Editor’s note: John Dale Grover is a Korean Studies fellow at the Center for the National Interest. He visited Seoul for a week in early November 2019 to interview nine experts in South Korea for this project. This is the third piece in a five-article series, “How South Korea’s Politics and Military Impacts Strategic Stability with North Korea.” This series examines the two South Korean views—Engagement First vs. Deterrence First—over how to best interact with North Korea. The first piece introduces the problem of conflict escalation and stability in the context of North and South Korea’s militaries. The second piece looks at the Engagers’ point of view, and the third piece at the Deterers. The fourth piece sees where both groups agree and disagree, and the fifth piece concludes with how each side can help avoid a Second Korean War. Support for the reporting of this article was provided by a fellowship from Atomic Reporters together with the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and funding from the Carnegie Corporation, New York. The quotations in this article have been edited for length and clarity.
North Korea’s Threats Require a Firm Hand
“It is a matter of what we will gain in security,” retired Captain Sukjoon Yoon told TNI. A former Republic of Korea Navy Captain, he is also a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs. “We’ve been through more than seven decades of building up our military capabilities against North Korean military provocations and threat perceptions. But now North Korea is trying to shore up their nuclear ability against South Korea and the United States.”
To Deterers, the threat from North Korea is real, and tension reduction is largely the responsibility of Pyongyang. To them, the ball is in North Korea’s court, but Pyongyang is rarely interested in playing a fair game. Dr. Min Gyo Koo, a professor of international affairs at Seoul National University, agrees with a firm approach. “Without a very tight and close military alliance between South Korea and the United States, I don’t think peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis is imaginable. But unfortunately, our government is drifting between North Korea and the U.S.—that’s the big problem.”
“What North Korea wants is the lifting of sanctions, particularly the five key UNSC resolutions for sanctions,” Dr. Sung-han Kim told TNI. If that was done in exchange for a very small nuclear concession, he warned that “the follow-up process would be meaningless. So I hope President Trump would not be trapped into that kind of pitfall.” Dr. Sung-han Kim is a professor of international relations at Korea University and served as the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2012-2013. He does not believe Pyongyang acts in good faith and thinks North Korea may eventually test more ICBMs. When that happens, “President Trump will not be able to say those tests are not as threatening to the security of the U.S. mainland of the United States.”
Dr. Min Gyo Koo is also dismissive of the idea that Pyongyang is not a problem. He is pleased South Korea’s conventional forces out-match North Korea’s and sees Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons as the real problem. “But ironically, there are still some Korean people who believe North Korean nuclear weapons are not a threat to us—that North Korean nuclear weapons are targeted first against Japan and then at the United States.”
He elaborated, “If we are unified, they reason North Korean nuclear weapons will become ours. That mentality is still there, believe it or not.” Dr. Min Gyo Koo believes such views are dangerous because the reality of deterrence still holds. In fact, the nuclear threat is once again reigniting South Korean debates about Seoul acquiring its own bomb. He warned that some policymakers are thinking that “in order to deter North Korea from their nuclear adventurism, we need to arm ourselves with tactical nuclear weapons.”
North Korea’s Behavior is Offensive
Deterers do not generally think of South Korea’s military capabilities as destabilizing or threatening. North Korea might claim they are, but Pyongyang’s own history of provocations undercuts the argument they are sincere. As Dr. Min Gyo Koo flatly stated to TNI, Pyongyang’s complaints “are just North Korean rhetoric” that “we don’t have to worry about.” If anything, “They are not consistent—their only consistent logic is their own survival.”
Most Deterers see North Korean statements as pure propaganda. As Dr. Min Gyo Koo explained, “They are not bound by what they say. I don’t think South Korean military capabilities will threaten or have threatened North Korea and pushed them away from cooperation. This is because Pyongyang still has not officially dropped the idea of unifying the Korean peninsula on its own terms. So they’ll just keep complaining about South Korean military capabilities because they impede Pyongyang’s goal of unifying and running the country.”
Dr. Sung-han Kim thinks the administration of President Moon Jae-in is misguided and is being taken advantage of. “I think we have become so vulnerable by being obsessed with this so-called appeasement policy on North Korea for the past couple of years.” For instance, he points to Pyongyang’s missile tests in 2017 as proof that North Korea was emboldened. According to Dr. Sung-han Kim, Pyongyang only stopped after America got tough. “We have to remember North Korea, for the first time, responded to two things. One of them was real economic sanctions; the other one was fire and fury, meaning political and military pressure by the United States.”
In his view, a return to maximum pressure is necessary. He thinks Kim Jong-un made two huge mistakes: testing too many missiles in too short of a time span and not making a deal at the Hanoi summit with America. For example, consistent missile tests caused Beijing to lose face as Pygonyang’s patron at the United Nations Security Council. As a result, “when the U.S. provided a draft resolution, China couldn’t oppose it.” That meant a new level of economic sanctions never seen before were implemented to really squeeze North Korea, causing Kim Jong-un to seek a way out at the Hanoi summit.
“Kim Jong-un should have hidden his real intentions,” reflected Dr. Sung-han Kim. “But he didn’t have a lot of experience. He raised sanctions relief as the first and the last agenda item at Hanoi. He could have brought up liaison offices or a peace regime so the United States would not catch his plan. But he put sanctions relief on the table and persisted. And then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said something to President Donald Trump, who walked away the next day. I think it was the right decision. He was praised by both parties when he came back to Washington. No deal with better than a bad deal.”
Deterers aren’t necessarily against talking with North Korea—they are just very skeptical. As a nonpartisan reporter, Ms. Jeongmin Kim aptly explained that Pyongyang’s proclamations should be taken with a grain of salt but also properly understood. “If we look at North Korean state media, they keep condemning Seoul—and recently also the United States—for the capacities South Korea has and for joint drills. But North Korea knows South Korea can’t get away from the U.S. alliance. So when Pyongyang says they condemn South Korea for all these capacities, which we see as deterrence, I don’t think it means North Korea is actually telling South Korea to just withdraw everything. They’re just using it as rhetoric and leverage while they’re doing negotiations with the United States. Also, they’re pushing South Korea to assume a more proactive role—such as by pressuring America to lift sanctions—if they don’t want to get all these condemning statements. So we shouldn’t take those proclamations at face value.”
All of this means that while South Korea maintains both its defenses and attempts diplomacy, it would be wise to be wary of Pyongyang. As Ms. Jeongmin Kim elaborated to TNI, “North Koreans are hardcore realists, and if they see no good coming out of interacting with South Korea, they just won’t talk—they’ll push South Korea away. But then if South Korea gets ahead of itself by talking about a peace economy [when North Korea is not interested], they may be destabilizing the situation on the Korean peninsula on their own. Because if they do that, North Korea has no choice but to push out more hostile commentary because South Korea is getting nowhere with sanctions relief. From the North Korean point of view, if South Korea can’t really persuade the United States when it comes to sanctions or redefining the definition or range of denuclearization, they don’t really see any point in talking to South Korea.”
How Many More Military Capabilities Does Peace Require?
To Deterers, North Korean nuclear weapons balance out South Korea’s high-tech conventional capabilities. However, Pyongyang still has nuclear weapons, and Seoul doesn’t. Additionally, South Korea might outclass North Korea’s military, but it still relies on its alliance with nuclear-armed America. In this situation, Deterers are always concerned with improving their conventional edge and with maintaining Washington’s nuclear umbrella. More capabilities are the order of the day, and Deterers are often concerned about other regional powers too.
As Dr. Youngjun Kim put it, “Over a decade, the number target was North Korea definitely, but we have to think expansively. The number one threat is Chinese military expansion, and maybe a potential threat from Russia, but not Japan.” In order to deal with this, he sees a stronger navy and air force as the solution. “The rise of China is one of the main causes of instability in the region. For me, Chinese military expansion and challenge to the world order founded after the Second World War is the greatest threat.”