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CSIS Briefing
Evolving Military Balance in Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia
Summary of Report by Anthony H. Cordesman
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (left), along with other brass hats, reviews the military parade of its Korean People’s Army in its capital Pyongyang on April 25, 2013 on the occasion of the 81st anniversary of the establishment of its army.

The tensions between the two Koreas – and the potential involvement of the People’s Republic of China (China or PRC), Japan, Russia, and the United States of America (US) – create a nearly open-ended spectrum of possible conflicts. These range from posturing and threats – “wars of intimidation” – to a major conventional conflict on the Korean Peninsula to intervention by outside powers like the US and China to the extreme of nuclear conflict.

The Korean balance is also sharply affected by the uncertain mix of cooperation and competition between the US and China. The US rebalancing of its forces to Asia and the steady modernization of Chinese forces, in particular the growth of Chinese sea-air-missile capabilities to carry out precision conventional and nuclear strikes deep into the Pacific, affect the balance in the Koreas and Northeast Asia. They also raise the possibility of far more intense conflicts and ones that could extend far beyond the boundaries of the Koreas.

There are powerful deterrents to such conflicts. The Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) has emerged as a major economic power, one that is important to the economies of the US, Japan, and China – as well as to the world. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is one of the world’s most heavily militarized states, but it is still a relatively small military power by US and Chinese standards. It remains vulnerable to US aid, missile power, and precision strike capability, and runs a serious risk of being isolated if it provokes or escalates a conflict without Chinese support.

Both the US and China have every reason to prevent and contain a conflict in the Koreas and Northeast Asia. Both are dependent on the ROK and Japan for critical parts of their trade and economy, and both are dependent on the overall stability of a global economy that is heavily driven by the stability of Northeast Asia. Neither can “win” any conflict between them at a cost approaching the benefits of avoiding a conflict, neither has an incentive to becoming locked into an arms race that extends beyond basic national security concerns, and neither can “win” a limited clash or conflict without triggering a far deeper, lasting process of competition that may lead to far more serious wars.

Japan is another player in this process and one that has virtually the same reasons to avoid intensifying its present military efforts or becoming involved in a conflict. Japan cannot, however, stand aside from the Koreas and the overall balance of forces in Northeast Asia. Japan, too, must assess its security position in terms of the DPRK’s expanding missile and nuclear capabilities and the outcome of both the rebalancing of US forces and China’s pace of military modernization. It, too, faces a “worst case” that could push it into creating far larger military forces and even offensive missile and nuclear forces.

Russia, though not heavily involved in the Peninsula militarily or politically, would like to expand its influence in Northeast Asia and has been working to do so in recent years. Russia is would also be affected by any potential conflict, as it shares a border with the DPRK – a border that is close to the DPRK’s nuclear and missile testing facilities. Aside from scenarios involving military escalations on the Peninsula that could pull Russia in, Russia also must consider the case of any nuclear or missile accidents near – or on – its territory, and the potentially devastating effects such a situation could produce.

The fact remains that no one can dismiss the risk of a serious clash or war between the Koreas and one that could escalate to involve outside powers. This is particularly true if one considers the number of times that war has resulted from unpredictable incidents and patterns of escalation. The historical reality is that the likelihood of less-probable forms of war actually occurring has been consistently higher than what seemed in peacetime to be the most probable contingencies and the patterns of escalation that seemed most likely from the viewpoint of a “rational bargainer.”

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions; accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in these publications should be understood to be solely those of the authors.






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