Diplomacy and Deterrence Forever? How South Korea Can Deal With North Korea in the Future


Diplomacy and Deterrence Forever? How South Korea Can Deal With North Korea in the Future

The threat of escalation and strategic instability is real, but peace can be maintained and maybe improved.

Both Engagers and Deterers understand a lack of trust and confidence makes it hard to get anywhere. While Engagers rightly see that incremental improvements could help prevent future conflict, Deterers also rightly know that caution is warranted. Reducing tensions and distrust now will help defuse a crisis later. A part of this could include arms control as Engagers want but could be done in a way that doesn’t undermine South Korea’s defense. In addition, providing regular early notification of any upcoming war games may be another way forward. Deterers may want high-tech weapons systems but they also want capabilities that work and are worth the investment. Arguably then, Deterers may accept certain capabilities being restricted or reduced as part of an arms control agreement if those capabilities weren’t as useful or cost-effective in the first place.

For instance, using modified F-15 Slam Eagles, or F-35 stealth fighters, to hunt and destroy North Korean mobile missile launchers during a war would probably not actually work very well. During the First Gulf War, Iraq was very effective at using mobile Scud missile launchers to launch attacks. Iraq crews were better than the U.S.-led Coalition had assumed, and their launchers were almost impossible to find. Scud crews could hide, move, set up and fire, and then move again—all faster than was thought possible. Despite enormous time and effort, Coalition aircraft and special forces probably only destroyed a few of them. In fact, a report by the Pentagon after the war found there was “no indisputable proof” any real mobile missile launchers had been destroyed. It is likely South Korean aircraft would have a similarly hard time neutralizing North Korea’s mobile launchers. This means that Seoul should be hesitant to strike first even with such advanced warplanes during a crisis since it would guarantee a war and be unlikely to succeed.

Another example are ground forces meant to decapitate North Korea’s leadership. Seoul’s current unit may not be large and logistically-supported enough to take out Kim Jong-un. If that unit would likely fail in its mission—but its peacetime existence harms stability—then it may be a poor use of resources. Consider that North Korean commandos tried to kill South Korea’s President Park Chung-hee in 1968 and also tried to blow up South Korea President Chun Doo-hwan with a bomb in 1983. Both of these incidents raised tensions and could have caused a war. Moreover, South Korea formed its own decapitation group, Unit 684, in 1968 to retaliate. That unit was composed largely of criminals and misfits who were enraged when the attack on Kim was called off. Unit 684 bloodily revolted and was put down, and it seems that for a while afterward plans for other decapitation groups were shelved.

These are two examples of capabilities that likely appear destabilizing to Pyongyang and that also aren’t very effective. The question is whether it would politically be acceptable for Seoul to either reduce these capabilities or declare no first use. As Ms. Jeongmin Kim warned, cutting too many defense programs might backfire domestically. “From South Korea’s point of view, these capacities like ballistic missile defense and also some part of decapitation capacity should be kept. This is because if they get rid of it, it also has domestic effects in South Korea because it makes the conservatives more extreme.” The concern is not just that Deterers would go further in the opposite direction when they are eventually reelected, but also that this would further harm South Korea’s often-fractured domestic politics. In addition, it could make it harder for President Moon Jae-in or future presidents to lay the groundwork for improved inter-Korean relations.

With these concerns in mind, it is not clear which military programs both Engagers and Deterers might accept changing. But the point should be that since both groups are prioritizing peace and security, then it is believable some leeway exists as a part of an arms control or confidence-building measure. Perhaps, South Korea needs a Ronald Reagan or a Richard Nixon before it can have a transformation with North Korea. Someone who is tough on defense that Pyongyang would fear but who also can convince Deterers that it is okay to give up some capabilities as part of an inter-Korean agreement. Ultimately, a strong defense can be maintained while still engaging in arms control. If a certain capability isn’t worth it and harms stability, it makes sense to reduce or cut it in exchange for something from Pyongyang. Meanwhile, Seoul could still focus on other means of deterrence, such as regular military drills or close-range air and missile defenses.

Overall, Deterers are correct that South Korea’s military and technical edge provides a level of balance with North Korea that is necessary due to Pyongyang’s many acts of violence, from the 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo to the 2010 sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan. Today, this military balance might be all the more important given America’s domestic distractions and current disputes over alliance spending. If Seoul’s policymakers grow more concerned about the U.S.-South Korean alliance, it would be better if they pursued high-tech conventional forces over a homegrown nuclear weapon of their own. After all, no doubt, a South Korean atomic bomb would really alarm North Korea and might provoke action to stop its development. Dr. John Delury explained to TNI that a South Korean nuclear weapon wouldn’t happen overnight. Instead, it would be “a logical development from a total collapse of the alliance.” He also cautioned that a nuclear South Korea isn’t unthinkable since “there are some liberal versions of the idea too—it’s not an exclusively conservative idea. And there’s been polling for years that suggests relatively high public support for the possibility of South Korea getting its own.” Needless to say, if the alliance did end, then it is likely many Engagers and Deterers might strongly reconsider pursuing a domestic nuclear weapon.

North Korea Isn’t Budging on Denuclearization

For now, there will remain a long slog of tensions and talks. Ms. Jeongmin Kim sees continued stalemate because “trading Pyongyang’s means of regime survival, which are nuclear weapons, for sanctions relief is not a fair trade from a North Korean point of view.” She said nuclear weapons are too central to the survival and domestic legitimacy of Kim Jong-un’s rule.

This process of North Korean propaganda and ideology means it is harder for Pyongyang to change course than is generally appreciated by American policymakers. “Washington has to learn how to wait. It takes time for North Korean statecraft to come up with a way of legitimizing their choices when it comes to international relations. It is not very easy to get out of their very old anti-United States ideology and all the other institutions that come from it. But they are going step by step. For example, Washington should learn how to live with North Korea touting all these condemnations and hostile rhetoric and not take it at face value. They need to wait until the North Korean system is okay with normalizing ties with the United States. Because it is going to take time, it is going to take stages. We need to be less dramatic about reacting to what North Korea says or what the United States says.”

Both Engagers and Deterers want to eventually see the Korean nation as free and whole, and most don’t have denuclearization as a priority. The good thing is this means, on the one hand, collapsed denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington might not automatically raise inter-Korean tensions. But on the other hand, inter-Korean relations would likely sour eventually anyway because America would still insist on up-front denuclearization and might revive maximum economic and military pressure. 

What America Does Next Still Matters

Without a denuclearization or another kind of deal, North Korea could lash out with a series of intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear tests. Pyongyang might also do so in order to distract from internal problems or to shore up domestic support for the regime. 

Regardless of the reasons, if that happens South Korea should be ready to help defuse any new escalation spiral. Dr. John Delury warned that Pyongyang might mistakenly trigger the next escalation cycle. “I don’t think Trump will go back [to fire and fury] unless Kim tests him. Kim has to trigger this by testing an ICBM or a nuclear device. If that happens, it will have been Kim who made a mistake, but there will be a strong temptation for the United States to make a massive mistake in response.” Dr. John Delury expressed the remote possibility that hopefully instead, Pyongyang could do an obviously fake satellite launch as a cover for an ICBM test, enabling President Donald Trump to downplay it.

Either way, the time to plan for the next crisis is now. Dr. Jihwan Hwang believes that “Kim Jong-un will wait and see the results of the U.S. presidential elections, so 2020 will be less dangerous.” That is why Seoul needs to lay further groundwork for confidence-building and clear communication with North Korea soon. Dr. John Delury put it this way to TNI, “It’s not a communication problem, it’s really a political issue and when the politics allow it, the two Koreas have shown they can communicate really quickly, they can communicate comprehensively. They do have the basic infrastructure for it. That kind of thing can matter, especially in crisis situations. There’s a phone.”