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Becoming a nuclear hostage

Dec 09,2019
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Cho Tae-young
The author is a former vice foreign minister.

North Korea’s words and actions this year suggest that it wants to ignore and provoke the South Korean government. Harsh words about President Moon Jae-in, 13 short-range missile and rocket launches, the suspension of inter-Korean talks, the rejection of civilian exchanges, the announcement to remove South Korean facilities in Mount Kumgang — the list goes on.

As the Moon Jae-in administration’s one-sided love deepens — as seen in its sending back two North Korean fishermen against their will and not participating in a joint proposal for a North Korean human rights resolution for the first time in 11 years — I feel Pyongyang’s brazen dismissal of Seoul is getting serious.

On Moon’s recent letter, Pyongyang openly criticized it for “trying to stack eggs on a cow’s horn.” Despite the Panmunjom Declaration and Pyongyang Declaration, there have been significantly fewer inter-Korean family reunions than during conservative administrations. It is time to review why the inter-Korean relationship has soured this much.

A more shocking event is that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un came to the Changrin Islet, just 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of the Northern Limit Line in the West Sea and commanded the coastal gun firing on the 8th anniversary of the Yeonpyeong Island bombardment on Sept. 23. North Korea’s action is a clear violation of the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement last year. Some say that the provocation was aimed at breaking the inter-Korean military agreement. But North Korea is not so naïve to break an agreement that is one-sidedly advantageous to them. After the agreement, South Korea’s unmanned reconnaissance capability was disabled, and the self-propelled guns on the Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong Islands can only have firing drills after they are brought to the land. Therefore, North Korea has no reason to break the agreement.

So what is North Korea’s intention? First, the purpose is to highlight the possibility of provocation that U.S. President Donald Trump would find painful before the year-end deadline for denuclearization talks. North Korea has recently threatened Trump that it could reconsider its suspension of nuclear tests and intercontinental ballistic missile launches. The provocation is to send a message to Washington that it is not an empty threat. Second, North Korea is playing hardball, assuming the South won’t break the military agreement on its own.

However, there is a more important reason not to condone the provocation. It was the first conventional provocation after North Korea “completed nuclear armament.” It was not a direct attack on South Korea, but the meaning is significant as Kim Jong-un publicly commanded a military action that violates a military agreement.

Renowned nuclear deterrence theorist and M.I.T. Professor Vipin Narang analyzed that North Korea can use nuclear weapons as protection for its conventional provocation. North Korea cannot easily use a nuclear weapon as it comes with great risk. But North Korea can more safely use its conventional weapons under the cover of nuclear weapons to disturb the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

A deterrence strategy is designed to severely punish a small criminal to prevent it from growing into a major criminal. North Korea has already made short-range missile and rocket launches targeting South Korea as its “military right.” If North Korea ratchets up the level of provocation — and if the South Korea-U.S. alliance continues to fail to effectively respond — that means South Korea becomes a nuclear hostage of North Korea.

What if North Korea seizes a South Korean naval vessel for violating the boundary on the West Sea it had arbitrarily drawn and threatens to use nuclear weapons if South Korea responds to the North’s action? Such a scenario can happen if North Korean provocations are not properly addressed and the South Korea-U.S. alliance is not solid enough to deter them.

In order to prevent such a mishap, we must show a strong determination to respond. Expressing regret and demanding no more such incidents from North Korea is not enough. The fact that North Korea does not give an answer to that means it will repeat the provocation again. We need to clearly show that North Korea’s provocations will come at a high price. It is the way to maintain deterrence and prevent further provocations.

North Korea could not make a significant conventional provocation after the sinking of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks in 2010 because our military showed a strong determination to retaliate through action. After the wooden mine provocation in 2015, tension was escalated with the North’s open warning, declaration of a quasi-war state, 48-hour ultimatum, readiness for a full-scale war, declaration of combat readiness of the units on the front and even evacuation of residents in the border area. But South Korea was not stirred and instead responded by firing 29 shots against North Korea’s four shots. Then North Korea suggested talks and expressed regret.

Based on those lesson, we have to show determination. First, self-propelled gun units on the Yeonpyeong and Baengnyeong Islands that haven’t had training for 14 months should have a drill toward North Korea. It is a response according to the principle of proportionality on North Korea’s coastal firing.

Second, as former U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks advocated, a consultation between South Korean and U.S. military authorities for the resumption of joint exercises from next year should begin. That is a warning that the joint drill can resume if North Korea’s provocation is repeated and can serve as a card to restore stalled North Korea-U.S. nuclear talks.

A more fundamental response to the North Korean threat should also be studied. Some advocate the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons and our nuclear armament. In preparation for the worst-case scenario that North Korea’s nuclear possession becomes the new normal for our security, all options must be reviewed. However, there are things to be done first.

First, plans to enhance the U.S. nuclear deterrence should be meticulously developed. The Korea-U.S. Defense Security Command — newly established in 2015 — should be activated. NATO-style nuclear sharing also can be discussed. Second, the establishment of a three-axis defense shield against the North Korean nuclear threat should be pushed forward.

Despite the ongoing North Korea-U.S. talks, Pyongyang is increasing its threats toward Seoul. The Moon administration’s foreign policy and security lineup must realize the urgency that today’s decisions will determine our security for the next 30 years and use a strategic perspective penetrating into North Korea’s intention to effectively respond to its provocations in the future.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.