Deterrence First: Why Some Koreans See Military and Economic Pressure as the Solution to North Korea


Deterers believe Pyongyang is acting offensively and that inter-Korean relations require vigilance and strength.

North Korea’s Threats Require a Firm Hand

It is a matter of what we will gain in security,” retired Captain Sukjoon Yoon told TNI. A former Republic of Korea Navy Captain, he is also a senior fellow at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs. “We’ve been through more than seven decades of building up our military capabilities against North Korean military provocations and threat perceptions. But now North Korea is trying to shore up their nuclear ability against South Korea and the United States.”

To Deterers, the threat from North Korea is real, and tension reduction is largely the responsibility of Pyongyang. To them, the ball is in North Korea’s court, but Pyongyang is rarely interested in playing a fair game. Dr. Min Gyo Koo, a professor of international affairs at Seoul National University, agrees with a firm approach. “Without a very tight and close military alliance between South Korea and the United States, I don’t think peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear crisis is imaginable. But unfortunately, our government is drifting between North Korea and the U.S.—that’s the big problem.”

“What North Korea wants is the lifting of sanctions, particularly the five key UNSC resolutions for sanctions,” Dr. Sung-han Kim told TNI. If that was done in exchange for a very small nuclear concession, he warned that “the follow-up process would be meaningless. So I hope President Trump would not be trapped into that kind of pitfall.” Dr. Sung-han Kim is a professor of international relations at Korea University and served as the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2012-2013. He does not believe Pyongyang acts in good faith and thinks North Korea may eventually test more ICBMs. When that happens, “President Trump will not be able to say those tests are not as threatening to the security of the U.S. mainland of the United States.”

Dr. Min Gyo Koo is also dismissive of the idea that Pyongyang is not a problem. He is pleased South Korea’s conventional forces out-match North Korea’s and sees Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons as the real problem. “But ironically, there are still some Korean people who believe North Korean nuclear weapons are not a threat to us—that North Korean nuclear weapons are targeted first against Japan and then at the United States.” 

He elaborated, “If we are unified, they reason North Korean nuclear weapons will become ours. That mentality is still there, believe it or not.” Dr. Min Gyo Koo believes such views are dangerous because the reality of deterrence still holds. In fact, the nuclear threat is once again reigniting South Korean debates about Seoul acquiring its own bomb. He warned that some policymakers are thinking that “in order to deter North Korea from their nuclear adventurism, we need to arm ourselves with tactical nuclear weapons.” 

North Korea’s Behavior is Offensive

Deterers do not generally think of South Korea’s military capabilities as destabilizing or threatening. North Korea might claim they are, but Pyongyang’s own history of provocations undercuts the argument they are sincere. As Dr. Min Gyo Koo flatly stated to TNI, Pyongyang’s complaints “are just North Korean rhetoric” that “we don’t have to worry about.” If anything, “They are not consistent—their only consistent logic is their own survival.”

Most Deterers see North Korean statements as pure propaganda. As Dr. Min Gyo Koo explained, “They are not bound by what they say. I don’t think South Korean military capabilities will threaten or have threatened North Korea and pushed them away from cooperation. This is because Pyongyang still has not officially dropped the idea of unifying the Korean peninsula on its own terms. So they’ll just keep complaining about South Korean military capabilities because they impede Pyongyang’s goal of unifying and running the country.”

Dr. Sung-han Kim thinks the administration of President Moon Jae-in is misguided and is being taken advantage of. “I think we have become so vulnerable by being obsessed with this so-called appeasement policy on North Korea for the past couple of years.” For instance, he points to Pyongyang’s missile tests in 2017 as proof that North Korea was emboldened. According to Dr. Sung-han Kim, Pyongyang only stopped after America got tough. “We have to remember North Korea, for the first time, responded to two things. One of them was real economic sanctions; the other one was fire and fury, meaning political and military pressure by the United States.”

In his view, a return to maximum pressure is necessary. He thinks Kim Jong-un made two huge mistakes: testing too many missiles in too short of a time span and not making a deal at the Hanoi summit with America. For example, consistent missile tests caused Beijing to lose face as Pygonyang’s patron at the United Nations Security Council. As a result, “when the U.S. provided a draft resolution, China couldn’t oppose it.” That meant a new level of economic sanctions never seen before were implemented to really squeeze North Korea, causing Kim Jong-un to seek a way out at the Hanoi summit.

“Kim Jong-un should have hidden his real intentions,” reflected Dr. Sung-han Kim. “But he didn’t have a lot of experience. He raised sanctions relief as the first and the last agenda item at Hanoi. He could have brought up liaison offices or a peace regime so the United States would not catch his plan. But he put sanctions relief on the table and persisted. And then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said something to President Donald Trump, who walked away the next day. I think it was the right decision. He was praised by both parties when he came back to Washington. No deal with better than a bad deal.”

Deterers aren’t necessarily against talking with North Korea—they are just very skeptical. As a nonpartisan reporter, Ms

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. Jeongmin Kim aptly explained that Pyongyang’s proclamations should be taken with a grain of salt but also properly understood. “If we look at North Korean state media, they keep condemning Seoul—and recently also the United States—for the capacities South Korea has and for joint drills. But North Korea knows South Korea can’t get away from the U.S. alliance. So when Pyongyang says they condemn South Korea for all these capacities, which we see as deterrence, I don’t think it means North Korea is actually telling South Korea to just withdraw everything. They’re just using it as rhetoric and leverage while they’re doing negotiations with the United States. Also, they’re pushing South Korea to assume a more proactive role—such as by pressuring America to lift sanctions—if they don’t want to get all these condemning statements. So we shouldn’t take those proclamations at face value.”

All of this means that while South Korea maintains both its defenses and attempts diplomacy, it would be wise to be wary of Pyongyang. As Ms. Jeongmin Kim elaborated to TNI, “North Koreans are hardcore realists, and if they see no good coming out of interacting with South Korea, they just won’t talk—they’ll push South Korea away. But then if South Korea gets ahead of itself by talking about a peace economy [when North Korea is not interested], they may be destabilizing the situation on the Korean peninsula on their own. Because if they do that, North Korea has no choice but to push out more hostile commentary because South Korea is getting nowhere with sanctions relief. From the North Korean point of view, if South Korea can’t really persuade the United States when it comes to sanctions or redefining the definition or range of denuclearization, they don’t really see any point in talking to South Korea.”

How Many More Military Capabilities Does Peace Require?

To Deterers, North Korean nuclear weapons balance out South Korea’s high-tech conventional capabilities. However, Pyongyang still has nuclear weapons, and Seoul doesn’t. Additionally, South Korea might outclass North Korea’s military, but it still relies on its alliance with nuclear-armed America. In this situation, Deterers are always concerned with improving their conventional edge and with maintaining Washington’s nuclear umbrella. More capabilities are the order of the day, and Deterers are often concerned about other regional powers too.

As Dr. Youngjun Kim put it, “Over a decade, the number target was North Korea definitely, but we have to think expansively. The number one threat is Chinese military expansion, and maybe a potential threat from Russia, but not Japan.” In order to deal with this, he sees a stronger navy and air force as the solution. “The rise of China is one of the main causes of instability in the region. For me, Chinese military expansion and challenge to the world order founded after the Second World War is the greatest threat.”

This view of Beijing was broadly shared among Deterers, but came with different caveats. Some favored building new deterrence capabilities while not publicly antagonizing the more powerful China. Captain Sukjoon Yoon told TNI, “Yes, it is true we are concerned about a rising China. But they are our neighbors, and we are still a weak and small, vulnerable country. We should be maintaining good relations with China. We should not paint China as a potential enemy.”

Furthermore, Deterers do not all agree on whether Japan is a threat. “Personally, I think it is not North Korea, but China—and possibly Japan—that we should be more worried about,” Dr. Min Gyo Koo said to TNI. “We accept North Korean nuclear weapons that we can defend ourselves against, no problem with that. But a rising China and a rearming Japan pose a greater threat to the future of the Korean peninsula. In response to this, there are some things we have to do.” Dr. Min Gyo Koo wants a larger navy and is glad President Moon Jae-in has bought the F-35 and that Seoul is building amphibious assault ships to carry them. 

Given these concerns with not just North Korea, but other countries too, Deterers argue over how far to go with new capabilities—not whether to get rid of them. For instance, they debate how much more the alliance can do, which technologies are worth pursuing, and whether to get a South Korean nuclear bomb. Additionally, interservice rivalries over which branches get the biggest slice of the defense budget are intense. Dr. Min Gyo Koo explained this desire to spend more in order for South Korea to be taken seriously. “We have to do the minimum,” he said. Otherwise, Seoul risks “being disregarded.”

An example of one of these debates is whether Seoul needs a home-grown anti-missile defense or a decapitation unit. To Deterers, these questions are less about how North Korea views such weapons, but rather if they are cost-effective or if America does it better. Dr. Sung-han Kim told TNI, “I think Korean missile defense is nonsense. That is a rhetorical defense. I think Korea should join the U.S.-led missile defense shield as soon as possible. And the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation program should be modified and made more sophisticated as soon as possible.” In fact, Dr. Sung-han Kim suggested the measures taken in Seoul’s recent Defense Reform 2.0 were insufficient. In his view, more upgrades and consultation with Washington are needed. Without these, he sees the dangerous possibility of deterrence faltering.

Dr. Sung-han Kim believes that, just like with its European allies during the Cold War, America needs to do a better job of reassuring Seoul. “America has been saying the U.S.-provided nuclear umbrella is quite reliable and safe. But in light of the rapidly improving nuclear missile capability of North Korea, it is hard to say for sure the U.S. will continue to provide a really reliable nuclear umbrella if Pyongyang can attack the American mainland.” While Dr. Sung-han Kim thinks a South Korean nuclear weapon is not necessary, he does think Washington should base nuclear weapons in Guam or in South Korea. He reasoned if nuclear sharing was done with America’s European allies, why not also with Seoul? “The United States would have ownership, but we can share the buttons.” 

The fear that North Korea might attempt a fait accompli is behind this talk of nuclear sharing. Dr. Sung-han Kim elaborated that tactical nuclear weapons might be the best way to prevent Pyongyang from seizing a sparsely-populated island and then threatening nuclear retaliation if Seoul or Washington reacted. In his view, that would be a humiliating blow that would weaken the alliance since America would probably not react right away. Additionally, Dr. Sung-han Kim warned such a scenario would increase the chance of Seoul building its own nuclear weapons.

This debate over nuclear sharing and South Korean nuclear weapons is more prominent today among Deterers than it has been in the past. Dr . Min Gyo Koo explained, “This idea first came out in the 1970s when the Jimmy Carter administration indicated they would withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula. President Park Chung-hee secretly pursued a nuclear weapons program to no avail. This idea is still alive.”

Dr. Min Gyo Koo went on to state, “Without the U.S. presence, nuclear weapons are the only way we can defend ourselves, and many people believe that would be the ultimate kind of deterrence against North Korea. Personally, I don’t think we will be kicked out of the U.S. nuclear umbrella anytime soon. But, when you talked about this issue ten years ago, you would have been regarded as a lunatic—one of the few very radical conservative, military fundamentalists. But today, that idea attracts an increasing number of people. So this is not new, but a re-emerging issue in Korean security circles.”

Captain Sukjoon Yoon, however, disagrees that South Korea should build its own nuclear weapons or host any U.S. ones such as the P61 gravity bomb. “That would not make sense at all,” he told TNI. A South Korean nuclear weapon or nuclear-sharing with America would make things worse in his view. “No, we don’t want to do that.” Moreover, Captain Sukjoon Yoon thinks while South Korea should have a larger navy, it does not necessarily need light carriers or nuclear-powered submarines. On the one hand, building these systems means Seoul does not have to rely on Washington sending its own similar vessels if it is too costly. Yet, on the other hand, South Korean aircraft carriers would be based in a “semi-enclosed sea” that’s too small and risky because they would be expensive to build and present “a wonderful target” if a war broke out. Additionally, Captain Sukjoon Yoon thinks nuclear-powered submarines are louder and too costly. He sees them as unnecessary since South Korea doesn’t need submarines able to patrol faraway places like the Indian Ocean. “We already have more than twenty convention submarines, which are all very quiet.”

Dr. Sung-han Kim’s preference for American missile defense technology and Captain Sukjoon Yoon’s skepticism towards nuclear weapons and expensive naval platforms demonstrate the debates among Deterers. They might not necessarily want to purchase every new South Korean-made capability, but Deterers also usually don’t want force reductions either. 

When asked directly about paring down South Korea’s military, Dr. Min Gyo Koo said: “That is strategic suicide.” He argued, “Giving up on your own military capabilities in a false hope doing so would reduce the threat perception on the other side? I don’t think so. It’s not an arms race. No. It is impossible for North Korea and South Korea to both participate in an arms race—it is already done, and Seoul won. Arms races matter when two different countries have a rivalry and work towards the same direction, but North Korea and South Korea have moved toward different directions: North Korea, nuclear, and South Korea, conventional capabilities.”

The Deterers’ Vision of Unification

Deterers want to see Korea reunited, and believe that goal is more important than Washington’s concerns with denuclearization. To them, a united Korea must be democratic and free market, but that vision cannot come about if Pyongyang believes it calls the shots. Not all Deterers agree on the path forward, but they generally think that given the reality of North Korean nuclear weapons, South Korea must maintain its conventional superiority and the alliance with America in perpetuity. Unification can occur, but only in the long-run. Some Deterers see pressure to bring down Pyongyang’s rulers as the key, and others believe inter-Korean trade coupled with North Korean development is the right call. Either way, Deterers are most concerned with security on the Korean peninsula—keeping Pyongyang down and Beijing out so nothing can stop the Korean nation from finally being whole and free.

Dr. Sung-han Kim is of the view that a return to maximum pressure is vital. “We have been extremely kind, extremely nice, expecting some meaningful concessions out of North Korea for the past couple of years. But now, we all know what North Korea wants vs. what we tried to give to North Korea, and North Korea knows it. Under these circumstances, I think working-level negotiations, quite frankly, are the means to buy time rather than strike a good deal, which I believe is impossible unless Pyongyang or Washington makes a big strategic concession.” Dr. Sung-han Kim insists that denuclearization is not mutually exclusive with renewed pressure. He thinks talks can continue as Seoul increases sanctions or hosts U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.

He argued to TNI that pressure should be maintained while still trying to strike a deal. He saw partial denuclearization as a possibility in exchange for perhaps some combination of partial sanctions removal and some political improvements. For example, he could see Pyongyang giving up nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, Punggye-ri, or Tongchang-ri. In return, America could remove the least effective sanctions resolutions, open liaison offices, send humanitarian aid, or sign an end-of-war declaration. However, Dr. Sung-han Kim still thinks such a deal is unlikely without another round of intimidating economic and military pressure.

Captain Sukjoon Yoon believes South Korea should use its economic prosperity to its advantage by bringing a future unified Korea up to the South’s standards. That promise of affluence is important to prevent North Korea from remaining impoverished and under China’s thumb. “The problem again is China. They will not allow South Korea to buy North Korea. This is because China wants to dominate the North Korea market—indeed, they already dominate it—but they want it to stay that way.” Beijing certainly would be wary of a unified Korea that keeps the U.S. alliance and American forces stationed nearby. Moreover, China is certainly looking at the vast unexploited resources in North Korea, as well as the fact North Korea’s market and cheap labor have yet to be tapped by international trade and finance.

In fact, Captain Sukjoon Yoon is upset that South Korea is not working together more with Japan in order to “keep China off the Korean peninsula,” and out of any future unification. He thinks that while the history of Imperial Japan’s occupation of Korea is a problem, tensions with Japan are often played up by the South Korean left in order to benefit the progressives in South Korean elections. He sees strategic cooperation with America and Japan as two keys to ensuring an eventual full reunification. That cooperation includes intelligence sharing and also ensuring that, in the event of a war or North Korean collapse, American forces do not cross the demilitarized zone. That is crucial because Captain Sukjoon Yoon has talked to many Chinese military scholars and is convinced that if U.S. troops crossed the border, Beijing would have no choice but to react by sending in their own forces—a disastrous outcome for peace and unification.

Dr. Min Gyo Koo also is concerned with who would dictate the terms of any unification. He confirmed that unification is a higher priority than denuclearization for most South Koreans. However, his concern is not about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but rather about how to eventually achieve unification and what it would cost. He says while President Moon Jae-in is hyping the economic possibilities of inter-Korean trade, many South Koreans are skeptical and are worried about having to pay more in taxes since North Korea is so poor.

However, if Pyongyang ever did open up and sanctions were removed, that would mean North Korea could develop on its own and would not be as behind when unification happens. As a result, South Korea would not have to spend as much money modernizing its neighbor. Dr. Min Gyo Koo illustrated this with the example of planting trees in North Korea. “I definitely prefer economic cooperation through Kaesong. This is necessary because one government official told me, ‘we have to just plant trees in North Korea while the North Korean authorities control the North Korean people.’ Meaning that it will be way more expensive to plant trees in North Korea in the future. You will have to pay their salaries in the future, but the labor is free right now. So use the free labor while you can, and make the economic infrastructure available under North Korean control. Otherwise, if North Korea is being capitalized suddenly, the labor costs will increase a lot, which means more economic burden for the international community, including South Korea. So, ideally, North Korea will do their own homework while they maintain their power against its own people and build a modern economy. Of course, you know, they will have to survive this misery for a while. But, that’s what we did during the Saemaeul Undong (New Korea Movement)—the labor was free, and our mountains were bare right after the Korean War. And then South Korean President Park Chung-hee planted the trees using almost free labor in the 1960s and 1970s. So the nuclear issue aside, there are a lot of things we can do before Western capital and investments enter North Korea; because North Korea’s infrastructure is just completely disastrous. If you want to develop and rebuild North Korean infrastructure from a capitalist perspective, the cost will be too much. But, under the UN sanctions, it is impossible.”

Ultimately, many Deterers want unification, but it must be on Seoul’s terms. They don’t want to be dominated by Pyongyang or Beijing. That, in turn, means maintaining a strong military but also possibly opening up trade with North Korea. Such an exchange will be necessary since they are also concerned with the cost—after all, German reunification cost two trillion euros. As Dr. Min Gyo Koo puts it, “The top priority is not denuclearization, it is reunification. As long as we can reunify, maybe in loose terms like a federal system—one country two different systems, under the title of Korea—North Korea will be run by their elites who have nuclear weapons. That is fine because it is two different systems but one country, so you are not using nuclear weapons against your own people.”

Read part 4 of this series, which sees where both groups agree and disagree, in the next Atomic Reporters update.

John Dale Grover is a Korean Studies fellow at the Center for the National Interest. He visited Seoul for a week in early November 2019 to interview nine experts in South Korea for this project. This is the first piece in a five-article series, “How South Korea’s Politics and Military Impacts Strategic Stability with North Korea.” This series examines the two South Korean views—Engagement First vs. Deterrence First—over how to best interact with North Korea. Support for the reporting of this article was provided by a fellowship from Atomic Reporters together with the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and funding from the Carnegie Corporation, New York. The quotations in this article have been edited for length and clarity.

Image: Reuters