5 (Bad) Options for Dealing w/ NK (3): Defense Build-Up to Harden SK


Part 1 is here; part two is here.

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…

23 thoughts on “5 (Bad) Options for Dealing w/ NK (3): Defense Build-Up to Harden SK

  1. Pingback: Hardening the Callus | Rearranging Prejudices

  2. Whilst South Korea should perhaps be spending more on defense, this fifth option seems to be only a modification of the “muddling through” policy. Insulating South Korea doesn’t help the gulags or general suffering of the North Korean population and won’t ever be able to entirely remove the threat of North Korean weapons programs.

    It might reduce Cheonan style incidents (which are actually very rare anyway) but this in fact would only put North Korea further out of mind for South Koreans.

    Attempting to exhaust North Korea through a mini arms race would take years and see the regime bleed the country still further. It might even lead to North Korea updating some of its aging weapons (becoming more dangerous) as well as earning it cash through selling them abroad.

    What are your views on Lankov’s “an information campaign can beat the regime” approach? Supporting North Korean refugees in China and empowering the North Korean people to undermine the regime from within seems to me the best option of tipping the balance, especially as the regime becomes increasingly vulnerable with the imminent succession and soon-to-be massive failure of the 2012 “Strong and Prosperous Country” declaration. It’s something South Korea can do proactively without overly endangering citizens.

    (I’ve very much enjoyed this series of articles.)


    • Lankov’s idea is a great one. I support it, and there is a strong chance he is right, but it will take a long time. The model is the opening of the east bloc to western culture and ideas in the wake of the CSCE in 70s. Lots of IR liberals argue that this incurrent of new ideas helped pave the wave for internal change in the USSR, particularly the ‘new thinking’ of Gorbachev and co. I think trying is a good idea, but I still suspect that NK will only collapse from exhaustion. Outside information (primarily in the form of aftermarket VHS, when SKs switched to DVD in the 90s) has come into NK since the famines created external networks in northern China out of desperation. But I wonder how much that is working. It’s almost impossible to measure. I also think that the Kim family, like Gaddafi and Assad, is willing to kill as many people as necessary to hang on, making me skeptical of the ‘inflow’ argument. The USSR, at least after Stalin, wasn’t that bloodthirsty.

      That said, I (and just about everyone else) will try almost anything that might have even a long shot at working. This is beyond ideology; my argument for a hawkish approach is out of desperation (nothing else seems to be working), not because I am a superhawk committed to reading NK is ‘axis of evil’ or anytyhing like that. NK is so awful, that just about anything that might work is worth trying. Hence my support for the Sunshine policy too. Who cares if it was bribery and SK got suckered. Those are minimal costs compared the (at that time) reasonable hope that serious engagement would bring change. Like almost everyone else, I am grasping at straws now. What, if anything, will work?

      Thanks for the compliment and the readership.


  3. Second on very much enjoying this series.

    One question, however — what would a “perfect retaliation” against, say, KAL airplane bombing or Rangoon bombing look like? In other words, if North Korea engages in terrorist attacks rather than a military attack (a la Yeonpyeong or Cheonan,) how would South Korea respond under this theory?


    • Thanks for the compliment.

      That is a great question, and one for which I don’t have an answer. Here the problem is a barrier of behavior for liberal states that I should have discussed in the posts. There are just some things the liberal states of the 6 parties will not acquiesce to. If all food aid to NK was ended (incl the WFP), and 5 million people starved to death, that might generate enough civil resistance to bring down the regime. But no one in the liberal states would tolerate those means to that end, and this gives NK a leg up in any bargaining situation. As long as outsiders worry more about NKs than the Kim elite itself does, then external leverage is really hard.

      In a similar way, retaliation for terrorist strikes against non-military targets is terrible quandry for liberals. My first inclination is to suggest a strike-back against a NK military target, but that of course violates the argument that retaliation should be precise and congruent. Hmm. I don’t know, but here is a good PhD waiting to be written!


      • Isn’t arming South Korea, to respond to a North Korean provocation like arming pre-WW1 Austria-Hungary, to keep Serbia in line? Isn’t Japan/France going to mind, not to mention China?


      • Well I was thinking of defensive arming – TMD, C4ISR, etc. This is why I balked at tanks, because they send such a strong offensive signal. Also, after last year, not arming better is almost negligent. Certainly, SK can’t give the impression that provocations will go unresponded. Its a tough line to walk, I agree, but again, I wonder what the other options are.

        Thanks for reading.


      • Before getting into the weeds with policy, shouldn’t we tackle the strategic perspective first. South Koreans love to cite post-Cold War German unification, to support Korean unification. But, as I alluded to above, might not the more insightful analogy be Prussia in 1870. Japan and both Koreas might not despise each other as did France and Germany, but it’s clear they are not friends in many circles in both states. I don’t think the U.S. has the economy and public approval for the sort of open-ended commitment Korea has received, and the U.S. can no longer pacify Japan as it accommodates South Korea, either. There are just no free trade deals or currency deals the U.S. can sweeten for one or the other or both. At some point both South Korea and japan will start to annoy each other, and China and Russia will either be the cause or caught in the middle. North Korea is just a predictable probability when every other country in the region is quarreling. That’s why I think North Korea is more like Serbia or the the other separatist states in SE Europe.


  4. Pingback: Kim Jong Un’s Ascent (2): Rocket Launch as a Sign of a Power Struggle? | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  5. Pingback: Dangerous, Rant « Infidelworld

  6. Pingback: All Politics is Local, Korean style | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  7. Pingback: Why South Korea doesn't respond – Global Public Square - CNN.com Blogs

  8. Pingback: Why N Korea Gets Away with its Stunts: a Response to Jennifer Lind | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  9. Pingback: How Asia Sees America’s Election: Three Views From the Asia-Pacific « OSEAFAS [ One Southeast Asia Faith and Studies ]

  10. Pingback: What does South Korea Want from the US Election? the Status Quo | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  11. Pingback: USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (3): DPRK ‘Sovereignty’ is a Sino-Russian Fig-Leaf to Slow Unification and Check US Power | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  12. Pingback: Admit it: South Korea President Lee Myung-Bak Was Pretty Good | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  13. Pingback: My Lowy Debate on whether US should Retrench from South Korea, part 1: Yes | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  14. Pingback: Would South Korea Attack North Korea? - Citizens News

  15. Pingback: Will South Korea Eventually Feel Compelled to Bomb NK Missile Sites? | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  16. Pingback: Part IV of Me and Van Jackson Debating South Korea’s Role in the South China Sea: N Korea Comes First | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  17. Pingback: No, South Korea does Not Need Nuclear Weapons – bc They’ll Never Use Them | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s