On 20 October 2017 the International Institute for Peace organized a gathering of experts to discuss the current security situation on the Korean Peninsula as well as the policies of South Korea’s new government towards the regime in the North.
Susanne Keppler-Schlesinger, Deputy Director of Vienna School of International Studies and Dong-ik Shin, Ambassador of the Republic of Korea to Austria, welcomed all the guests.
The keynote was given by Kim Yong-hyon, who is the General Director of the Korean Peninsula Peace Regime in South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His brief introduction to South Korea’s new policy towards North Korea was followed by a panel discussion with experts Dr. Heinz Gärtner, Professor for Political Science and Member of the Advisory Board of the IIP, Markus Kornprobst, Professor for International Relations at the Vienna school for International Studies, and former British ambassador in North Korea, David Slinn. Susanna Bastaroli, who is working on the Foreign Desk at Die Presse was leading through the panel discussion.
The current security situation on the Korean peninsula, Kim Yong-hyon says, is not a regional issue anymore because of the ultimate threat and aggression coming from North Korea. South Korea and its allies are now seeking for a diplomatic and peaceful resolution of the conflict with great commitment. New newly elected government in South Korea opens a window of opportunity for reaching this goal by having a more inclusive strategy towards the regime in North Korea.
In 2017 only, North Korea already conducted six nuclear tests - the last just recently on 3rd September. The regime is eager to invest and improve its nuclear and missile capacities with great efforts and therefore threatens the peace immediately. North Korea withdrew from the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 2003 and is the only country practicing nuclear tests in the 21st century, although it is clearly banned on developing diversified missiles and constantly violates various UN Security Council Resolutions.
What is so frightening about the North Korean nuclear tests is that their capability grew by six times since the first test back in 2006. The goal of North Korea’s regime, Kim Yong-hyon says, is to establish a balance of power with the USA as their great antagonist and is therefore based on a great miscalculation and misinterpretation of the situation. The USA as well as the international community will simply never accept North Korea as a nuclear weapon state. In contrast, once the nuclear weapon program is completed there will be a substantial increase of the US military taking action against North Korea. The current efforts to strike missiles close to US and Japanese territory obviously jeopardize North Korea’s own security rather than improve it.
However, many people are concerned about the situation getting out of hand and Kim Yong-hyon assures that South Korea is using all possible diplomatic means and sanctions to change North Korea’s path and pursue the goal of complete denuclearization and disarmament with given urgency. He mentioned that the main goal is to establish a permanent peace regime on the peninsula by improving the interkorean relations. Although he is clear about the fact that the alliance with the US is robust and not negotiable. North Korea currently has to deal with new sanctions against them, which include a cutting of 55% of refined petrol and the ambition to stop the oversea financing of the regime lead by Kim Yong Un. These measurements are strongly supported by the US government.
Another key factor to the resolution of the conflict is China. Kim Yong-hyon emphasizes that China’s role is crucial, because North Korea’s economy heavily relies on trade with China (90% of total trade). The Chinese government is also becoming more cooperative with the UN Security Council and demands full implication of their resolutions from North Korea.
Despite the fact that all emphasis lies on diplomatic tools in the conflict resolution South Korea also counts on military deterrence as a substantial pillar of their security strategy. Military deterrence in this case consists basically of three strategies:
1. Kill Chain – preemptive strike when it comes to an imminent threat
2. Korean Air and Missile Defense – stop missiles started in North Korea with a protective system of airplanes and missiles
3. Korean Massive Punishment and Retaliation – when it comes to a nuclear impact on South Korea’s territory, the South Korean military will fight back with all means
To fulfill the goals of a proper military deterrence, South Korea increased their investment in the military by 6,9%.
The peaceful unification of the two Koreas is a long-term goal South Korea’s government pursues. What is meant thereby is not only any kind of reunification through absorption, but rather to build trust between the two states which will hopefully lead to a solid reunification based on shared interests and values. The South Korean government founded a special unit for economical relations to the north, which even plans an interkorean railway and a gas pipeline. To realize these projects it is of high importance to address humanitarian issues such as divided families as soon as possible. Kim Yong-hyon closed his keynote with the statement that South Korea is still paradoxically one of the safest countries in the world.
The former British ambassador of North Korea has a more pessimistic view on the situation. He pointed out that North Korea has survived on the basis of isolation, the invention of an external threat and the doctrine of self-reliance since its founding. The North Korean government and Kim Jong Un are stuck in this narrative and they need to maintain the crisis as well as the isolation to play their political game, which means there will be no quick and easy solution. He welcomes the harsh language the US president uses against the regime in North Korea and that he is right to stress the military option, because the US as well as the international community have to recalibrate their responses to North Korea.
Dr. Heinz Gärtner can imagine three possible military scenarios, if all attempts of diplomatic tools and negotiations fail. First, an aggressive military strike to take out North Koreas leadership and the nuclear and missile program. Secondly a limited conventional strike to destroy the nuclear facilities and third, the assassination of North Korea’s leadership. All three options, he says, would be less than perfect because a war on the Korean peninsula would lead to one of the biggest humanitarian crises of modern times. Another problem he sees is that South Korea’s deterrence is based on numbers and allies, but there are upcoming doubts about the extended deterrence through allies. Gärtner asks hypothetically, if the USA would sacrifice Los Angeles for Seoul. All in all there is no good military option on the table and that is why we have to look beyond deterrence and focus on negotiating.
Kornprobst structured his panel speech into multiple questions he tried to give an answer to. First, if it is necessary or planned to establish self-relying nuclear deterrence in Japan and South Korea. In Japan, he says, the government would have struggle to establish such a deterrence program as there are very influential civil society actors who are clearly outspoken against nuclear weapons. The South Korean government is also outspoken against the nuclear self-armament and create a balance of terror. Although the South Korean government is against it, up to 70% of their population consider this nuclear self-armament. Besides that, Japan and South Korea would also have to withdraw from the Treaty of the non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
The next question he tried to answer was, whether it’s even desirable to have nuclear weapons based in South Korea and Japan. Kornprobst’s clear answer is no, because nuclear weapons are inherently a massive threat to humankind. He much more sees the problem in the lack of mechanisms we have against those states, who are striving for nuclear weapons. There is an urgent need for such mechanisms.