Just months ago, the world held its breath over the possibility of a war with North Korea. Now, surprisingly sweetness and light seem to have replaced war talk. North and South Korean delegations recently met at Panmunjom, the village on the border of the two states.
Civil discussions took place. Even more startling, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea agreed to send athletes to compete in the Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea next month.
It is important to remind ourselves that this thaw is not the last word on the issue of war and peace on the Korean Peninsula. We have seen these periodic de-escalations in tensions in the past. Also, Pyongyang made it clear that participation in the Olympic Games does not include talks on nuclear or missile disarmament.
The current respite from the war of words, in reality, buys the DPRK time to advance its nuclear warhead program, open the possibility of weakening the U.N. sanctions, which have begun to bite its economy, and finally patch up strained relations with China, its only ally. This stand-down in tensions will end. The inevitable return of the North’s bellicose rhetoric should lead us to a question.
Why has war not broken out again on the Korean Peninsula? It is a good question especially given all the handwringing about Kim Jung Un’s provocative missile and nuclear testing during 2017, not to mention his inflammatory threats since coming to power in late 2011. War fears have ebbed and flowed over multiple decades as Kim and his late father and grandfather have pushed toward ever-longer-range missiles and ever-bigger nuclear yields from bomb tests.
Things have been on edge since the Korean War (1950-1953) ended with only an armistice suspending the fighting, not a formal peace treaty. Since then, North and South Korea have uneasily eyed each other over the so-called Demilitarized Zone that separates the two nations and spans the peninsula.
In actuality, the border strips on each side of the 2.5 mile-wide DMZ bristles with more armaments than any other border on the planet. Despite numerous violent border clashes, terrorist bombings and even shot-down planes by the North, the peninsula has been spared another war.
Anxiety about war involving the DPRK peaked more than once since President Donald Trump took office and reacted to the North’s missile firing and nuclear blasts. President TrumpDonald TrumpCheney says a lot of GOP lawmakers have privately encouraged her fight against Trump Republicans criticizing Afghan refugees face risks DeVos says 'principles have been overtaken by personalities' in GOP MORE has not been shy about exchanging insults with the North Korean dictator.
In fact, the U.S. leader promised to “totally destroy” the North if Kim puts America at risk. Just over a week ago, both leaders voiced a high-stakes game of one-upmanship by noting the “nuclear buttons” on their respective desks.
Which brings us back to the question: Despite the weapons buildup and the sword rattling, why has war been avoided to date? The simple answer remains: None of the parties to peninsula standoff really want a war. A large-scale conventional conflict would devastate both peninsular nations, killing thousands upon thousands of people.
Such a war would likely see the death of the communist North Korean regime. But that prize is not worth America’s mountainous expense in blood and treasure to reconstruct a viable state in its place. The South would also require years and massive foreign aid to rebuild and stabilize. Such an endeavor would tax the United States beyond any real political gain from a battlefield victory.
The regional powers also have nothing to gain from a war. The catastrophic outcome would unsettle East Asia for decades. The destruction of the North is not in China’s best interests. Floods of refugees would inundate Chinese territory.
The DPRK currently acts as a buffer state insulating China from the ideological threat of a democratic and economically thriving South Korea. China’s army might have to intervene to stabilize the country. Since a political vacuum must be filled in international relations, the questions of who would intervene and what would happen next loom large for the major powers.
Russia, which shares an 11-mile border with North Korea, would react in unpredictable ways to the encroachment of American power further up the peninsula closer to its frontier. Almost a year ago, Moscow deployed soldiers and armored vehicles to reinforce its forces in the region. Any Russian incursion on the North’s territory would immediately incur Chinese condemnation and even military resistance.
Japan might be initially less vulnerable to North Korea rockets. But it would face an even more aggressive China, bent on recouping the loss of its difficult ally in North Korea’s destruction. Tokyo would lose a lucrative trading partner in a war-battered South Korea.
Moreover, the reunification of the Korean Peninsula poses a renewed threat to Japan and a worry for China. Japanese leaders historically perceived Korea as a dagger pointed at the midsection of their islands.
Korea lay at the heart of two East Asian wars more than a century ago. First, Japan fought China for control over Korea. Then, Japan fought Russia, in part, for the same objective. Japan prevailed over both states as it marched toward an empire that would lead it toward war and destruction at the hands of the United States in the 1940s.
While Americans have long forgotten the two distant wars over Korea, military strategists in Tokyo, Beijing and Moscow take them into account in their calculations today.
Thus, the status quo suits the major powers along with the two Koreas. That is why the Korean peninsula has been spared another Korean War. No state wants to try to shoot its way out of the Mexican standoff posed by a nuclear-arming DPRK.
The world has other hot borders (India and China or Israel and Lebanon) where skirmishes have occurred without resulting in major conflicts. So, the same phenomenon holds elsewhere.
But it is also true that the majority of the wars in the last 100 years have started when one power decides to suspend negotiations, break off diplomatic channels and throw caution as well as reason into the wind before striking an adversary.
Think of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Nazi German invasion of Russia, or North Korea’s ill-considered invasion of the South in 1950.
When all sides recognize that a war is pointless, there is at least a slender basis for preserving the peace. That thought might help all the proximate states avoid a second Korean War as they struggle to maintain the status quo after the tensions return to the divided peninsula. In the meantime, the United States and its allies cannot drop their guard.
Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is "Cycles in U.S. Foreign Policy since the Cold War," (Palgrave, 2017).