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No. 2, October 11
Tensions remain high on the Korean peninsula. In March 2010, a North Korean minisubmarine sank a South Korean frigate, killing forty-six sailors. Last November, Pyongyang revealed to the world the existence of a long-suspected uranium enrichment program and then shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. The North then set about preparing for a third nuclear test. This string of provocations has emphasized the need for a new allied strategy for deterring North Korean aggression, achieving denuclearization, and bringing about the demise of the Kim Jong Il regime.
Key points in this Outlook:
The incidents on the Korean peninsula of the past two years have laid bare the failed strategies of successive US and South Korean administrations. The Agreed Framework and a decade of Sunshine Policy failed to prevent the emergence of a nuclearized, aggressive North Korea. Yet steps taken in the aftermath of the Yeonpyeong Island shelling last November suggest that Washington and Seoul recognize that their generally patient, and at times indulgent, approach of the 1990s and 2000s needs updating.
It is difficult to know what exactly drives Pyongyang’s behavior. Two primary rationales were given for the shelling of Yeonpyeong. Some argued that the attack was driven by domestic North Korean politics and probably had something to do with preparations for the coming leadership succession, which have become more hurried since Kim Jong Il’s stroke in 2008; perhaps it was an attempt at shoring up support in the military for Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il’s youngest son and heir apparent. Other analysts argued that this was simply the latest attempt by Kim Jong Il to coax—or, more accurately, coerce—the United States and South Korea back to the negotiating table in hopes of extracting some new concessions, a tactic the North has used in the past to great effect. The two explanations are not mutually exclusive; both are more or less true. Even if shoring up support for Kim Jong Un was the primary rationale, the elder Kim would have been sure to calibrate the provocation to elicit a desired response from the international community as well.
In the case of the Yeonpyeong shelling, the calibration was off. Kim miscalculated and found himself, after the artillery barrage, living in a more hostile world where few in the United States, South Korea, or Japan—with the unsurprising exception of Jimmy Carter—were interested in returning to the six-party talks.
The South Korean response—and that of the United States and Japan—was strong, assertive, and unnuanced. On November 29, 2010, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak declared, in response to future attacks by North Korea, “We will make sure that it pays a dear price without fail.”  On December 3, the new South Korean defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, promised at his confirmation hearing, “If there are further provocations, we will definitely use aircraft to bomb North Korea.”
South Korea began aggressively exercising its military forces, both alone and alongside the US military. US Pacific forces also exercised with Japan east of the Korean peninsula, conducting maneuvers observed by Korean officers for the first time. And in the aftermath of the Yeonpyeong attack, Seoul and Tokyo began discussing an enhanced defense relationship. The allies put Kim Jong Il back on his heels, finally forcing him to face the consequences of his actions.
The steps taken after the Yeonpyeong shelling were apposite, but it is now necessary to lay out a strategy for dealing with North Korea going forward. This strategy should be designed to achieve US and South Korean policy goals vis-à-vis Pyongyang:
1. An end to North Korean provocations;
2. An end to North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile weapons programs;
3. An end to North Korean proliferation activities; and
4. Over the longer term, the demise of the Kim regime and reunification with the democratic South.
A two-track strategy can achieve these goals. Track One is a coercive military strategy designed to alter North Korean behavior in the short term. Track Two is a long-term effort aimed at eventually bringing down the Kim Jong Il regime in a way that facilitates a successful and ideally peaceful reunification.
Track One: The Short-Term Strategy
The short-term coercive strategy should aim to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and put an end to Kim Jong Il’s provocative behavior. Kim has pursued nuclear weapons as a means of enhancing North Korea’s security, and his provocations are intended to coerce concessions out of the United States and South Korea. To change Kim’s behavior, the new strategy must work to alter his calculations about the usefulness of strategic weapons and his aggressive acts.
Seoul and Washington must convince Kim that his nuclear weapons make him less, rather than more, secure. First, the United States must make clear that it will not waver in its extended deterrence commitments to Japan and South Korea. The US president, secretary of state, and secretary of defense should make the point explicitly and repeatedly that the United States will abide by the terms of its mutual defense treaties with South Korea and Japan. It will view any attack on South Korea or Japan as an attack on itself and will respond to any nuclear attack on South Korean or Japanese soil with a nuclear attack on North Korea.
While such rhetoric is important, the United States can take concrete steps to demonstrate this commitment. To start, US Strategic Command could invite representatives of the Japanese and South Korean militaries for regular briefings—or better yet, to colocate—at its headquarters. Additionally, and more to the point, the United States could establish nuclear vaults in both allied countries and begin frequently rotating B-2s through Misawa and Osan Air Force Bases.
US leaders then need to make clear that North Korea’s nuclear weapons are driving a renewed American focus on nuclear deterrence and that Kim has no one but himself to blame for the forward positioning of US strategic assets across his border.
In a similar vein, the new strategy should be aimed at convincing Kim that his provocations will not lead to concessions and will, in fact, make him less secure. To do so, the United States and South Korea should enhance conventional deterrence as well. First, as Gordon Chang suggested in a piece for Forbes last November, the United States should note North Korea’s announcement from May 2010 that it had abrogated the 1953 armistice agreement “and announce that we too recognize that there is no longer any agreement not to use force.”
The next time the North pulls off a violent provocation against the South, Seoul, with US support if needed, should respond in kind. If a North Korean naval vessel attacks a southern ship, South Korea should strike the port from which it sailed. If North Korea shells Yeonpyeong Island again, allied forces should launch air strikes against the offending artillery outposts and their supply depots.
Each subsequent North Korean provocation should elicit a harsher allied response. And each tailored response should be considered part of a larger campaign to steadily reduce North Korea’s ability to conduct military operations outside its borders. Other targets could include missiles on launch pads; exposed fighter jets; and, depending on the risk of spreading radiation, the North’s known nuclear facilities. Washington has considered such options in the past; in 1994, then–Secretary of Defense William Perry ordered the military to draw up plans for a preemptive strike on the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. 
The goal, over time, would be to wipe out the North’s power-projection capability. Such a campaign would have the dual benefits of reducing threats to South Korean security and of forcing Kim Jong Il to think twice about launching attacks against his southern neighbor.
Significant risks to such a course do exist. No president (Korean or American) can lightly consider attacking a country armed with nuclear weapons, however small its arsenal. And North Korea has thousands of artillery pieces on its side of the demilitarized zone, hundreds of which are within firing range of Seoul and many of which may be armed with chemical weapons.
But like others of his ilk, Kim is a self-interested autocrat, concerned first and foremost with his own survival and the survival of his regime. Any large-scale attack on Seoul, whether conventional or nuclear, would spark a war in the aftermath of which the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would probably cease to exist. The Kim regime would be no more, and Kim’s legacy would include not only the starvation of his people but also the end of his country as he knows it.
Kim knows all of this. For this reason, his response to allied military operations would be bombastic in rhetoric but very possibly more restrained in action than is commonly feared. Indeed, his options would be as limited as the allies generally consider theirs to be.
Kim’s rationality (at least when it comes to serving himself) is precisely why this strategy should be effective. As he watches the allies respond to his provocations not with concessions but with military action, as he sees them gradually wear down his military’s capacity to carry out future aggression, and as the ineffectiveness of his nuclear deterrent is made clear to him, he will be required to search for other ways to achieve his goals. While Kim may be willing to play games of brinkmanship, he has always caved to pressure. In February 2007, Pyongyang finally committed to shutting down the Yongbyon nuclear facility following a seventeen-month period in which the United States froze $25 million of North Korean assets and the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1718, which provided for harsh sanctions and permitted other countries to stop and inspect all North Korean maritime vessels. Last December, North Korea failed to follow through on threats to retaliate in response to South Korean live-fire artillery drills on Yeonpyeong Island and to allied exercises in the Yellow Sea.
If all goes well, this type of short-term campaign should convince Kim that both his provocations and his nuclear weapons are futile. If he does come to such a conclusion, Pyongyang’s behavior should change noticeably. First, attacks such as those on the Cheonan and on Yeonpyeong Island would cease. Second, the allies would observe Kim demonstrating a willingness to verifiably end his plutonium and uranium weaponization programs in return for certain economic and political concessions. At this point, all parties should be willing to return to the negotiating table to hammer out a deal.
If Kim does not conclude that he should cease his provocations, the military campaign would take away his ability to do so, anyway. More troubling would be if Kim were to determine that his nuclear weapons are crucial to sustaining military loyalty to his rule, regardless of their actual usefulness as a deterrent. In that case, the allies will need to live with a nuclear North Korea for a while longer as they carry out the long-term strategy aimed at destabilizing the Kim regime.
Track Two: The Long-Term Strategy
Although the allies’ most pressing goal vis-à-vis North Korea is conventional and nuclear deterrence, the real prize would be unification of the peninsula. The objective of the long-term strategy is to pave the way for that unification by wearing away at the unity of the North Korean regime and the absolute control it exercises over its populace.
The short-term coercive military strategy may contribute to that effort: as the military sees itself continually weakened by allied operations, it may come to question the leadership’s policies. Over the longer term, however, economic and information operations will be more important than military operations for destabilizing the Kim Jong Il regime.
The North Korean regime is largely dependent on its illegal activities for its survival—for example, counterfeit currency, narcotic sales, and counterfeit cigarettes—as well as on its arms proliferation. As American analyst Bruce Bechtol has described it, these “programs became an important way for the regime to fund the elaborate lifestyle of its elite and various other programs, including the nuclear program.” According to the Chosun Ilbo, a major South Korean newspaper, “The North is estimated to have imported more than $100 million worth of high-quality liquor, cars and other luxury goods in 2008.”
In other words, Kim is able to count on the absolute loyalty of his subordinates in large part because he has bought that loyalty with cash and luxury items. Kim’s successor will certainly follow a similar path—Kim Jong Un is reportedly already amassing a slush fund to prepare for his own ascension to power.
The United States, South Korea, and other concerned parties should work toward putting a stop to, or at least curtailing, the North’s illicit activities. This requires enforcing not only existing United Nations–sponsored sanctions, but also new sanctions on North Korean individuals and front companies engaged in carrying out Pyongyang’s illicit activities. North Korean embassy officials discovered to be so engaged should have their diplomatic privileges revoked. The United States should threaten Swiss, Luxembourgian, and other European banks with legal action if they continue to provide banking services for North Korean front companies.
Putting pressure on the Chinese banking system is important as well. The United States has had great, but unfortunately short-lived, success with this in the past. In September 2005, the Treasury Department designated Banco Delta Asia (BDA) as a “primary money laundering concern.” US institutions were eventually prohibited from doing business with BDA, and many foreign banks followed suit. North Korea’s funds at the bank were frozen.
Rachel L. Loeffler, former deputy director of global affairs at the US Treasury Department, described the action:
In short, the mere announcement of a possible regulatory measure that would apply only to U.S. institutions caused banks around the world to refrain from dealing with BDA and North Korea. By March 2007, when Washington actually made it illegal for U.S. banks to maintain relationships with BDA, many in the global financial community had already cut ties with BDA on their own.
In the words of Bechtol, the resulting “suppression of their illicit activities actually began to squeeze them where it hurt the most—in their wallets.” This policy was unfortunately abandoned during the course of the six-party talks, but the hostility with which the North Koreans responded indicated how much the action hurt them.
In addition to financial measures designed to hamper the North’s trade in weapons, drugs, and counterfeit currency, physical measures should be taken as well. The Proliferation Security Initiative should be strengthened, and the United States should renew efforts to bring on board Asian holdout countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and India, which all sit astride key shipping lanes.
The North Korean merchant fleet is relatively small—the United States and partner countries should inspect as many of these ships leaving port as possible, regardless of whether they are suspected of carrying illicit cargo. Such activities will hamper trade in illicit goods and also put added pressure on the government in the North, as lost time due to ship inspections means lost money for ship owners.
The idea is to starve Kim of the resources he needs to feed and arm his military and keep his subordinates content. Unable to fund the needs of the armed forces or the luxurious habits of his lieutenants, the stability of the North Korean regime—which depends on absolute acceptance of Kim’s authority—may begin to suffer.
The allies can use influence operations to put more pressure on the seams and fissures within the North Korean government. The South Korean intelligence service should consider operations designed to heighten Kim Jong Il’s suspicions of his supposedly loyal followers and make him fear an imaginary fifth column more than he fears Seoul and Washington. The United States and South Vietnam did this to some effect before and during the Vietnam War. Jerry Lembcke, a sociology professor at College of the Holy Cross, has described one such attempt:
The most bizarre operation run by the special operations division involved the creation of a nonexistent resistance movement called the Sacred Sword of the Patriot League, the SSPL. The idea behind the SSPL was that the CIA and SOG [Studies and Observation Group] wanted the Hanoi government to think there really was a secret movement of political dissidents within the North. The Americans hoped that North Vietnamese officials would divert scarce resources to chase the apparition they had created.
This operation involved the creation of a radio station (Voice of the Sacred Sword of the Patriot League), which supposedly broadcast from a liberation zone within North Vietnam; the dissemination of pamphlets and other propaganda materials; and the indoctrination of kidnapped fisherman brought to the so-called liberated zone (actually a South Vietnamese island) who were later released with the expectation that North Vietnamese intelligence officials would question them.
While it seems that North Vietnamese officials were never convinced of the SSPL’s existence—limitations on covert actions set by Washington probably curtailed the operation’s potential effectiveness—they were sufficiently concerned that members of the population would be duped. The state countered the operation with its own propaganda, which aimed to ensure the North Vietnamese people that the SSPL was an American ploy. While in this case the operation did not achieve the desired results, it did heighten fears in Hanoi about the potential for domestic instability. Given the concerns surrounding the current North Korean leadership succession and Kim’s perceived need to entirely suppress political freedom, Pyongyang may be vulnerable to a similar psychological warfare operation.
Finally, information operations should be targeted at the North Korean people broadly and at the Korean People’s Army specifically. Radio broadcasts, pamphlet-carrying balloons, and propaganda announcements across the demilitarized zone should be used to inform North Korean citizens about life outside their country. They should be made aware of the prosperity and freedoms that South Koreans enjoy and of goings-on in their own country; for example, radio broadcasts should provide updates on Kim’s health and his illegal international activities. Similarly, Andrei Lankov argues that smuggling DVDs into North Korea could be successfully subversive:
DVD distribution will be even more useful than radio broadcasts. While radios are relatively rare in North Korea, DVD players have become surprisingly common in recent years. According to my own interviews with defectors who came from more affluent parts of North Korea, some 25 percent of all households in those areas own players. In fact, South Korean serial programs and television shows enjoy great popularity in the North. It also makes sense to produce documentaries dealing with sensitive subjects, unmasking the lies and fabrications of North Korean propaganda about lifestyles in the South, the rise of the Kim family regime, and Chinese reforms. These documentaries should be tailored to the tastes, interests, and unique Korean language style of the North Korean audience.
We know that there were protests and riots in response to the failed currency reforms in 2009, so North Koreans do have the capacity to demonstrate when so motivated. In any case, the goal is not for the North Korean people to rise up and overthrow Kim in the near future—that is not realistic. Rather, it is to help create conditions over time for a popular movement. Eastern Europeans have testified to the importance of the information and moral support Radio Free Europe and Voice of America provided in their own liberation movements. South Korea and the United States should be providing similar avenues for support and information for the North Koreans.
It is especially important to target the military in information operations. The North Korean leadership clearly fears what might happen if soldiers gain access to information about both their own leaders and the outside world. When the South made plans to reinstall propaganda loudspeakers along the demilitarized zone following the Cheonan’s sinking, the Korean Central News Agency reported that the Korean People’s Army “would blow up with sighting shots loudspeakers and all other means for a psychological warfare in case the group of traitors resumes the psychological warfare against North Korea in the areas along the front.”
North Korean soldiers should be made aware of how much better off they and their families would be if they lived in a country like South Korea. They should be made aware, too, that while their children starve, their rulers eat like kings. Again, the idea is not to spark a sudden coup or mutiny but to gradually eat away at the loyalty of the foot soldiers.
There are no indications that North Korea will liberalize anytime soon, and simply waiting for an enlightened leader to come to power is unlikely to be an effective strategy. Economic pressure and information operations can create or widen the fissures within the government and between the government and the North Korean people. By these means, the allies can work to destabilize the regime and hope that this instability creates the conditions for reunification of the peninsula under Seoul’s leadership.
The Strategy’s Military Requirements
Instability in North Korea will hopefully lead to the Kim regime’s fall. While the transition toward democracy and reunification would ideally be peaceful, chaos may well reign in the immediate aftermath of a regime collapse. In that event, South Korea and the United States must be prepared to conduct stability operations north of the 38th parallel. While peaceful unification is the goal, the allies should be ready to deal with internecine warfare and potential “loose nukes” scenarios.
South Korea needs to build larger ground forces. According to American analyst Bruce Bennett, South Korea will need “to simultaneously demobilize up to 8.9 million North Korean forces (active duty plus reserves), stabilize the North, secure weapons at thousands of possible storage sites, and provide humanitarian assistance and logistical support in a potentially hostile environment.” The 560,000-man South Korean Army, large and capable as it is, is unlikely to be big enough for the task.
South Korea likewise needs to reinvest in its special operations capability. The Chosun Ilbo has reported that the North Korean special forces now outnumber their South Korean counterparts by a ratio of ten to one. According to the newspaper, the Korean People’s Army has increased its special forces strength from 120,000 to 200,000 in the past few years, while the South has shrunk its own force to less than 20,000.
The North’s special operations troops are highly trained and capable of taking advantage of asymmetries to create opportunities for regular troops should war ever break out on the peninsula:
North Korean SOF [Special Operations Forces] are probably among the best trained, best fed, and most motivated of all the forces in the military. Three primary missions for SOF include infiltrating into rear areas to carry out subversive acts, exploring routes of maneuver for attacking forces, and occupying key tactical nodes. . . . North Korean SOF have reportedly stepped up their capabilities to stage guerrilla warfare and have developed tactics that include planting roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). According to American military officers, these tactics could be used against U.S. and South Korean forces stationed in the rear during any large-scale conflict.
In the event of a collapse in the North, special forces may very well become the nuclei around which armed resistance groups form. South Korea needs to ensure it has the capability to counter these threats with well-equipped special forces of its own.
For the unification mission as well as for the campaign outlined earlier, the United States and South Korea will need to invest in some specific military-technological capabilities as well. Foremost among these is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). The United States, South Korea, and Japan should work toward forming a Northeast Asia Center for Intelligence. The center—like a combined headquarters for military intelligence—would allow for quick and easy sharing of information, helping the allies form a comprehensive picture of the security situation on and around the Korean peninsula. The three countries could pool their resources to ensure that they have unmanned aerial vehicles and other intelligence assets focused on North Korea at all times, enabling the allies to respond in a timely fashion to new developments and providing better warning of future North Korean provocations. According to Bechtol, improved ISR would also enhance South Korea’s ability to track the North’s special operations forces.
In addition to ISR, the United States and South Korea should invest in fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Stealthy aircraft are necessary for bypassing North Korea’s advanced air defenses. F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) will be effective in this mission, but the United States should also plan on basing F-22s in South Korea. The F-22—the world’s most advanced stealth air-to-air fighter—would be useful for taking out enemy air defenses with little risk to itself; JSFs would then be able to enter North Korean skies and carry out the air-to-ground missions for which they are optimized. Without the F-22 to “kick down the door,” the near-term coercive campaign outlined previously, which is certain to be air-intensive, could involve more allied air casualties.
South Korea and the United States should reinvest in undersea warfare capabilities as well. North Korea demonstrated earlier last year the damage that just one of its minisubmarines can inflict. If politically possible, South Korea—as well as the United States—should start conducting regular joint antisubmarine warfare exercises with Japan, whose naval forces are among the best in the world at such operations. South Korea should also consider purchasing advanced P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, which are optimized for antisubmarine missions and will provide South Korea with better situational awareness of the waters off its coasts.
Finally, the United States and South Korea should jointly develop directed energy technologies. Though still in their infancy, these technologies have great promise for enhancing both missile defense and artillery defense in the years ahead. In the nearer term, South Korea should enhance its counterbattery assets along the demilitarized zone, and Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington should continue to cooperate on and invest more heavily in existing missile defense capabilities. While the fiscal climate in Washington may make new defense expenditures difficult, the deteriorating environment along the world’s most heavily armed border makes those investments necessary.
The China Factor
China has made clear that its interests in North Korea do not align with South Korea’s, America’s, or Japan’s. The Chinese have shown no interest in earnestly cooperating with the allies in solving the North Korean challenge and have in some ways actively worked against them in their efforts. Yet consecutive US administrations have concluded that Beijing is the answer to the Pyongyang question.
This conclusion is wrong. China, of course, is a major regional power and the allies must consider how it will respond to any new allied North Korea policy. Still, just as China has been acting in its own self-interest, so too must Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo.
In carrying out the first leg of the strategy outlined above—the coercive military campaign aimed at eroding North Korea’s power projection capabilities—the allies should listen, but not acquiesce, to Chinese concerns with respect to the use of force. The United States, South Korea, and Japan have given China every opportunity to work with them in finding a peaceful solution, but China has failed to do so, curtailing the allies’ options. The Chinese may be disturbed by the projection of South Korean and American military power into North Korean territory and into waters that border Chinese seas, but they are unlikely to counter such incursions with force. China will not risk a broader conflagration to stop South Korea from retaliating for attacks on its own soil.
China will be even more uncomfortable with attempts to destabilize the Pyongyang regime and reunify the peninsula. But some Chinese officials have indicated over the past year that Beijing may be open to the idea of eventual unification. South Korea must seize on this opening—foreign ministry officials should be emphasizing repeatedly to their Chinese counterparts that South Korea’s goal is eventual unification. South Korea must work to convince Beijing that the issue is far more important to South Korea than it is to China and that a unified Korea is in China’s interests (especially its economic interests) as well.
This is undoubtedly a difficult task, and the Chinese may not be swayed. But if the Kim regime ever does collapse, Beijing will be faced with a stark choice: It can allow reunification under Seoul’s legitimate leadership. Or it can risk fighting South Korea and the United States and act like the historical imperial powers it so denigrates by interfering in Korea’s internal affairs; attempting to install a leader of its choosing; and taking responsibility for running a poverty-stricken country that has barely entered the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first.
The North Korean challenge is complex, but by now all too familiar. Nearly two decades of negotiations have failed to resolve the nuclear problem, and North Korea has been carrying out aggression against the South for much longer than that. It is time for the allies to try something new.
The new two-track strategy proposed here aims to end the nuclear program and Pyongyang’s provocations in the short term via a coercive military strategy; over the long term, it aims to bring about eventual unification by putting pressure on the seams that hold together the North Korean regime. Adopting such a strategy would be a somewhat radical departure from business as usual. But the North Korean threat is a radical threat, and conventional solutions have failed for far too long. Only with a new direction in strategy can the allies hope to once and for all neutralize Kim Jong Il and his regime.
Michael Mazza is a senior research associate at AEI.
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