Photo Credit: Xinhua.net
By: Patrick Savage, Columnist
On October 1st, South Korea’s Armed Forces Day, President Park Geun-Hye launched a direct, public appeal to North Korean citizens to defect. This rare direct and open encouragement to would-be North Korean defectors was accompanied by a warning to the North regarding its nuclear tests: South Korea declared that it would defend itself as necessary.[i] These comments are indicative of a South Korea that appears to be losing patience with the North Korean regime and is increasingly taking a harder line towards the North after years of attempts at conciliation.
A significant turning point in South Korea’s attitude towards the North occurred in February of this year, when South Korea shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Kaesong had been widely viewed as a sign of economic cooperation and the pursuit of peace between North and South. The shutdown was executed in response to a rocket launch that North Korea claimed was meant to place a satellite in orbit; South Korea and its allies asserted the launch was actually a test of North Korea’s ballistic missile technology. In shutting down the industrial facility, South Korea cited concerns that the North may have been using its earnings from the venture to fund these missile developments, as well as its ongoing nuclear weapons program.[ii]
The closing of Kaesong set an important precedent for South Korea’s response to North Korean aggression. The facility had long been thought to be immune to political confrontation, with the notable exception of North Korea’s removal of its workers in 2013 over South Korean-US military exercises. But closing Kaesong had also been thought to be one of the most potent non-military measures available to hurt the North’s regime.[iii] The fact that South Korea finally resorted to this measure speaks volumes about the changes in the nation’s mindset. Reports that Kaesong’s closure resulted in over $660 million in losses for the participating South Korean firms reinforce that view.[iv] The South Korean government was apparently willing to incur significant losses to its domestic industries in order to strike an economic blow against the North.
The public attitude of the South Korean government has only hardened in the months following the shutdown at Kaesong, and its defiance of the North has become far more overt. South Korean defense officials have spoken of contingency plans to “completely destroy” Pyongyang as a response to nuclear threats by the North[v], and they have also openly stated during parliamentary inquiries that special forces soldiers stand ready to enact a plan to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the event of a nuclear threat.[vi] To support the expanded mission of striking high ranking leaders and strategically important facilities deep inside North Korea, South Korea’s Army Chief of Staff, General Jang Jun-kyu, stated that South Korea will invest heavily in new weapons and equipment for its special forces and work to expand their capabilities.[vii] While these statements could all be interpreted as sound bites for public consumption, the context and source of these quotes lend credence to the assumption that they are substantive comments on actual government policies that carry real risks and are not to be taken lightly.
The most escalatory rhetoric emanating from within South Korea calls for the nation to acquire its own nuclear arms. Discussions of nuclear capability following North Korean nuclear tests are not new in the South, but the North’s recent tests have resulted in far stronger responses from numerous South Korean politicians, including the ruling Saenuri party’s parliamentary floor leader. Recent public polls by the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper and the Yonhap news agency show a majority of the public in favor of South Korea acquiring nuclear arms.[viii]
It is important to note that, despite these opinion polls and comments by prominent members of the ruling party, opposition to acquiring nuclear armaments remains nearly universal among experts and policymakers in South Korea. President Park and other senior members of her government are strongly opposed to acquiring nuclear weapons and this staunch opposition was also reflected in interviews conducted by Robert Einhorn and Duyeon Kim with senior officials in South Korea’s civilian nuclear energy establishment.[ix] Toby Dalton, Byun Sunggee, and Lee Sang Tae of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace also point out that while public polling shows that a majority of South Koreans are in favor of nuclear armament and perceive North Korea’s nuclear testing as a threat to peace, both of these majorities have steadily declined over the past three years.[x] South Korea’s nuclearization is not a foregone conclusion and has a long way to go before becoming official government policy.
However, even as senior policymakers remain opposed to nuclear weapons and public opinion declines, the fact that a majority continue to support nuclearization and the increasing attention drawn to the issue by rank-and-file politicians and the media cannot be ignored. Sustained public support for nuclearization could place gradual pressure on senior policymakers to acquiesce to such demands.[xi] In light of the opinion polling, fiery political rhetoric, and the shift in tone South Korea has adopted towards North Korea, this possible trend should be enough to give the United States pause when contemplating the nuclear situation on the peninsula in the coming years.
As North Korea forges forward with its nuclear program—possibly in preparation for a new nuclear test in the coming weeks[xii]—US policymakers need to acknowledge that North Korea is not the only country on the peninsula that needs to be carefully observed. South Korea’s apparent frustrations with the North are understandable given the North’s history of erratic and violent behavior. But as a treaty ally of South Korea, the United States must be cognizant of shifting South Korean attitudes as regional tension rises. The United States must recognize that the possibility for conflict between the Koreas is not simply a one-way street. South Korea’s actions have as much ability to ignite a regional conflagration as North Korea’s do and they must be accounted for in any analysis of ongoing developments on the Korean Peninsula.
[ii] Justin McCurry, “Seoul shuts down joint North-South Korea industrial complex,” The Guardian, February 10, 2016, accessed October 8, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/10/seoul-shuts-down-joint-north-south-korea-industrial-complex-kaesong.
[iv] Vishaka Sonawane, “Kaesong Industrial Complex Shutdown Spells Severe Losses For South Korean Firms Involved In Operations,” International Business Times, February 24, 2016, accessed October 8, 2016, http://www.ibtimes.com/kaesong-industrial-complex-shutdown-spells-severe-losses-south-korean-firms-involved-2320808.
[vi] Paula Hancocks, “South Korea reveals it has a plan to assassinate Kim Jong Un,” CNN, last modified September 23, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/09/23/asia/south-korea-plan-to-assassinate-kim-jong-un/index.html.
[vii] “Military expanding special forces capability to strike key N.K. facilities, leadership”, Yonhap News Agency, last modified October 13, 2016, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/northkorea/2016/10/12/63/0401000000AEN20161012005151315F.html.
[viii] Einhorn, Robert, Duyeon Kim, “Will South Korea go nuclear?”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, last modified August 15, 2016, http://thebulletin.org/will-south-korea-go-nuclear9778.
[x] Dalton, Toby, Byun Sunggee, Lee Sang Tae, “South Korea Debates Nuclear Options,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, last modified April 27, 2016, http://carnegieendowment.org/2016/04/27/south-korea-debates-nuclear-options-pub-63455.
[xii] Kim, Jack, Ju-min Park, David Brunnstrom, “Satellite images show activity at North Korea nuclear test site: report,” Reuters, last modified October 7, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-nuclear-idUSKCN12708S.