Risk Reduction and Crisis Management on the Korean Peninsula

Executive Summary

The security dynamics of East Asia are changing. The growing instability of the world order in the 21st century is being keenly felt in the Pacific Rim, where the risk of armed conflict among major powers is on the rise. Rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, strategic realignment in the Indo-Pacific, disputed claims in the South China Sea, the securitization of non-military issues in the competition between the US and China and military escalation on the Korean Peninsula all contribute to an increasingly competitive and unpredictable geopolitical situation.

The Korean Peninsula is a prominent example of an area where high tensions significantly increase the risk of unintended incidents and where a current overreliance on existing deterrence and defense capabilities and messaging is exacerbating relations, and where the urgency for multi-domain risk reduction mechanisms that encourage trust building is growing.

In this paper, we discuss the risk of an armed conflict in the East Asian region, analyze the current system of deterrence and risk management and propose a new approach to what we believe to be a more sustainable peace process. The situation on the Korean Peninsula is inherently intertwined with the regional security environment, and the negative spiral of enmity currently unfolding in East Asia must be broken, or at least better managed, before it is too late.

At the current rate, efforts are needed to help avoid current tensions from escalating into armed conflict, especially investing broadly and generously in a risk management framework that reaches beyond hard security measures. To avoid a bad situation is not the same thing as seeking to create a better one marked by positive peace—a longer-lasting peace built on sustainable investments that are closer to the root of the conflict. If the opportunity to talk suddenly arises, decision makers may feel pressured to strike a deal while the iron is hot. By investing in forward-oriented planning and preparing multiple options in advance, parties are less likely to rush decisions and unsustainable settlements may potentially be avoided.

That said, we recognize that peacebuilding is a long-term process. On the Korean Peninsula, it means also realizing that North Korean denuclearization is more likely to come about as a result of establishing a peace regime and normalization of relations, and not a condition for peace. However, in the meantime, military power is necessary for ensuring international order and for staving off further military provocations from North Korea and China.

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