The Koreas, Bastion of Cold War Realism


Nuclear crises, propaganda and espionage, a clash of ideologies – the Korean peninsula is the  only place in the world where the Cold War lingers. This persistence is the result of the 1953 Armistice Agreement and the apparent neorealist policies employed by North Korea. Despite the problems with neorealism and its appropriately dwindling popularity, it remains a useful lens through which to understand the conflict on the peninsula, and the defensive realist reactions on the part of China and South Korea.

Rather than asserting that realism or its offshoots are the ultimate International Relations grand theories, I suggest that neorealism remains a crucial aspect of IR security theory. The offensive realist behavior of the DPRK and the defensive realist policies of China and the South Korea serve to illustrate the unfortunate but continued significance of neorealism within international relations.

Neorealism, defined by Kenneth Waltz in 1959, holds that states are unitary rational agents acting in their perceived self-interest within a system wherein each state seeks to ensure its perpetuation and maintain a balance of power. Structure is the defining feature of the theory, with states the main actors competing within an anarchic system to maintain their power and stability. The modern East Asian regional complex has security dynamics very similar to those that prevailed in the Cold War during the second half of the 20th century. Because the Korean War concluded with an armistice agreement and not a peace treaty, the Cold War on the peninsula has effectively continued, producing a subsequent nuclear proliferation; the crisis has only escalated since the DPRK announced in May 2009 that it would no longer abide by the armistice. As during the Cold War, foreign relations in the region are based on allegedly rational cost-benefit analyses of war and executing the appropriate policies. The focus of North-East Asian states has been on classic security dilemma proliferation and maintaining a balance of power to avoid war.

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Just as during the 20th century Cold War between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the objective of each actor is not to engage in war and suffer its costs and consequences; rather each state is more interested in preventing war and maintaining regional stability and their spheres of hegemony. This loosely follows the balance of power security model, which holds that: all states are power-seeking; states ultimately seek hegemony over their system; and that other states in the system will attempt to block those bids for hegemony. However, the regional system of East Asia is different from the Cold War bipolarity; instead, it has a multi-polar dynamic, in which China, South Korea, and the U.S. compete for regional hegemony. Actors optimally try to have good relations with the other players or minimally try to avoid hostile relations; and actors try to prevent threateningly close cooperation between the other actors. This logic is reflected in the defensive realist policies of China and South Korea, while North Korea has taken a more offensive power-seeking approach.

The DPRK Strategy

Offensive realism is the strategy being pursued by the DPRK, keeping John Mearsheimer’s brand of realism relevant in contemporary IR theory. This theory dictates that states seek to maximize power through increased military capability, as can be seen with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. While it remains unknown whether or not the DPRK is seeking hegemonic status in the region as an orthodox reading of offensive realist policy would suggest, it is certain that its newfound nuclear capability is the North’s only effective foreign policy tool; without nuclear weapons, North Korea would receive very little attention, which is an international embarrassment given its grave yet largely ignored human rights crises. Yet just as realism suggests, proliferation and security are central to the foreign policy of the region.

The DPRK has acted as a classical realist state in building up its nuclear arms in response to its perceived security threats. Contrary to the popular stance taken by the Western media, the perceived security threat of the U.S. is not all baseless paranoia.

The Korean War, and the U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons in defense of South Korea, understandably pushed Kim Il-sung to pursue nuclear technology early on, and after China’s denial to share its nuclear secrets after its test in 1964 an indigenous DPRK program was pursued. The fear of a U.S. confrontation was exacerbated in the late 1960s as the U.S. placed nuclear weapons on ROK soil, and there was concern in Pyongyang that North Korea’s larger communist allies would no longer provide support as it observed the Cuban missile crisis, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the Russo-Sino split. North Korea’s security environment deteriorated with the end of the Cold War: It lost funding from the U.S.SR, South Korea flourished economically and militarily, China focused on its own economics and reached out to South Korea, and Russia recognized the ROK. Without being able to lean on the Soviets or their own declining conventional weapons program, nuclear weapons offered the most security and were therefore a logical option. Finally, with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan Iraq and the instance on regime change in Iraq, Pyongyang worried that it might be the next focus of American foreign policy and so built up its nuclear deterrent.

While the perceived security threat is the main motive behind nuclearization, domestic politics and international norms also provide motivations: The focus on external threats distracts from daily grievances and gives the Kim regime power and legitimacy, and the international symbolism of nuclearization gives the DPRK a highly effective diplomatic bargaining chip, along with the international status of a modern state.

The DPRK has not yet developed enrichment capabilities to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, and so is a limited nuclear power in the practical sense. Based on evidence from its May 2009 test, North Korea has approximately enough plutonium for four to eight primitive nuclear weapons; it is also safe to assume that they can only be launched over relatively short distances. Yet, this is enough to aggravate the international community and to concern its neighbors. With its small and militarily useless nuclear arsenal, North Korea has proven that a nuclear program does not need to be large or sophisticated to be politically effective.

Defensive Realism

Defensive realism shares the structural tenets of offensive realism; both emphasize the importance of balancing behavior in a chaotic international system. Yet defensive realism proposes that the unrestrained pursuit of power is counterbalancing and therefore not desirable. The PRC and ROK have reacted to North Korea’s offensive realism with defensive realist foreign policy aimed at balancing the DPRK’s aggressive behavior and calling for restraint. It must be noted that their policy motives also include suspicions about Japan, the U.S., and each other, as well as a wide range of domestic considerations, but that non-proliferation is the driving motive behind the PRC and ROK’s regional foreign policy.

The most pressing concern from the region is a conflict between Pyongyang and Seoul or Tokyo; the desire to avoid such a clash is what drives relations between North Korea and its neighbors. Second to this is avoiding the potential disasters of regime change or collapse: These include a refugee crisis for China and South Korea; an economic crisis for Seoul should it absorb the North in an attempt at reunification; an economic crisis for China as the unstable region experiences capital flight; and the unpleasant realities of dealing with a humanitarian crisis should the human rights abuses occurring in the North be stopped and rectified. Finally, the region is interested in preventing North Korea from expediting nuclear crises around the world by exporting nuclear technology. All parties realize that between the options of engagement, disengagement, and containment, the former is the most appealing because it allows for the greatest potential to control, or at least influence, Pyongyang. This cost-benefit analysis is the framework around which defensive realist policy is formed in both China and South Korea.

China is ultimately concerned with the denuclearization of North Korea. DPRK test facilities are close to the Chinese border and threaten Chinese security should an accident occur, and could already be having a negative ecological impact. More pressingly (as “hard” security concerns always trump “soft,” environmental concerns regardless of the consequential long-term ecological insecurity), the PRC does not want an expanded North Korean nuclear program that might prompt the ROK and Japan to develop nuclear weapons should they lose confidence in the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Further, the implications of accepting a DPRK nuclear program for the future of non-proliferation and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) do not bode well for global security, especially given the possibility of North Korean nuclear exports to non-state actors. Finally, China does not want North Korea to continue to nuclearize because it threatens China’s nuclear monopoly in the region. This follows classical realist security logic: China seeks balance and is most secure when it is the only nuclear power in the region, and therefore opposes attempts at nuclearization by other states.

China is also concerned about the possible collapse of a nuclearized DPRK and the potential security consequences. From a Chinese perspective, a U.S. intervention in North Korea (a likely outcome of regime collapse) would be even less appealing than a more nuclearized DPRK. Haunted by the detriment of the Korean War and bound by the 1961 Sino-DPRK Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance, China seeks to avoid military conflict on the peninsula at all costs. China also has an interest in maintaining the status quo because North Korea acts as a physical buffer by which, under different circumstances, an adversary could launch an invasion of China; Beijing remembers the Japanese invasion in the 1930s and 1940s, and the Korean War during which enemy troops were threatening China’s border. North Korea could possibly be forced to abandon its nuclear aspirations if the PRC were to impose harsh economic sanctions, but China fears that doing so would result in internal collapse of the DPRK regime.

South Korea has taken a similar defensive realist policy as China. Even following the failure of the Sunshine Policy, due in large part to the DPRK’s refusal to cooperate, the ROK has been eager to maintain peaceful if strained relations. This is mostly because South Korea has no interest in a military confrontation of any kind with the North. A conventional military conflict would certainly result in a victory for the ROK, especially with the help of the U.S. (and possibly Japan), but would devastate Seoul, which sits only 40 km from the demarcation line. Accordingly, South Korea has a sufficient deterrent under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, maintaining its defensive realist position of itself themselves without military aggression.

South Korea, like China, doesn’t want the regime in the North to collapse because it would presage a massive wave of migration. South Korea is hesitant to even discuss the possibility of managing a collapsed North Korea for fear that it would invite unwanted intervention, forever thwarting hopes for reunification. The ROK and China also share apprehensions about the potential fate of North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons and technology should the North collapse.

The PRC government’s legitimacy is premised on continued economic growth; therefore the state’s economic interests are also its security interests, and China’s economic interests are deeply tied to stability in Korea. A conflict on the peninsula would damage Chinese production, foreign direct investment, liquidity, and trade, and it would aversely influence the huge Sino-South Korean trade relationship by diverting economic resources into North Korea. The PRC, with pressure from the U.S., agreed to United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions condemning North Korea along with mild economic sanctions against Pyongyang, but even the most scathing of these have been relatively benign.

In its cautious position, China also affirms that the DPRK has the right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy after it returns to the NPT, and maintains that there is no solution available other than continued dialogue between the concerned parties. The PRC is also allied with the DPRK for political reasons, but their historic communist connection has been tested by what Beijing views as Pyongyang’s insolence and incendiary rhetoric: the fraternal relationship is tense as the big brother finds the younger one’s international temper tantrums a treat to the security and prosperity of the region.

Like China, the legitimacy of the ROK government is partially based on economic growth, and the security of the state depends to some extent on continued economic prosperity. Unsurprisingly, the North was adamantly opposed to the Sunshine Policy’s principle of reciprocity though it continued the opportunistic exploitation of it. North Korea desperately needs the economic aid and wants assurance that North-South relations include aid and assured security. South Korean economic concerns have escalated with the increased North-South animosity of the Lee administration, culminating in the March 2010 sinking of the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea and again highlighting the security issues of the region.

China and South Korea have a shared security interest in preventing war on the Korean peninsula and avoiding a DPRK regime change, employing similar policies based on realist thinking. While North Korea behaves in an offensive realist manner as it nuclearizes in an attempt to accumulate and display power, the PRC and ROK have responded with defensive realist policies aimed at maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula with the intention of avoiding undesired conflict. This case study provides evidence that classical realism remains a fundamental aspect of IR and security theory, and has not declined since the end of the Cold War; states continue to act in their perceived self-interest with an emphasis on state security and power relations. The ongoing nuclear crisis also holds significant implications for the future of global non-proliferation and global security as rogue states and non-state actors acquire nuclear technology.

Morgan Potts is an assistant editor at Sino-NK, and a production editor at the British Association for Korean Studies.

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