Diplomacy and Deterrence Forever? How South Korea Can Deal With North Korea in the Future


The threat of escalation and strategic instability is real, but peace can be maintained and maybe improved.

For Now, North Korea Is Here to Stay

Although economic mismanagement and strict economic sanctions have caused a lot of harm to North Korea, Pyongyang has a long history of surviving the odds. Ms. Jeongmin Kim explained, “They know how to survive different external pressures and shocks. They even survived the fall of the Soviet Union, and they are coming up with reforms such as the ‘Our style socialist economy management system,’ to become self-reliant and survive even if a deal with Washington cannot be made.”

This is why Pyongyang has created ideological justifications to allow some limited market activity. These reforms are needed in order to grow economically and improve North Koreans’ workers’ and soldiers’ access to food so they won’t starve to death. “Kim Jong-un knows he cannot really stop marketization, but I think he’s really keen on using marketization for his own regime stability. There are all these elites who have different interests. Kim Jong-un is moved from the mean of these elites as well. People talk about regime collapse, but North Korea is not a regime that can be collapsed easily.”

This resilience is why Ms. Jeongmin Kim was skeptical that regime transition or collapse is just around the corner and requires an external push. “Sometimes we talk about a bloody nose policy because we look at North Korea as if it could fall really easily. But positing regime collapse or transition too hastily leads to illogical policies, and we end up sanctioning the wrong industries. We shouldn’t look at North Korean marketization the way we look at markets in the capitalist world. Their markets are run very differently—it is not a market system.” In fact, Ms. Jeongmin Kim cautioned against assuming North Korea is guaranteed to end up under a state-capitalist system like China or that it would reform into a Western-style market economy.

Dr. Youngjun Kim more readily thinks that Pyongyang could change, but he agrees North Korea as it is today is a reality that must be dealt with for the foreseeable future. “My prediction would be maybe we can make North Korea, in the end, on our side. Who knows, in twenty or thirty years.” He gave the example of North Korean soldiers who got pulled from guard duty on the border to instead work in construction, such as the Wonsan resort. “Why? The motivation is not because Kim Jong-un is a good guy, but because they want more economic development.” This change of priorities is perhaps the best hope that internal change would one day happen—even if it takes decades.

Avoiding the Escalation Spiral into another Korean War

The reality of North Korea means that South Korea will rightly continue to maintain its defenses. Certain weapons, like a decapitation unit, do deter the other side, but they also tempt—and threaten to trigger—a preemptive attack. During a crisis, tensions are high, threats are exchanged, intentions are unclear, rumors abound, and events are fast-moving. In such a crisis, the reaction times of Pyongyang and Seoul are very short. Short decision-making times also increase the chance each side thinks they must move first before it’s too late and they are destroyed. Added to this volatile mix is the possibility of misjudgment and military accidents. All of these crisis factors create the danger that both Koreas will worry it will be hurt more if it acts too late, making war a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Consider then, how a crisis might change the way North and South Korea interpret each other’s military capabilities or whether they resort to violence. As mentioned in the introduction, Seoul created a decapitation unit in 1971 under dictator Park Chung-hee and acquired Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries to shoot down North Korean missiles in 2016 under President Park Geun-hye. Moreover, in 2016 reports detailed how the South Korean military could respond to a crisis by attempting to destroy North Korean missiles before they launched, by trying to shoot them down, or by attempting to kill the North Korean leadership as punishment for a successful attack. 

During a crisis, it is not hard to imagine these options being considered. Although it seems less likely that an Engager administration would launch a preemptive attack on North Korea, that cannot be ruled out if it appeared a North Korean nuclear attack was imminent. Any South Korean President would be hard-pressed if they thought both countries had passed a point of no return.

Engagers and Deterers may never fully agree on the best way forward, but they both generally want to avoid armed conflict. As Captain Sukjoon Yoon argued to TNI, “Conducting any kind of surgical strike pinpointed on Pyongyang means regime change, but what happens next, and what does China do?”

The stakes for South and North Korea are regime and national survival. These concerns drive each country to pursue stability—at times through developing stronger militaries but also through periods of diplomacy and détente. Can Seoul get the balance right?

Finding the Right Balance of Tools

South Korean liberal and conservative leaders overall broadly support a first-class military and know that talking to North Korea is vital. Sticking to one paradigm not only causes Seoul’s policies to become myopic—it is also unsustainable given the sharp divides in South Korean politics. Both the current and future administrations in Seoul will need to base their policies on the likelihood that North Korea isn’t going to collapse soon and that Washington probably won’t change its demands for up-front denuclearization. So the question is one of balance between the Engager and Deterer approaches and how each group can help prevent an escalation spiral into a second Korean War.

There are several tools to avoid this horrible scenario from ever happening. Engagers rightly recognize North Korea does actually feel threatened by certain weapon systems or exercises. At the same time, Deterers are right about the need to project strength—but Seoul can deter North Korea without appearing too threatening. This is a crucial point that Dr. Youngjun Kim emphasized to TNI. “Now we’re in the denuclearization process, so maybe we have to stop joint exercises temporarily for one or two years to support diplomatic talks between the United States and North Korea, because the nuclear threat is the number one threat. Instead, we need to expand more exercises with America in other places, like South East Asia, Australia, in Hawaii, or even in Kansas or the Northern Sea. Nobody can complain because the location is too far. We need to expand our alliance’s military exercises—but not inside the peninsula, which will send the wrong signal to North Korea and the denuclearization process.” These kinds of creative ideas might provide a way to deter a potential enemy without causing them to panic.

This is the lesson U.S. President Ronald Reagan learned during the Cold War. He drastically ramped up American military spending and rhetoric. This included holding some of the biggest wargames with America’s European Allies in 1983—Able Archer 83. Those war games were, to Washington, obviously defensive in nature. Americans weren’t thinking about starting World War III. However, Moscow was scared and genuinely thought the exercises were a pretext for a surprise invasion. U.S. intelligence noticed the Soviet Union panicked and made preparations for nuclear war, only to eventually back down when Able Archer ended. This struck President Ronald Reagan as a shocking revelation and convinced him to pivot to diplomacy, eventually signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Moscow and laying the groundwork for what would become the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. This example shows even a Deterer like President Ronald Regan understood that a rival country had its own fears and that arms control combined with strength and diplomacy can work. It is not inconceivable that some South Korean Deterers might eventually come to a similar conclusion.

Furthermore, inter-Korean exchanges might also be helpful for building connections and fostering goodwill. For example, Dr. Youngjun Kim suggested that, although they are tricky, civilian exchanges wouldn’t violate sanctions. He argued that South and North Korea could “exchange military observers to each other’s exercises,” a concept that “was already agreed to in 1991,” and so is not a radical idea. Additionally, he pointed out that “Military exchanges to Kim Il-Sung Military University and Korean National Defense University could have a joint seminar on a nonpolitical topic regarding nontraditional security such as climate change. Or some kind of joint seminar between South Korea, North Korea, and America could be held regarding peacebuilding or how to build joint peacekeeping forces.”

Both Engagers and Deterers understand a lack of trust and confidence makes it hard to get anywhere. While Engagers rightly see that incremental improvements could help prevent future conflict, Deterers also rightly know that caution is warranted. Reducing tensions and distrust now will help defuse a crisis later. A part of this could include arms control as Engagers want but could be done in a way that doesn’t undermine South Korea’s defense. In addition, providing regular early notification of any upcoming war games may be another way forward. Deterers may want high-tech weapons systems but they also want capabilities that work and are worth the investment. Arguably then, Deterers may accept certain capabilities being restricted or reduced as part of an arms control agreement if those capabilities weren’t as useful or cost-effective in the first place.

For instance, using modified F-15 Slam Eagles, or F-35 stealth fighters, to hunt and destroy North Korean mobile missile launchers during a war would probably not actually work very well. During the First Gulf War, Iraq was very effective at using mobile Scud missile launchers to launch attacks. Iraq crews were better than the U.S.-led Coalition had assumed, and their launchers were almost impossible to find. Scud crews could hide, move, set up and fire, and then move again—all faster than was thought possible. Despite enormous time and effort, Coalition aircraft and special forces probably only destroyed a few of them. In fact, a report by the Pentagon after the war found there was “no indisputable proof” any real mobile missile launchers had been destroyed. It is likely South Korean aircraft would have a similarly hard time neutralizing North Korea’s mobile launchers. This means that Seoul should be hesitant to strike first even with such advanced warplanes during a crisis since it would guarantee a war and be unlikely to succeed.

Another example are ground forces meant to decapitate North Korea’s leadership. Seoul’s current unit may not be large and logistically-supported enough to take out Kim Jong-un. If that unit would likely fail in its mission—but its peacetime existence harms stability—then it may be a poor use of resources. Consider that North Korean commandos tried to kill South Korea’s President Park Chung-hee in 1968 and also tried to blow up South Korea President Chun Doo-hwan with a bomb in 1983. Both of these incidents raised tensions and could have caused a war. Moreover, South Korea formed its own decapitation group, Unit 684, in 1968 to retaliate. That unit was composed largely of criminals and misfits who were enraged when the attack on Kim was called off. Unit 684 bloodily revolted and was put down, and it seems that for a while afterward plans for other decapitation groups were shelved.

These are two examples of capabilities that likely appear destabilizing to Pyongyang and that also aren’t very effective

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. The question is whether it would politically be acceptable for Seoul to either reduce these capabilities or declare no first use. As Ms. Jeongmin Kim warned, cutting too many defense programs might backfire domestically. “From South Korea’s point of view, these capacities like ballistic missile defense and also some part of decapitation capacity should be kept. This is because if they get rid of it, it also has domestic effects in South Korea because it makes the conservatives more extreme.” The concern is not just that Deterers would go further in the opposite direction when they are eventually reelected, but also that this would further harm South Korea’s often-fractured domestic politics. In addition, it could make it harder for President Moon Jae-in or future presidents to lay the groundwork for improved inter-Korean relations.

With these concerns in mind, it is not clear which military programs both Engagers and Deterers might accept changing. But the point should be that since both groups are prioritizing peace and security, then it is believable some leeway exists as a part of an arms control or confidence-building measure. Perhaps, South Korea needs a Ronald Reagan or a Richard Nixon before it can have a transformation with North Korea. Someone who is tough on defense that Pyongyang would fear but who also can convince Deterers that it is okay to give up some capabilities as part of an inter-Korean agreement. Ultimately, a strong defense can be maintained while still engaging in arms control. If a certain capability isn’t worth it and harms stability, it makes sense to reduce or cut it in exchange for something from Pyongyang. Meanwhile, Seoul could still focus on other means of deterrence, such as regular military drills or close-range air and missile defenses.

Overall, Deterers are correct that South Korea’s military and technical edge provides a level of balance with North Korea that is necessary due to Pyongyang’s many acts of violence, from the 1968 seizure of the USS Pueblo to the 2010 sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan. Today, this military balance might be all the more important given America’s domestic distractions and current disputes over alliance spending. If Seoul’s policymakers grow more concerned about the U.S.-South Korean alliance, it would be better if they pursued high-tech conventional forces over a homegrown nuclear weapon of their own. After all, no doubt, a South Korean atomic bomb would really alarm North Korea and might provoke action to stop its development. Dr. John Delury explained to TNI that a South Korean nuclear weapon wouldn’t happen overnight. Instead, it would be “a logical development from a total collapse of the alliance.” He also cautioned that a nuclear South Korea isn’t unthinkable since “there are some liberal versions of the idea too—it’s not an exclusively conservative idea. And there’s been polling for years that suggests relatively high public support for the possibility of South Korea getting its own.” Needless to say, if the alliance did end, then it is likely many Engagers and Deterers might strongly reconsider pursuing a domestic nuclear weapon.

North Korea Isn’t Budging on Denuclearization

For now, there will remain a long slog of tensions and talks. Ms. Jeongmin Kim sees continued stalemate because “trading Pyongyang’s means of regime survival, which are nuclear weapons, for sanctions relief is not a fair trade from a North Korean point of view.” She said nuclear weapons are too central to the survival and domestic legitimacy of Kim Jong-un’s rule.

This process of North Korean propaganda and ideology means it is harder for Pyongyang to change course than is generally appreciated by American policymakers. “Washington has to learn how to wait. It takes time for North Korean statecraft to come up with a way of legitimizing their choices when it comes to international relations. It is not very easy to get out of their very old anti-United States ideology and all the other institutions that come from it. But they are going step by step. For example, Washington should learn how to live with North Korea touting all these condemnations and hostile rhetoric and not take it at face value. They need to wait until the North Korean system is okay with normalizing ties with the United States. Because it is going to take time, it is going to take stages. We need to be less dramatic about reacting to what North Korea says or what the United States says.”

Both Engagers and Deterers want to eventually see the Korean nation as free and whole, and most don’t have denuclearization as a priority. The good thing is this means, on the one hand, collapsed denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington might not automatically raise inter-Korean tensions. But on the other hand, inter-Korean relations would likely sour eventually anyway because America would still insist on up-front denuclearization and might revive maximum economic and military pressure. 

What America Does Next Still Matters

Without a denuclearization or another kind of deal, North Korea could lash out with a series of intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear tests. Pyongyang might also do so in order to distract from internal problems or to shore up domestic support for the regime. 

Regardless of the reasons, if that happens South Korea should be ready to help defuse any new escalation spiral . Dr. John Delury warned that Pyongyang might mistakenly trigger the next escalation cycle. “I don’t think Trump will go back [to fire and fury] unless Kim tests him. Kim has to trigger this by testing an ICBM or a nuclear device. If that happens, it will have been Kim who made a mistake, but there will be a strong temptation for the United States to make a massive mistake in response.” Dr. John Delury expressed the remote possibility that hopefully instead, Pyongyang could do an obviously fake satellite launch as a cover for an ICBM test, enabling President Donald Trump to downplay it.

Either way, the time to plan for the next crisis is now. Dr. Jihwan Hwang believes that “Kim Jong-un will wait and see the results of the U.S. presidential elections, so 2020 will be less dangerous.” That is why Seoul needs to lay further groundwork for confidence-building and clear communication with North Korea soon. Dr. John Delury put it this way to TNI, “It’s not a communication problem, it’s really a political issue and when the politics allow it, the two Koreas have shown they can communicate really quickly, they can communicate comprehensively. They do have the basic infrastructure for it. That kind of thing can matter, especially in crisis situations. There’s a phone.”

This is why South Korea should keep calm and carry on, using both diplomacy and deterrence, as it often has. Washington may be upset at a failure to secure a denuclearization deal, but Seoul has lived with North Korean nuclear weapons for a long time. As Ms. Jeongmin Kim laid out, “The hostile relations between North Korea and the United States is accelerating the feeling of insecurity in the North Korean regime. For the status quo, I think it is wiser to recognize North Korea as North Korea is right now, understand what kind of insecurity North Korea has, and then try to manage the risks rather than going to an extreme solution like regime change or perhaps near-term unification.”

“The policymakers in Seoul can’t really go anywhere without the United States getting on board, so their hands are already tied,” Ms. Jeongmin Kim reiterated to TNI. “But what they can do is create this friendly environment for future South Korean and U.S. presidents for a potentially elongated deal with North Korea—which is probably going to happen. It is not going to be done in the short-term. It’s going to take years, decades even. So I think it would be wiser for Seoul, for now, to prepare for what Seoul can do after Moon Jae-in.” Ms. Jeongmin Kim advised this means President Moon Jae-in’s party needs to be careful going forward to ensure it doesn’t lose supporters in favor of engagement who might matter years down the line.

Conclusion: Deterrence and Diplomacy Forever?

“South Korea will try to persuade North Korea to calm down and also try to persuade the U.S. to persist in the status quo on the Korean peninsula because even a small military dispute could lead to full-scale war on the Korean peninsula,” predicted Dr. Jihwan Hwang. Even with minimal progress, he sees Seoul as maintaining its role as messenger and peacemaker.

Unless Seoul and Washington had a dramatic split, South Korea’s current administration is likely going to straddle a difficult line between seeking engagement with Pyongyang while not going further than America wants. Until either administration changes its priorities or is voted out, there will likely be no dramatic improvement beyond what has already been seen or tried. Washington’s insistence on upfront denuclearization is a nonstarter, and a return to maximum pressure likely wouldn’t work. Instead, maximum pressure 2.0 would just raise tensions. 

The present status-quo can persist, but eventually something might have to give. For example, Seoul might not always be so willing to appear in agreement with American policymakers. Dr. John Delury warned, “Washington needs to understand Moon Jae-in is the nicest liberal they are going to find.” That is something both the current and future U.S. administrations to consider. 

Dr. Chung-in Moon told TNI, “Up to now, President Moon believed that by taking sides with the United States, having close coordination with the United States, that would facilitate U.S.-North Korean negotiations. Then we can have better and more stable inter-Korean relations. But we put all our eggs into one single basket—the United States—even risking souring our relationship with North Korea. And now the U.S. and DPRK aren’t making any progress, and North Korea is mad at us.”

This is why it is important Seoul acts now so when tensions rise again, they will not get out-of-hand. After all, as Dr. Chung-in Moon warned, “We are in a very difficult position because we are hoping the United States would make a major breakthrough so we can revitalize inter-Korean relations. If the United States returns to the working-level talks with a new method and new calculation, maybe North Korea will accept it. If the U.S. responds, then our betting will work. If not, there’s a great chance for crisis and escalation reminiscent of 2017.”

This concludes this five-part series, which was written by John Dale Grover, who won an Atomic Reporters fellowship in 2019. The full series was first published on The National Interest here.

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