Why Muddling Through with NK is the Only Option


This is a letter to the editor of Foreign Affairs. In the endless blizzard of commentary on what to do about NK, I thought this recent essay was excellent.

“Three of Andrei Lankov’s arguments – “Changing North Korea” (Nov/Dec 2009) – deserve expansion.

First, doves miss that the Kim regime is highly unlikely to meaningfully denuclearize – ever. The regime unprecedently starved its own people to get to here. Without nuclear weapons, it becomes a fourth world outcast state ignored by everyone, a social catastrophe in the Confucian worldview. Given the radical dysfunction of its economy, shilling, again and again, its nuclear weapons for assistance is central to economic survival. As Lankov correctly notes, economic liberalization is impossible, because NK would go the way of the East Germany, not China. There is no final deal waiting to be clinched by a kinder, gentler administration in Washington or Seoul. Kim’s response to Obama’s election was a nuclear blast. Endless bargaining and threatening for favors is the foreign policy objective of NK.

Second, hawks overestimate the utility of pressure or coercion on NK. It is already so isolated, that further sanctions mean little. The NK regime has already acclimated itself to a level of poverty, brutality, and isolation that might have frightened even Saddam Hussein under sanction in the 1990s. But so long as personal goodies for the regime elite come from the China connection, further sanctions will only punish the population.

More importantly, Seoul is badly exposed to extreme NK retaliation, even without nuclear weapons. This obvious fact is widely under-remarked. The Seoul National Capital Area (greater Seoul) contains a staggering one-half of SK’s population (25 million), and it lies just 30-40 miles from the DMZ. South Hwanghae, the nearest NK province, has 10-20,000 rocket launchers and artillery tubes pointed southward. It is simply impossible for allied air power to indentify and destroy them all. In a war, Seoul would be, as NK regularly promises, a ‘sea of fire.’ Given high population density, Seoul residents live vertically in high, concentrated apartment blocks. 9/11 demonstrated the potential of explosive projectiles colliding with non-hardened skyscrapers. Imagine a repeat of the World Trade Center collapse dozens of times; NK shelling would kill tens of thousands of civilians in minutes.

No US commander or SK administration is willing to run this risk. NK knows this. And the problem is only worsening. Seoul exercises a role akin to Paris over the rest of France. Paltry decentralization efforts have failed, and neither the national nor municipal government has tried to slow its expansion for national security purposes. Despite Seoul’s enormous size, it is still getting bigger, as everyone seeks to ‘move up’ to Seoul. The next largest metropolitan area is great Busan with 4 million people, but it is contracting due to the out-migration to Seoul. The urban-sprawling (both up and out) national capital is a proximate city-hostage gift to NK negotiators

Third, Lankov generously underplays the low interest in SK for unification. As with West Germans by the 1980s, SK youth increasingly see the internal border as a real one. NK refugees in the South are an invisible and isolated population. As SK has grown into a consumer society and trading state, its population’s willingness to sacrifice for unification, much less war for it, has diminished dramatically.

The three constraints are nearly immovable, and Lankov is right to demand strategies that accept, rather than ignore, them.”

2 thoughts on “Why Muddling Through with NK is the Only Option

  1. Pingback: How to Respond if North Korea really Sank that SK Destroyer: ‘Sell’ Southern Strategic Restraint to China for Pressure on the North « Asian Security & US Foreign Relations Blog

  2. Pingback: ‘Economist’ Magazine Conference on South Korea « Asian Security Blog

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