MADRID – Repeated threats from North Korea have turned the Korean Peninsula into one of the world’s most dangerous hotspots. But the situation also offers an important opportunity: a gain in strategic trust between China and the United States, the two countries with the capacity to resolve the tensions once and for all. If they manage to cooperate constructively in order to shape a peace acceptable to all sides, this would make not only Korea, but also the region and the world, a safer place.
Ten years after opting out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, North Korea clearly possesses nuclear weapons. The regime’s nuclear test in February – its third since 2006 – was likely a miniaturized device, which makes the situation even more worrying, given that successful miniaturization is critical for using nuclear weapons in ballistic missiles.
February’s test provoked another round of United Nations sanctions, drafted by the US and China, triggering an escalation of threats and provocations from the North. The tension on the peninsula increased further with the annual joint military exercises conducted by the US and South Korea – especially when American nuclear-capable B-52 and B-2 bombers were added to the drills.
Nobody wants war on the Korean Peninsula. For the North, it would be suicide; for the South, with its vibrant economy and widening free-trade agreements, the opportunity cost would be particularly high. Likewise, regional stability is a prerequisite of China’s stellar economic growth, and military conflict would be a setback for US economic rebirth as well. Indeed, with US defense spending finally set to decline after a decade of debt-financed war in Iraq and Afghanistan, America has little fiscal room for an unforeseen military entanglement. The US “pivot” to Asia is built on economic opportunities there; a conflict with unpredictable fallout does not fit the scheme.