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Analyzing the Escalation of Tension in a Rivalry: Third Parties, Political Shocks, and Crisis Behavior, in the Inter-Korean Rivalry

Jaebeom Kwon, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


When and why do bilateral tensions within a rivalry dyad escalate? Although a growing number of scholars are paying attention to rivalries, few have addressed which factors and dynamics lead two rival states to experience periods of growing tension with each other. I argue that the following three factors – 1) third party influences, 2) political shocks, and 3) the outcome of a preceding crisis – increase the probability that one state will take a hardline measure against its rival, and consequently aggravate tension within the rivalry. In order to evaluate the argument, I conduct a qualitative case study of the North and South Korean rivalry, using the process tracing method, and drawing information from historical documents, as well as testimonies from interviewees. I find that the US has played a significant role in escalating tension between North and South Korea. When the US increased the provision of military resources to South Korea, North Korea escalated the rivalry. In addition, when the US took hawkish measures directly against North Korea, the latter intensified its actions against both the US and South Korea. Political shocks were another important factor in understanding why the two Koreas experienced the escalation of tension. When the Vietnam War and anti-government demonstrations inflicted damage on South Korea, the North implemented provocative actions against its rival. Moreover, when North Korea faced a dire security situation due to the end of the Cold War and the death of its leader, it took hardline measures against the South. I also find that the outcome of preceding crises drove both sides to take hardline measures, contributing to the escalation of tension in all cases. The failure of South Korea's soft-line policies toward North Korea in earlier crises caused the former to adopt a strong stance against its rival. Based on the findings of this dissertation, I provide several policy suggestions for rival states that can possibly help prevent the escalation of tension, as well as suggestions for future research.

Subject Area

Asian Studies|Political science

Recommended Citation

Kwon, Jaebeom, "Analyzing the Escalation of Tension in a Rivalry: Third Parties, Political Shocks, and Crisis Behavior, in the Inter-Korean Rivalry" (2019). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI13857193.