By Matthew Massee
North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile this week, its first missile test in two months. The public discourse has centered on North Korea’s ability to strike the U.S. and how the U.S. will respond to this latest test. But South Korea is also a key part of the crisis; it would bear the brunt of a North Korean attack. Seoul has thus developed a political strategy to avoid conflict, as well as a military strategy to respond to an attack should diplomacy fail.
South Korea’s primary imperative is to protect Seoul from any threat, including a conventional or nuclear attack by North Korea. To achieve this goal, the South has developed a three-pronged political strategy. First, South Korea sees international sanctions as a way to deter the North from pursuing its nuclear program. Sanctions have produced few measurable results in the past, but South Korea has worked to continue and expand them. After the missile test on Nov. 29, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said his country would work with the international community to implement stronger sanctions against the North. In addition, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to seek additional sanctions at a U.N. Security Council meeting scheduled for Nov. 30.
A South Korean soldier at a railway station in Seoul on Nov. 29, 2017, walks past a television news screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un approving the country’s new ICBM test. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images
Second, South Korea has used the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation program to encourage North Korea to avoid activities that could pose a threat to Seoul. Originally set up in the 1970s, the program facilitates cooperation between the North and South through cultural and social exchanges, humanitarian assistance and economic projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The program has grown significantly over the years: The exchange program included only one person in 1989 and expanded to 186,000 people at its peak in 2008. Trade has also increased, from $19 million in 1989 to $2.7 billion in 2015. But after North Korea stepped up its weapons testing in 2016, South Korea suspended some projects, shut down the KIC and imposed economic sanctions. The exchange of people plummeted to 14,000, and trade fell to $333 million. This strategy thus has also failed to convince North Korea to change its behavior.
Earlier this month, Moon promised the North a “bright future” if it agreed to a resolution to the nuclear crisis. If Pyongyang halts its nuclear program, Seoul has argued, it can have access to South Korean investment and technical skills, as well as a high-income market and humanitarian aid. Reinstating all the elements of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation program is one incentive it can offer the North. But if North Korea does not comply, the remaining benefits from these programs can be cut off.
The third element of South Korea’s political strategy is to encourage greater Chinese involvement in finding a solution to the crisis. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, and though it has agreed to enforce U.N. sanctions, there are reports of noncompliance regarding coal exports from North Korea and financial services. If China fully complied with the sanctions, some believe that Pyongyang would be forced to give in to the South’s demands. But China has its own concerns about North Korea, in particular its fear of a regime collapse that would result in a refugee crisis and an expanded U.S. military presence on the Chinese border.
One of the weak spots in this political strategy is that it doesn’t prevent a third party such as the United States from launching a pre-emptive attack against North Korea, which would cause the North to retaliate against Seoul. This is exactly what the South fears might happen and wants to avoid at all costs. After the most recent missile test, Moon publicly stated that all sides must avoid “misjudgment,” a statement meant to discourage a U.S. military response. The closer North Korea gets to a deliverable nuclear weapon affixed to an ICBM, however, the more pressure the U.S. will be under to take pre-emptive action. Keeping the U.S. satisfied that diplomatic progress is being made is a tough task given the North’s history, especially now that Washington fears that Pyongyang’s missiles can reach the United States, not just Seoul.
In addition, Seoul has a military strategy, also involving three components, to deal with the North Korean threat. However, it is a mostly defensive strategy. The first component of the military strategy is called the Kill Chain program. It aims to spot impending attacks and destroy the threat. The South would use high-altitude surveillance drones to pinpoint launch areas, weapons facilities and communication hubs, and then use cruise and ballistic missiles and special operations ground forces to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear and missile-launch capabilities as well as its communications networks. It is possible that U.S. military hardware and personnel would also participate.
Another component of the South’s military strategy is the Korean Air and Missile Defense plan, which enables South Korea to track and destroy ballistic missiles midair. However, the technology behind missile defense systems is unproven.
The final component of South Korea’s military strategy is called Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation, which, like Kill Chain, aims to destroy the North’s ability to launch nuclear and conventional weapon attacks. But unlike Kill Chain, the focus is on eliminating the country’s leadership, particularly Kim Jong Un. Pyongyang and the centers of government and the military would be destroyed.
A number of things can go wrong with this military strategy. Intelligence and surveillance assets can fail to detect an attack. Seoul’s proximity to the border means the time between the launch of a missile and when the missile reaches its target is short, forcing the military to make quick decisions. In addition, though Kill Chain aims to destroy the North’s ability to wage war, it is difficult to fully and accurately map out North Korea’s military installations and launch sites, which leaves Seoul vulnerable.
South Korea prefers a political solution to the North Korea problem. A war would leave its capital devastated and would inflict immense casualties. Moreover, even the best-planned military maneuvers succumb to the fog of war. But South Korea can’t control all sides in this crisis – for a political solution to succeed, North Korea and the United States would also have to decide that this is the best end to the crisis.