Peninsula has a new problem

By Shen Dingli
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, October 20, 2012
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Missile race between DPRK and ROK, and some major powers' reluctance to ease tensions reflect the global security imbalance

Relations between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea have long been intricate and fragile. Now, a new element has been added to their relationship: missile race.

That many countries need short-range missiles for legitimate defense needs is understandable. The chances of short-range missiles triggering regional instability or a global arms race are low if they are used tactically or as deterrence. Coupled with nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, curbing the spread of missiles, especially mid- and long-range ones, would tighten countries' defense and strengthen regional stability. The Missile Technology Control Regime was created to informally discourage transfer of missiles, which can carry a minimum payload of 500 kilogram beyond 300 kilometers, across borders.

The United States had for long prevailed over the ROK not to develop missiles that can travel beyond 300 km, which made it impossible for the latter's missiles to cover the whole of the DPRK, let alone covering other Northeast Asian territories. Though unhappy, Seoul had to respect the limit.

Irrespective of this, the DPRK went ahead with its missile program, test-firing projectiles under some pretext or the other. In response, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions against the DPRK, with China's support, saying its missiles could meet both peaceful and military ends, and could have a serious impact on international security. Pyongyang has been complaining that such sanctions are unfair, because its "satellite launch" is peaceful. The UN action, to be fair, is not unjust because the international community, especially the missile control regime, judges other countries by the same norms of missile nonproliferation.

But now the US has allowed the ROK to develop missiles that can travel up to 800 kilometers, and thus cover the whole of the DPRK. This will make it more difficult to curb the missile race between Seoul and Pyongyang, as well as halt the wider spread of missiles.

The essence of missile nonproliferation is not only non-transfer of missile technologies across borders, but also to not advance missile development within states. While the DPRK is discouraged from developing its missiles any further, including its indigenous ones, the ROK should also be covered by the same standards.

Seoul may justify the expansion of its missile range as a response to Pyongyang's persistent missile pursuit. But Pyongyang could also say that its missile program is justified because Washington's "permission" to Seoul to develop longer-range missiles is indicative of the US' hostility toward the DPRK. There is no end to this chicken-and-egg game.

Because of the security dilemma, it is not impossible to understand the dynamics of the missile race on the Korean Peninsula. There is no reason, however, to allow more space to the DPRK and the ROK to continue their race. Every effort should be made to de-escalate the dangerous hostility.

The issue is not to merely ensure missile security for either the DPRK or ROK. Given that the two countries are rivals, their competition will be a zero-sum game, leading to an endless race of escalating mutual threat. To untie their security knot, a cooperative threat reduction scheme has to be put in place. And the international community should find ways to freeze, and even reverse, their missile race.

While the DPRK and the ROK both are expected not to advance their missile programs, alternative security routes have to be charted out for the purpose, for which a process of DPRK-ROK negotiations as well as global assurances are needed. Seeking political reconciliation remains the most effective way of reducing the hostility between the DPRK and the ROK. To this end, the two countries need to have better political interaction in the era of post-leadership change.

A proper international regime to guarantee security to both countries would also help. This would entail positive as well as negative security assurance.

For negative security assurance, external powers have to guarantee that neither the DPRK nor the ROK faces outside security threats. On this front, the US has to really improve its role, because it has a rather confrontational relationship with the DPRK, especially when China and Russia have maintained sound relations with the DPRK and the ROK both.

For positive security assurance, major powers ought to arrange credible security protection for the DPRK and the ROK should either of them be threatened, and pull up the state that endangers peace and security on the Peninsula.

But finding the solution to the Peninsula problem is easier than implementing it. Given the distrust and mutual insecurity perception between and among some major powers, it is hard to think that they would always make concerted efforts to defuse the tension on the Peninsula. That's why the missile race in a corner of Northeast Asia is actually a reflection of the global security imbalance.

The author is a columnist with For more information please visit


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