Escaping The Korean Security Dilemma

North Korea fired 23 missiles into the sea on November 2nd, Pyongyang’s largest deployment in a single day, according to Reuters. One missile landed less than 40 miles off South Korea’s coast, marking the first time a ballistic missile has crossed a nautical border with South Korea since the peninsula’s division in 1945. The launches triggered rare air raid warnings on the island of Ulleungdo and prompted Seoul to fire three air-to-ground missiles in response. 

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol called the launches, “an effective act of territorial encroachment by a missile intruding the NLL” (Northern Limit Line), his office said. “We heard the siren at around 8:55 a.m. and all of us in the building went down to the evacuation place in the basement,” a county official from Ulleung County told Reuters. “We stayed there until we came upstairs at around 9:15 after hearing that the projectile fell into the high seas.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff reported the North also fired over 100 rounds of artillery into a military buffer zone, violating a 2018 agreement banning aggressive acts in border areas. In Washington, White House national security spokesperson John Kirby criticized the missile’s trajectory across the NLL as “reckless” and vowed full military support to South Korea. 

The launches followed Pyongyang’s demand that South Korea and the United States stop conducting large-scale joint military exercises. The two treaty allies launched operation “Vigilant Storm” on November 1st, a week-long combined air drill that featured roughly 240 warplanes carrying out over 1,600 stories, the highest number of missions ever recorded for the event. U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the drills were “purely defensive and harbored no hostile intent,” Reuters reported. But Pak Jong-chon, secretary of the Central Committee of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, said such “rashness and provocation can be no longer tolerated,” claiming that mock attacks staged by South Korean and U.S. forces raised the threat of invasion and evidenced hostile policies by Seoul and Washington. North Korea has conducted its largest ever number of missile launches this year and fired an intermediate range ballistic missile over Japan in October for the first time in five years, according to The New York Times.

Rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula reflect a classic case of the security dilemma, a widespread phenomenon in world affairs in which enhancements to one state’s security decrease the security of others. Mutual suspicion between North Korea and its primary adversaries — South Korea, the United States, and Japan — go beyond natural concerns about the deployment of offensive capabilities. What the United States and its allies view as “purely defensive” reactions to North Korean provocations, such as conducting joint exercises, building strategic bombers, and putting military forces on alert, only reinforce Pyongyang’s own deep-rooted security fears because they appear identical to offensive actions. Similarly, missile launches, nuclear weapons tests, and other security-increasing measures by North Korea tests raise alarm among Western observers even though Kim Jong-un deems them integral to his regime’s survival. 

The recent episode of missile strikes makes it clear that military action will not ameliorate the Korean Peninsula’s legacy of mutual distrust and hostility. Escaping a vicious cycle of escalation requires that Seoul and Washington stop blaming Pyongyang as solely responsible for the region’s confrontational security landscape. To manage the security dilemma with North Korea, the United States should consider enacting partial sanctions relief and halting combined military exercises with the South. Additionally, both sides should work toward replacing the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement, which ended the Korean War in a truce, with a formal peace treaty. In any case, current policies and initiatives intended to deter Pyongyang’s high-risk behavior through shows of force are not achieving their objective. Instead of making retaliatory threats to inflict unacceptable damage on the North, the United States and its allies must shape the situation using nonviolent instruments of power.