Archive for November, 2010

A little (ahem) shameless self-promotion:
It’s actually an RSIS commentary I wrote.

Seriously, I am sick and tired of analysts wringing their hands in abject worry about how Asia is going down the arms race route. Maybe Asia is, but the signs are not conclusive!


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Like most concepts used to help us understand international politics, the concept of strategic stability is deceptively simple. Broken down to its root words, the concept refers to a condition where strategies that states use to ensure their security, stability and survival remain unchanged, that these strategies remain stable. What drives strategic stability? What makes policy-makers decide to maintain existing strategies to ensure the survival and security of their state? Under what sorts of conditions would we, as observers of international politics, decide that strategic stability was under threat?

For any inter-state relationship to be stable, it must have a base condition that encourages peaceful and stable relations. Strategic stability depends upon three elements that shape the nature of the particular inter-state relationship: culture, geography, and military balances. Culture shapes how the two sets of people view each other: it therefore helps if the people of the two states in question do not view each other with any degree of hostility and suspicion. It also helps that there is no source of historical animosity between the two sets of people.

Geography and the military balance shape the sense of security that either group in this relationship feels at any given time. Simply put, two groups of people may hate each other, but if one group feels that they are naturally defended – by high mountains or wide rivers, for instance – this group may feel it has very little to fear from the neighbour it hates. Finally, it is important that neither side in this relationship has any significant military advantage over the other, such that the latter feels under threat constantly. One group may feel that the natural geography protects it against attacks from the neighbour it hates, but if that neighbour suddenly acquires a military capability that nullifies this natural geographic defence, then the former can quickly begin to feel under threat.

The strategic impasse on the Korean peninsula has lasted longer than some peace treaties have, and as such it is tempting to consider that theatre as one that is intrinsically stable. However, it is possible to see that only two of the three elements of strategic stability are present on the Korean peninsula. It might be possible to argue that there is no strategic culture of hate on the peninsula – after all, the peoples on both sides of the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) are ethnic Koreans, they speak essentially the same language, even if the language in the South has evolved over time, given its exposure to the rest of the world. Certainly, Koreans on both sides of the DMZ have in certain moments of their history expressed deep sorrow over the division of the peninsula into two apparently irreconcilable halves. On the other hand, the two Koreas did fight a savage war against each other, and throughout the Armistice, have maintained probably the most heavily defended border in the world.

There is very little doubt that the geographic conditions of the Korean peninsula do not encourage a sense of stability, at least for the South Koreans. Given the proximity of Seoul to the DMZ, the fact that much of the South’s capital comes within range of North Korean artillery, and Seoul’s political as well as economic importance to South Korea, there has always been a strong sense within the South that it is geographically vulnerable to sudden attacks from the North. The military balance in the peninsula complicates matters, for although there can be no doubt that the South Korean military is unequivocally the stronger of the two armed forces, the North may enjoy a potentially devastating military advantage, inasmuch as it has long been suspected of having acquired nuclear weapons. As it stands, most security analysts have argued that the North has always maintained a powerful chemical and biological weapons capability. It is precisely the fact that South Korea is the much more powerful in terms of conventional weaponry that makes weapons of mass destruction an apparently attractive and cheap strategic option for the North.

If the conditions of strategic stability are not all present on the peninsula, then it definitely does not help that North Korea has on occasions engaged in behaviour that can only be described as threatening. In the late 1960s, North Korea attempted on a number of occasions to assassinate then-President Park Chung Hee. Throughout the 1970s, South Korean and American forces guarding the DMZ have uncovered a number of tunnels under the DMZ, the largest of which can accommodate two five-tonne trucks driving side by side. More recently, there was the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, which sparked angry diplomatic exchanges not just between Seoul and Pyongyang, but involving the United States as well. And then now shots have been fired across the DMZ.

Throughout the history of the two Koreas, running through the many provocations that have come and gone, the Armistice – essentially a cease-fire agreement on steroids – has held. The Korean peninsula has not witnessed the resumption of large-scale violence across the DMZ. As noted earlier, the Armistice has held longer than some peace treaties. This in a theatre that has unequivocally two of the three elements of strategic stability missing! Clearly something is missing from this analysis.

What the three elements of strategic stability need is a spark. The three elements are analogous to the same elements needed for a fire – fuel and oxygen. But the presence of fuel and oxygen itself is not sufficient for a fire to emerge; similarly for the concept of strategic stability. It is true that where at least two of the three elements of stability are absent, a condition of strategic instability exists. Strategic instability is, however, a latent condition. It takes the intervention of something else to turn it from a latent condition to actual war thereafter.

This intervention comes in the form of politics – both the politics within both Koreas, and the inter-state political relationship. It is important that the domestic politics in both states is stable, that neither set of policy elites is under domestic challenge. Where at least one set of policy elites is under domestic challenge, however, this is where this set of policy elites may be tempted to create an external distraction away from their domestic woes. This was the underlying premise of the film “Wag the Dog”. It happens in reality too. When Galtieri ordered Argentine forces to invade the British islands of the Falklands, his regime was being threatened from within – popular demonstrations over human rights abuses, over the rapidly failing economy and inflation running into triple digits. Galtieri and the rest of the military junta then ruling Argentina thought that a military takeover of the islands would not only distract domestic attention away from the problems the junta was facing, it was also doing something that was domestically very popular as well.

What kept the strategic stability of the Korean peninsula throughout the half-century of peaceful Armistice was the idea that neither set of policy elites in Seoul and Pyongyang were under significant domestic challenge. President Park Chung Hee might not have been popular, but his right-wing regime kept a very tight lid on domestic dissatisfaction. Once Park stepped down, South Korean politics witnessed a very rapid wave of democratisation. Domestic challenge to Kim Il Sung had practically disappeared by the end of the 1950s, and his successor Kim Jong Il seems to have maintained a fairly firm grip over North Korea as well.

But this is where the domestic politics question can begin to unravel. At least Kim Jong Il had a fairly long apprenticeship, the rest of the ruling party and the North Korean armed forces had time to acclimatise to the fact of the Dear Leader eventually succeeding the Great Leader. Kim Jong Un has had no such luxury. Indeed, until he was publically announced as the heir apparent to Kim Jong Il, many people around the world had not even heard of him. It will almost certainly take quite some time for Kim Jong Un to establish his leadership credentials to the rest of the North Korean policy world and military establishment.

Under such conditions, sparks from otherwise small-scale or localised incidents can assume a significance far beyond the actual event. Small-arms fire being exchanged across the DMZ may spin out of control into much large conflagrations. Now, more than ever, wise heads need to prevail on the Korean peninsula. Unfortunately, as the aphorism goes, it takes two hands to clap. To prevent war, it takes two sets of wise heads. It remains to be seen if there are these wise heads available in Pyongyang.

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