North Korea Is a Total Nightmare—That South Korea Shouldn't Fear

A Republic of Korea Army soldier guards the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Flickr/Ash Carter

By virtually every measure, Seoul has the upper hand over the North in a war.

Those who have talked recently with South Korean foreign-policy and national-security experts will have noticed that they are quite apprehensive. There are at least three explanations for this.

The ongoing political controversy around President Park Geun-hye is one. South Koreans in the know certainly have differing views on whether their president’s predicament will affect their country’s stability. As some see it, the mere fact that she is being been held accountable demonstrates that democracy has sunk deep roots in South Korea. Others are leery, however, and not just about the possibility of a crisis within South Korea. They are also concerned that North Korea might exploit the South’s political turmoil, possibly through a military challenge of some sort.

Seoul’s political class and national-security establishment incline toward a standard, predictable view of their northern nemesis. They see it as militarized, menacing, opaque, wildly unpredictable, even irrational. They point to its numerical advantage in military manpower and most categories of conventional weaponry, and to its nuclear weapons and arsenal of ballistic missiles. And they stress that Pyongyang’s pugnaciousness and military might leave South Korea exposed and vulnerable. In their eyes, people who discount the North Korean threat typically have the luxury of living far away or are ill informed—perhaps both.

Apart from President Park’s problems and Pyongyang’s unpredictability, South Korean foreign- and defense-policy experts worry that Seoul’s protector par excellence, the United States, will prove less reliable now that Donald Trump is the president-elect. His victory astonished most South Korean specialists on American politics just as much as it did their stateside counterparts. During his campaign, Trump accused allies such as South Korea of free riding at America’s expense. He demanded that they do more for their own defense and even suggested that Japan and South Korea consider building nuclear weapons to that end. South Korean strategists would be irritated to hear such views at an academic seminar; they were unnerved to hear them voiced by the next occupant of White House. Yes, South Koreans worried when President Jimmy Carter raised the possibility of pulling American troops out of South Korea—he didn’t follow through—but their nervousness about Trump’s intentions runs much deeper.

What’s odd about this triple-charged anxiety— produced by Park’s problems, Pyongyang’s arsenal and Trump’s worldview—is that most South Koreans defense experts also favor imposing much tougher economic sanctions on North Korea. That, they believe, is the only way to pressure Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons and cease its ballistic-missile tests. They claim that North Korea’s leaders will bend if they are forced to confront serious pain, especially because the North’s polity and economy are already in danger of collapsing. The image of a menacing North Korea thus coexists with that of a North Korea that is vulnerable, even doomed. The likelihood that North Korea’s disintegration could create colossal problems for South Korea and that draconian sanctions could produce precipitate the North’s implosion do not seem not to elicit great concern. Not all influential South Koreans feel this way, of course. But many do.

The assessment of South Koreans who are influential on foreign and defense policy regarding the balance of forces on the Korean Peninsula aligns remarkably well with that of American experts on South Korea—especially those based in or near Washington, DC. Someone who challenges this alarmist consensus, a rare event in my experience, will cause eyebrows to arch and heads to shake in disbelief. But the resiliency of the consensus doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valid. Indeed, the facts don’t support it.

To assess South Korea’s vulnerability, let’s start by comparing the North and the South using standard measure of power: population. South Korea contains 50.6 million people and North Korea 25.2 million: a two-to-one in the South’s favor. Now, a large population need not be an advantage, especially for poor countries. But South Korea, as I show below, is certainly not poor. That makes all the difference. Thanks to South Korea’s advanced society and economy—also discussed below—its numerical advantage in population yields a far more important asset, namely a massive lead in the quality of human capital: a people’s skills, capabilities, quality of life and potential.

The data pertinent to gauging human capital highlight the South’s advantage. True, North Korea has achieved universal literacy, or close to it. But South Korea’s schools and universities have incomparably better funding, teacher training and educational technology. And some South Korean universities, such a Seoul National, which is ranked seventy-second internationally or 119th, depending on the source one consults, are world-class. By contrast, no North Korean university makes the list of the world’s five hundred best. This matters. When it comes to science and technology, both of which have long-term consequences for a country’s economic and military power, the quality of the educational system is crucial. The canyon-size gap between North and South Korea in technology and innovation makes this clear.

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