In the wake of North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, the second one in the course of nine months, South Korea has changed its diplomatic and military agenda towards the North, switching from a defense to an offensive posture. President Park Geun-hye declared that the South Korean military should be ready to bring an end to the Pyongyang regime once it fires a nuclear missile. To further emphasize Seoul’s seriousness in countering North Korea’s provocations, Defense Minister Han Min-koo announced South Korea’s newest military strategy to punish North Korea: the “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation” plan, which includes decapitation operations and preemptive strikes against Pyongyang’s government headquarters.
Taking into consideration the collapse of the Park administration’s “Trustpolitik” and other subsequent failures in preventing North Korea from testing its nuclear weapons, these extreme measures can be regarded as signs of paranoia in Seoul’s policymaking circle. They believe that stepping up the diplomatic rhetoric against Pyongyang may prompt Kim Jong-un to reconsider the pace of his nuclear program, as well as save face for the president’s Saenuri Party after its defeat in the legislative election in April. However, escalating the tension on the Korean Peninsula is not a wise choice to make at this moment if Seoul seriously wants to put more pressure on Pyongyang.
From 2013 to 2015, South Korea embraced a friendly diplomatic approach towards China with the assumption that Beijing could enforce UN sanctions and persuade Pyongyang to abandon or at least freeze its nuclear program. Unfortunately, North Korea’s nuclear test in January shattered the Seoul-Beijing honeymoon, and pushed both sides to extremes. South Korea made a controversial decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), despite China’s objections and even threats of severing diplomatic relations. The September nuclear test confirmed South Korea’s belief that China was not useful in coping with the hermit kingdom’s nuclear ambitions, which further complicates Seoul’s North Korea strategy.
South Korea’s fear of being attacked by the North is entirely comprehensible, considering the scientific achievements that Pyongyang has made since Kim Jong-un came to power. North Korea now claims it has the skills to produce nuclear warheads and can use them to mount atop of its missiles by 2020; other sources also predict that the North can possess between fifty and one hundred nuclear weapons by the same year, 2020. This security dilemma puts Seoul in a position of vulnerability and prompts it to resort to decapitation methods in order to preempt a nuclear war before it happens.
Nonetheless, despite North Korea’s recent nuclear moves, South Korea’s policymakers’ fears of a nuclear war should not be exaggerated, since the North is not likely to mount an attack as long as Kim Jong-un and the country’s elites perceive few direct threats to their power. The nuclear program brings about a great amount of legitimacy, a sense of security and the accumulation of wealth to the ruling class. They utilize their nuclear arsenal to construct the image of a madman North Korea that no country dares to mess with, which helps them blackmail the international community and extract the greatest possible amount of aid in times of natural disasters. Moreover, the possession of nuclear weapons, coupled with the prospect of a chaotic North Korea, exhausts its enemies’ willingness to subvert the regime. North Korean elites are now enjoying the best standard of living in the country, and they fear that if their government collapses, they can be severely punished, like their comrades in the former Soviet Bloc after the Cold War. From their perspectives, nuclear weapons are for display, not for use. It is good to enlarge the nuclear exhibition, but selling or using the artifacts will bring an end to the demonstration as a whole.
Based on this assessment, South Korea and America must adopt a wait-and-see approach, since pushing Pyongyang too hard does not help solve the nuclear riddle immediately. South Korea should scale down its verbal attacks against Pyongyang after every provocation and send a message to North Korea that its nuclear achievements do not cause any trouble for Seoul’s agenda, which will decrease the value of Pyongyang’s future nuclear tests and negotiations. Behind the scenes, it is fine for the South to prepare preemptive plans according to new developments on the Korean Peninsula, but it had better avoid announcing those plans to the public. The United States can continue putting more sanctions on North Korea and flood the country with outside information so as to exert more pressure on Pyongyang’s elites. In addition, Washington can punish more Chinese companies that trade with North Korea, like the recent case of Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development. Lowering the value of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and draining its sources of money should be the main strategy.
Seoul’s frustration with Pyongyang after the latter’s ongoing ballistic-missile and nuclear tests are entirely legitimate; however, its extreme responses do not help defuse North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Washington can allay its ally’s fear of being attacked by maintaining the current degree of military exercises between the two and guaranteeing its extended deterrence doctrine with Seoul. The gradual collapse of eastern European countries due to excessive debt and outside information in the late 1980s should serve as a lesson for dealing with North Korea. The hermit kingdom is no longer totally cut off from the rest of the world, as in the 1990s; North Korean people today can get access to outside information thanks to trade with China and domestic marketization. Therefore, the proposed plan is not impractical.
To bring down a communist regime, you must do what it fears most. North Korea should not be an exception.
Khang Vu is an international relations analyst from New London, New Hampshire. The opinions expressed in the article are the author’s own. His other writings have appeared in the Diplomat and East Asia Forum.
Image: A North Korean soldier looks into the Joint Security Area near Panmunjom. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army