Tensions are mounting on the Korean Peninsula as North and South Korea find each other in an arms race. As a frozen conflict with its origins in the Korean war—which has not yet formally ended—both sides are attempting to resume peace talks while balancing strategic interests in the region. In 2018, both Koreas began re-establishing dialogue towards denuclearization and keeping regional peace. Over the last decade, both North and South Korea have made improvements to their militaries, including nuclear weapons in the North. An arms race has the potential to disrupt the peace on the peninsula and create an adversarial economic environment for both countries’ allies such as the United States and China.
North Korea has a history of hostility toward the South and the United States. The Council on Foreign Relations states that North Korea has developed an intercontinental ballistic missile that has the power to strike Seoul and Washington. In November 2017, the North conducted the first test of its largest ICBM yet, the Hwasong-15. As a response to the growing threat, the United States installed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System in South Korea’s Seongju region.
According to Reuters, South Korea also has powerful weapons of its own. Last year, South Korea’s defense ministry announced its biggest conventional missile to date, a short-range ballistic missile that is capable of carrying a 2-ton warhead called the Hyunmoo-4. In the making is a new South Korean Missile that will be able to carry 3-ton warheads, reports Yonhap News. South Korea’s defense ministry said, “We will develop stronger, long-range missiles to exercise deterrence and achieve security and peace on the Korean Peninsula.” While both Koreas have made tremendous advancements to their arms collections, North Korea believes it is held to a double standard and believes its advancements are condemned due to its alignment with China and the Communist Party.
According to Reuters, South Korea, the U.S., and Japan have all imposed sanctions targeting corporations, individuals, and any sources that help develop North Korea’s nuclear arsenal—however, sanctions will hardly be enough to diminish the progress North Korea has made. North Korea is politically and economically aligned with China, which is striving to become the hegemon of the Indo-Pacific region.
South Korea’s political alliance with the United States serves as a buffer to Chinese influence over both Koreas. Meanwhile, China is the biggest trade partner of both Koreas, which puts pressure on South Korea to choose between economic relations or security. According to Deutsche Well, analysts believe Beijing is pressuring South Korea to bring a stalwart U.S. ally closer to China.
South Korea’s main concerns are to establish a bilateral dialogue with North Korea and work towards formally ending the Korean war and defusing tensions surrounding both nations’ development of deadly weapons that could spark another conflict on the peninsula. Yonhap News reports that both Koreas have recently resumed dialogue with each other.
Peace and security in the Korean Peninsula are heavily shaped by recent history and the geopolitical landscape as it struggles to maintain intra-relations and external relations. South Korea sees its advancement in the arms race as a way to lessen its dependence on the United States while still maintaining diplomacy. On the other side, North Korea’s willingness to negotiate a formal end to the war and keep the dialogue open for Korean unity seems to heavily depend on the U.S lifting its strict sanctions regime. Competing American and Chinese interests are affecting both Koreas and may change the trajectory of potential peace negotiations or further tensions.