Insecurity on the Korean Peninsula has once again spiked and this certainly won’t be the last time security concerns have increased there. Recently, North Korea allegedly tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), there is renewed tension along the Northern Limit Line (NLL), the disputed maritime boundary between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea, and Hyon Yong-chol, North Korea’s Minister of Defense was executed for disloyalty and falling asleep during a meeting. This last action, if confirmed, has raised a good deal of speculation on the stability of the Kim Jong-un regime. Once again, these events have generated anxiety in South Korea (ROK) and the United States and have revived the debate on how to “fix” the problem of North Korea.
There are no easy solutions. In fact, it may not be in the power of Seoul or Washington to solve these issues as much is dependent on domestic politics in North Korea and many recent events there are part of Kim Jong-un’s continued effort to consolidate his power. As tensions rise, there are three general policy directions South Korea and the United States need to pursue to weather any potential current or future crisis.
First, South Korea and the United States must continue to maintain a robust deterrence posture. Several recent efforts have helped address this, including the conclusion of a ROK-U.S. Tailored Deterrence Strategy, the Combined Counter Provocation Plan, and the growth of South Korea’s own conventional strike capabilities. It is important to remember that deterrence in Korea operates at two levels—the strategic level, which includes major combat operations, and against lower level North Korean provocations. Strategic deterrence is effective and stable as it has been for over 60 years. While the likelihood of a North Korean invasion is near nil, deterring lower level provocations have been the more difficult challenge. The aforementioned measures help to maintain and strengthen deterrence at both levels.
Second, South Korea and the United States must continue to improve appropriate defensive measures should deterrence fail. Much attention in this regard has focused on ballistic missile defense (BMD); more recently, there has been a debate concerning a possible American deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to the peninsula. South Korea has for the moment opted to pursue its own BMD—the Korea Area and Missile Defense (KAMD) system, which is not part of U.S. efforts to build a regional missile defense architecture. The decision for an independent ROK system has been largely a result of Chinese objections that a region-wide BMD would be directed at them. In the uproar over THAAD, China may have overplayed its hand, generating increased resentment in South Korea toward Beijing’s pressure. In the end, South Korea will need to debate the wisdom of joining the U.S. BMD system, but everyone must remember that BMD is not the panacea it is often assumed to be. Though technology and capabilities continue to improve, BMD is only effective in shooting down a limited number of missiles at any one time. If North Korea launched fifty short-range Scuds at South Korea, or fifty Nodongs at Japan, a large share of the missiles would get through. Yet, ongoing investments in BMD may be worth the cost.
Another defensive measure that would strengthen security in the region is an improved ROK anti-submarine warfare capability (ASW). After the Cheonan was sunk in 2010, the ROK Navy began work to improve this capability. However, as the years passed, the determination and funding to improve ASW waned not only for equipment acquisition, but also for improving operational capability. Though North Korea is a long way from an operational ballistic missile submarine, the SLBM test has been a strong reminder that South Korea needs to reinvigorate its efforts to improve its ASW.
Though not usually thought of as defensive, two other measures will be important to consider. Short of a regime collapse, North Korea will not give up its nuclear and ballistic missile capability and indeed, its nuclear forces will continue to grow, though the final size of the arsenal remains uncertain. It is incumbent on South Korea, the United States, and the international community to ensure that whatever nuclear capabilities North Korea obtains, those stay in North Korea. Consequently, renewed efforts to improve the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) that monitors and interdicts North Korean attempts to export any portion of its nuclear capability are paramount. In that same vein, though North Korea will continue to develop its nuclear capability, the imposition of increased, targeted economic sanctions can help impede North Korean efforts to acquire more nuclear weapons by making this process as difficult and expensive as possible.
Last and perhaps most difficult, Seoul and Washington need to continue to reach out to the North Korean regime to establish some type of ongoing dialogue. The most serious insecurity usually occurs during a crisis. With the stakes high, leaders must make decisions under intense pressure, often within short timelines and with scant information. Together, these are a recipe for rash decisions and disaster. Although dialogue will not necessarily solve the intractable security problems on the Korean Peninsula, it can help moderate tension levels, and reduce the possibility of heading toward a crisis because of miscalculation and a catastrophic spiraling-out-of-control chain of events.
Dialogue does not mean sacrificing ROK and U.S. goals or rewarding North Korea’s bad behavior. Seoul and Washington must remain firm in the goal of denuclearization, though that should not be a precondition that prevents meetings and dialogues between the two parties. In addition, other issues such as human rights and containing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions should be on any negotiating table.
There are no easy answers to dealing with North Korea and ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. In fact, the challenges are likely to grow and become even more complex. A firm hand accompanied by a willingness to talk may be the best path for dealing with these uncertainties.
Terence Roehrig is Professor of National Security Affairs and Director of the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the Naval War College. He is a coauthor of South Korea’s Rise: Economic Development, Power, and Foreign Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2014). The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Image: Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.