A New National Strategy for Korea: North Korea Threats Require Deterrence, Reconciliation


Mar 13, 2008

This commentary originally appeared in The Korea Herald on March 13, 2008.

The following is the 18th installment in a series of articles intended to analyze the external and internal challenges facing Koreas new government. We will invite foreign and Korean experts to this project, hoping that their insightful analyses will help policymakers craft a new national strategy to meet these challenges.

Over the last five years, the South Korean government has tried to downplay the military threat posed by North Korea. To justify reconciliation with the North and provide it with massive aid, it was politically easier to treat North Korea as a benign partner. This means the Seoul government largely discounted North Korean military capabilities, while hoping that reconciliation would take care of the threat by reducing the second key threat component: the North Korean intent to use those capabilities. In reality, North Korea poses a serious military threat to South Korea. Only a more systematic focus on countering North Korean military capabilities — linked with continued efforts at reconciliation — can overcome both elements of this threat.

Characterizing the threat

For almost six decades, the North Korean threat to invade and conquer the South has driven South Korean military planning and requirements. Throughout this period, Seoul has depended on its alliance with the United States to help deter or defeat this threat. In recent years, South Korea has been pursuing self-reliant military capabilities, hoping to someday fully assume the defense responsibility.

Today, many postulate that the North Korean invasion threat has substantially atrophied. South Korean and U.S. conventional forces have made substantial qualitative improvements in recent years. Though the North Korean military capabilities are uncertain, its conventional forces have made few improvements while aging significantly. Deterred from an invasion decades ago, many argue that North Korea should therefore be even more deterred! and les s of a threat today. There are three basic problems with this depiction of the threat.

First, unable to pursue broad military modernization, North Korea has developed a series of asymmetric capabilities designed to challenge South Korea. These capabilities could be used coercively, in limited attacks. For example, North Korean long-range artillery could roll out of its forward underground facilities and begin firing at Seoul at any time. Just one battery of six long-range multiple rocket launchers could cause dozens to even thousands of casualties in northern or central Seoul, especially if North Korea fired chemical weapons.

North Korea has dozens of artillery batteries that could damage Seoul, and many hundreds that could affect areas closer to the Demilitarized Zone. Israel faced such an attack from the Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. Despite Israeli conventional superiority over Hezbollah, it was unable to stop the rocket launches.

Nuclear weapons are North Koreas greatest military threat. One nuclear weapon like that dropped on Hiroshima could kill or incapacitate several hundred thousand people if detonated in Seoul. The resulting economic damage to South Korea could be several hundred trillion won, even before secondary effects are considered. North Korea has already threatened both South Korea and Japan with turning their cities into a sea of fire, an apt depiction of nuclear weapon effects.

Second, even if a North Korean invasion of South Korea failed, it would impose a severe price on the Korean people. Over a decade ago, the U.S. commander in Korea estimated that hundreds of thousands could be killed. North Koreas asymmetric capabilities — including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and related delivery means — could add substantially to this damage. In the extreme case, these asymmetric threats might allow outdated North Korean conventional forces to achieve some invasion success.

Third, North Koreas real intent is difficult to know, and could change rapidly.! North Korea is clearly deterred from invading South Korea today. But has North Korea actually abandoned its policy of conquering South Korea, a goal that still pervades its military doctrine? Or is it simply trying to create conditions where the United States will disengage from Korea and leave North Korea free to exercise military coercion against South Korea?

If Kim Jong-il suddenly found himself in very desperate, regime-threatening circumstances, might he decide to embrace conflict as a means for gaining the support of rebellious groups in the North? Or if Kim died, could the regime fail and lead to internal chaos into which South Korea and perhaps China would eventually be forced to intervene for humanitarian and security purposes?

Arms control

Arms control seeks to reduce the risks of conflict, the damage that conflict could cause, and the military cost to deter conflict or to achieve victory in conflict. For decades, South Korea, the United States, and the international community have tried to use arms control measures to moderate the North Korean threat, consistent with these objectives. Korean arms control efforts have focused on the North Korean nuclear weapons program because of the serious threat that it poses.

The history of these efforts is, however, not very hopeful. North Korea signed a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency in July 1977, and then joined the Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985. In 1991, North and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. They agreed to ... not test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons ... Moreover, they would ... not possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities. In 1994, North Korea signed the Agreed Framework with the United States, closing the Yongbyon facilities; North Korea promised to abide by the provisions of the NPT. And now North Korea is delaying the agreements made under the six-pa! rty talks.

North Korea has apparently pursued nuclear weapons development throughout this period. Two examples suggest the pattern. North Korea did operate a nuclear reprocessing facility, in violation of the Joint Declaration. And in 1999, Dr. A.Q. Khan of Pakistan said he was shown three North Korean plutonium nuclear weapons. If Dr. Khan was right, North Korea did produce and possess nuclear weapons, in violation of the NPT and the Joint Declaration.

Many experts on North Korea are skeptical that North Korea will ever dismantle its entire nuclear weapon arsenal, because these capabilities have been so critical to North Korea. Consider this: How is it that a nearly bankrupt country of only about 20 million people can stand up to three members of the U.N. Security Council and Japan, four of the wealthiest countries in the world? And in doing so, North Korea often comes out the victor. Would North Korea have such leverage without nuclear weapons? Would the North Korean regime be able to survive without such appearances of empowerment?

South Korean military capabilities today

Has South Korea achieved a self-reliant defense? Will it within the military planning horizon (by 2020)?

The true test of military self-reliance is the ability to protect ones country and defeat an adversary if necessary. On the positive side, South Korea probably could defeat a North Korean conventional invasion on its own, though U.S. assistance would stop the attack more quickly and with less damage to ROK society. But the South Korean military is less prepared in two broad areas.

First, the South Korean military is less prepared to defend against the North Korean asymmetric threats discussed above. For example, while the South Korean military could eventually destroy North Korean long-range artillery that fires at Seoul, it could not do so until serious damage was done since South Korea lacks the ability to intercept North Korean long-range artillery. South Korea is considering development of a l! aser sys tem that may do this. Ironically, the United States completed tests earlier this decade of a laser defense that could defeat small numbers of artillery rockets or artillery/mortar shells, but has not developed the system.

As another example, South Korea reportedly ordered 14 Patriot missile defense batteries in 1999 to defeat North Korean ballistic missiles after launch, but that purchase was eventually halted. Last year, the South Korean military finally agreed to purchase eight used batteries from Germany; actual acquisition and needed upgrades apparently are still years off. Moreover, eight batteries are about one-third of the number needed to protect South Korea.

South Korea is not adequately prepared to defeat these asymmetric threats as part of either a North Korean invasion or a limited attack/coercion. Inadequate defenses against asymmetric threats create windows of vulnerability, leaving South Korea unable to prevent damage and thereby undermining deterrence of North Korean attacks. The South Korean military needs to identify these vulnerabilities and develop means to counter them.

Second, on its own, the South Korean military would have difficulty executing any offensive into North Korea, with weaknesses in maneuver capabilities and training, firepower, and logistics. North Korean nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons could make these difficulties worse as could the need to simultaneously stabilize and provide humanitarian aid in captured areas — trying to minimize the threat of a long-term insurgency by learning from the U.S. experience in Iraq.

South Korea's inability to carry out offensive operations could allow Kim Jong-il to survive failed attacks on South Korea and then repeat them, at very high cost to South Korea. Or South Korea might be forced to allow anarchy to rule North Korea on its border. In contrast, China is unlikely to accept such anarchy on its border and may feel compelled to intervene; a South with inadequate offensive capabilities might have to accept Ch! inese co ntrol of large parts of North Korea for some time.

Future military capabilities

The South Korean military has a long-term plan referred to as the Defense Reform Plan 2020. This plan posits a much smaller military in 2020, trading size with modernization that should sustain overall military capabilities.

The low Korean birthrate forces the South Korea military to accept a reduced size; even with very optimistic assumptions on recruiting volunteers, the Army is scheduled to be reduced from some 560,000 personnel in 2004 to 371,000 in 2020. Appropriate military technology improvements may offset this severe reduction in military force size for defensive purposes. But they are unlikely to be adequate if forces need to perform offensive and eventually stabilization operations — efforts in which manpower availability is more critical, as has been shown in Iraq.

At the same time, South Koreas military budget has not met the DRP 2020 growth rate since it was announced in 2005, and appears likely to falter further unless the new government acknowledges the North Korean threat and justifies the large budget increases. The plan is also optimistic on the costs of future military capabilities; the budget may need to expand more than is planned to achieve the desired capabilities.

While it is difficult to determine how large a military budget would be required for true military self-reliance, it seems likely that the total cost would be about 50 to 100 trillion won ($50 billion to $100 billion) per year, two to four times the 2008 budget. The DRP 2020 reaches the bottom-end of this range in about 2015, a long time to accept substantial risks.

The DRP 2020 is due for review in 2008. It should be carefully examined, with updated estimates on the cost ranges for the projected systems and personnel. An effort should be made to characterize the cost of a self-reliant defense that would more fully protect South Korea from North Korean threats. Information like this will ! be criti cal to obtaining acceptance for the plan.

Seeking alliance help

Today, the United States provides most defense and deterrence capabilities that South Korea cannot. The United States spends about 100 trillion won each year to man, equip, and prepare forces committed to assisting South Korea in a time of war. The United States has been willing to make such a large contribution to South Korean security for decades, effectively subsidizing the South Korean economy. But many in the United States feel that it is now time to let South Korea be more self-reliant. Every effort should be made to achieve this mutual interest in South Korean self-reliance.

In moving toward military self-reliance, South Korea wants to move from a junior partner to a full partner in the alliance relationship. To do so, it should be prepared to accept the responsibilities of full partnership. The United States has appreciated South Korean contributions in East Timor, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Still, South Koreas efforts have not reached those of a full partner like the United Kingdom, which has an active duty military force one-third the size of South Koreas. South Korea needs to examine this issue more closely as it plans its role in the future of the alliance.


The new Korean government should fully recognize the North Korean military threats and respond by fielding military counters against dangerous North Korean military capabilities. The ability to deny effective attack is the best way to deter North Korea from employing such threats. While doing so will be costly, the cost is far less than the potential damage that North Korea could cause.

South/North reconciliation and the improvement of conditions in North Korea also could reduce North Korean intent to become hostile. Both paths should be pursued — they are complementary.

Bruce Bennett is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, a US-based nonprofit research organization.

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