A Tenuous State of Affairs on The Korean Peninsula: Putting the Tension Back in the Bottle

Source: Michael Day (https://flic.kr/p/b8oN9K)

With the international community largely transfixed on the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, it is tempting to write off everything else as either irrelevant or insignificant. But tensions are flaring up yet again on the Korean Peninsula, one of the world’s longest-running flashpoints. Since May 28, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) has launched approximately 1,600 trash-carrying balloons toward the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) in response to anti-Pyongyang leaflets being sent to the North. In response, South Korea resumed loudspeaker broadcasts across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a move that will surely get under Kim Jong Un’s skin and cause North Korea to double down on its own propaganda operations. North Korea is reportedly reinstalling its own loudspeakers along the border, and on June 11, several dozen North Korean soldiers mistakenly crossed the Military Demarcation Line (MDL), only to turn back after the South Korean army fired warning shots.

The upturn in animosity has the potential to escalate further if prudent, commonsense measures are not taken. For some, this statement may elicit a fair share of eye-rolling. After all, rhetorical barbs, military drills and even trash-laden balloons traveling across the DMZ are nothing new on the Korean Peninsula. It is more unusual for a week to pass without a North Korean official or propaganda outlet insulting South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol (also written as Yoon Suk Yeol) or blasting South Korea in general as a puppet of the so-called American imperialists. North Korean missile tests, whether they involve intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can reach the continental United States or shorter or intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) like the Hwasong-16 that can target US bases in Japan and South Korea, are so regularized at this point that they barely register with the international news media.

Even so, it would be unwise for US policymakers to brush the current tensions under the rug or assume the latest tit-for-tat between the two Koreas will burn itself out. Instead, the longer it continues, the more difficult it will be for both Pyongyang and Seoul to reverse themselves by instituting deescalatory measures or exploring whether even informal accommodations are possible.

The Korean Peninsula Heats Up—Again

The heightened invective between the two Koreas started on the very first day of 2024 when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un used the five-day Korean Workers’ Party plenum to order a bolstering of North Korea’s defense preparations, prioritize the development of military satellites and attack drones and warn that North Korea would “thoroughly annihilate“ the US and South Korea if provoked. Weeks later, Kim made a dramatic policy change by ditching potential peaceful reunification with the South, a long-standing policy goal of his father and grandfather, abolishing bureaucratic agencies and institutions responsible for reconciliation with Seoul and approving a rewrite of the North Korean constitution to codify South Korea as Pyongyang’s principal enemy. The situation was so precarious that two well-esteemed North Korea experts, Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker, assessed Kim had made a decision to go to war.

South Korea, of course, is not sitting on its hands. On North Korea policy, President Yoon is the virtual opposite of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, who spent most of his tenure trying to, if not formally end the Korean War, then at least ushering in a new, systemic foundation through which the two Koreas could co-exist peacefully. Moon devoted significant energy to the effort despite taking a political hit from his opponents, who derided the entire effort as naïve. It was Moon who, in essence, convinced US President Donald Trump to override his more conventional national security advisers and meet Kim directly to explore whether a denuclearization deal was achievable. Moon did plenty of negotiating on his own as well; after three inter-Korean summits with Kim, the two Koreas signed a Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA), which sought to minimize the prospects of accidents and miscalculations along the DMZ and established an inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean border city of Kaesong.

Yoon, however, has never been particularly interested in continuing Moon’s outreach to the North, which started fizzling out even before the 2022 presidential campaign was in full swing. The CMA was a special irritant for Yoon, the conservative camp and many in the South Korean military, who viewed the deal’s prohibition on South Korean surveillance and reconnaissance flights near the DMZ as detrimental to Seoul’s military readiness. Once he assumed office in May 2022, Yoon quickly ushered in a tougher policy toward Pyongyang that was more in league with previous conservative governments: stressing that North Korean denuclearization was a top South Korean priority, elevating the North Korean human rights issue to the forefront, strengthening its security alliance with the United States, and cultivating greater security cooperation with Japan.

Any hope that the Yoon administration would engage with North Korea in a diplomatic process with achievable and measurable benchmarks was extinguished when it published its so-called “Audacious Initiative,” which, at its core, was a highly publicized recycling of what has long been the conventional US and South Korean position on the North Korean nuclear file: In exchange for Pyongyang’s total and irreversible nuclear disarmament, Seoul would be prepared to lift economic sanctions, assist with North Korea’s food and energy needs, and modernize North Korean infrastructure such as ports, airports and highways. The Kim dynasty rejected the offer within days.

The failure of Moon and the hostility of the Yoon administration has resulted in a lack of communication between the two Koreas and a budding arms race on the Korean Peninsula, with both Seoul and Pyongyang pouring ever-more resources into developing and mass producing the weapons systems—next-generation bombers, submarines, hypersonic missiles, ballistic missile defenses and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance platforms—needed to deter a full-blown war or, if deterrence failed, to fight one. North Korea, meanwhile, continues to invest ever more deeply in its nuclear weapons program to compensate for its conventional military inferiority.

While this is concerning, none of it is surprising. Facing two superior adversaries in the US and South Korea, there is no wartime scenario in which the Kim dynasty would survive, let alone thrive, during a conventional or nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula. This is, of course, the prime reason why such a conflict has not occurred over the last 70 years. Given these conditions, it would frankly be foolish for Kim Jong Un not to double down on his nuclear arsenal, expand his relationship with Russia or diversify his missile inventory. Any international relations realist will tell you that, ultimately, the only sure path to national defense is self-reliance, a credo the Kim family dynasty has operationalized from the very beginning.

Counteracting North Korea’s moves, in turn, is perfectly aligned with Yoon’s national security strategy. First, South Korea’s “three-axis system” embodied in the 2022 Defense White Paper, part of which involves preemptive military action against North Korean nuclear and missile facilities if South Korean officials have convincing evidence of an imminent North Korean attack, is only as effective as the South Korean military’s ability to execute it. Second, the Yoon administration has made it known that, unlike during Moon’s time, any and all North Korean provocations, however large or small, will be met with some kind of retaliation.

The Unending Tit-for-Tat Between the Two Koreas

Some argue that South Korean retaliation is necessary for deterrence purposes. North Korea, the logic goes, needs to understand that belligerence will not be rewarded and that its government would not survive full-scale hostilities. But given its ability to tailor its moves during previous rounds of escalation, there is no reason to believe Kim is ignorant of his inferior military position. If he were, Kim would not be investing around a quarter of the country’s entire annual budget in the military.

The problem is that deterrence signaling is occurring at a time when there is no inter-Korean diplomacy, much less active channels of communication. Most of the agreements and mechanisms established to increase dialogue are now gone. The inter-Korean office was blown up by the North Koreans in 2020. The CMA was a wounded animal even before Yoon formally announced South Korea’s withdrawal on June 4; Pyongyang scrapped its own participation several months earlier. Cross-border hotlines between North and South Korean military officers have been frozen for over a year, and the top-level exchanges cemented by the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration are far in the past. Kim Jong Un has largely written off the Yoon government as an unworthy partner who, in his view, is content with outsourcing South Korean foreign policy to the US. For his part, Yoon sees Kim as almost irredeemable, a man who signs agreements only to discard them when doing so is convenient.

With formalized modes of communication either stalled or destroyed entirely, the two Koreas have chosen to engage in ever-more forceful public messaging toward one another. More often than not, this takes the form of kinetic activity such as missile launches, joint, multi-domain military exercises and flyovers from fighter and bomber aircraft that serve little purpose other than to be seen as “doing something” about a perceived slight. Unfortunately, this is a horrible way to communicate disputes and grievances, especially on the Korean Peninsula, when the general rule of thumb is similar to Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The pattern of tit-for-tat is now well established; North Korean missile launches are met with tactical South Korean drills, many times in full coordination with the US, which, in turn, instigate more North Korean missile or artillery firings.

If there is any term that best describes the state of the Korean Peninsula at this particular moment, it is “security dilemma.” First coined by John Herz in 1950 and analyzed in depth by international relations scholars such as Robert Jervis and Charles Glaser, the “security dilemma” encapsulates a situation where the defensive actions of one country are perceived to be offensive and threatening to another. This heightened threat perception leads to even more military preparations, whether it be additional arms purchases, an accelerated pace of military exercises, or forging new strategic partnerships. The end result is more insecurity for all.

Ultimately, the “security dilemma” is driven by both power and psychological considerations—power considerations because states with antagonistic neighbors want to keep a semblance of parity (or at least come as close to parity as resources allow) and psychological considerations because decision-makers often find it difficult to define their adversaries’ exact motives. In other words, Yoon Suk-yeol cannot be confident about what is in Kim Jong Un’s mind at any given time; Kim, too, can’t be assured about what Yoon is planning. This sense of insecurity can lead to overcompensation, over-reaction and an escalation neither country wants.

Escaping the Security Dilemma: Think Small

The obvious question, then, is how to mitigate the security dilemma on the Korean Peninsula before it breaks into open confrontation? This is a loaded question with no easy answer. Given the conflicting agendas and outright enmity between the US and South Korea on the one hand and North Korea on the other, a comprehensive solution may not even be possible. The notion that North and South Korea will enter into a formal dialogue about confidence-building steps, let alone one that seeks to resolve the outstanding political issues that have hampered their relationship for decades, is extremely unlikely at the present time. Even if Kim were so inclined, Yoon would likely be hesitant to participate without an explicit vote of affirmation by the Biden administration. And assuming a diplomatic process gets off the ground, any number of obstacles—another North Korean satellite test; an accidental clash in the disputed Yellow Sea; irreconcilable goals—could ruin it before talks gain momentum.

No process, however, can start if communication channels are shuttered and both sides continue to overreact to every negative development, no matter how insignificant it is in the grand scheme. Right now, this is precisely what is happening as Pyongyang delivers balloons filled with garbage to the South and Seoul resumes blasting K-Pop into the North. The two sides are talking past each other and trying to one-up one another in a vain attempt to attain perfect security.

But this is not a sustainable situation. Assuming the political will is there, two mutually agreeable measures should be adopted immediately. First, efforts to reinstate the CMA, if not in whole, then at least in part, are needed. While North Korea was the first party to scrap implementation and the South Korean military is now again preparing to reauthorize ground exercises and surveillance activity near the DMZ, the CMA, for all its faults, remains the only military deescalation accord between the two Koreas on the books. It will take less time and political capital reentering an agreement already negotiated than it would to negotiate a new one, something that is highly unlikely in the current environment anyway. If reentering the accord in full proves to be too complicated, then North and South Korean officials should take a quarter of a loaf and resurrect the communication nodes formed by the CMA to at least reintroduce the predictability that proved helpful to both sides in the past.

Second, North and South Korea need to prioritize restraint, not only in how they communicate but in how they react to each other. Not every North Korean missile test needs to be answered by the South Koreans; not every day-long South Korean joint exercise with the US needs to be treated in Pyongyang as a dress rehearsal for imminent invasion. This is easier said than done, of course, due in part to North Korea’s conventional military inferiority, lack of formal security alliances and the Kim regime’s general paranoia about what goes on in East Asia. South Korea, as the stronger and wealthier power, will have to show leadership on this issue by eschewing reflexive retaliation and avoiding the kinds of actions, like last week’s joint air drill with a US B-1B bomber, that do little to reinforce deterrence. Employing strategic platforms such as the B-1B or the F-35 only encourages North Korea to respond more aggressively than it likely would.


The Biden administration came into office with the same goal as its three predecessors—resolve the North Korean nuclear file for good. In April 2021, yet another North Korea policy review was completed, which attempted to straddle the line between Trump’s top-down summitry approach and President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience”—both of which were failures in the end. President Biden has tried to initiate an unconditional dialogue with North Korea, which Kim has repeatedly spurned. With diplomatic avenues closed, Washington is focusing largely on solidifying the US-ROK alliance, including executing the April 2023 Washington Declaration, pairing South Korean conventional capabilities with the US nuclear arsenal and planning for various wartime contingencies. This week, US and South Korean defense officials held the third Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) meeting in Seoul, where they committed to finalizing the guidelines spelling out various roles and procedures. Several table-top military simulations and a fourth NCG meeting are planned for later this year.

Even so, deterring an adversary from attacking is only half the battle. The other, which is inherently connected to deterrence, is communicating red lines to your adversaries, ensuring no wires are crossed, managing expectations and, if possible, exploring mutual steps that defuse confusion and conflict. This is sorely lacking on the Korean Peninsula today and is an extremely dicey status quo to carry into the future. Ultimately, every actor with a stake in the region’s stability has a responsibility to mitigate it.

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