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Sep 16, 2016 | 08:00 GMT

South Korea Ups the Ante

South Korea Ups the Ante
(MATT CARDY/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • North Korea will not give up its nuclear arsenal and will continue to pursue nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent.
  • The North Korean nuclear threat will drive U.S. ballistic missile defense and Japanese military normalization.
  • South Korea will adopt an increasingly aggressive and pre-emptive military strategy in response.
  • The result will be a dangerous and precarious security environment on the Korean Peninsula.

For North Korea, a nuclear weapons program is no longer a distant goal but a present reality. After years spent developing viable nuclear and missiles programs, Pyongyang is unlikely to trade them away in negotiations any time soon. Instead it will continue to cultivate its nuclear capabilities, seeking security through a credible nuclear deterrent. At the same time, regional and global powers are working to adapt their military strategies to accommodate North Korea's newfound nuclear abilities. The issue is driving anti-ballistic missile defense development, reinforcing the U.S. military's rebalance toward the Pacific and causing Japan to reconsider weapons systems it previously eschewed. Perhaps most important, North Korea's investment in nuclear weaponry has prompted South Korea to adopt an increasingly pre-emptive and aggressive force posture and policy, fostering an atmosphere of instability on the Korean Peninsula and raising the likelihood of conflict.

An Evolving Deterrence Strategy . . .

No other country feels the threat of a nuclear North Korea as acutely as South Korea. Seoul is not only within range of North Korea's conventional arsenal, but it is also Pyongyang's easiest target for a nuclear strike. Because Seoul is just 195 kilometers (121 miles) from Pyongyang, North Korea has a much better chance of successfully delivering a nuclear weapon there — by aircraft or by missile — than to Japan or the United States. Aware of the dangers lurking just beyond its northern border, South Korea will continue to build up its anti-ballistic missile defense systems in anticipation of such an attack. But given the number of missiles Pyongyang has at its disposal, missile defense would not be enough to protect South Korea in the event of an overly heavy attack. And so, Seoul is turning to more proactive solutions.

As North Korea has gradually developed its nuclear arsenal, South Korea has had to modify its military doctrine. Whereas in the past South Korea has threatened to strike back disproportionately against any North Korean offensive, today North Korea's nuclear arsenal is such that Seoul can no longer risk being attacked in the first place. The South has therefore steadily transitioned from its policy of retaliatory deterrence to one that allows pre-emptive strikes, enabling it to head off a possible nuclear attack from the North.

Shortly after North Korea's third nuclear test in February 2013, the South Korean military unveiled its Active Deterrence policy. The new contingency plan gave the country's armed forces the go-ahead to launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korean targets if Pyongyang gave any indication that it was preparing a nuclear or missile attack on the South. A year later, the South Korean National Defense Ministry adjusted its military strategy to a Proactive Deterrence plan, which improved response time by compressing the chain of command. Under that model, high-level commanders would communicate orders directly to front-line response units if any evidence of imminent nuclear assault from North Korea were detected. Then, on Sept. 11, Seoul upped the ante after the most recent North Korean nuclear test. The Defense Ministry's new policy, the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation plan, calls for powerful decapitation strikes against leadership targets in Pyongyang at the first sign of an impending nuclear attack from North Korea.

. . . And the Weapons to Match

Its steady policy progression notwithstanding, South Korea's military posture would not be viable without the equipment to back it up. Accordingly, Seoul has worked to amass the missiles and weapons necessary to enforce its evolving military doctrine. The United States initially resisted this shift, fearing that South Korea's assertiveness would increase the likelihood of a conflict in which Washington would find itself embroiled as well. But as North Korea's arsenal has grown, so too has the United States' support for Seoul's proactive approach to defense.

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In 1979, Washington, concerned that a regional arms race was unfolding, struck an agreement with Seoul. Under the terms of the deal, South Korea agreed to restrict its ballistic arsenal to missiles with a range of no more than 180 kilometers. But to keep up with North Korea's burgeoning missile and, later, nuclear capabilities, the range was increased to 300 kilometers in 2001 and then — after much negotiation — to 800 kilometers in 2012.

Still, there are limits to Washington's support for South Korea's armament. Since 2008, South Korea has tried to purchase Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMs) from the United States. Washington denied the sale, wary of Seoul's desire for offensive weapons. Undaunted, South Korea turned instead to other vendors, and Seoul purchased 200 European Taurus air-launched cruise missiles in 2013. In August, Seoul announced plans to expand its missile inventory by procuring more Hyunmoo-2 ballistic missiles and Hyunmoo-3 cruise missiles. A ballistic missile with the full 800-kilometer range is expected to enter service next year, ensuring that South Korea could strike any corner of North Korean territory.

Keeping an Eye Out

But to pre-emptively strike its northern neighbor, Seoul must first be able to detect that Pyongyang is preparing an attack. To that end, South Korea has been building up its intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities over the past few years. For instance, in December 2014 the U.S. government approved the sale of four RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drones to South Korea. Combined with Seoul's satellite systems, the drones will enable persistent surveillance of North Korean territory. The same year, South Korea also signed a deal to purchase 40 F-35 stealth fighters, which will be delivered between 2018 and 2021. The F-35 is yet another weapon that will complement South Korea's increasingly aggressive force posture, although it has some lingering technical problems to overcome. Reputed for its stealth and sensor capabilities, the aircraft is better suited than South Korea's other non-stealth jets to enter North Korea's heavily defended air space and to detect missile launchers and destroy them. On Sept. 12, reports emerged that Seoul is considering the purchase of another 20 F-35s.

Seoul is working as earnestly to counter North Korea's nuclear weapons program as Pyongyang is to develop it. But in adopting a more aggressive posture and acquiring the weapons to match it, South Korea risks raising the chances of conflict on the Korean Peninsula and fostering regional instability in the meantime. After receiving intelligence about a possible North Korean attack, South Korea's military leaders would have to decide in a matter of minutes whether to launch their own pre-emptive strike — an environment that is hardly conducive to circumspection. Considering Pyongyang's commitment to honing its nuclear capabilities, and its opaque power structure, South Korean intelligence could easily misidentify a nuclear test or a similar display as an imminent threat. And in light of Seoul's Massive Punishment and Retaliation plan, such a mistake could have dire consequences.

Lead Analyst: Omar Lamrani

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