For centuries, the Korean peninsula has been the fulcrum in Northeast Asia’s balance of power equation. It sits at the nexus of Chinese, Japanese, American, and Russian vital national interests. To this end, international relations scholars describe the peninsula as an arena of conflict and competition; or as a tinderbox, a flashpoint for great-power confrontation.
Today, the fundamental balance of power that has endured on the peninsula since World War II seems to be wobbling. The region’s strategic geopolitics is under great stress from China’s meteoric rise compared to the relative decline of American, Russian and Japanese leverage over the peninsula. Add to that situation the massive conventional arsenals in both Koreas, which enable these rivals to engage in high-intensity warfare. However, the most crucial source of disequilibrium within the traditional balance stems not from the historical “great power competition,” but from North Korea’s domestic development of an asymmetrical strategic nuclear capability. North Korea’s strategic nuclear and missile programs, coupled with its provocative testing, present a clear and present danger to peace and stability in Northeast Asia, and are the primary reasons why the Korean peninsula is falling into disequilibrium.
Equilibrium is typically uneasy; however, recent strategic changes, initiated principally by the DPRK, make the situation even more so. The state of affairs on the Korean peninsula, especially in light of recent North Korean nuclear and missile tests, is approaching the point of disequilibrium—a tipping point—rather than the usual uneasy equilibrium that has existed in past decades. The resulting period of “disequilibrium” could mirror the most dangerous of times in Northeast Asia and elsewhere.
Balance of Power: A Short International Relations Lesson
From the standpoint of history and international relations, the classic “balance of power” theory is reflected in Northeast Asia’s security landscape, where parity or stability between larger competing forces has created periods of equilibrium. This balance of power between two “great power” nations in competition, put forth by Hans J. Morgenthau in Politics Among Nations, characterizes Korea’s geopolitical security situation. He explains:
The additional function, however, that the balance fulfills here, aside from creating a precarious stability and security in the relations between [great powers] A and B, consists in safeguarding the independence of [smaller nation] C against encroachments by A or B. The independence of C is a mere function of power relations existing between A and B.
In the Korean context, nations A and B have changed over the years based on the relative strength of Japan, Russia and China. In pre-nineteenth century Korean history, Japan and China acted as nations “A” and “B,” especially from the 1870s until the Japanese victory over China in 1895. Japan competed with Czarist Russia for the paramount role from the 1890s until 1905, when Korea essentially came under Japanese control. Since 1945, Russia (to a degree) and China have sought to dominate North Korea while the United States has exercised primary influence in South Korea.
Today’s Balance of Power: A Brief History
Over the past century, out of the five major wars in Asia that shaped the United States role in East Asia, four of the wars rose from a state of disequilibrium in the balance of power as two or more Northeast Asian great powers competed for control over the Korean peninsula. The Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), World War II in the Pacific (1941-1945) and the Korean War (1950-1953) all had their origins in changing balances of power. But, while Korea was in the middle of all these wars, possession of the peninsula was never the main source of conflict. Rather, the four great powers fought due to larger geostrategic power relationships vis-à-vis their opponents.
History has taught that when the United States fails to adequately address a state of security disequilibrium involving the Korean peninsula, Washington eventually pays for that breakdown through armed conflict, with substantial losses of national blood and treasure. Both World War II and the Korean War offer two prime examples of the consequences for US failure to maintain a strong security role and presence in Korea.
The security situation on the Korean peninsula shifted again at the end of the Cold War and with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, China and the United States represent nations A and B, while the Korean Peninsula, although split into two countries, is a “C” state caught in the middle. While Russia and Japan are still significant powers, neither currently plays a traditional big power role vis-à-vis the Korean peninsula, particularly in the security realm.
Roots of North Korean Disequilibrium and Danger
Today, almost 63 years after an Armistice Agreement ended the daily combat of the Korean War, the Korean peninsula is still heavily armed with both conventional and nuclear weaponry. This status quo, however, is far from static; unchecked nuclear weapons development by North Korea poses a growing security threat to South Korea and Japan, to the US-ROK and US-Japan alliances, and to the US mainland. The North’s expanding nuclear arsenal, coupled with reluctance within the US-ROK alliance to “think the unthinkable” regarding nuclear war, elevates the North’s threat projection and contributes significantly toward security disequilibrium in Northeast Asia.
Consequently, the US and South Korea are gradually losing control over the regional security situation. The following additional factors have contributed to Northeast Asia’s growing disequilibrium:
- The rise of Chinese political, military and economic power has prompted increasing attempts to influence both North and South Korea. Beijing’s strong admonition to the ROK against deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system is the most recent example.
- A resurgence of Russian nationalism in opposition to the United States has increased the likelihood that the Kremlin will work to thwart Washington’s efforts on the peninsula. The zero-sum mentality now characterizing US-Russian relations leaves little probability of significant bilateral cooperation to lessen the North Korean threat.
- The failure of the US to recalibrate its policy approach to North Korea has left room for Pyongyang to continue growing its nuclear and missile programs at will. Moreover, there are weak shaping efforts currently being employed to alter that equation, in part, due to distractions caused by Middle East conflicts, limiting US ability to focus on Northeast Asia.
- The inability of UN and US sanctions to cripple the North Korean regime and economy has proven this policy tool largely ineffective. Moreover, Beijing’s unwillingness to apply pressure on the North Korean regime to change either economically or through denuclearization heightens Pyongyang’s sense of resiliency and power.
- The ability of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un to complete his transition to absolute power without serious opposition to his rule has proven he must be taken seriously and not characterized as a cartoon buffoon. He is working to achieve the North’s vital national interests of regime legitimacy, strong national defense and economic viability. Success in these areas would ensure he remains on the world stage for a long time to come.
- South Korea’s increasingly independent actions, such as procurement of weapons systems that are not interoperable with the US system, and domestic political conditions, such as reductions in terms of service of its soldiers, have made both the US-ROK alliance and Japan-ROK relations more difficult to manage. As a result, US allies facing the North Korean threat must contend with fractured bilateral and trilateral relationships.
- The DPRK’s provocations and attacks have given rise to changes in ROK military planning and rules of engagement that could, in turn, result in significantly stronger retaliatory acts by the South in response to future attacks. At the same time, the North’s possession of weapons of mass destruction seriously complicates US-ROK alliance response options.
Conclusion: Eliminating North Korean Disequilibrium
The foregoing factors profoundly alter the balance of power equation in Northeast Asia, and the stakes could not be higher for the United States and its allies. The current security situation between the United States and China, together with their respective Korean allies, manifests a classic balance of power equilibrium. However, while balance of power scenarios are derived for reasons of stability, they are never entirely stable. It is typically an uneasy equilibrium.
In this case, a reignited North-South conflict remains possible, due largely to the potential for escalatory action or reaction following a military clash or provocation. North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles adds further to the unease because its disproportionate military capability threatens to tip the balance. Under classic balance of power theory, the introduction of disproportionate military capabilities is inherently destabilizing and must be counterbalanced in order to maintain equilibrium.
However, the North Korean regime is a very different kind of player, one that cannot be counted upon to underpin regional stability. On the contrary, it derives global attention and vital economic benefits from the threats it poses to that stability. The North poses an active and mounting threat to regional stability with its growing asymmetrical strategic nuclear capabilities, massive conventional army, stockpiles of chemical and biological artillery shells, long-range artillery and short-range missiles that threaten Seoul, and troubling special operations and cyber war capabilities.
Nevertheless, several options exist to counter the North’s introduction of disequilibrium to Northeast Asia.
- Increase US, ROK and Japanese allied defenses to protect and defend against a worsening North Korean missile and nuclear threat. The deployment of THAAD in the ROK and increased trilateral ballistic missile defense, coupled with increased consultation on extended deterrence strategy are good steps, but they cannot, on their own, bring about significant change in the North’s strategy. More likely, they will harden it.
- Employ proportional alliance kinetic military action to effectively counter the North’s coercive nuclear strategy and alter its aggressive behavior by sending the message to Pyongyang (and Beijing) that the North’s strategic nuclear weapons are destabilizing. A kinetic response would signal to Kim Jong Un that the US would not allow itself or allies to be threatened. However, this option would entail significant risk to the US and its allies.
- Conduct an unambiguous demonstration of credible US extended nuclear deterrence. Such a demonstration would need to be carefully considered, both strategically and operationally, but could provide a much needed “shot across the bow” of the North and desired assurance for our ROK and Japan allies that the US defense commitment remains resolute. Examples include port calls by nuclear submarines, overflights of the Korean peninsula by strategic bombers, or, most aggressively, alliance deployment to activate the threat to shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles flying over the East Sea toward Japan.
- Use the full range of US and ROK national power tools—from diplomacy to military to information/intelligence to economics to financial and even to legal avenues—to engage North Korea, utilizing the full spectrum of hard and soft power. This full-scale engagement strategy would seek off-ramps, permitting North Korean and US-ROK alliance behavior to move away from breakdowns in their negotiations and return to outreach or pre-negotiations; that is, conduct what is similar to normal state-to-state relations.
To preserve the Korean peninsula’s existing balance of power equilibrium and relative stability, the United States, South Korea and Japan must act to modify the North Korean regime’s aggressive tendencies. Altering that behavior through the use of force is one way to achieve that goal, but it carries with it major risks. The challenge for the United States and its allies lies in how to otherwise moderate the behavior of North Korea to prevent the increasingly tense situation on the peninsula from getting out of hand. In other words, we must prevent the Korean peninsula’s uneasy equilibrium from degenerating into a destabilizing disequilibrium due principally to the threat from North Korea’s asymmetric nuclear and missile capabilities.
 Within balance of power arrangements, such as on the Korean peninsula, unique developments by one party, especially when coupled with game-changing events, can throw conditions into disequilibrium.
 Although the theory has its critics and limitations, it endures because it is rooted in common sense and the human instinct of self-preservation—an instinct nation-states manifest as well as individuals. Fundamentally, all states seek security. If a state is not powerful enough to achieve security on its own, it will ally itself with other states until equilibrium is achieved.
 Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations. 4th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967) 168.
 The US involvement on the Korean peninsula since World War II is somewhat abnormal historically. In essence, the United States has filled Japan’s traditional role in the regional balance of power equation, but without the historical animosity that taints Japan’s relationship with the Koreas.
 Though the far greater combined power of forces arrayed against the DPRK has deterred all-out war on the Korean peninsula, these forces have not prevented North Korean military provocations and attacks, such as the shelling of South Korea’s Yeongpyeong Island and sinking of the ROK warship Cheonan in 2010.