. Efforts in this regard may be useful preparation for progress in future dialogues. 

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