North Korea Survives. Start Hardening South Korea for a Long Contest

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This essay is a local re-post of an essay I wrote last month for The National Interest. Basically this is my sketch of how to deal in the medium- and long-term with North Korea. North Korea is not going to collapse anytime soon. It has some source of strength we don’t fully grasp, and China is willing to bail out North Korea indefinitely. That means South Korea needs to start hunkering down – hardening itself – for a long-term conflict of attrition. There is not magic bullet – barring China pulling the plug, which, honestly, doesn’t look like it is going to happen soon.

So it’s time for South Korea to get more serious about winning the stand-off with North Korea and carrying the costs and inconvenience to do so. On the other hand, if South Korea only continues to manage North Korea, it will still be here in 20 years. If the ROK wants to win this stand-off – not manage, but win – then it needs to do a lot of things it doesn’t want to do, such as spending a lot more on defense, moving the national capital (so that it’s not right on the border, which makes it so vulnerable that South Korea can never hit back when North Korea provokes), consider drafting women (due to precipitous birth-rate decline), nuclear civil defense, and so on. This will be hard.

So far, South Korea has ducked these sorts of dramatic steps in the permanently short-termist expectation that North would just collapse one day, or that it could be bought off and somehow go away. But of course, it won’t. So if South Korea doesn’t still want to be ‘managing’ North Korea in 20 years, it needs to start thinking long-term now. For example, it should have moved its capital 40 years ago, like West Germany did during the Cold War, but it never did. And now North Korea has a massive city hostage it can threaten whenever it like to prevent South Korea from taking any kinetic action, like airstrikes on its missile sites. Yes, it will take a long time to unwind that, to decentralize South Korea, but then, North Korea is not going to collapse. Constantly hoping/expecting it would, and therefore taking no steps to check Seoul’s growth, is exactly the problem. Time to think long-term.

The full essay follows the jump:


With a new president in the White House, it is the season of reviews and re-assessments, with no problem more thorny than North Korea. Previous President Barack Obama apparently told incoming President Donald Trump that North Korea is now at the top of America’s foreign challenges. As North Korea continues its missile and nuclear tests, this is almost certainly the case. The yield of the North’s most recent nuclear test exceeded that of the weapons used by the US in World War II. Its missile program has dabbled in submarine-launched ballistic missile, road mobile launchers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. If these platforms genuinely work – a huge ‘if’ – North Korea would become the first new country to be able to strike the continental United States since the depths of the Cold War decades ago. Coupled to President Trump’s explosive, erratic personality, the possibility of a serious clash is greater than it has been in years.

Yet there is simultaneously a strong sense that North Korea lives on borrowed time. As Victor Cha says, it is the ‘impossible state’: Its economy is weak. Its ostensible ideology is long since bankrupt. Its people are increasingly aware that their Southern kinsmen live vastly healthier, wealthier, and happier lives. The regime, for all its ferocity, is alienated from its own people whose uprising it fears. Its capital approximates a feudal city-state estranged from its own impoverished piedmont. It is extremely dependent on China for both licit and illicit trade and financial services. Its conventional forces are technological dated. Hence the regular references, going back decades, that North Korea’s fall is imminent. It seems like we only need to find the final magic bullet to finally put this zombie down.

But of course, it does not collapse. Even if it violates much of what we ‘know’ in political science and economics, it has some source of strength – extreme race nationalism, a genuine belief in the Kim cult, the regime’s willingness to do anything to survive? – that helps it through crises which would bring down similar states. North Korea has survived: the end of the Cold War and the cut-off of Soviet aid; the death of founder-turned-godhead Kim Il Sung (1994); the famine of the late 1990s; ever-tightening United Nations sanctions; the death of Kim Il Sung’s heir, Kim Jong Il (2011). If the North survived all this, none of the various ideas out there for change – chasing North Korean money in Chinese banks, inward information flows, airstrikes on missile sites, more sanctions – are a likely to be that magic bullet. All are worth discussion of course, but given what the regime has survived to date, we must admit North Korean survivability, that it will be with us for a long time. This will be a long, grinding stalemate – as it has been to date – in which the side that ‘hangs tough’ will triumph.

Seen in that light, the Obama administration’s much-maligned ‘strategic patience’ is not so bad after all. It recognizes that the democracies on the outside – particularly South Korea, Japan, and the United States – can do little to proactively force change in the North. They can cut it off and harden themselves against its provocations and misbehavior, but it will a long grind. Sanctions, missile defense, the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the crack-down on North Korea’s diplomatic relationships (which frequently double as sanctions-running) are necessary to slowly choke-off North Korea, pushing it back to a precarious, exclusive dependence on its Chinse patron. Just as the Soviet Union was slowly internationally isolated and eventually ground to a halt, so the democracies of this cold war can hunker down too.

The heaviest burden falls on South Korea, where the desire for the magic bullet – the solution that permits the least amount of domestic inconvenience – is strong. In the eight years I have lived here, I have always been amazed at the blitheness about North Korea. On the one hand, it is admirable. South Koreans are far less intimidated by North Korea than American cable news crisis reporting would have you think. But this has also created a insouciance that is often disturbing. My students and acquaintances have no idea what to do if there is a North Korean missile attack. No one knows where shelters are or takes civil defense seriously. When I tell my students they should go up Korea’s many mountains to escape ambient radiation in the wake of a nuclear strike, they look at me in amazement that I know such macabre details. My male students regularly find their required military duty a frustrating diversion, while my female students are shocked when I tell them that Israeli women are conscripted too. Military duty is often corroded by social stratification networking and hazing. When the previous administration sought to impose a unification tax to prepare for that eventuality, the nation revolted. North Korean defectors – immediately identifiable by their accent – are often treated poorly and slotted in close to the bottom of South Korea’s punishing social hierarchy. The South Korean government has insisted that the United States pay for installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in the country. Cooperation on North Korea with Japan continues to be seen as a concession to an enemy rather than a wise pooling of resources against a shared existential threat. And South Korea continues to spend far less on defense (2.5% of GDP) than it should.

It is long since overdue for South Korea to take more serious ownership of North Korea and gird itself to win a protracted, expensive, uncomfortable struggle. One possible model is Israel, a democracy hardened to win a long-term, low-intensity conflict of attrition. For example, South Korea might invest in civil defense. 75% of its population lives on 25% of its land space – due to the mountainous terrain – which means missile and nuclear strikes could be especially devastating. This also suggests that the government finally take decentralization seriously – not just for oft-discussed regional equity – but for national security. The Seoul-Kyeonggi-Incheon corridor now contains a staggering 55% of all South Koreans and is the heart of the nation in every field, yet it lies right on the border with North Korea. This is astonishingly irresponsible. Such hyper-centralization makes South Korea vulnerable to a decapitation strike, and that capital lies less than 50 miles from the border, placing it within artillery range, much less rocket range. It is long overdue for South Korea to learn from West Germany and move its capital. This greater security would also make kinetic counter-strike options after a North Korean provocation less risky. Finally, the South must consider female conscription. Its birthrate (1.2) is far below the replacement rate (2.1), steadily shrinking the force size. If North Korea is still here in ten or twenty years – and twenty years ago, no one thought it would still be here today – then South Korea will almost certainly have to find substantial new manpower.

More generally, there needs to be a greater, Israeli-style social commitment to a long, expensive conflict of attrition if the South truly wants to end, rather then just manage, this ongoing stalemate. North Korea is not going to soon collapse or disappear. Ignoring it or appeasing it will not make it go away or tame it either. Nor is it primarily a problem for China, the US, the UN, and so on. This is firstly a South Korean issue, and it will be costly, domestically inconvenient, time-consuming, and socially fatiguing to finally throttle North Korea into collapse. ‘Hanging tough’ worked against the Soviet bloc, even if it took forty years; hardening can work here too. 

47 thoughts on “North Korea Survives. Start Hardening South Korea for a Long Contest

  1. Wow! This is one of the most insightful articles I have ever read about Peninsula’s situation. You hit the ball out of the park. If only South Korea’s elite would read and heed.


  2. I frequently enjoy watching the Rachel Maddow Show (or rather, the clips uploaded to Youtube) and this particular analysis reminds me of a lot of her most recent segments, in that she draws attention to what is not obvious: if something doesn’t add up on the surface, there must be an invisible factor that is completing the equation. What is that factor? How could it come into play in the future?

    I must admit, I too was led here by that adorable video (your wife did look rather harried, but then it must be hard work looking after two such boisterous and bright-looking little ones!) But your measured, insightful analysis (a rarity in both Korean- and English-language media coverage of Korean politics) is the reason I am staying. We need more of these intelligent breakdowns if there is to be any progress going forward.


  3. Hello Professor Robert Kelly. I am contacting you on behalf of ABC News. We would really like to interview you this weekend if it’s possible. If you have any questions about the interview you can call us anytime to this number 010-4227-8161. We were trying to find your mobile number to contact you but we couldn’t. We would really appreciate your response. Thank you !


  4. You are every parent working from home and we applaud you and your wife’s efforts. We’ve all been there, just not on television. What you’ve very accidentally shown the world is the reality of family and made us all remember we’re not alone in the craziness of child rearing. Every day the news is more terrible, and your interview, although important on a serious topic, has made the world smile…and we all needed that, too. I wish you all the best with your beautiful family and career. Colleen, mom of 2, Boston, MA USA


  5. Just saw the short clip of your ‘interrupted’ BBC interview—ohhhh my, your wife and kids had me laughing….and STILL laughing over a REAL LIFE situation that MANY of us moms/parents have experienced in some way!!
    The video shared on BBC Facebook page had a lot of great responses from people all over the world, many people who understand what can happen with little children. Don’t be discouraged by the negative comments, but know that most of the world thought this was not only hilarious, but as I said before, real life!
    Please let your wife know that she brought a lot of joy to an otherwise dull Friday, and thanks again for my Friday chuckle that will continue into the weekend!!


  6. I hope that foreign corespondents get to have an access to special buildings in important cities to conduct such important interviews. You also needs to get a more professional website since right now you are an important public figure . Good luck


  7. Hello Dr Robert, I just have to mention that you are going viral on SNS!
    Anyways, I believe that you are penetrating the consciousness of South Korea against North Korea. Also I could not stop myself laughing at the line, “South koreans are far less intimidated by North Korea”. I have noticed a lot of times that people are ignorant about North Korea.
    When I read Korean News, it rarely mention about decentralization of population and it is not even discussed thoroughly during political debates.

    On 10th March, Korea’s president Park has been officially removed from her office. What do you expect the reactions will be from other countries as a result of this removal? (especially Japan and North Korea)

    I cannot wait to see your upcoming articles!


  8. Hello Professor Robert Kelly. This is a great blog, I knew about it, because of the video of your cute children😊. Cheer up! Greetings from Panama.


  9. Hey. I saw your talk on BBC news and it was really insightful. Your kids were quite cute despite the disruption. I suppose I’ve seen an increase in public sentiment against South Korea in China over the past few weeks. What are your thoughts on this?

    Also how do you think the whole Malaysia-North Korea row will affect China-Malaysia and China-North Korea relations? Doesn’t China want to develop a lot in SEA?

    What are your thoughts on this article?


  10. It was nice to meet your family on BBC, I am not sure if that was your wife or nanny, I hope you don’t fire her, it isn’t easy to look after two young children. Wish your family has a get weekend!


  11. Greetings from Florida Mr. Kelly – my wife and I enjoyed your clip. We realized the same thing could have happened to us. Best part – your wife closing the door as if nothing occurred. Hope to see another interview with all four of you. And on a serious note, I find your insight fascinating. Thanks for sharing… Bill


  12. As a huge fan of Korean food, I made small talk with a Korean American on a subway one day. It broke my heart to hear her understanding of the South Korean version on reunification.

    She politely told me that there are many South Koreans who don’t want anything to do with a reunification.

    This can’t be considered an East/West German parallel. The cultures and histories are too different to consider a social equivalent.

    Could the long game be lost from a tortoise like Beijing encroachment into lulling the apathetic South Korean will to inaction? The 1970s and 80s saw a more resilient political will from both sides. But, as the separation continues with far less surviving families on either side of the border, many more commoner Koreans on both sides would have far less interest on unifying. Those in the North only think what they’re told (and smuggled), and the South is distracted with their own 1st world pursuits of economy and luxury. Perhaps this is what the Pyongyang criminal syndicate had hoped and gamed–that they can remain safe in their North Korean styled “Forbidden City” as they continue to parasitically squeeze their remaining captive serfs. And, if it should be a bad year with failed crops, they’ll threaten their neighbors in a nuclear brinkmanship until enough of a food basket replenishes only a fraction of their starving population why their security apparatus remains tight.

    Likewise, would the tycoons and military elite of South Korean want competing aggressive “former” North Koreans obstructing and impeding in their businesses, properties, and families’ lives in the South? We’d more likely see a mass exodus of successful South Koreans making new homes in Korea Town, California, Flushing, NY, or with their Asian neighbors of “Hong”couver, British Columbia, Canada.

    And, why did I call it Beijing encroachment? Was that a typo? The CCP certainly doesn’t want a unified Korea especially if it’ll become anything like a unified Germany. Germany is a political and economic powerhouse which has been ruling the politics of Europe (and messing it up by some opinions). Even if a unified Korea were to “become” neutral, it would have to remain incredibly powerful and very self determined if it doesn’t want to slip back into the moniker “Shrimp among Whales.”

    In spite of Korea’s beautiful 5,000 year culture, it can’t ignore China’s present aggressive expansionist attitude whose own history once included the Korean peninsula as a mere province. So, what military standards and calibers would the new neutral Korea hold? NATO caliber rifle cartridges or ex-Soviet? Would it require the threat ballistic/back pack/submarine nuclear deterrence? Even disguised as a non-NATO nation? Would a new Pacific Rim Friendship Pact of Neighbors Who’ve had Their Copyrights Stolen by You-Know-Who (PRFPNWTCSYKW) be formed to protect through mutual support the new “neutral” Korea?

    Some have said that North Korea is “China’s problem.” Perhaps until North Korea becomes a problem for China, South Korea will continue to ignore North Korea and use this bellicose criminal syndicate as a buffer state to keep the Communist Chinese Party out of South Korean business.

    When North Korea has sold too many illicit drugs to the privileged overdosing children of China’s ruling class, when the CCP becomes too embarrassed by North Korean hitmen wacking defectors living in a Sino-styled witness protection, until Pyongyang brazenly starts to rattle the saber against Beijing because the rest of the world stops giving North Korea food hand outs, only then will Beijing seriously consider, and even demand a reunification. And, that’s what the rest of the free world should worry about. Because making considerations with that turbulence might insure the complete fracturing of the Korean peninsula not unlike the failed state disaster that Libya is suffering.


  13. I saw your interview and I thought the way you and your wife reacted to your kids is exactly how my wife and I would have. It made you seem relatable and I thought you were awesome for it. I will follow your blog. I read your stats you are pretty badass!

    My wife and I have a YouTube channel called “The Wad” and we talked about this incident and how you are an amazing person once they look into you.

    Lastly, I hope once the interview was over you weren’t too hard on them!


  14. Thank you for a very enlightening analysis. I arrived at your blog, like many others, via media coverage of that BBC clip of your interview that also featured surprise guest appearances from your lovely family members. I also managed to track down and view the full BBC interview. Thank you for sharing your knowledge on the SK political situation as well.


  15. I saw that interview if yours like everyone else here and i just gotta say, your kids were so adorable! Thanks for the laugh! What a beautiful family you have.


  16. I just wanted to say that your family seems awesome! Love that carefree spirit that your daughter exudes when she comes into your office. What a sweetie. I hope you and your wife don’t feel too embarrassed for long. (I felt so bad for her!) There will always be “haters,” but I think your family became endearing to a lot of the world in those moments. And, hey, I didn’t know who you were before this and now I’m reading your blog and other information about you, and I’m impressed and increasing my knowledge of the world!

    I spent many years working at least one job from home, with children underfoot.
    Much love to your whole family.

    I really liked this article:
    View at


  17. Professor Kelly:

    Many thanks to you and your family for giving the world a beautiful human moment. The fact that your children felt so secure in “breaking in” on you merely bespeaks their love. Respect and sense of boundaries will come with maturity as you know. As a grandparent I can only say you were blessed with a moment that you can use in future to embarrass them when they’re teenagers…just kidding. But seriously, thanks to you and your family for some humanity in a world I fear is losing same. Best wishes.


  18. Your interview had me howling! I loved your daughter’s grand entrance. What a way to walk in, swinging those arms with all that confidence! Seeing your son roll in, and your frantic wife retrieving them, made me laugh even harder. I am more aware about South Korea and its political issues thanks to you and your family. You made my day!! Mother of two in Chicago.


  19. My family adored your BBC interview. Prof Kelly, it’s true that the people here aren’t as unwavering and glowing in their pride and loyalty to the ideology and leadership. However, this is not due to economic hardship and isolation imposed on them. Grain prices and foreign exchange rates were like that of post WWI Germany since the 1990’s until the young leader came to power. In fact, the domestic economy and the standard of living from the capital to the coal mining towns have been steadily improving. Sir, the reason behind the slowly but surely changing of the hearts here is due to their improving economy. And to those who accuse Beijing of being two-faced for not stopping its economic dealings with its neighbor don’t realize the realities along China’s northeast frontier. Whether in DC or Seoul, those who seek to influence policy must step out of the echo chamber.


  20. Hi Richard – I do hope you come back the blog and social media, and haven’t been scared off for good. Admittedly, things might have gone a tad “viral and weird” on the old BBC interview front, but I do hope you know that the world loves you and your family all the better for it. Your clip reminds us that behind the big news story, there are all us humans and humanity making up the numbers. Please know we are laughing with you! All the best from (yet another) well wisher.


    • Same here. I can see myself in the same situation. When my super important client calls me and my kid throws a tantrum or just cannot stop talking to me…


  21. I work from home, I totally relate to you and your wife. Children are a blessing but sometimes… Anyway, this video makes you popular and so human (and so close to all of us who work from home!!). Too bad the kids stole the show, your analysis was great ;).


  22. I’m another one drawn here by that video! I know that instant fame was the last thing you expected or probably wanted, but at a time when world news is increasingly glum your lovely family gave us some much-needed laughter. Parents of toddlers everywhere are in total solidarity with you! We’ve all been dropped in it by our toddlers at one time or another (and rather more often in the case of my youngest son!). I’m going to keep following your blog. I studied Korean history for a year at university and found it fascinating. And although my focus is now on early medieval Europe, I’d love to learn more of Korea.


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