Peace and Security in Northeast Asia By Chung-in Moon  |  30 November, 2022

It’s Time for South Korea to Think Seriously About Crisis Stability

Image: Zbitnev/Shutterstock

This article was first published by Hankyoreh on 28 November 2022 and is reproduced with permission.

Crisis stability is as important as deterrence and as much attention should be paid to preventing wars as to winning them.

The confrontation between South Korea and the US on the one hand and North Korea on the other is growing more inflexible every day, with the two sides unable to find a way out.

After a series of short-range and intermediate-range ballistic missile tests, North Korea test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile toward the East Sea on 18 November.  South Korea and the US countered by forward deploying B-1B strategic bombers.

Now all that remains is North Korea’s seventh nuclear test. South Korea and the US have warned that they will take stern measures if the North pushes ahead with such a test. The vicious cycle of rising military tensions and security fears on the Korean Peninsula is extremely worrisome.

The South Korean government has responded to this by bolstering conventional weaponry and extended deterrence, allowing the US to periodically deploy strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, reinforcing the ability to launch retaliatory strikes, expanding joint military exercises, elevating combat readiness posture and operating the “three-axis system.”

This amounts to building a level of deterrence against North Korea that’s almost unprecedented in its potency and establishing a military posture capable of overwhelming Pyongyang and guaranteeing victory in the event of a crisis.

The crucial objective of national security, however, is protecting the lives, safety and property of the people. The question is whether our current security strategy is capable of achieving that objective.

The problem is the essential asymmetry of the military threat on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea is a wealthy country; North Korea is not. The North Korean capital of Pyongyang is fortified and removed from the front, while close to half of the South Korean population is concentrated in the capital area. Furthermore, Seoul is vulnerable to the threat of North Korea’s short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and multiple rocket launchers deployed at the front.

That’s an inherent vulnerability of a wealthy and open society.

It seems clear that if North Korea were to invade, the joint forces of South Korea and the US would prevail in a counterattack. But the fact is that it would be difficult to prevent massive loss of life in the process. Thus, the importance of a prevention-oriented foreign policy that can stabilise a crisis.

Even more worrisome is the fact that our defence system is vulnerable to the threat of missiles.

Defence against missile attacks is said to consist of four components: active defence, or intercepting missiles after launch; passive defence, or civil defence drills and bomb shelters in case interception fails; offensive defence, or pre-emptive strikes when the enemy’s intention to attack is ascertained in advance; and battle management, or effectively linking the functions of leadership, control, communication, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance.

But at the current moment, South Korea’s missile response is focused on interception and pre-emptive strikes. Former civil defence drills have been discontinued, and citizens have little knowledge about what bomb shelters might be in their area, aside from subway stations.

Overconfidence in interception and pre-emptive strikes, without the passive defence to back them up, can have disastrous consequences.

Another serious concern is our excessive reliance on the US. Whenever North Korea makes a military threat, the South Korean government plays its presumed trump card of strengthening the alliance with the US.

Nobody would deny that the alliance is a vital asset for South Korean security. But blind faith in that alliance can lead us to neglect self-defence and diplomatic efforts.

Furthermore, the US’ security pledge to Korea is directly tied to the domestic political landscape there. If the 2024 presidential election is won by Donald Trump or a Republican candidate with a similar foreign policy or by a radical Democratic candidate like Bernie Sanders, are we sure the South Korea-US alliance will remain in its present state?

If the war in Ukraine escalates or if a military clash between the US and China materializes in the Taiwan Strait, the US military would find it difficult to intervene on a large scale on the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, such a development could even cause US Forces Korea to be scaled back.

What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t disregard the variability of the South Korea-US alliance.

In both politics and foreign policy, the fundamental approach is to minimise opposing forces, maximise friendly forces and bring neutral forces over to one’s side. But some leaders of the ruling party are taking actions that go against that approach.

“You’ve got to feel sorry for the Republic of Korea, seeing how it’s surrounded by four North Koreas,” Chung Jin-suk, interim head of the ruling People Power Party, recently lamented.

By “four North Koreas,” Chung was referring to North Korea itself, along with China, Russia and progressive groups inside South Korea that are calling for the suspension of joint military exercises with the US.

But as US President Joe Biden has observed, the new Cold War hasn’t arrived yet, and the restoration of the alliance between North Korea, China and Russia remains uncertain.

What reason do we have to make hasty assumptions that might push China and Russia into the arms of Pyongyang?

The foundation of a solid security policy is popular consent. Ignoring that to exaggerate differences and foment division could amount to the self-destructive act of building our security posture on the sand.

The time-tested lesson of history, as well as contemporary common sense, is that crisis stability is as important as deterrence and that as much attention should be paid to preventing wars as to winning them.

And while strategic superiority is important, we must not forget the basic principle that the lives of the citizens should be the focus of national security.

Now is the time for us to ponder just such a paradigm shift.

Chung-in Moon is the Chairman of the Sejong Institute. He is a member of the Toda International Research Advisory Council.