Those who have talked recently with South Korean foreign-policy and national-security experts will have noticed that they are quite apprehensive. There are at least three explanations for this.
The ongoing political controversy around President Park Geun-hye is one. South Koreans in the know certainly have differing views on whether their president’s predicament will affect their country’s stability. As some see it, the mere fact that she is being been held accountable demonstrates that democracy has sunk deep roots in South Korea. Others are leery, however, and not just about the possibility of a crisis within South Korea. They are also concerned that North Korea might exploit the South’s political turmoil, possibly through a military challenge of some sort.
Seoul’s political class and national-security establishment incline toward a standard, predictable view of their northern nemesis. They see it as militarized, menacing, opaque, wildly unpredictable, even irrational. They point to its numerical advantage in military manpower and most categories of conventional weaponry, and to its nuclear weapons and arsenal of ballistic missiles. And they stress that Pyongyang’s pugnaciousness and military might leave South Korea exposed and vulnerable. In their eyes, people who discount the North Korean threat typically have the luxury of living far away or are ill informed—perhaps both.
Apart from President Park’s problems and Pyongyang’s unpredictability, South Korean foreign- and defense-policy experts worry that Seoul’s protector par excellence, the United States, will prove less reliable now that Donald Trump is the president-elect. His victory astonished most South Korean specialists on American politics just as much as it did their stateside counterparts. During his campaign, Trump accused allies such as South Korea of free riding at America’s expense. He demanded that they do more for their own defense and even suggested that Japan and South Korea consider building nuclear weapons to that end. South Korean strategists would be irritated to hear such views at an academic seminar; they were unnerved to hear them voiced by the next occupant of White House. Yes, South Koreans worried when President Jimmy Carter raised the possibility of pulling American troops out of South Korea—he didn’t follow through—but their nervousness about Trump’s intentions runs much deeper.
What’s odd about this triple-charged anxiety— produced by Park’s problems, Pyongyang’s arsenal and Trump’s worldview—is that most South Koreans defense experts also favor imposing much tougher economic sanctions on North Korea. That, they believe, is the only way to pressure Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear weapons and cease its ballistic-missile tests. They claim that North Korea’s leaders will bend if they are forced to confront serious pain, especially because the North’s polity and economy are already in danger of collapsing. The image of a menacing North Korea thus coexists with that of a North Korea that is vulnerable, even doomed. The likelihood that North Korea’s disintegration could create colossal problems for South Korea and that draconian sanctions could produce precipitate the North’s implosion do not seem not to elicit great concern. Not all influential South Koreans feel this way, of course. But many do.
The assessment of South Koreans who are influential on foreign and defense policy regarding the balance of forces on the Korean Peninsula aligns remarkably well with that of American experts on South Korea—especially those based in or near Washington, DC. Someone who challenges this alarmist consensus, a rare event in my experience, will cause eyebrows to arch and heads to shake in disbelief. But the resiliency of the consensus doesn’t necessarily mean it’s valid. Indeed, the facts don’t support it.
To assess South Korea’s vulnerability, let’s start by comparing the North and the South using standard measure of power: population. South Korea contains 50.6 million people and North Korea 25.2 million: a two-to-one in the South’s favor. Now, a large population need not be an advantage, especially for poor countries. But South Korea, as I show below, is certainly not poor. That makes all the difference. Thanks to South Korea’s advanced society and economy—also discussed below—its numerical advantage in population yields a far more important asset, namely a massive lead in the quality of human capital: a people’s skills, capabilities, quality of life and potential.
The data pertinent to gauging human capital highlight the South’s advantage. True, North Korea has achieved universal literacy, or close to it. But South Korea’s schools and universities have incomparably better funding, teacher training and educational technology. And some South Korean universities, such a Seoul National, which is ranked seventy-second internationally or 119th, depending on the source one consults, are world-class. By contrast, no North Korean university makes the list of the world’s five hundred best. This matters. When it comes to science and technology, both of which have long-term consequences for a country’s economic and military power, the quality of the educational system is crucial. The canyon-size gap between North and South Korea in technology and innovation makes this clear.
Other indices relating to human capital also point to the chasm between the two Koreas. Consider five of them:
• Average life expectancy (82.3 years for the South, 70.3 for the North);
• Infant mortality (4.1 deaths per one thousand live births, versus 26.2);
• Maternal mortality rate (11 per one hundred thousand live births, versus 82);
• Caloric intake (3,329 compared to 2,103, with one type of grain, and very little meat, accounting for most of North Koreans’ calorie consumption);
• Internet access per one hundred people (81.5 vs. 0.1).
Indices such as these account for why the South’s two-to-one advantage in population matters; quantity becomes a massive asset when combined with quality.
The data on economic power is no less lopsided. South Korea’s GDP, measured in purchasing power parity, is $1.4 trillion in 2014, making the eleventh largest in the world. North Korea’s, by contrast, was $30 billion—the 113th place internationally, behind Honduras, which has a population one-third the size of North Korea’s. They key point to keep in mind here is that the South’s economy is forty times larger than the North’s.
Per capita income, a rough measure of living standards, stacks up as follows: $33,000 for the South (forty-ninth in rank) versus $1,800 for the North in 2015 (210th in rank, on par with Haiti). That amounts to a 18:1 ratio favoring South Korea. The South’s wealth gives it a huge in savings and investment and a greater capacity to sustain high levels of defense spending (about which more soon). And South Korea’s higher per-capita income widens the education gap further. It enables tens of thousands to attend the world’s premier universities each year. In 2012, 239,213 of them studied abroad, nearly 31 percent of them in the United States. By contrast, North Korea’s poverty and closed polity work against it.
Now it could be said these data don’t matter, that what really does is North Korea’s aggressiveness and menacing military machine. But the standard view of the military balance between North and South, which is that it favors the former decisively, bears scrutiny. It bears scrutiny, even though North Korea has been testing nuclear weapons since 2006, and even though the North has tested an array of ballistic missiles since the 1990s (variants of the Taepodong, plus the Nodong- and Musudan-class, creating an inventory of some 250 in all), including a submarine-launched version in 2016. (The first test, in July, flopped. The second, in August, did not; but the missile traveled a very short distance—hardly proof that the North has built an SLBM that can carry a nuclear warhead.)
The numerical tally typically used to compare military power favors the North, and pretty decisively: tanks (3,500 versus 2,414), artillery (21,100 versus 11,000) and submarines (72 versus 23). The only armaments that display a different pattern are combat aircraft (the South has 563, the North 571, parity in effect), frigates (three versus fourteen, in favor of the South) and destroyers (none for Pyongyang, six for Seoul).
There’s one military-relevant measure in which the South outclasses the North decisively, and it highlights the importance of overall wealth: defense spending. South Korea spends $33.2 billion on its armed forces. The North allocates $10.2 billion according to South Korean estimates, which tend to be higher. That’s still a 3:1 ratio favoring the South. Moreover, given the size of its economy, South Korea has a wholly manageable defense burden of less than 3 percent of GDP, compared to 25 percent for the North.
South Korea’s larger defense budget is accounted for partly by higher personnel costs. Still, the South’s advantages in wealth and technology have enabled it to build a military equipped with weapons far more advanced than the North’s. The purchase of arms, mainly from the United States, explains this qualitative lead, but so does production at home.
Thus North Korea’s lead in numbers must be must be placed in perspective. Consider submarines. The North has many more, but the South’s fleet is far more advanced. Its mainstays are the Chang Bogo–class diesel electric and the diesel electric/fuel cell hybrid Son Won-il class. The latter has air-independent propulsion (AIP), which increases a submarine’s endurance and enables it remain submerged longer.
The South has a similar qualitative edge in destroyers and frigates. The North lacks vessels of either type comparable in quality to the South’s Chungmugong Yi Sun-sin, King Gwanggaeto the Great, King Sejong the Great and Daegu class.
A similar quality gap exists in air power. The vast majority of North Korea’s interceptors and strike aircraft, save its MiG-29s, are Soviet vintage machines that date back to the 1960s, even the 1950s. South Korea’s American-made F-16 Cs, F-16Ds and FA-50s are in a different league altogether. And Seoul’s air superiority will increase further once its takes delivery, starting in 2018, of Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 multi-role stealth fighters. (It may buy sixty in all.)
The same pattern is apparent in the qualitative balance in tanks. The bulk of North Korea’s armor consists of Soviet T-55s and T-62s, which appeared in the 1950s and 1960s, or Chinese versions of the same. South Korea boasts far more sophisticated tanks, the K-2 Black Panther among them.
The point of the preceding comparison based on different elements of power (human capital, wealth, technology, and weaponry) is not that North Korea will soon fall apart or that it is militarily a paper tiger. Decline and collapse are distinct. The first need not lead to the second, and the transition may take a very long time even if it does. Despite their weaknesses, Pyongyang’s armed forces are formidable, and war on the Korean Peninsula will have horrific consequences, not least because Seoul contains at least a fifth of South Korea’s population and stands but thirty-five miles from the DMZ. Still, the standard claim that South Korea faces a massive threat from North Korea and cannot handle it without the twenty-eight thousand American troops that now supplement its strength is faulty.
The North would face a very tough fight, and its victory is hardly assured. Moreover, China, Pyongyang’s chief backer, does not want a war on its border; nor does Russia, its second most important supporter. For now, both China and Russia favor the status quo because they realize that the fallout produced by a North-South clash would soon reach them. Moreover, neither Beijing nor Moscow wants a unified Korea—a war might pave the way for that outcome—because they realize that it could align with the United States.
Beijing and Moscow will not support comprehensive sanctions against North Korea; they don’t want the regime to unravel. So there’s little chance of stepping up economic punishment to induce North Korea to scuttle its nuclear weapons. Besides, Pyongyang sees its nuclear arms as the ultimate guarantee against an attack, and won’t give them up to avoid economic pain. The studies on the efficacy of sanctions demonstrate they don’t convince states to change their behavior when doing so would imperil interests they deem vital. Yet while nuclear weapons will help Kim Jong-un avoid Saddam Hussein’s fate, their value is limited to deterrence—and maybe prestige, though that’s doubtful in North Korea’s case. That lesson has been learned by all nuclear-armed states. The North can rattle its nuclear saber in hopes of wringing concessions from the South, but it won’t succeed.
Sanctions that really bite could trigger an economic collapse in North Korea—if China participates. Pyongyang has undertaken reforms recently by expanding the role of the market in agriculture, providing more leeway to factory managers, substantially increasing the number of Special Economic Zones, and taking steps to boost tourism and foreign investment. Still, these steps may not boost economic growth enough to enable it to withstand sanctions that are tough and truly comprehensive.
But should South Koreans really want their northern neighbor to unravel? The process wouldn’t be peaceful. And if reunification were to follow it would be staggeringly expensive. Seoul would do well to consider West Germany’s experience after 1989. By 2010, western Germany had spent about $1.7 trillion to revamp and reintegrate the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). South Korea economic transformation over the past six decades has been remarkable. Its GDP in 1957 was equal to what Ghana’s was then. But South Korea is still much less wealthy than Germany, whose economic output is two-and-a-half times larger. And for all of its problems, the German Democratic Republic was economically far more advanced than North Korea.
Both South Korean and American experts exaggerate South Korea’s vulnerability. Given the North-South military balance, a war on the Korean peninsula remains unlikely. President Park’s political problems will not change that. Nor, contrary to the commonplace view, will Trump’s decision—whatever it may be—relating to U.S. troops in South Korea. Pyongyang’s leaders may be unpredictable, but they have never been reckless enough to risk their state’s survival. That’s precisely what they would do by attacking the South. South Korea has the wherewithal to defend itself, and the North, its bombast notwithstanding, likely understands that.
There are ways to make the Korean peninsula a safer place. For denuclearization to happen, South Korea and the West must discard their faith in sanctions. They should turn to a multilateral diplomatic strategy that includes China and Russia, and offers North Korea economic incentives as well as reassurances about its security in exchange for parting with its nuclear arms. Progress on the nuclear front should be followed by troop pullbacks and confidence-building measures along the DMZ. The chances of success are slim, but the effort should be made nevertheless.
Rajan Menon is Anne and Bernard Spitzer of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York. He is a senior research fellow in the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Image: A Republic of Korea Army soldier guards the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Flickr/Ash Carter