Last week I spoke at the Korean Institute of Defense Analysis. I presented four options for dealing with NK that have all broadly failed: negotiations (NK doesn’t seem to take them seriously), muddling through crisis-by-crisis (condemning the long-suffering NKs to permanent repression and leaving SK open to regular provocation and blackmail), China (despite its widely touted leverage over NK, China doesn’t seem willing or able to use it), and Sunshine Policy bribery (a noble effort that failed, however unfortunately). My review left me with this final choice that I find disagreeable, but I see little alternative at this point (i.e., after the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents last year).
5. Defense Build-up: The idea here is to create space from NK by building a hard ‘shell’ around SK to insulate it from NK antics. The attraction is its unilateralism. Instead of waiting for NK or China to come around, SK can act proactively. Given that SK only spends 2.5% of GDP on defense, there is clear room for more spending. Certainly, the US, which regularly bemoans low allied defense spending, would welcome a more robust SK defense. Indeed, given that SK borders one of history’s worst, most unpredictable rogue tyrannies, SK defense spending is probably too low. Much of the gap has been filled by US forces in country, but with the US in relative decline, SK defense hikes are likely anyway.
A questioner asked me what should SK spend the money on. I made this argument earlier too, after Yeonpyong, but it seems to me that C4ISR, a larger navy, and missile defense would be good choices (although I am no formal military type, so readers comments here would be great). C4ISR are capabilities that SK leans heavily on the US for. A better navy would help harden SK in the Yellow Sea, where most of the clashes take place. And theater missile defense (TMD), which the US has approached SK about a few times, could help neutralize the burgeoning missile threat. In conversation, I rejected armor, because it has stronger offensive implications. A lesson from the offense-defense balance literature in IR is to try to buy defensive weapons as much as possible, in order to lesson your adversary’s paranoid reaction. But more generally, the idea is similar to McNamara’s ‘flexible response’ – give SK a wide range of capabilities to credibly counter NK provocation however it might occur. Needless to say, such ‘full spectrum dominance’ would be expensive, but I don’t see too many alternatives now. (Here is a good essay on defense transformation in Korea.)
The ideal would be to create an environment where SK could respond to NK provocation immediately, proportionately, and precisely. The game theory literature on cooperation argues that retaliation is most effective if, 1) it occurs immediately in response to provocation, so as to create an impression of one connected action in time, 2) it is proportionate to the original provocation so as not create either the downside impression of weakness or the upside impression of warmongering overreaction, and 3) it targets precisely those actors responsible for the provocation. Applying this to the Yeonpyeong shelling last year would result in immediate counter-battery fire onto exactly and only those NK batteries firing, and do only as much damage as SK suffered on its own island. Obviously this is an impossible ideal. No one even knew how many S Koreans were killed or how much property damage was suffered until after the incident. But to the extent investments in C4ISR could improve the information available to SK decision-makers and the rapidity and precision of their response, it will improve SK’s ability to respond ‘kinetically’ without necessarily creating a spiral. The ideal should be ‘perfect retaliation’: instantaneous, precise, and perfectly congruent to the damage done. While obviously impossible, defense spending hikes could narrow the technological gap and allow for better SK point-to-point counterforce and hence improved local deterrence. This should reduce the window of opportunity available to NK to get away with these sorts of strikes, if the political decision is made to respond.
Such hardening could insulate SK from NK, while also pushing NK to exhaustion, as the Reagan build-up helped lead to Gorbachev. The downsides of this option are:
A) It simply may not possible to de-link like this from NK. No matter what SK does to harden itself, it simply may not be possible to draw enough distance from NK and insulate itself. Here I argue that so long as half of SK’s population lives on the border with NK, the SK military’s hands are tied. Hardening would almost certainly require moving the capital out of Seoul which is just 50 miles from the DMZ and hence super-exposed.
B) I worry about the democracy costs to a young democracy that only just escaped military rule in the 80s. Regular readers will know that I bemoan the high price of the military-industrial complex in the US, and worry about the costs of semi-permanent war on US democracy. And here I am arguing for a ramp-up in SK…
The problem is that I just don’t see any other choices. Negotiation and the Sunshine Policy are failures. Yes, we should keep trying. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war. Talk is cheap, so why not? Maybe we’ll get lucky, but it is simply fantastical now to bet on that. The China path too has not lead to progress, and muddling through means more gulags and Cheonans. So improving SK’s position of strength could signal that NK cannot bully SK with provocations, push the NK toward competitive exhaustion, and improve SK autonomy in an era of US relative decline.
I suppose there is a sixth option – an invasion of NK. But to the credit of South Koreans, I have never heard this seriously entertained. I ask my students often what they think should be done, and I always mention this as a possibility (in part because it occurred in 1950). No one has ever raised their hand, even among my hawks. I guess that is the good news among all these bad options…