Implications of Balance of Terror in East Asia

Sunday, June 25, 2017


Shahrouz Shariati
Assistant professor of political science at Tarbiat Modarres University

Escalation of US pressures on North Korea to stop its military and nuclear tests under conditions that Pyongyang has repeatedly announced that it will continue to boost its military capabilities and military ability for preemptive attacks, have complicated international conditions for safeguarding global peace. The “balance of terror” was the term used by former British prime minister, Winston Churchill, to describe these conditions. However, regardless of how this international crisis can be resolved, the question is what implications does this balance of terror in East Asia have for international system, in general, and the United States, in particular? This paper argues that the three following propositions can be considered as the most important implications of this balance of terror.

·         The United States cannot end North Korea’s nuclear crisis through a military solution

According to information available about the nuclear advances of North Korea, the country has between 11 and 18 nuclear warheads and, in addition to that, can use its stocks of highly enriched uranium to double the number of its nuclear warheads in a matter of about a year. Therefore, the sole immediate option for nuclear disarmament of North Korea is to topple the country’s communist regime and even this will be a dangerous scenario. This danger seems more serious when one considers the fact that the South Korean capital city of Seoul with a population of 10 million is located only 56 kilometers from the common border between the two countries and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separates two Koreas. As a result, Seoul is totally within reach of North Korean missiles and any miscalculation about North Korea’s ability to answer to a military attack by the United States and its allies can potentially trigger a tsunami of nuclear war in East Asia. On the other hand, when two countries possess nuclear weapons, having a higher quantity of more advanced weapons is no more of political and strategic importance, and the only thing that a higher number of bombs can do is to wreak havoc to the country that is weaker. On this basis, and if under certain conditions the United States decided to resort to the military option as the last option against North Korea, it would not only deal a serious blow to its regional allies, but would also leave North Korea with no other choice but to make decisions, which would cost the United States, its allies, and even the entire international system quite dearly.

·         US must pay for breach of its promises in nuclear talks with other countries

A review of the result of nuclear negotiations between the United States and other countries, which possessed nuclear technology, including Libya and Iran, proves the total lack of commitment on the part of the United States to obligations it had undertaken in those negotiations. A look at the process of Iran's nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of countries, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and frequent objections by Iranian officials to violation of this international treaty by the United States, attests to the fact that in view of this and similar past experiences, North Korea will not easily give in to Washington’s demand. On the other hand, the United States must pay a price in the case of North Korea for breaching its previous commitments with respect to such countries as Iran and Libya. This issue becomes even more important when one considers the fact that four previous US presidents before the incumbent Donald Trump had failed to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear program despite all the effort they made. Meanwhile, since North Korea itself has seen several cases in which Americans have breached their promises in nuclear negotiations, it will not easily be duped by present promises given to Pyongyang by officials of the United States. The violation of an agreement between the United States and North Korea in 2002 and 2003 by the former president, George W. Bush, who was more strict about the implementation of that agreement, and labeling North Korea as part of the so-called Axis of Evil was such a heavy blow to the leaders of North Korea that they decided to banish Iran from that axis after its nuclear talks with the West and singlehandedly stand in the face of the United States’ excessive demands. In addition, it must be noted that several rounds of negotiations among six countries, including North Korea, Russia, the United States, China, South Korea, and Japan, aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear threat, have already failed. This issue indicates that Washington’s promises, which it uses to lure North Korea back to the negotiating table, do not have practical guarantees and this has been clearly proven through the past experiences in cases of Iran and Libya.

·         China cannot be a partner for US in resolving North Korea’s nuclear crisis

A review of past positions adopted by China on North Korea will prove that Beijing is following a double-standard policy in this regard in order to use the opportunity provided to it through North Korea’s nuclear threat as leverage and take concessions from both sides of this contention. On the other hand, China cannot ask North Korea to destroy its nuclear arsenal under the present circumstances in which it cannot give any guarantees to North Korea. In addition, Beijing is fearful of any instability along its borders and a possible influx of refugees following the collapse of North Korea, and knows that any chaos resulting from a regime change in North Korea would cause the People’s Republic of China more trouble than any other country in the world. At the same time, possible reunion of two Koreas after the collapse of North Korea and certain inclination of a united Korea toward the United States would be against ultimate goals of the communist government in China and the leaders in Beijing will certainly not welcome deployment of American forces right behind their borders.

Finally, gaining possession of a number of unpopulated, but strategic islands in the South China Sea and imposing military expenses on the United States and its allies in an unconstructive confrontation with North Korea are among the least of goals, which China may seek to achieve by keeping the United States preoccupied with North Korea.

Last but by no means least, under the present circumstances the effort by North Korean leaders to boost their country’s credit and security and realize scientific achievements has led to the balance of terror in East Asia. As a result, the United States does not seem to be able to put an end to this balance through use of force, diplomatic means, or even recourse to its strategic partners. However, it must be noted that these conditions increase the possibility of new cases of balance of terror in other parts of the world.


*More by Shahrouz Shariati:
The Chinese Game with Pyongyang Trump Card:


*Photo Credit: Santiagotimes

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.





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