Asan’s Washington Forum Ponders Korean Security: The Need for a More Proactive Policy

This map view underscores why the impact of enhanced and more agile defense capabilities in South Korea has an immediate impact on the defense of Japan (Credit image: Bigstock)

2013-07-07 by Richard Weitz

The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, one of South Korea’s most influential security think tanks, recently held its first large-scale policy forum in Washington.

Hundreds of people attended the two-day event, entitled “The Enduring Alliance: Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of ROK-US Relations.” The panels included many regional experts, from South Korea and other Asian countries as well as the United States.

The discussions generated several important insights for SLD readers.

The event itself was but one more welcome sign that the South Korean-U.S. relationship had transcended its longstanding Cold War patron-client pattern and had become a more equal partnership.

The panel of former U.S. Ambassadors to South Korea described how progress toward this goal has been evident for decades, beginning with South Korea’s transition from an authoritarian military dictatorship to a liberal democratic country. During the past decade, the ROK military has supported the U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States abolished its requirement for South Koreans to have entry visa, and the two countries signed a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement.

This map view underscores why the impact of enhanced and more agile defense capabilities in South Korea has an immediate impact on the defense of Japan (Credit image: Bigstock)
Asan Institute for Policy Studies forum in Washington focused on Korean policy. Is the current reactive policy of Washington too passive? Does there need to be a more proactive policy? Credit Image: Bigstock

The more recent Ambassadors related how their talking points increasingly dealt with non-Korean issues such as the Middle East, climate change, foreign development assistance, etc. Indeed, South Korea is one of the few countries that is increasing its foreign development aid.

The reduced difference in status between the United States and South Korea also has helped achieve a welcome convergence in strategic perspective between the two nations.

Until recently, the two governments had been out-of-sync regarding their preferred policies toward the DPRK. Under the Bill Clinton administration, Washington had pursued a softer line toward Pyongyang than Seoul wanted, whereas during the first term of the George W. Bush administration, the opposite pattern occurred. Starting around 2005, however, these differences narrowed, and since 2008 ROK and U.S. officials have been in lockstep regarding the need to end North Korea’s nuclear program in a verifiable manner and the importance of not buying the same DPRK concession twice.

The ROK government, whose security perspective now extends well beyond the Korean Peninsula, has come to accept the inevitable need for strategic flexibility by the U.S. Forces in South Korea given the declining size of the overall U.S. military.

In addition, whereas previously the United States was seen by many South Koreans as trying to keep the Korean nation weak and divided, Americans were now South Koreans’ favorite foreign partners and the United States was seen as empowering South Korea to pursue its Global Korea strategy.

That is not to say that differences between the American and South Korean speakers at the forum were absent.

For example, whereas the representatives from South Korea want to prioritize the North’s nuclear disarmament as well as constantly affirm the goal of reunification, the American speakers were generally skeptical these goals could soon be achieved. They therefore offered intermediary objectives, ranging from averting further North Korean nuclear and missile tests to limiting the production of more DPRK fissile material to preventing North Korea from transferring its nuclear material or nuclear weapons expertise to other countries such as Iran or North Korea.

Of these near-term goals, achieving a verified freeze would be difficult given past DPRK resistance to intrusive verification measures. In contrast, preventing additional nuclear and missiles tests is easier to verify, enjoys the most international support (even Russia and China support this goal, and s still important for preventing Pyongyang from achieving a confirmed ICBM capability.

Nobody advocated using military force to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile and infrastructure. Some people thought that option had been available two decades ago, at least against DPRK long-range ballistic missiles. Now the widespread hope was that diplomacy, sanctions, and time would lead Pyongyang to change its policies. With respect to sanctions, there was some interest in using a sunset provision for any new sanctions rather than continue to use only sanctions of indefinite duration; the idea was that these would provide some incentive for good DPRK behavior by automatically expiring in a few years unless there were renewed due to further DPRK provocations of the same type.

There was strong support for the policies of South Korea’s new President, Park Geun-hye.

She was described as having two red lines for the North within the framework of an overall strategy of “alignment.”

Her first red line was refusing to tolerate further DPRK provocations and threatening to mete them with a strong ROK counter-reaction.

This policy change actually occurred under the previous Lee administration, which joined with the United States in developing a robust counter-provocation strategy.

The second red line, which also was adopted by her predecessor, was demanding that the DPRK fulfill its previous agreements, such as its 2005 commitment to eliminate its nuclear weapons program, as a precondition for new deals.

The reasoning was that it would make no sense for South Korea or other countries to sign new agreements if Pyongyang would not honor them. If Pyongyang respected both these red lines, then Park’s alignment policy would allow for limited and conditional engagement. For example, Park had already said she was prepared to offer North Korea humanitarian aid and resume cooperation at the Kaesong joint economic zone. But Park insisted that there could be no peace agreement, a current DPRK priority, until Pyongyang ceased its provocations and actually eliminated-rather than simply promised to do so–its illegal nuclear program.

Conversely, there was more criticism of U.S. policies towards Pyongyang, under both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Although support was strong for not rewarding bad DPRK behavior, there was concern that the existing policy of “strategic patience” was too passive, and allowed the DPRK to repeatedly seize the initiative and keep other states off-guard.

A more proactive policy could include greater emphasis of planning for re-unification, not just as an end state but also as a process. We need to ask such questions as what will happen to the North Korean army during such a transition, or the DPRK political leadership. Although the Chinese governments regularly refuse to participate in such a dialogue, the United States and South Korea, ideally joined with other countries like Japan, can proceed on their own.

A more assertive and higher priority U.S. human rights policy would also help deny Pyongyang the initiative by exploiting one of the regime’s core strategic vulnerabilities. For example, a more aggressive information campaign directed against the North Korean military might contribute to alienating soldiers from the regime, which could weaken their will to fight and die on its behalf. Since Kim Jung-un will likely be in power for decades, it would be ideal to induce him to think about bringing a better future for his country.

Even if this proves impossible, if more North Koreans better understood the extent of their horrific human rights situation, one might even see a weakening and eventual removal of the DPRK regime without foreign military intervention.

In this context, Americans should welcome the ROK’s existence as a strategic asset, since South Korea, regardless of its government’s policies, presents an existential threat to Pyongyang–as long as a prosperous and democratic Korean state exists, it offers a superior and easily understood alternative for North Koreans to the current DPRK regime.