Engagement First: Why Some Koreans See Peacemaking and Peacebuilding as the Solution to North Korea


Engagement First: Why Some Koreans See Peacemaking and Peacebuilding as the Solution to North Korea

Engagers believe that Pyongyang is acting defensively and that inter-Korean relations must be completely transformed.

Dr. John Delury also thinks North Korea really does feel threatened. “[Pyongyang] used to complain a lot about strategic assets, including certainly nuclear-capable ones, such as some of the strategic bombers.” These U.S. bombers, Dr. John Delury elaborated, are normally based in Guam, and were deployed more frequently with high-profile press coverage in response to Pyongyang’s many successful nuclear tests. However, time though, these complaints diminished as America deployed fewer strategic assets to the Korean peninsula and made less deliberate noise about them. Dr. John Delury said that recently North Korea has been angry about joint-exercises and South Korea’s new F-35s. “They don’t like this. This is tilting the balance.”

How can both Koreas find their way out of this dilemma? Dr. Chung-in Moon sees a transformative peace regime as the only real long-term solution. That means making agreements to break the cycle. “But the whole problem is this: we need some success, no matter how small, because success breeds success. But we haven’t made a tiny bit of success, and I think that is a very sad aspect of the current situation.”

In Dr. Moon’s eyes, South Korea must keep its military strength but must also transform relations to where such defenses are less necessary because both Koreas cease to see each other as hostile. But without American support for these efforts, no progress can be made and South Korean defense preparations will still look destabilizing to Pyongyang.

“My personal view is this… in Hanoi, Kim Jong-un proposed the Yongbyeong deal [of giving up the Yongbyeong nuclear sites for sanctions relief], and I think the United States should have taken it. I still don’t understand why the U.S. didn’t take it and release those five UN security council sanctions resolutions since 2016 as they affect North Korea’s economy and people’s livelihoods... There is a tendency to underestimate the strategic value of the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon. But go through the simple counting: it has a five-megawatt nuclear reactor, a light-water nuclear reactor for research purposes, a radiochemical reprocessing plant for plutonium, it has a tritium laboratory for a hydrogen bomb, and it has a highly enriched uranium production facilities to produce three-to-four bombs per year. That is a big deal, not a small deal.”

How Much Disarmament Does Peace Require?

If a transformation of the inter-Korean relationship is possible, what would it take? Engagers realize no country gives up something for nothing. Yet they also think because Pyongyang’s behavior is defensive, the risks are not high.

Dr. John Delury considered how North Korea would react if South Korea shrunk its military. He knows if you think Pyongyang is just waiting to attack, then “you’d be an idiot to touch any of [South Korea’s military].” But that’s not his model.

“What’s the likely North Korean response? In my view, they would shrink their own military as South Korea should shrink theirs.” Furthermore, Dr. John Delury reads Kim Jong-un’s 2018 statement that he will focus on economic development as proof this would happen. After all, if North Korea is busy developing its economy, Pyongyang's leaders will want more workers and fewer soldiers. “Kim Jong-un has opened up space for a mutual reduction.”

Dr. John Delury also believes universal conscription in South Korea has to come to an end anyway, if only because of their aging population. He sees in this an opportunity for an arms control agreement.

“I’m not convinced South Korea needs the size of the army it has. And then there are a lot of negative social effects on South Korean society. One of the biggest social issues here is gender, which affects things the security people love like national power, because the gender relations are so bad that young people don’t want to get married and have kids and so there goes your power because you’re a rapidly aging society.”

This breakdown in gender relations is something Dr. John Delury attributes to the draft since young men tend to serve in the middle of their college years, interrupting their dating lives and prospects. “When they come back, something has changed, the chemistry has changed.”

Moreover, Dr. John Delury is open to many other changes in South Korea’s defenses and alliance. “You can throw the U.S. Forces in Korea into the mix as well—I’m not of the view that it’s a sacred cow we can’t touch. Again, in a peace process, the alliance has to change. The alliance is predicated and built around the threat from North Korea. It’s there to prevent another Korean War. And so, if you’re tackling the roots of the problem—and moving to a place where you’re not afraid the North Koreans are going to attack anymore—you have to change the alliance along with that. Otherwise, the alliance will collapse on its own irrelevance. And actually, there are some signs of that happening—which I don’t think is good. But you have to transform it. And that transformation can include reducing the alliance’s military size, in a coordinated fashion with the two Koreas.”

When asked about how much of a cut he envisioned, Dr. John Delury suggested maybe reducing the U.S. troop presence by 10,000 soldiers but keeping the alliance. In his view, such a move would reduce tensions and misperceptions without compromising security. Dr. John Delury also wants other stabilizing measures such as not publicizing programs that train to take out Kim Jong-un. Furthermore, maybe Seoul and Pyongyang could end those capabilities. “Decapitation units are not helpful. One easy test is to ask ‘do we mind if North Korea does this stuff?’” Dr. John Delury brought up Pyongyang’s alarming use of fake videos showing them blowing up the South Korea presidential residence. If South Korea minds such decapitation units and threats, might not North Korea reasonably perceive Seoul’s capabilities the same way?

Other South Korean programs that might impact strategic stability include the “kill-chain” to stop a North Korean attack and Seoul’s “massive retaliation” program to respond after Pyongyang attacked.

Dr. Youngjun Kim is a professor of international politics at Korea National Defense University and a member of the National Security Advisory Board at the South Korean President’s Office. He wants South Korea to maintain its defenses, but not if they don’t work or are counterproductive to denuclearization. “Do we have a real capability for kill-chain or massive retaliation? Inside the South Korean army, you have a discussion—‘is this an imaginary scenario or actually do we have that capability?’ The Kill Chain is targeted on North Korea, but now we have the denuclearization process, so we have to stop work on this capability. We have to think of the bigger picture.” To Dr. Youngjun Kim, putting a two to three-year hold on joint military exercises and developing capabilities like the kill-chain “isn’t that long,” and no one is arguing for something extreme like “100 or 200 years.”

Ultimately, though, there are limits to how far some Engagers will go. There is no one definition of how far is far enough when it comes to arms reductions or negotiations. Dr. John Delury may want changes Deterers would never agree to, but he is skeptical Seoul should give up the F-35 or ballistic missiles. When asked about the stealth fighter, Dr. John Delury said, “I don’t know where you go with that… I’m a peacenik but not to the point of saying let’s just get rid of it; let’s just disarm when the North Koreans are not disarming and it’s not reasonable to expect them to.”

Moreover, even though South Korea’s very high-caliber ballistic missile program could be used to attempt to strike North Korean nuclear sites or leadership, Dr. John Delury did not think it should be unilaterally on the table. “That’s hard because North Korea has not promised to get rid of all their missiles, they’ve not promised to freeze their missile program as a whole. Even in best-case scenarios, with diplomacy, I would imagine they’ll continue to do a certain amount of missile testing as most countries do… There’s got to be reasonable room for the militaries to maintain a basic level of preparedness—and reciprocity is a fairly good principle.” In this case, some kind of arms control agreement with North Korea could be tried.

No matter what kind of military changes are made, Engagers generally agree transformation is necessary for any peace process. Dr. Chung-in Moon also insists there is no other way forward. “2018 was a year of great transformation. President Moon met Chairman Kim Jong-un three times and they built some sort of trust. But now we are in trouble because we haven’t delivered what was promised with the Panmunjom Declaration and Pyongyang Declaration. North Korea wants a major improvement in inter-Korean relations, but we couldn’t deliver because of the international sanctions regime. Also, North Korea wanted to suspend all hostile activities, and Pyongyang, to some extent, showed those kinds of behavior by suspending their own ballistic missile tests and nuclear tests. But South Korea and the U.S. have been conducting joint military exercises and training despite the fact President Trump said he would suspend them. North Korea really anticipated South Korea would reopen the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial complex, but because of sanctions we couldn’t do that. This really damaged the trust between the two leaders... if you are too obsessed with the logic of strategic stability or deterrence, then it will be extremely difficult to improve ties with North Korea.”