Hammer, Dagger, Great Game

“Let’s Drive Out the Imperialists and Reunite the Fatherland"

Guest post by Young June Kim

“Maybe there is no longer any such thing as strategy; only crisis management”. Robert McNamara’s words would have found a sympathetic ear with the South Korean military after Tuesday 23rd’s abrupt attack on the island of Yeonpyung-do by the North Korean People’s Army.

The casualties were numerous; both military and civilian. And unlike the attack on the ROK’s navy warship in March, the evidence was so undisputed that for once South Korean society was unanimous in its fury at and condemnation of North Korea’s actions.

Yet when it comes to the geostrategic implications, the crisis only served to magnify some long-standing positions with regard to the Korean peninsula. The situation, subsequently, has unfolded along lines we wouldn’t have been hard-pressed to imagine.

The ROK-U.S. alliance has carried out a joint war game along with a U.S. aircraft carrier, a move which both China and the DPRK in some sense see as a challenge to regional security. The latter two countries’ responses have differed though; China suggesting re-opening the Six Party Talks and Pyongyang growing ever more pugnacious in its public announcements.

With China’s dispatch President Hu Jintao’s special envoy to the North, the decisions of these two quasi-communist regimes are firmly in centre-stage; a place rendered more brightly lit by the recent revelations courtesy of Wikileaks that Seoul sees Beijing as being increasingly open to the idea of a unified Korean peninsula under Southern control.* That perennial question thus arises anew: will a second Korean War break out?

Before considering the question, it bears remembering that the possibility of war has existed continuously on the Korean peninsula since its division. More strikingly, according to a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, significantly more than a thousand military incidents between the two Koreas have occurred since the end of the war; with 1,436 clashes on the Korean peninsula killing 1,554 Korean and American soldiers since 1961.

Meanwhile the drumbeat of conflict continues to sound, to a rhythm dictated by Korea’s geostrategic importance. For as Zbigniew Brzezinski noted, the Korean peninsula is pivotal to the balance of power in Northeast Asia, representing either a “hammer” aimed at continental giants China and Russia or a “dagger” pointed at Japan.

With regional powers, including the U.S., thus maintaining long-standing interests in the peninsula’s politics, a second Korean War would by default become international. Perhaps ironically, this interplay of powers has provided a form of insurance against further war; all regional powers having a common interest in the current deadlock on the peninsula. And while both Seoul and Pyongyang have utilized confrontation with each other in order to secure their respective regimes, the results of past crises have in a sense been predictable due to a fundamental common interest in maintaining that status quo.

So what’s changed? The geostrategic fundamentals remain largely the same. But a changing relationship between China and DPRK and their respective internal shifts will be a significant variable in terms of regional security. It seems quite certain that there is no longer any argument about the rise of China. As we’ve seen across a range of issues between Beijing and Washington D.C. — e.g. economic discord, the Choenan incident — China is a major challenger to U.S. hegemony in the region.

A more difficult variable to predict is the stability of the North Korean regime. Numerous reports have tried to shed light on the possibility of a regime collapse. The Kim Jung Il regime has reportedly been weakened by the failed economy, a collapse in social cohesion and the succession issue. Yet while information from the North is accessible, the veracity of many reports is always in doubt and a majority of Korea-watchers essentially remain loath to speculate about the stability of the regime.

What remains clear however is that the recent attack signalled a watermark in North Korean provocation; its brazenness has inflamed popular South Korean opinion against the North, with even the countries progressives unanimous in their condemnation of the shelling. Meanwhile although the geostrategic “tripwire” of an international fear about any escalation remains in place, the mood in both South and North Korea grows ever-more confrontational and China’s position ever-more uncomfortable.

Young June Kim has spent time at the International Crisis Group, The U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea and as an Assistant Researcher for Seoul’s Institute for Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS). The views represented in this article are however solely his personal ones and do not represent those of the above institutions. 

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