from Asia Unbound

North Korea’s Provocations and Their Impact on Northeast Asian Regional Security

December 01, 2010

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This excerpt is based on a report by See-Won Byun from the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, “North Korea’s Provocations and Their Impact on Northeast Asian Regional Security.” 

North Korean provocations against South Korea through the sinking of the Cheonan in March 2010 and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010 have not only heightened inter-Korean tensions, but have also exposed differences in the reactions of North Korea’s neighbors, underscoring the possibility that peninsular instability may heighten tensions and presage potential conflict among regional powers.  These tensions have exposed differing preferences among North Korea’s neighbors regarding what might constitute a preferred ‘end state’ on the Korean Peninsula that might result from North Korea’s continued decline (i.e., the potential regional impact of South Korean-led unification of the Korean Peninsula).

North Korean provocations heighten security dilemmas that are reflected in contradictory views among neighbors about the desirability of a shift in the status quo on the peninsula: the United States supports South Korea and a Korean unification as a democratic market economy; China fears that a unified democratic Korea might be hostile to China’s interests; Japan fears a Korean unification that might result in a Korea that is favorable to Chinese interests and hostile to Japan. These underlying concerns have inhibited cooperation in response to North Korean provocations, making provocation a useful tool by which North Korea can incite regional divisions and demand attention and benefits despite its growing weakness. These apparently contradictory positions must be addressed in order to overcome collective action problems that make it impossible to respond adequately to North Korea’s persistent and growing challenge to Northeast Asian stability.

North Korea’s ability to survive by eating the crumbs that fall from the table of its richer neighbors is a factor that promotes the North’s sustainability even if some effects of marketization have threatened the leadership’s ability to exert effective internal political control. Its focus on internal leadership succession issues further narrows the likelihood that the leadership in Pyongyang will respond constructively to external concerns about regime behavior. North Korea’s efforts to expand its capacity to deliver on nuclear threats through continued development of its nuclear and missile programs underscores the risks and potential costs that a ruthless and backward leadership might exact in its attempts to hold on to power in the absence of a decisive collective response by North Korea’s neighbors.

North Korea’s stepped up external aggression and the regional responses reveal the following challenges that now must be solved by giving consideration both to the need to stabilize the inter-Korean relationship and to the dilemmas posed for North Korea’s neighbors, and particularly China and the United States, as they consider next steps in dealing with North Korea:

  • South Korea has sought to respond to North Korean provocations by holding North Korea accountable for its actions, but has failed either to mobilize coercive measures that can be employed without risking an escalation of conflict counter to its own interests or to mobilize sufficient international support to send a sufficiently strong signal to exact a price for North Korean provocations.
  • South Korea’s failure to mount a proportionate military response to past North Korean provocations reignites deep-seated South Korean domestic political divisions over North Korea policy and heightens the risks of miscalculation and military escalation despite public fears of the consequences of such escalation by generating political pressure on Lee Myung-bak to punish North Korea decisively during the next crisis.
  • South Korean preemption or self-defense in advance of a future North Korean provocation runs the risk of further misunderstanding with China, including the possibility that China might feel compelled to come to North Korea’s defense in the event that it is attacked in accord with its extant mutual defense treaty obligations to North Korea.
  • South Korea needs cooperation with China if its goals of stability, peaceful coexistence, and eventual Korean unification are to be achieved, yet the dramatic success of Sino-South Korean economic relations has not discernibly influenced China’s view that its interests are better served by stable division than South Korean-led reunification.
  • China’s tendency to view peninsular issues through the lens of its relations with the United States has strengthened as a result of North Korean provocations.  China’s protests against U.S.-ROK military exercises aimed at deterring the North have made Sino-U.S. cooperation on Korean Peninsula matters more difficult.  China continues to fear that a unified Korea allied with the United States would be detrimental to China’s security.
  • China’s decision to support North Korea has come at a high economic cost and political cost, yet China has not mobilized the leverage necessary to constrain North Korean provocations because such actions carry high costs for China.  However, cooperation with the United States and South Korea comes at a cost to China’s already limited influence on the North.
  • North Korean provocations have exploited South Korean political and military vulnerabilities and attempted to generate potential fissures in the U.S.-ROK alliance; however, the effect thus far has been to promote even closer U.S.-ROK political and military cooperation within the alliance.
  • North Korean provocations have strengthened U.S.-Japan alliance cooperation and served as a catalyst for promoting unprecedented trilateral security cooperation among the United States, South Korea, and Japan.
  • The regional response to North Korea’s provocations has deepened tensions between the United States and China and highlighted serious differences over how to respond to the North.  Despite growing pessimism over the future of the Six Party Talks as a regional mechanism for managing crisis, China has endorsed a return to talks without acknowledging that North Korea is the source and instigator of regional tensions.
  • With North Korea’s revelations of progress in its enriched uranium program, a continued diplomatic stalemate over how to address these issues allows North Korea to strengthen its claim that it is a nuclear weapons power, yet a premature return to diplomacy runs the risk of reinforcing to Pyongyang the idea that it can pursue its provocations and nuclear activities with impunity.

Despite underscoring the common stake in cooperation to address the common challenges to regional stability posed by North Korean provocations, North Korean actions have thus far enhanced the likelihood that North Korean instability might engender regional strategic competition or even conflict.