Saturday, October 15, 2011

Towards an imbalance of terror?

Member and observer states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). In both the east and the west, defense alliances have become less centralized and more loosely defined since the end of the Cold War. They no longer contain regional conflicts and may actually cause them to go global. (source)

Tensions are mounting on the Korean Peninsula, as seen last November in the bombardment of Yeongpyeong Island. Is a second Korean War imminent?

Not likely, if the general reaction is to be believed. An example of this thinking is given by David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC:

We often call the situation a “powderkeg” or a “tinderbox,” implying a very unstable situation in which one small spark could lead to a huge explosion. But the evidence actually leads to the opposite conclusion: we have gone 60 years without a major war, despite numerous “sparks” such as the skirmish that occurred last week. If one believes the situation is a tinderbox, the only explanation for six decades without a major war is that we have been extraordinarily lucky. I prefer the opposite explanation: deterrence is quite stable, both sides know the costs of a major war, and both sides—rhetoric aside—keep smaller incidents in their proper perspective. (Kang, 2010)

Yet the current situation differs from the one that prevailed during most of those sixty years. From 1953 to the late 1980s, there was no second Korean War because neither the United States nor the Soviet Union wanted one. Both parties considered the division of the Korean Peninsula to be an acceptable compromise. The only people really unhappy were the Koreans themselves, who on their own could do little. The decision to go to war ultimately lay in Washington and Moscow.

This situation has changed since the Cold War ended in the late 1980s. Moscow has ceased to be a decision center for global conflict, and the Warsaw Pact has given way to a much more decentralized defense pact: the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). NATO still exists and has even accepted new member states, but it too is now a looser organization with less clearly defined obligations. Many members have refused to support the latest military operations in Afghanistan and Libya.

The end of the Cold War also stopped the Soviet Union’s direct and indirect subsidies of North Korea. Throughout the 1990s, the regime in Pyongyang teetered on the brink of collapse, with reunification being the most likely outcome. At the time, many South Koreans actually feared this prospect, having seen the high cost of reunification in Germany.

That window of opportunity closed in the early 2000s. By then, Pyongyang had weathered the worst of the storm, as had its semi-allies China and Russia. By then too, the South had embraced its new Global Korea policy—an explicit shift to post-nationalism, multiculturalism, and large-scale immigration. In 2006, Pyongyang’s leading newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, angrily denounced the new policy as “an unpardonable argument to obliterate the race by denying the homogeneity of the Korean race and to make an immigrant society out of South Korea, to make it a hodgepodge, to Americanize it” (Koehler, 2006).

The Global Korea policy has fundamentally changed Pyongyang’s vision of the future. Conquest of South Korea is no longer a goal to be pushed indefinitely into the future. It is something that must happen soon—before the demographic changes in the South become irreversible.

So the North Koreans are upset. But what can they do? Any invasion of the South would trigger an American intervention. And it is doubtful whether China would come in on Pyongyang’s side. As David Kang points out:

If it is an unprovoked North Korean invasion, then the North probably goes it alone. Even China is unlikely to support such a war. Although the Chinese are supportive of North Korea, they are clearly not in favor of starting a war on the peninsula that would have enormous negative consequences for every country in the region. (Kang, 2010)

In a conflict between North Korea alone and the United States, there is little doubt about the eventual outcome. The United States would win.

[…] although North Korea possesses a significant missile arsenal, Pyongyang is unlikely to contemplate launching full scale strikes against anyone, given the conservative nature of the regime which fears for its own survival, and the inevitable scale of US retaliation which would almost certainly result in the destruction of North Korea. The same reality applies to North Korea’s million plus army, which despite being among the largest in the world, is devoid of any real sustainable offensive capacity. Even in the unlikely scenario that the regime considers launching an invasion of South Korea, North Korea simply lacks the most basic resources that would be needed to mount an aggressive military campaign. Conversely, the South Koreans and the US have the personnel and technology, especially air supremacy, to quickly neutralise any North Korean offensive strike (Fazio, 2011)

Clearly, the above scenario holds little appeal for the North Koreans. But there are other scenarios. The most attractive one, from their standpoint, would bring other nations into the war on North Korea’s side, especially China.

Yet, as David Kang noted, China is at most a semi-ally. With some reluctance, it might even accept reunification of the peninsula under South Korean control, the only proviso being the departure of U.S. troops. In the mid-1990s, this outcome seemed very likely to the Chinese:

[There] would come other important developments, most important the eventual collapse of North Korea and the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. It is awkward for the Chinese to acknowledge this publicly given their long relationship to the ultraorthodox Communist regime in North Korea, but Beijing has to realize that that regime, which has literally bankrupted the country it rules, is doomed and that reunification under South Korea is likely in the next decade or two. Foreign-affairs experts in China told us that they doubted American troops would remain in Korea long after reunification began, a prediction that seems realistic, since the reason for the troops, the North Korean threat, would have disappeared. (Bernstein & Munro, 1998, p. 176)

Today, such an outcome seems unlikely. Germany has been reunified for two decades, and U.S. troops are still there. For a number of geopolitical reasons, the Americans wish to keep a military presence in mainland East Asia just as they wish the same in continental Europe. Even if U.S. troops did leave, South Korea’s political class would remain oriented to the United States and would tilt a reunified Korea in that direction. China would thus have a U.S. ally right next to its industrial heartland of Manchuria.

For these reasons and others, China will not abandon Pyongyang:

Despite Chinese rhetoric in support of peaceful unification of the Koreas, Beijing fears that a unified Korea would have strong ties with the United States, eliminating the buffer zone that North Korea provided. A reunified Korea would also eliminate North Korea’s value as political and military leverage against the U.S. stance on Taiwan. Lastly, China has a population of nearly two million ethnic Korean-Chinese living just north of the Chinese-North Korean border. A unified Korea might provide the impetus for a separatist movement. Therefore, instead of a reunified Korea, China’s long-term objective is to encourage an evolution of the DPRK into a stable and economically prosperous, non-nuclear regime that remains aligned toward Beijing. (Mrosek, 2011, p. 4)

As a semi-ally, how might China enter a second Korean conflict on Pyongyang’s side? There seem to be four conditions:

1. North Korea is not perceived as the aggressor. If the U.S. intervenes in North Korea as it has previously in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya, the Chinese would at least covertly assist Pyongyang.

2. Tensions are already high between China and the U.S. This could come about for a number of reasons: Taiwan; the trade balance; concerns over Tibet and the South China Sea; etc.

3. Other SCO member states are willing to provide at least covert assistance.

4. NATO is increasingly divided, with some member states being members in name only.

The above scenario is certainly far from science fiction. The United States could intervene in North Korea if it believed that the regime was about to collapse and that a popular uprising was in progress. After all, the same kind of intervention seemed to work in Libya. There is also the mistaken belief, common among U.S. policymakers, that the Chinese would support the U.S. or at least do nothing (Mrosek, 2011, pp. 50-52). Ironically, that belief can be traced in part to the above passage by Bernstein and Munro.

Just as mistakenly, the Americans, and perhaps also the Chinese, believe that the resulting conflict could be contained to the Korean Peninsula—much like the first Korean War. Yet such containment is less likely today than it was in 1950-1953. Back then, both the United States and the Soviet Union were war-weary and wished to consolidate their newly won spheres of influence. There was thus a deliberate effort to keep the war from spreading, as seen in Truman’s sacking of Gen. MacArthur. Finally, although many nations fought in the Korean War, only two of them—the United States and the Soviet Union—had the power to decide whether it would remain regional or go global.

The same principle held throughout the Cold War. The international system was essentially a duopoly—a “balance of terror.” When the Hungarian Revolution broke out, the United States thought long and hard … and did nothing. When the two power blocs did intervene in regional conflicts, as in Korea and Vietnam, the conflicts remained regional.

With the end of the Cold War, the United States has been more willing to engage in military interventions that would have been unthinkable before. One result has been an arms buildup in countries that fear U.S. intervention, notably China, Russia, and Iran. This fear was instrumental to creation of the SCO. Unlike the Warsaw Pact, however, the SCO has no single decision center, and its member states do not have clearly defined obligations to each other.

The same could be said for NATO. Its aims are no longer clearly defined and its members more and more reluctant to engage in theatres of war that now lie well outside Europe. Increasingly, NATO is providing a cover for operations led primarily by the United States and any other member states that wish to tag along.

This new international system can do little to contain regional wars. It may indeed have the potential to draw one nation after another into an initially minor conflict, especially if they see it as a prelude to similar interventions to be launched against themselves. The world situation today thus scarcely resembles 1950. It seems to have more in common with … 1914.


Bernstein, R. & R.H. Munro. (1998).The Coming Conflict with China, New York: Vintage Books.

Fazio, D. (2011). The North Korean security threat: an historical context and current policy options, ERAS, 12(2), 1-25.

Kang, D. (2010). Korea Expert Answers Your Questions.

Koehler, R. (2006). I guess this means the DPRK won’t be inviting Hines Ward for a visit (English translation of Rodong Sinmun editorial).

Mrosek, D.M. (2011). China and North Korea: A Peculiar Relationship, thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California.


Anonymous said...


I agree with your conclusion. It does feel like climate is ripe for a world war.

Off topic request:

I just discovered this blog from a mention in Roissey's latest post. This is a really fascinating site. I see that you have discussed genetic determinism which is an interest of mine. I have done a search but I have not seen you define what you mean by it. Could you refer me to writing of yours where you discuss what you mean by genetic determinism and any arguments against free will that either you have made or that you regard as high quality. Thanks in advance.

D. Simms

Peter Frost said...

D. Simms,

The term "genetic determinism" simply means any direct or indirect influence of genes on behavior.

My own interest is in a subset of genetic determinism called gene-culture co-evolution. Actually, I'm interested in a sub-subset called Baldwinian selection.

This form of selection can be broken down into three stages:

1) Individuals adhere to a desired behavior through conscious effort, within an envelope of possibilities allowed by their genetic endowment.

2) These actions create a new cultural environment, which in turn selects for genotypes that more easily produce the desired behavior. A heritable predisposition increasingly takes over from conscious effort.

3) The result is a shift toward a new mean genotype and a new envelope of possible phenotypes.

I've published three articles so far on this theme. My most recent one, "Human nature or human natures" is good for a general overview:

Frost, P. (2011). Human nature or human natures? Futures, 43, 740–748.

Frost, P. (2010). The Roman State and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology, 8(3), 376-389.

Frost, P. (2008). The spread of alphabetical writing may have favored the latest variant of the ASPM gene, Medical Hypotheses, 70, 17-20.

If you want a pdf, send me a request with your e-mail address to:
pfrost61 at hotmail dot com

As for free will, it's only an ethical/legal concept. We have "free will" when our behavior is not being constrained by our immediate circumstances. Clearly, however, all behavior has root causes that lie outside ourselves. If we include all non-immediate factors, "free will" ceases to exist.

Nonetheless, it is a useful concept for operationalizing human behavior. We say people have "free will" when they have attained a sufficient degree of maturity, self-awareness, and control over their lives.

Anonymous said...

The Korean War was between the US and China back in the 50s. And it is not going to happen again. This is because both sides have too much to lose in the war. The best situation is status quo. And everyone, even the South Koreans are trying try to maintain it. With the shift of North Korean leadership soon, I think that objective would be consolidated soon as well within the North Korea.

BTW. SCO is nothing like NATO. Its central focus is in Central Asia. And no countries in SCO would go with NATO in bombing Libya and sanctioning Syria.

There won't be a world war. The climate is far from being ripe. The only possibility that could trigger a large scale conflict is the demographic shift in the West, as far as I can say. And it's going to happen in the future.

Peter Frost said...


I agree that China wishes to maintain the status quo on the Korean Peninsula. If something endangered the status quo, however, China would not sit idly by.

Wars don't necessarily happen because the warring countries intended them to happen. If we use 1914 as an example, there was no "consensus" in favor of a world war:

- Austro-Hungary wanted a limited war against Serbia (and thought it had a green light from the world community to do so).

- France wanted a limited war against Germany to recover Alsace-Lorraine (and thought that her ally Russia would be sufficient to this end).

- Germany wanted a limited "pre-emptive" war against Russia (and thought that Great Britain and the United States would remain neutral).

In 1914, only the Serbian nationalists seemed to realize just how optimal the conditions were for a massive global conflict.

Anonymous said...

The Japanese being played off against Russia by the newly independent Korea caused the 1905 Russia - Japan war. And that caused WW1.

I think we are in the early 1900's rather than 1914.

bruce said...

You are ignoring tensions between China and India - far more important than what you mention, all else pales in comparison to the various ways China is putting pressure on India's borders, from every angle, directly and indirectly.

Did you know China has naval bases in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka, for example? And is building military ability on India's Himalayan border? And a dam to divert water from India to China?

Your concerns seem very '20th century'. Things are changing fast.