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Multiple Risks of Conflict on the Korean Peninsula

North East Asia centring on the Korean Peninsula is facing multiple challenges including geostrategic divide, geoeconomic competition, nuclear, military, and cyber. Propaganda and psy war have assumed a new dimension in this regional complex where two antagonists South and North Korea officially known as the Republic of Korea and the Democratic Republic of Korea respectively are still at war with only an Armistice Agreement separating the two from violent clashes and only just so. Here is a brief review of the risks and potential for escalation-

Geopolitics. While the ongoing geopolitical divide in the Korean Peninsula is sharp with a democratic South Korea facing a Stalinist autocratic one family ruled North Korea with multiple layers of United Nations Security Council sanctions, a new chapter was opened in June this year with the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Pyongyang the capital of North Korea.

The presence of the Russian leader whose country is a permanent member of the UN Security Council having a veto power comes about as the United States, South Korea and Japan have strengthened their alliance with a joint meeting  and declaration in 2023.

In August 2023, the leaders of three allies held an in-person summit at Camp David, United States to expand and deepen trilateral relations. “The Spirit of Camp David,” Statement called for diplomatic, economic, and security consultations increased the level of integration through joint military exercises, committed to sharing sensitive missile warning data on North Korea in real time and so on.

On the other hand Russia’s isolation post the launch of War in Ukraine has only brought it closer to regimes as North Korea who face extensive UN sanctions and opened new doors for violations for the North Korean leader Kim Jong un to defy the world. At the cost of providing what some say dud ammunition and missiles to support the Russian offensives in Ukraine, North Korea could break the gordian knot of isolation on critical missile and satellite technologies to improve the striking potential of its missiles.

China which has been a benefactor of North Korea for years watched this development while the Chinese Ambassador in North Korea met his Russian counter part as both discussed greater coordination.

China is said to be wary of Pyongyang’s deepening military ties with Moscow – which would be detrimental to China’s interests.

South Korea has threatened to provide lethal arms aid to Ukraine which it had so far desisted keeping in view Russian sensitivities. So, if that threshold is crossed there will be new developments in the region.

Clearly the geopolitical divide has been sharpened with Russia, North Korea and Iran joined by China with a degree of hesitation creating an axis as opposed to the United States, South Korea and Japan in the region amidst the larger alliance of the West.

Geoeconomic. The economic, tech and energy competition has sharpened added to which in the context of Northeast Asia are sanctions. China hard pressed by the United States is attempting to revive the economy and trilateral talks with Japan and South Korea were held in June. Here the U.S. may find its alliance divided as each member seeks to maximise economic potential for profit rather than politics. A trilateral summit of leaders from Japan, South Korea and China in June is an indication that all sides are hedging on the economic issue.

Nuclear. With North Korea possessing nuclear warheads and no disarmament or arms control talks in the making unless we rely on Mr. Donald Trump taking over the US Presidency post November this year, which will also set into motion an uncertain trajectory, many analysts in South Korea have called fore return of US tactical nuclear weapons to the Peninsula which had been withdrawn in 1991 in a mutual agreement with then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Importantly the Gorbachev era of glasnost is far behind as Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking at regaining Russia’s lost glory as well as Soviet geopolitical space if not territory.

Some in South Korea want  the country to go nuclear.

With North Korea claiming to develop hypersonic and submarine launched nuclear tipped ballistic missiles, the call for nuclear weaponization in South Korea may only go and this would make the present status of, ‘extended deterrence,’ by the United States shaky. What more the US Mainland could well be threatened by an antagonist regime which also claims multiple independently launched rocket systems beating US strategic air defence sytems.

Military. South Korea is fielding one of the most modern conventionally armed military force in this part of the World other than Japan with an alliance with the United States that guarantees high technological edge.

The sanctioned North has made up the gap by manufacturing high lethality long range systems such as large bore 600 mm multiple rocket launch systems which have the South Korean capital Seoul on the radar. These rockets with can cause reparable harm to millions in a City of 51 million that is densely populated.

With possible Russian assistance in improving the accuracy and lethality of these systems there would be a nightmare scenario for Seoul.

The South is developing a three axis system to counter the same which, ” aims to defend its territory by developing a Kill Chain to preemptively strike the source of an attack, intercepting the incoming missile strikes using the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD), and employing the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) campaign to eliminate the adversary’s command-and-control by neutralizing its leadership and military facilities”.

And so the deterrence pile up by both sides goes on.

Cyber. Presently North Korean cyber capability is diverse and mainly used for criminal extortion purpose with proliferation of the threat of ramsomware across the World.

The cyber warriors of the North have been able to penetrate the South Korean systems in the past.

What their potential could be in the case of an open conflict is unknown, but Seoul needs to be well prepared for the same as “North Korea’s elite cyber force, under the control of its military and the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Kim’s clandestine security apparatus, is composed of about 7,000 hackers, extensively trained in specialized domestic programs and, in some cases, trained also in Russia and China”.

Psychological Warfare and Propaganda. In May-June this year North Korea unleashed another tool of psy war on the South sending loads of trash filled balloons. While these are mostly nonlethal but have terrified the citizens where these have landed.

South Korea in turn have launched propaganda broadcasts, how far these have been effective is not known.

Risks Ahead.  With a hostile geopolitical environment, the potential risk of war is only a miscalculation by either of the frontline states North Korea or the South who have both abdicated a sensible 2018 Comprehensive Military Agreement and have militarized [sic] the Demiiltarised Zone between the two countries.

Conflict could also break out in case North Korea believes that it can get away with a stray act such as the 2010 attack on a South Korean Navy corvette ROKS Cheonan. This time around the administration in Seoul led by President Yoon Suk Yeol is prepared for a massive retaliation which may spiral out of control.

Indeed, the risk of a conflict on the Korean Peninsula may not be a hair trigger away but is potent.


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