Sanctions and traditional deterrence measures may not thwart North Korea - but its neighbour is not backing down. 

South Korea defence minister Song Young-moo addresses the 2018 IISS Fullerton Forum. Credit: IISSBy William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security

South Korea exudes confidence despite watching its northern neighbour test nuclear weapons and missiles at an unprecedented rate in the past year. Speaking at the sixth IISS Fullerton Forum on 29 January, South Korean Defence Minister Song Young-moo gave a bullish exposition of his country’s position on the nuclear challenge posed by North Korea.

The former chief of naval operations trotted out the boilerplate phrases used by the liberal administration of Moon Jae-in. While the two Koreas do not see eye to eye on many issues, they share a common language and culture; Seoul, he said, must help its ‘small brother’ embrace the path of peace and prosperity. Current talks between the two Koreas, which centre on the North’s participation in South Korea’s Pyeongchang Olympics, should be seen as a stepping stone towards peace.

Song mocks North Korea’s ‘antique’ armed forces

However, Song also responded to critics who have attacked the Moon administration’s eagerness to engage with North Korea. The North would be ‘wiped off the face of the earth’ if it launched a nuclear strike at the South or the United States, Song said. He dismissed the conventional military threat posed by the North, calling its military forces ‘antiquities’ at best. Asked whether the North sought to use nuclear weapons to unify the Peninsula, he brushed off the idea as an ‘anachronism’.

South Korea, Song said, would never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. And he warned South Korea stands ready to do everything in its power, including defence reforms and cooperation with the US and other allies, to effectively deter the North from launching any attacks.

South Korea is working hard on measures to strengthen its deterrent military capabilities. Its leaders believe there is still time for the North – which has recently come under fresh sanctions limiting the import of refined petroleum products – to be brought back to the negotiating table. Much depends on whether the wily North continues to evade sanctions. It has a solid track record of doing so.

Not clear if North Korea can be deterred

Even if sanctions do bite, it remains to be seen whether the North would be compelled to return to the negotiating table. As Russian president Vladimir Putin has said – repurposing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s remark about Pakistan – North Koreans would rather eat grass than give up nuclear weapons, which they consider to be their strategic insurance.

South Korea might not have the luxury of time, however. The North may have managed to produce a re-entry vehicle strong enough to survive a return into the atmosphere, the vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Selva has said. Accordingly, the US has to work on the assumption that North Korea has this capability.

The question facing South Korea is not only the extent of its neighbour’s nuclear capabilities, but whether its neighbour is rational, and hence deterrable. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has argued that the classical tenets of deterrence do not apply to brutal regimes like Kim Jong-un’s. If this analysis is right, then the North must be denied a nuclear ICBM under any circumstances.

Yet Kim has shown a rational ability to connect means to ends. If the purpose of his testing is to intimidate, it is working. And he has exploited differences in the US–South Korea relationship (Moon is eager for talks, while Trump has poured scorn on them) and cleverly evaded sanctions. Moreover, despite serial provocations, he has managed to stay inside the United States’ red lines.

But the fact that deterrence should work vis-à-vis North Korea is no guarantee that the North will not engage in provocations under the nuclear threshold. In 2010, the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island in the south and sunk a South Korean corvette, sparking much anger in the South and a deep soul-searching that eventually led to Seoul’s planning for ‘kill chains’, which threaten preemptive action to thwart a North Korean attack.

With the momentary thaw in North–South tensions and Seoul’s concurrent drive to acquire the components necessary for a sophisticated deterrent capability, there is, at least for now, ample reason for Song and South Korea to hang tough.

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