Last week, I noted that I was drafting an interpretation of the NK shelling of Yeonpyeong island on November 24 for the Korean National Defense University. I am grateful for the many comments on received. My posting this week will represent my full thinking after three weeks of posting and comments and will be submitted for publication early next week. I would appreciate comments and thoughts no later than Monday. Thank you.
SK lacks good short-term responses to incidents such as Yeonpyeong or the Cheonan. But it can develop a medium-term strategy to slowly throttle NK in a long-term Cold War-style stalemate.
3.1. Bad Short-term Choices
The Yeonpyeong shelling may be shifting the SK debate over responses to provocations. The new defense minister speaks of loosened rules of engagement (RoE). Proposals include lowering the threshold of NK misbehavior required to permit counter-fire, enhancing the amount of counter-fire force beyond proportionality, permitting greater on-site commander authority to return fire, expanding target packages to include NK sites beyond the immediate crisis zone, and using air power. This feels emotionally satisfying in the heat of the moment, because N and SK are engaged in an acute stand-off, in which both sides perceive strong, zero-sum material and prestige losses at the expense of the other. NK perceives SK status gains (point 2.2 above) at its expense and hits back; SK perceives the North to destroy its assets with impunity and presses to counter-strike yet harder. This is a classic tit-for-tat spiral, akin to Israel’s relations with the Arab states, that could easily degenerate toward war. Looser post-Yeonpyeong RoE are a misjudgment for three reasons.
First, SK is extraordinarily vulnerable to conventional Northern retaliation. One-half of SK’s population lives within 50 miles of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in its enormous, high-density northwestern urban agglomeration. The Incheon-Seoul-Gyeonggi corridor contains approximately 25 million people in just 5% of SK’s land space. Many live in apartment towers dozens of stories high, very vulnerable, in the manner of the World Trade Center, to catastrophic collapse if hit by military fire. NK has stationed thousands of rockets and artillery at the closest point on the DMZ to hold this population hostage. Further, the SK government and economy are centered here. Hypercentralization and extreme exposure of the ‘Seoul-Republic’ has stayed SK’s hand in the past and likely will in the future. The risk is enormous.
Second, NK faces strong ideological and bureaucratic pressures to hit back in tit-for-tat spirals (point 2.3 above). NK is dependent on military bravado as legitimation in its ‘military-first’ polity. Expanding tit-for-tat counterforce beyond the immediate crisis time and space risks challenging the ‘manhood’ of the KPA in a system where that is absolutely central for regime identity. Openly challenging the KPA over its ability to defend the North is tantamount to asking for them to hit back, and yet harder. Counterforce also reinforces the Northern ideology, which is dependent on the domestic perception of SK as major national security threat. SK responses, however justified, feed this last remaining ideological prop of the regime.
Third, any extended, kinetic interaction between North and South will certainly generate compounding externalities of collateral damage, accidents, and misperception. Particularly in combination – Yeonpyeong local commanders calling for airstrikes on the NK mainland? – looser RoE could easily result in new incidents quickly spinning out of control. Once a tit-for-tat spiral begins, it would be increasingly difficult to halt as sunk costs mount; NK particularly may not have the command-and-control necessary to reign in the KPA once unleashed. As the accidents and misfire in the fog of war accumulate, events, not policy, would drive further escalation. A clear example is the Cuban downing of an American U2 during the Cuban Missile Crisis; local command authority nearly sparked a conflagration.
1.2. Medium-term Stalemate
With short-term options closed because of extreme exposure and escalatory insecurity, SK can improve its medium-term position to ‘win’ this long-term stalemate. By win, I understand the collapse of the North and re-unification on Southern terms, roughly modeled on German unification. Hawkish alternatives to the right, including aggressive RoE or invasion, are far too risky; the leftist, normalization alternative – permanent acceptance of the status quo of NK’s existence – is immoral, as it abandons the NK population to unending misery. Currently SK ‘muddles through,’ regularly managing NK on the short-term, crisis-by-crisis. But three medium-term policy shifts could improve SK’s long-term position of strength, with the goal of gradually pressuring NK toward collapse, much as the USSR eventually imploded under relentless allied pressure.
First, SK should de-centralize. The seat of government should move to Daejeon or Busan, far from the frontline. West Germany placed its capital far from its frontline for analogous flexibility and security. Government subsidies for residence and commerce outside of Gyeonggi could encourage a de-densification of the northwestern city-hostage, thereby untying the SK military’s hands after incidents like the Yeonpyeong. There are solid regional equity reasons for decentralization as well, but the national security benefit would dramatically tilt the intra-Korean stalemate in SK’s favor. A ‘hardening’ of northwestern SK through depopulation, improved architecture, civil defense drilling and bomb shelters, would lower the risks of escalation (point 3.1 above).
Second, Korea should expand its defense spending. 2.7% of GDP is rather low given the chronic threat NK, and it would gradually expand SK’s response options in tandem with decentralization. Specifically, SK should expand the navy, as many of these incidents occur in the Yellow Sea, and invest in the ‘networked battlefield’ technologies (C4ISR: command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) for which it leans so heavily on the US and the lack of which so clearly hampered the counterfire from Yeonpyeong. Offensive systems, most clearly armor, although controversial, would also signal to the North, that SK conventional deterrence is not simply defense-in-depth.
Third, neither of these suggestions is realizable without a much deeper electoral commitment to ‘win’ a long-term stalemate, rather than the current SK malaise to simply manage NK crisis-by-crisis and then ignore it otherwise. SK is constitutionally committed to reunification, but, like West German youth by the 1980s or the Irish today, SK younger generations are maturing with little knowledge of NK, growing fear of reunification’s costs, and increasing diffidence to the whole tangle. SK is slowly becoming a de facto status quo power in peninsular affairs; if NK can hang on long enough, South Koreans may not want unification anyway.
Active political leadership is required to prevent this drift. A national consensus to win, not just manage, would improve SK’s position of strength in what is already a test of wills and commitment. In the short-term, deterring NK’s regular, ideologically desperate provocations requires national sacrifice for decentralization and military expansion. In the long-term, a national consensus to end, not just manage-and-forget, the Northern regime would sustain these sacrifices. A grinding, expensive, and long Cold War-style stalemate in which NK is slowly throttled into collapse by relentless Southern power – on the US cold war model of slowly competing the USSR into oblivion – is the safest and most humane way to end the brutality under which North Koreans live.