How South Korea’s Politics and Military Impacts Strategic Stability With North Korea


Seoul’s elites are divided over how Pyongyang perceives South Korean intentions and capabilities. Will they ever agree on how to deter and engage the North?

North Korea loves to complain. Pyongyang does this to gain attention and to distract the world from its nuclear weapons and threats. However, North Korea also grumbles in order to draw attention to its own red lines and what it sees as its legitimate interests.

In fact, Pyongyang has a history of publicly condemning South Korea’s military exercises and high-tech weapons platforms. For instance, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stated on January 1 that Washington had threatened Pyongyang by the “shipment of ultra-modern warfare equipment into South Korea.” This likely referenced the late 2019 arrival of Seoul’s first F-35As. Moreover, last summer the North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared, “There is no room for doubt that the delivery of ‘F-35A’, which is also called an ‘invisible lethal weapon,’ is aimed at securing military supremacy… and especially opening a ‘gate’ to invading the north in time of emergency on the Korean peninsula.”

These statements matter because the F-35 is an excellent example of a weapon that Seoul would find reassuring and Pyongyang would see as destabilizing. This is because the F-35 could easily take on North Korea’s aging air force. More pointedly, the F-35 could also launch a sneak attack to kill Pyongyang’s leadership, preventing Kim Jong-un from ordering a counter-attack. For North Korea, such a decapitation strike is one of the few ways Pyongyang’s nuclear deterrent could be—theoretically—rendered inoperable.

However, the risks of such a sneak attack on North Korea are extremely high because if it failed, or Kim Jong-un had enough advance warning, he could decide to use his nuclear weapons rather than lose them. In fact, he has to bank on Seoul believing he would do so because that threat of nuclear retaliation is deterrence. Fearing the deaths of millions would undoubtedly give most South Korean leaders pause if they were contemplating an F-35 decapitation strike in the first place.

North and South Korea constantly face this deterrence problem of maintaining the right balance of fear. Each country wants to survive. On the one hand, they need to appear tough enough to scare each other into never taking military action

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. But on the other hand, they must take care not to appear so immediately threatening that it causes a war. And so each new North Korean weapons system and internal debate within Pyongyang impacts how South Korea and America view its intentions and threat-potential. The reverse is also true; South Korean military capabilities and policy debates in Seoul matter to Pyongyang and shape North Korea’s own perceptions.

South Korea Is Divided Into Two Camps on North Korea

Although every regime is interested in its own survival, how it pursues survival and makes decisions is influenced by who is in the room when the shots are being called. The simple presence or absence of a hawkish or dovish cabinet member could make an outsized difference. In Seoul’s case, its policies usually change whether a progressive or conservative administration is in power.

Broadly speaking, there appear to be two main schools of thought in South Korea. The first are those who believe in “Engagement First” and tend to be progressive. Second are those who believe in “Deterrence First,” who are usually conservative. A key driving force of this divide is different assumptions about Pyongyang’s behavior and what North Korea really considers a threat from South Korea.

Those who fall into the Engagement First camp tend to see North Korea’s actions as more defensive in nature, acting more out of fear. However, those in the Deterrence First camp see Pyongyang as more aggressive, acting like a bully. Engagers usually prefer diplomatic engagement over military deterrence and pressure, whereas Deterers often think the opposite approach is the best way to ensure peace. 

Both groups largely agree advanced military systems are needed to deter North Korea, but they disagree about exact capabilities and whether they should be subject to negotiation. Engagers worry about Seoul and Washington coming off as too threatening, whereas Deterers worry about not appearing tough enough.

Comparing North and South Korea’s Militaries

Below is a chart that details the differences between South and North Korea’s militaries. Note that Pygonyang has several different weapons of mass destruction. Also, notice Seoul’s high-tech and high-quality military outclasses North Korea’s numerous but largely outdated forces.

Military Unit/CapabilitySouth KoreaNorth Korea
Defense Spending in 2018$43.07 billion$1.6 billion
Military Personnel625,0001.28 million
Military Reserves5.2 million6.3 million
Tanks26546075 (many of which are out-of-date)
Total Aircraft1614949 (many of which are out-of-date)
Stealth Fighters13 F-35s delivered of 40 ordered. 20 more F-35s may be purchased in the future.None.
Ballistic MissilesSeveral types of ballistic missiles for conventional precision strikes. These could be used to try and preempt or stop a North Korean missile or nuclear attack. This system is called the Kill Chain. Alternatively, these missiles could attempt to decapitate Pyongyang’s leadership and take out their command and control centers after a North Korean attack. This system is called Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR).A wide variety of ballistic missiles for conventional strikes. These include unconventional nuclear-armed missiles capable of hitting targets throughout South Korea and U.S. bases in Japan and Guam. North Korea also has nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles likely capable of reaching the cities across the continental United States.
Decapitation CommandosThe Spartan 3000 is a brigade-size unit tasked with infiltrating North Korea to kill Kim Jong-un. The 1000-member team appears to have been formed on December 1, 2017.North Korea’s special forces were publicly named and showcased for the first time on April 15, 2017. Pyongyang probably trains some of them for decapitation missions; however, exact information on Pyongyang’s units is difficult to find.
Ballistic Missile Defense1 battery of 6 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile launchers. At least 8 Patriot Advanced Capability-2 or 3 (PAC-2 or PAC-3) missile batteries. 3 Aegis-equipped destroyers, with plans to order 3 more. Domestically-produced interceptors such as the Cheolmae II (also called the L-SAM). These interceptors are a part of a larger system called the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD).North Korea has domestically-produced missile defense based on Russian technology. However, further information is difficult to find.
Weapons of Mass DestructionNone.An estimated 10-60 nuclear weapons. Likely some biological weapons such as anthrax or smallpox. Probable chemical weapons include mustard gas and nerve agents such as sarin.

This chart illuminates why each South Korean camp believes as it does. Engagers look at Seoul’s technological superiority and see at least room for arms control, if not military reductions and peace negotiations

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. Moreover, Engagers think that the threat of nuclear attack is a reason to pursue tension-reduction to avoid another Korean War. But, Deterers look at North Korean nuclear weapons and declare South Korea’s own military buildup as necessary and maybe even insufficient. They see even more defenses and weapons as needed to protect themselves from nuclear attack.

Whether any of these assumptions are accurate matters because, how far Seoul goes in terms of engagement or deterrence impacts strategic stability with North Korea. The kind of weapon systems South Korea procures, how North Korea sees them, and Seoul’s willingness to use them in a crisis, all influence the likelihood of a Second Korean War. The reverse is also true when thinking about North Korea’s policies and weapons. This series explores how Seoul’s two camps think and how this may impact peace and the way forward for inter-Korean relations.

Read part 2 of this series, which looks looks at the Engagers’ point of view, 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.

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