INSS Insight No. 417, April 12, 2013
By Evron, Yoram
The Korean Peninsula is reaching the boiling point. On February 12, 2013, after a series of harsh verbal exchanges between North Korea and the international community, Pyongyang announced that it had conducted a third nuclear test. Some three and a half weeks following, the United Nations Security Council approved new sanctions against North Korea, and less than one week later the United States and South Korea undertook a joint military exercise. In response, North Korea accused the United States of launching a cyber attack against it and announced that if necessary, it would use its nuclear capabilities to defend itself. In turn, the United States sent strategic bombers and stealth aircraft to the region, while North Korea disconnected its hotline with South Korea, which was intended for precisely such situations. Three days later, it announced that it was at war with South Korea (even though formally, this has been the state of relations for over six decades).
In early April 2013, North Korea declared that it was restarting its nuclear reactor in Yongbyon as well as its uranium facilities, and immediately thereafter it announced that it would conduct test launches of ballistic missiles. North Korea even announced that it could not guarantee the safety of the foreign diplomats in the country. At this point, Pyongyang and Washington both took steps to ease the tension — for example, the United States announced that it was postponing an intercontinental ballistic missile test — but there is still serious concern about a possible, even unintentional, conflagration.
This crisis, which concerns first of all the Northeast Asian regional system, has its roots in the ongoing conflict between the two Koreas, formal and informal alliances with states in the region, and relations with the United States. The results will mostly affect those who live in the region, the economies of the states involved, and the regional balance of power. However, given the issues at the heart of the conflict and the powers involved, the ramifications of the conflict are much broader. The immediate cause of the conflict is the struggle by North Korea’s dictatorial regime for survival, and it has engaged in extreme provocations in order to create a channel for direct communication with the United States and receive substantial aid. At the same time, it is playing a sophisticated diplomatic game with its ostensible patron, China, relying on China’s economic support and diplomatic backing without involving China in its decisions. To this end, it has adopted the tactic of brinkmanship while making use of its limited nuclear capability and exploiting China’s fear that the US regional status will grow and that war will break out in the Korean Peninsula. Given North Korea’s status as both a traditional ally and a satellite state as well as a buffer against US forces, its survival is strategically important to China. Its collapse, on the other hand, would not only strengthen the US position in …read more