As the world heads into 2024, the geopolitical situation in the Korean peninsula occupies a precarious space in the nuclear age. With recent military and strategic developments undertaken by North Korea, many experts have anticipated a heightened state of conflict between the two Korean nations in the near future. However, the nature and scale of this predicted conflict remain a matter of contention. The stability-instability paradox is one such theory that could provide us with a logical trajectory of how the upcoming skirmishes could pan out.
Illustration by Team Geostrata
THE PARADOX EXPLAINED
The stability-instability paradox is a theory in international relations developed by academics during the Cold War era. After the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scholars began to analyze whether nuclear weapons would eventually lead to greater or lesser conflict. Nuclear weapons, or the threat of its use, served as an effective tool for a state to change the status quo vis-a-vis its adversary, and maybe even act as an existential threat to the enemy.
However, when multiple powers developed the technological prowess to build nuclear weapons, it added a whole new dimension to the concept of deterrence.
Theorists posited that when two nuclear-armed nations are at odds with each other, there is stability and instability in their relationships at two different levels. At the nuclear level, the two nations are stable, as both countries surrender to the idea of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Both states accept vulnerability to the adversary’s second-strike capabilities. This creates a strong deterrence against direct, all-out nuclear war. However, at the sub-nuclear level, there is instability between the two nations.
The Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) opens up space for conflict at lower levels, far below the nuclear threshold. The theory suggests that while the existence of nuclear weapons may reduce the likelihood of a full-blown nuclear war, it actually increases the probability of several limited conflicts that are small-scale and conventional.
Thus, nuclear stability incentivizes conventional instability. The aggressor can act without fear of escalation to the nuclear level. This “instability” could take the shape of minor conventional attacks, conventional military preparations, state-sponsored terrorism, cyberattacks, border skirmishes etc.
THE KOREAN CONTEXT
Proponents of the theory see its applications in the modern-day conflict between North and South Korea. There is a potent threat of a full-scale war in the Korean peninsula. While South Korea is under the protective umbrella of the superior conventional and nuclear armoury of the United States, North Korea is also believed to possess around 30-40 nuclear warheads. Further, the rapid development of North Korea’s nuclear technology, like the successful testing of Pyongyang’s underwater nuclear weapons systems is becoming a worrying sign for Seoul.
The stability-instability paradox seems to suggest that nuclear armament on both sides would bring stability at the nuclear level.
However, this stability at the nuclear level gives Pyongyang the cushion to pursue sub-nuclear military options to achieve its strategic goals. North Korea’s leadership would be willing to take more risks and engage in lower-level provocations under the shield of nuclear weapons and MAD to achieve their stated objectives. Primarily, Pyongyang is adopting an expansionist and revisionist approach, as it is looking to change the status quo and gain territorial control over the peninsula. However, experts view that another strategic goal that North Korea is looking to achieve by fostering this “instability” is to simply remove US involvement and presence in the region.
PYONGYANG'S RECENT SUB-NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES AND PROVOCATIONS
Over the past few years, Pyongyang has engaged in several strategic activities and low-level conflicts that promote “instability” between the two countries. It launched its first-ever military spy satellite into a stable orbit, thus enhancing its surveillance capacities over Seoul and Washington, enabling better conventional military planning. Further, North Korea also maintains a robust offensive cyberspace ecosystem.
The Bureau 121 acts as Pyongyang’s cyberwarfare agency and houses more than 6,000 personnel proficient in taking down ROK media outlets, government websites and financial institutions.
In 2022, North Korea conducted a total of 68 missile tests, including cruise and ballistic missiles. In fact, only recently, DPRK has resumed the launch of its ICBN-class ballistic missile that is capable of striking US shores. Further, North Korea ramped up its military preparations towards the end of 2023 and even suspended a joint military agreement with Seoul, restationing troops on the border as a result.
It is important to keep in mind that stability at the nuclear level between Pyongyang and Seoul-Washington is what encouraged North Korea to carry out the aforementioned strategic activities to achieve its revisionist goals without hesitation. Drawbacks: However, the stability-instability paradox draws criticism from several quarters. Certain scholars believe that acquisition of nuclear weapons makes a state more cautious rather than opportunistic and risk-tolerant.
Critics of the theory suggest that hiding behind the nuclear shield and waging conventional war without fear of nuclear retaliation is not sufficient enough to achieve one’s revisionist agendas.
The act of simply acquiring nuclear weapons does not give Pyongyang a golden ticket to achieve its significant aims as the domestic political cries regarding capturing territory are overshadowed by nuclear and conventional deterrence.
Second, territorial revisionism of North Korea could be short-lived. History is an indication of the fact that thwarted revisionist attempts are rarely tried again. There may be proxy conflicts promoted by Pyongyang but once again, history has shown that states emerge with new and innovative ways to deal with proxies instead of conceding territory.
Despite all its criticisms, the stability-instability paradox remains a crucial theory that enables us to gain a better understanding of the nature and scale of the present and upcoming conflicts in the Korean peninsula. The region is a stark illustration of the paradox - offering superficial peace at the nuclear level while breeding massive potential skirmishes at the conventional level. Recognizing this paradox is essential to navigate the path towards a denuclearized and peaceful Korean peninsula.
BY PRADNYAN DANI