Two of the world's most heavily militarized and nuclearized high-threat theatres are the Korean Peninsula and South Asia. The world has been reminded twice this year of the risks and stakes in Northeast Asia, with a torpedo attack on a South Korean warship in March and an artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island in November by North Korean forces.
According to respected U.S. intelligence analyst Bruce Riedel, Pakistan has the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal as well as the most terrorists per square mile. The latest tranche of classified cables published by WikiLeaks includes the revelation that since 2007, the United States has been engaged in unsuccessful efforts to remove from a Pakistani research reactor highly enriched uranium that could be diverted for use by terrorists in an illicit nuclear device.
There are interesting structural parallels between the world's two potential nuclear flashpoints.
North Korea cannot make war, for it knows it would lose against the combined military might of South Korea and its U.S. ally. It cannot make peace, for then, too, it would lose to its more dynamic and prosperous twin. So it is compelled to maintain tension short of provoking a full-fledged war. The same equation of neither war nor peace because either would guarantee defeat applies to Pakistan vis-à-vis India.
Given the geography, North Korea could certainly inflict heavy damage on Seoul, but its ability to sustain protracted combat is highly suspect. Meanwhile, South Korea remains a close security ally of the United States; their integrated military command structure would ensure a prompt, unified response to any aggressive North Korean military move.
Pakistan cannot match India's military might. This is why it seeks and India resists international mediation. India's military forces, defence expenditure, economy and population are all several-fold bigger than Pakistan's. Moreover, Pakistan's arms production base is very narrow, and mostly within range of Indian combat aircraft and missiles. Pakistan is ill-placed to fight a war of attrition with India.
India should solve its Kashmir problem based on self-interest. New Delhi shows a curious mixture of hubris, arrogance and disingenuousness - "too clever by half" - in denying there is a problem. The issue has gravely corroded India's democratic, secular and humanist values and institutions and hobbled its global aspirations.
That said, the core issue bedevilling India-Pakistan relations is not Kashmir but the nature of the Pakistani state and its obsession with military, diplomatic and emotional parity with India. Pakistan exploits anti-India sentiment in Kashmir. It is the conduit for arms, money and training for Kashmiri insurgents.
An opening up to the South is the last thing North Korea's leaders can afford. Without a clear and present enemy, they would find it more difficult to justify keeping their malnourished country closed to the realities of the outside world. They must engage in periodic bouts of provocation to justify the hardships that failed policies have inflicted upon the people. Similarly, Kashmir as the battleground of the India-Pakistan cold war represents a clear and present danger that allows an unusually large role for the military and intelligence services in Pakistan's affairs of state.
And so the conflicts go on. Pakistan lacks the power to wrest Kashmir from Indian control, but its active support enables the insurgency to continue indefinitely. India lacks the healing touch to solve the Kashmir conflict, but can withstand a low-intensity insurgency almost indefinitely. Similarly, Washington and Seoul lack the ability or will to force Korean reunification on their terms, but can withstand Pyongyang's provocation indefinitely.
The final parallel between the two separate theatres is the moral hazard of periodically rewarding bad behaviour by North Korea and Pakistan with financial inducements. Little wonder that the lucrative cross-border provocations have become a habit-forming state of mind among the closed and powerful elites in Islamabad (the world's only capital named after a religion) and Pyongyang.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.