Lost in the cyclonic developments in the Korean Peninsula over the past year is one constant: it is Kim Jong-un who has mesmerized the South, from high officials to broad swathes of the public. Through a deft combination of bellicose words and deeds, followed by pacifistic gestures, Kim has sent an intoxicating message to South Korea: the United States is at once impotent—unable to stop the North—and also a menacing bully who impedes rapprochement between the people of the North and South.
The irony is stunning. In 2017, Pyongyang fired twenty-three missiles during sixteen separate tests, including its first intercontinental ballistic missile—a rocket that could reach anywhere in the world. Kim has conducted multiple nuclear tests in the last few years, including one last September that is widely believed to be a hydrogen bomb. In turn, the North Korean supreme leader combined these bold, intimidating acts with sharply-tuned words, for example, the defiant “dotard” insult in response to Trump’s “rocket man” put-down. Then, without warning, at the recent Pyeongchang Olympics (dubbed the Pyongyang Olympics by wags in the South), Kim pivoted like a figure skater, easily manipulating his dovish South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-In into a willing embrace, while forcing Vice President Pence to appear peevish and hawkish.
As the world awaits the anticipated meeting with President Trump, scheduled for June 12 in Singapore, Kim continues to manipulate the South, capitalizing on waning support for the United States in order to neuter the South’s will to seek peace through strength. The opening for Kim came when the staunchly pro-American former South Korean president, Park Geun-hye, had to resign in disgrace in March 2017. Instantly, U.S.-backed security measures like the THAAD missile system fell into disrepute, reviled as American profit-generators that only a lackey like Park would accept, despite the significant boon this defensive system would provide South Korea.
As the space between South Korea and the U.S. widens, Washington’s ability to marshal collective pressure on Kim’s regime diminishes. It is exceedingly dangerous for Trump to engage in talks with Kim when the North Korean leader detects such a gap between United States and South Korean “will.” To regain the initiative and give the talks a chance to succeed, Washington needs to find a plausible way to re-energize South Korean resolve in the defense sphere and upset Kim’s comfort about his ability to cow his Southern counterparts with menace. The solution is to engage Seoul in an urgent, vastly improved and comprehensive civil-defense program.
The need for improved civil defense in South Korea is painfully obvious. The country’s capital, with half of its population in its metropolitan area, lies only thirty-five miles from the demilitarized zone. The abject vulnerability of the capital’s citizens to artillery bombardment is the primary deterrent to the use of American force on the North. Diminish that vulnerability and the strategic balance immediately shifts, raising uncertainty in Pyongyang—and also in Beijing. That uncertainty would substantially increase leverage in negotiations, reinforced by a newly united front that Washington and Seoul would present.
The astonishing question is why American and South Korean administrations have neglected civil defense for so long. Although there are enough shelters dotted throughout the country—with over 3,200 shelters in Seoul alone—their association with civil defense has been lost. The shelters double as subway stations, underground shopping malls, parking garages beneath buildings, with their potential use in times of crisis either forgotten or ignored. Monthly drills held throughout the country are largely ignored by most Koreans, who see them more as a nuisance than a potentially lifesaving training exercise. Most South Koreans don’t even know where their nearest shelter is or they depend on a smart-phone app, which could become easily disabled during a confrontation. The shelters themselves are poorly outfitted. They lack adequate supplies of water or emergency medical equipment. The means and planning for evacuation of large numbers of Seoul inhabitants is also inadequate.
Unlike a one-off, U.S.-led “bloody-nose” strike, which looks increasingly improbable, civil defense is sustainable. As Seoul rolls out its new plan—with revamped and redundant communication, construction of new shelters capable of withstanding attacks besides traditional ballistic weapons, expedited mass transportation to facilitate evacuation, improved facilities with adequate food, water and sanitation facilities, and more frequent drills—it sends a continuous message of prudence, fully consistent with either peaceful negotiations or, if it comes to it, military confrontation.
Unlike an incendiary Trump tweet, civil defense is not inherently provocative. It denies Kim the opportunity to respond with a defiant missile or nuclear test. If Kim does so, he looks like the belligerent to South Koreans, not Washington.
And like the North’s Olympic Games peace offensive, civil defense is politically savvy. What is more humane and unobjectionable than protecting civilians through purely nonmilitary means? President Moon can sell this to his supporters as a benign and prudent measure, while fending off charges from his critics that he’s doing nothing to challenge the North.