The Buzz

Why North Korea Can't Use Nuclear Weapons to Conquer South Korea

They’ll also have more than enough firepower to defeat the North Korean menace. To begin with, South Korea’s population is twice the size of its northern neighbors. North Korea’s economy is not even one percent the size of South Korea’s, and Seoul spends at least ten times as much on its military each year. Although North Korea could cause immense damage to South Korea through artillery and other attacks, it is nearly inconceivable that it could defeat the South Korean military, conquer the country and rule its population. And that’s even assuming South Korea does not build nuclear weapons, which it could do relatively quickly if need be.

Of course, none of this happens automatically, and it is important that the United States and South Korea actively work to persuade Kim Jong-un that the peninsula will never be united under his rule. For instance, Kim Jong-un almost certainly wants to break the U.S.-South Korean alliance, and it is important that Washington and Seoul make abundantly clear that this is not possible. Moreover, some observers fear that—if the United States leaves the peninsula—North Korea will slowly absorb South Korea through a federation, similar to what China is doing in Hong Kong. I find this scenario to be extremely unlikely because, as noted above, it’s hard to envision the South Korean people willing to live in a closed off Stalinist society. If anything, one would think Kim Jong-un might be worried about his ability to rule over North Koreans if they personally saw how much better their southern brethren live. Indeed, in the China and Hong Kong parallel, South Korea is more likely to be the China and North Korea the Hong Kong. Still, South Korean progressives would be wise to ignore North Korea’s offers to establish a confederation. These proposals are made with the worst intentions in mind.

Zachary Keck (@ZacharyKeck) is the Wohlstetter Public Affairs Fellow at the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.

Image: South Korean marines take part in a military exercise on South Korea's Baengnyeong Island, near the disputed sea border with the north, in this handout picture provided by South Korean Marine Corps and released by Yonhap, September 7, 2017. South Korean Marine Corps/Yonhap via REUTERS