Security if the current tensions between the United States


Security dilemma, a
conceptual analysis.

Before trying to understand if the current tensions between the United
States and the D.P.R.K. can be grasped as a security dilemma, we first need to analyse
this theory and understand what it involves. It is commonly believed that a
country which further develops its own security might create a security dilemma.
Generally, it is understood that security can be provided with a military or
technology which may deter a foreign attack. However, the security provided
with the development of military strength can be perceived as a threat by
another party which will also increase its own military strength and security agenda
in response. Therefore, this pursuit for stronger security can actually lead to
a decrease of both parties’ own security. The best example of this theory is
that of the Cold War with a security dilemma fuelled by arms race (including
nuclear). This dilemma leads to a situation where States will be drawn into a
conflict due to security concerns even if none of the states involved were
actually looking for this outcome.

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Even though not new, John H. Herz was the first scholar to develop the
concept of security dilemma in his article Idealist Internationalism and the Security
Dilemma. Herz mentioned that “Groups or individuals living in such a
constellation must be, and usually are, concerned about their security from
being attacked, subjected, dominated, or annihilated by other groups and
individuals. Striving to attain security from such attack, they are driven to
acquire more and more power in order to escape the impact of the power of
others”. This concept therefore implies a real competition between States or
groups for power and security which will usually lead to the well know
phenomenon of arms race which eventually leads to conflict (and possibly result
in an escalation which may lead to open warfare).

This phenomenon leads one party to feel more insecure and compels it to
prepare for the worst (possibly war). As States involved can never feel
entirely secure due to the element of distrust and military competition, we
will witness a vicious circle of security and power accumulation. Just as
described by Herz himself, “Faced with this growing interdependence but also
with the security dilemma, their attempted wayout is to expand their individual

An easy way to describe this process would be through a scenario in
which a State X procures itself with new military technology or greater military
power. According to the security dilemma logic, a State Y, feeling threatened,
will counteract this move by similar means legitimising its decision with
reference to State X’s initial security acts. Therefore, State X in return
would starting building distrust towards State Y and whilst feeling threatened
and suspicious, in return would pursue its actions to protect its border,
integrity, sovereignty. State Y would experience the same dilemma and will
chose the same path in response and this process would carry on indefinitely or
until conflict eventually erupts between both States.

Through this scenario, we can therefore understand that, whilst
attempting to increase its own security, a State might resort to actions which
could lead to mutual insecurity. We could see this phenomenon as a “security
vicious circle”. As mentioned by R. Jervis in Cooperation under the Security
Dilemma, this phenomenon exists when “many of the means by which a
State tried to increase its security decrease the security of others”. We
therefore witness an action-reaction effect. The security dilemma translates into
an arms race (of a qualitative or quantitative nature) which eventually may
lead to war.


Security Dilemma in the U.S.
vs. D.P.R.K. context

The question now is to see whether tensions between the United States
and the D.P.R.K. can be seen as a security dilemma in itself. Looking today at
the D.P.R.K., otherwise known as North Korea, and its justification for its nuclear
missile program, it strongly argues that such program has a defensive purpose
only against the regime’s enemies. If we look
at North Korea and its justification for its nuclear missile program, it argues
that it has a defensive purpose and it does not wish to intimidate anyone
else.  After all, the U.S.A. has
threatened to use the Nuclear weapon against North Korea at the height of the
Korean War in the 1950s and has both explicitly and implicitly made threats
against the North Korean State at many occasions and only just recently,
Secretary of State Tillerson threatened to the possibility of resorting to
pre-emptive strike. It is also worth pointing out the fact that North Korea has
a conventional military force which cannot match in any way that of the U.S.
nor of South Korea. Thereof, the presence of hostility towards its existence
and because of its inability to use conventional means as a deterring factor,
North Korea pursued instead a nuclear deterrent path.

North Korea believes that the
reason it needs nuclear weapons and its missiles is to make sure the U.S. doesn’t
attack (deterrence effect) and most importantly, does not overthrow the regime
itself. There is therefore a legitimate defensive rationale. Of course, this is
not the only reason as some believe North Korea also wants nuclear weapons to
exert greater influence in the region and intimidate South Korea and Japan,
arch nemesis of the regime.

As previously mentioned the
security dilemma often leads to an arms race and potentially war. If States
such as North Korea and the U.S. think and act with rather pessimistic
conceptions of such threat, they might get caught up in the vicious circle
which was previously illustrated. When we examine interactions between North
Korea and the U.S., it seems that the primary reasons for the confrontations we
are currently witnessing have been mutual distrust and insecurity established
since the partition of Korea in the 1940s. Such distrust towards one another
created this dilemma in which both States have mutually felt threatened by each
other’s efforts to increase own security. As a result, North Korea initiated its
nuclear weapons program due to the reason it perceived the U.S. and South
Korean alliance as an offensive threat to its very existence and integrity. Despite
some casual periods of calm and attempted cooperation between both countries
under the Clinton Administration, North Korea resumed talks in the early 2000s
due to its doubts about the U.S.’s reliability and cooperative attitude.

On the other hand, it seems
obvious and safe to say that the U.S. has a defensive position in this context.
Since 2009, the U.S. and South Korea have been stepping up their alliance with
the relocation of US troops in the peninsula, boosting South Korea’s defense
capabilities. In response to North Korea’s threats and continued nuclear
program, the US adopted policies responding to potential attack by deploying
the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) system in South Korea. These
missiles can be used to prevent North Korea’s missiles from entering South
Korea’s airspace but can also be used for ground targets. Such policy is seen
as offensive by North Korea making it less secure. Furthermore, in 2013,
President Obama reassured both South Korea and Japan after another nuclear test
conducted by North Korea in the same year. The alliance would benefit from
deterrence under the U.S.’s “nuclear umbrella”. Park responded to the tests “provocations
by the North will be met by stronger counter responses”






Another aspect to take into
account is the nature of North Korea in the security dilemma theory. North
Korea cannot be perceived as a “greedy state” in the sense that it is
developing its nuclear arsenal in order to achieve goals which include
guaranteeing the security of the State itself, economic development and gain
respect and prestige at the international level. It is not, at least at the
moment, an expansionist nation. Before designing this State as greedy and in an
attempt to properly understand the security dilemma, one should take into
account some elements such as the “extent of the adversary’s greed (that is,
motives beyond security)” and analyse the “adversary unit-level knowledge of
the state’s motives” according to Charles L. Glaser in The Security Dilemma Revisited.
The regime does not openly seek to gain further territory by openly going to
war against South Korea. North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister stated in April
2017 that they have “a powerful nuclear deterrent already in our (North Korean)
hand, and we certainly will not keep our arms crossed in the face of a U.S.
pre-emptive strike”. They go as far as justifying their nuclear program as a response
to annual joint drills between the US and it Southern ally which the regime
sees as rehearsals for a potential invasion of North Korea. “It is because of
these hostile activities on the part of the United States and South Korea that
we strengthen our national defence capability, as well as pre-emptive strike
capabilities with nuclear force as a centre piece” said North Korea’s deputy
ambassador to the United Nations. North Korea’s hostile activities such as the
2010 artillery strike of the islands of Yeonpyeong have to be understood as a
show of force by the regime in and a response to the South’s military artillery
the same day.

We can say for now that the
development of North Korea’s nuclear weapon program is a response to the urgent
need to safeguard the regime which emerges as a form of strategy of aggression
and negotiation. However, this element could be debatable in a sense that
greedy states do not always pursue competitive policies and might be deterred
from expanding its territory if the cost of such act is greater than the
probability of success. North Korea’s desire to maximise its gains and
advantages made it seem greedy but this would be a false assumption when
looking at its persistence to pursue its nuclear weapon program due to its
feeling of insecurity.




Analysis of the nature of
Balance theory.

After determining that the tensions between North Korea and the U.S. can
be seen as a security dilemma, the next logical phase in our process of
understanding the relationship between the U.S. and the D.P.R.K. is to analyse
the balance that is applicable; that is balance of power or the balance of

Today, it is generally agreed that modern States will create alliances
to balance against threats rather than against a nation’s superiority in terms
of power. As Walt wrote, States balance against “threats rather than against
power alone”. The level of threat is then evaluated through “geographic
proximity, offensive capabilities, and perceived intentions”. Along with
aggregate power, these elements were the main four criteria that states could
use to evaluate the potential threat posed by another state. As Walt simply
puts it, “a superpower is sought as an ally against the more imminent threats
that arise from other states within the region. Because the superpower is both
more powerful and less threatening to most states in the region, it is an ideal
ally for a regional power that faces a direct military threat from one of its
neighbours”. It wouldn’t be correct to refer to this situation as a balance of
power since such situation tends to suggest that states form an alliance with
the objective of preventing a stronger power with superior resources from
dominating them.

A balance of power was understood as the situation in which states try
to build up their power and prestige to match the power of the strongest state
without necessarily facing an aggressive state. This theory would suppose a
relative mutual security since there would be a balanced hegemony. The concept
of balance of power is not new and is rather widespread in the political
spectrum. However, there is still to this day no common accepted definition for
this theory which engulfs a variety of empirical claims and potential meanings.
However, despite being the oldest theory of international relations, it is also
widely ambiguous.

In the 1980s, Walt criticised this theory by arguing the fact that
states’ security was defined by their perceived threat and not by a need to
maintain a balance of power. Moreover, balance of power assumes that weaker
states such as North Korea would not likely become a real threat to stronger
states. However, recent events demonstrate that a weaker state can still
challenge stronger states with policies such as the nuclear weapon program.

Thus, Stephen Walt developed in 1987 the theory of balance of threat in The
Origins of Alliances in order to demonstrate the fact that a state’s
behaviour is closely linked to the threat they perceive from another state. He
added the notion of perception which eventually led him to shift to this new
theory and Walt also mentions that the balance of threat “should be viewed as a
refinement of traditional balance of power theory”. If we use the theory of
balance of threat and its four core characteristics regarding the U.S.
position, there has been virtually no balancing against the U.S. after the Cold
War and many states worried about local threat see the U.S. as a useful way to
balance such threats such as the case with Iraq (after the invasion of Kuwait)
and North Korea (which presents a threat to its neighbours, to the region’s
balance of power and to the U.S. itself).



This research paper was faced with many conceptual difficulties. It is
today quite safe to state that tensions in the peninsula between North Korea,
the U.S. and its allies revolve around the theory of security dilemma alongside
the phenomenon of deterrence.

Furthermore, the nature of the North Korean regime strategy itself is
hard to determine as some may see it as a greedy state adopting policies which
may force stronger states to follow a path of negotiations and cooperation
instead of using threats due to the applicability of deterrence. However, the
lack of academic research on the nature of greedy states makes this identification
in itself limited. The response of the U.S. and South Korea to threats perpetrated
by the North Korean regime could lead us to believe that the northern
leadership seeks mostly security to perceived threats presented by its enemies.
The regime has justified on numerous occasions that the main objective of its
nuclear missile program was to safeguard its borders, protect its integrity and
most importantly, deter foreign attacks on its soil and against the regime’s
leadership and high command. The U.S. strategy here is much different from that
of its implication in Iraq, a greedy state due to its invasion of Kuwait and
potential ownership of a nuclear arsenal which didn’t not deter the U.S. which
intervened. Such intervention would be complicated to implement to the North
Korean situation.

However, if we identify North Korea as a security seeking state, there
is room for cooperation. Defensive realism leads us to believe that most conflicts
are to some extent avoidable and unnecessary. States could avoid direct
confrontation through cooperation as some conflicts are driven by the security
dilemma and misinterpretations/misunderstanding. Such cooperation has occurred at
some occasions between both the U.S. and North Korea taking the example of The
Agreed Framework which was signed in 1994 in order to end the construction of
nuclear reactors in North Korea in exchange for two proliferation-resistant
nuclear power reactors, which unfortunately collapsed due to the lack of trust between
both states, the U.S. unfulfilled promises and North Korea’s continued research
in uranium enrichment capability.

Last but not least, when analysing the nature of the balance we are
facing, most readings would tend to see this tension as a form of balance of power.
Many news articles reported that North Korea, with its latest missile test, had
finally reach a point of balance of power with the U.S. However, when comparing
such statements with its conceptual framework, it seems that such balance
cannot be implied in this case. A better, but still not commonly approved,
approach would be to understand this as a balance of threat. It is possible
that with a different approach to the conflict, policy makers could change
their response and policies to the situation in the peninsula.