North Korea Survives. Start Hardening South Korea for a Long Contest

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This essay is a local re-post of an essay I wrote last month for The National Interest. Basically this is my sketch of how to deal in the medium- and long-term with North Korea. North Korea is not going to collapse anytime soon. It has some source of strength we don’t fully grasp, and China is willing to bail out North Korea indefinitely. That means South Korea needs to start hunkering down – hardening itself – for a long-term conflict of attrition. There is not magic bullet – barring China pulling the plug, which, honestly, doesn’t look like it is going to happen soon.

So it’s time for South Korea to get more serious about winning the stand-off with North Korea and carrying the costs and inconvenience to do so. On the other hand, if South Korea only continues to manage North Korea, it will still be here in 20 years. If the ROK wants to win this stand-off – not manage, but win – then it needs to do a lot of things it doesn’t want to do, such as spending a lot more on defense, moving the national capital (so that it’s not right on the border, which makes it so vulnerable that South Korea can never hit back when North Korea provokes), consider drafting women (due to precipitous birth-rate decline), nuclear civil defense, and so on. This will be hard.

So far, South Korea has ducked these sorts of dramatic steps in the permanently short-termist expectation that North would just collapse one day, or that it could be bought off and somehow go away. But of course, it won’t. So if South Korea doesn’t still want to be ‘managing’ North Korea in 20 years, it needs to start thinking long-term now. For example, it should have moved its capital 40 years ago, like West Germany did during the Cold War, but it never did. And now North Korea has a massive city hostage it can threaten whenever it like to prevent South Korea from taking any kinetic action, like airstrikes on its missile sites. Yes, it will take a long time to unwind that, to decentralize South Korea, but then, North Korea is not going to collapse. Constantly hoping/expecting it would, and therefore taking no steps to check Seoul’s growth, is exactly the problem. Time to think long-term.

The full essay follows the jump:



With a new president in the White House, it is the season of reviews and re-assessments, with no problem more thorny than North Korea. Previous President Barack Obama apparently told incoming President Donald Trump that North Korea is now at the top of America’s foreign challenges. As North Korea continues its missile and nuclear tests, this is almost certainly the case. The yield of the North’s most recent nuclear test exceeded that of the weapons used by the US in World War II. Its missile program has dabbled in submarine-launched ballistic missile, road mobile launchers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. If these platforms genuinely work – a huge ‘if’ – North Korea would become the first new country to be able to strike the continental United States since the depths of the Cold War decades ago. Coupled to President Trump’s explosive, erratic personality, the possibility of a serious clash is greater than it has been in years.

Yet there is simultaneously a strong sense that North Korea lives on borrowed time. As Victor Cha says, it is the ‘impossible state’: Its economy is weak. Its ostensible ideology is long since bankrupt. Its people are increasingly aware that their Southern kinsmen live vastly healthier, wealthier, and happier lives. The regime, for all its ferocity, is alienated from its own people whose uprising it fears. Its capital approximates a feudal city-state estranged from its own impoverished piedmont. It is extremely dependent on China for both licit and illicit trade and financial services. Its conventional forces are technological dated. Hence the regular references, going back decades, that North Korea’s fall is imminent. It seems like we only need to find the final magic bullet to finally put this zombie down.

But of course, it does not collapse. Even if it violates much of what we ‘know’ in political science and economics, it has some source of strength – extreme race nationalism, a genuine belief in the Kim cult, the regime’s willingness to do anything to survive? – that helps it through crises which would bring down similar states. North Korea has survived: the end of the Cold War and the cut-off of Soviet aid; the death of founder-turned-godhead Kim Il Sung (1994); the famine of the late 1990s; ever-tightening United Nations sanctions; the death of Kim Il Sung’s heir, Kim Jong Il (2011). If the North survived all this, none of the various ideas out there for change – chasing North Korean money in Chinese banks, inward information flows, airstrikes on missile sites, more sanctions – are a likely to be that magic bullet. All are worth discussion of course, but given what the regime has survived to date, we must admit North Korean survivability, that it will be with us for a long time. This will be a long, grinding stalemate – as it has been to date – in which the side that ‘hangs tough’ will triumph.

Seen in that light, the Obama administration’s much-maligned ‘strategic patience’ is not so bad after all. It recognizes that the democracies on the outside – particularly South Korea, Japan, and the United States – can do little to proactively force change in the North. They can cut it off and harden themselves against its provocations and misbehavior, but it will a long grind. Sanctions, missile defense, the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the crack-down on North Korea’s diplomatic relationships (which frequently double as sanctions-running) are necessary to slowly choke-off North Korea, pushing it back to a precarious, exclusive dependence on its Chinse patron. Just as the Soviet Union was slowly internationally isolated and eventually ground to a halt, so the democracies of this cold war can hunker down too.

The heaviest burden falls on South Korea, where the desire for the magic bullet – the solution that permits the least amount of domestic inconvenience – is strong. In the eight years I have lived here, I have always been amazed at the blitheness about North Korea. On the one hand, it is admirable. South Koreans are far less intimidated by North Korea than American cable news crisis reporting would have you think. But this has also created a insouciance that is often disturbing. My students and acquaintances have no idea what to do if there is a North Korean missile attack. No one knows where shelters are or takes civil defense seriously. When I tell my students they should go up Korea’s many mountains to escape ambient radiation in the wake of a nuclear strike, they look at me in amazement that I know such macabre details. My male students regularly find their required military duty a frustrating diversion, while my female students are shocked when I tell them that Israeli women are conscripted too. Military duty is often corroded by social stratification networking and hazing. When the previous administration sought to impose a unification tax to prepare for that eventuality, the nation revolted. North Korean defectors – immediately identifiable by their accent – are often treated poorly and slotted in close to the bottom of South Korea’s punishing social hierarchy. The South Korean government has insisted that the United States pay for installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in the country. Cooperation on North Korea with Japan continues to be seen as a concession to an enemy rather than a wise pooling of resources against a shared existential threat. And South Korea continues to spend far less on defense (2.5% of GDP) than it should.

It is long since overdue for South Korea to take more serious ownership of North Korea and gird itself to win a protracted, expensive, uncomfortable struggle. One possible model is Israel, a democracy hardened to win a long-term, low-intensity conflict of attrition. For example, South Korea might invest in civil defense. 75% of its population lives on 25% of its land space – due to the mountainous terrain – which means missile and nuclear strikes could be especially devastating. This also suggests that the government finally take decentralization seriously – not just for oft-discussed regional equity – but for national security. The Seoul-Kyeonggi-Incheon corridor now contains a staggering 55% of all South Koreans and is the heart of the nation in every field, yet it lies right on the border with North Korea. This is astonishingly irresponsible. Such hyper-centralization makes South Korea vulnerable to a decapitation strike, and that capital lies less than 50 miles from the border, placing it within artillery range, much less rocket range. It is long overdue for South Korea to learn from West Germany and move its capital. This greater security would also make kinetic counter-strike options after a North Korean provocation less risky. Finally, the South must consider female conscription. Its birthrate (1.2) is far below the replacement rate (2.1), steadily shrinking the force size. If North Korea is still here in ten or twenty years – and twenty years ago, no one thought it would still be here today – then South Korea will almost certainly have to find substantial new manpower.

More generally, there needs to be a greater, Israeli-style social commitment to a long, expensive conflict of attrition if the South truly wants to end, rather then just manage, this ongoing stalemate. North Korea is not going to soon collapse or disappear. Ignoring it or appeasing it will not make it go away or tame it either. Nor is it primarily a problem for China, the US, the UN, and so on. This is firstly a South Korean issue, and it will be costly, domestically inconvenient, time-consuming, and socially fatiguing to finally throttle North Korea into collapse. ‘Hanging tough’ worked against the Soviet bloc, even if it took forty years; hardening can work here too. 

Filed under: Defense, Domestic Politics, Korea (North), Korea (South), The National Interest

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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