By Nuno Santiago de Magalhaes
The latest strategic maneuver by North Korea was in two phases. An aggressive one illustrated by the attack on Yeonpyeong Island, followed by a conciliatory phase of openness toward an unconditional return to bilateral and multilateral negotiations.
There are doubts about what is South Korea’s optimal reply, defined here as a policy that gets Seoul as close as possible to its main security goals.
Those goals are to contain the North’s aggressiveness and to achieve nuclear disarmament. Seoul has opted for a reply that we may call “hawkish”: the Lee Myung-bak administration supports domestic and international military deterrence, as well as a conditional return to negotiations ― if the North Koreans “come clean” in relation to last year’s attacks.
Opposed to such policy, part of the South Korean elite and public prefer to avoid military exercises and accept an unconditional return to negotiations, which we may call a “dovish” reply. From those two different policy options, which seems to be Seoul’s optimal reply?
We need to start by identifying Pyongyang’s major challenges, goals and expected behavior. At the moment, the North Korean leadership is facing three challenges: the instability of Kim Jong-il’s succession process; economic degradation; and the unfavorable military asymmetry in relation to the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Any of these can potentially lead to the regime’s end and consequent reunification in favor of Seoul.
Due to those challenges, Pyongyang’s general strategy is driven by three goals. Firstly, the regime is seeking a succession process with irrelevant levels of elite and popular contestation. The succession choice has been supposedly made in favor of Kim Jong-un.
However, it is uncertain if the behavior of the heir apparent’s protectors ― which include the powerful and ambiguous Chang Sung-taek ― or populace will benefit the regime’s stability.
Secondly, Pyongyang aims to extract economic benefits through international negotiations, while avoiding risky economic reform. Such reform encompasses a short-term danger of increased Chinese influence and the medium to long-term threat of absorption by Seoul, provoked by an economic-social opening.
Thirdly, the North intends to balance the military asymmetry through the improvement of its own capabilities or by damaging the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Supposing that the North Korean regime is successful in finding a stable succession solution, it needs to improve its nuclear and deployment capabilities in order to be able to undertake an economic reform with risks lower than the current ones.
Thus, military build-up is essential for the regime’s future. Overall, a politically stable, militarily powerful and wealthier North would be able to, at least, maintain the status quo of a divided Korean Peninsula.
It seems that the behavior of Pyongyang will continue to be a combination of uncooperative and cooperative choices, with the prevalence of non-cooperation.
In fact, in the current setting, to cooperate in relation to the preferences of other regional actors ― by completely stopping aggressive behavior and discourse, abdicating nuclear and missile development, and adopting liberal economic reforms ― would be damaging to the goals of Pyongyang.
By using a mixed policy with a prevalence of non-cooperation, Pyongyang may simultaneously increase military and popular support for Kim Jong-un (through the manipulative use of international crises), develop its military capabilities, and negotiate material benefits in exchange for limited concessions (such as allowing international inspections to supposedly control its enriched uranium program).
This means that aggressiveness and defection are likely to return, since it is “rational” to do so. Pyongyang is betting that, despite that behavior, China will maintain its essential economic support because it prefers a less cooperative North Korea to a collapsed one.
Given Pyongyang’s challenges, goals and expected behavior, what is Seoul’s optimal reply? Let us start with the “dovish” alternative, inspired by the policies of former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.
It would surely have the advantage of making the North sit at the negotiating table and refraining from provocations in the short-term, as well as of slightly stimulating economic openness if inter-Korean activities are resumed.
However, the disadvantages would be greater ― signaling inadequate deterrence capabilities, rewarding uncooperative behavior, and strengthening Pyongyang’s pool of economic resources (used to stabilize the regime and to promote a military build-up).
Let us see of the “hawkish” policy does better. The current South’s reply is advantageous because it deters direct aggression, promotes Pyongyang’s isolation as a consequence of non-cooperation, limits its resources, and signals that its uncooperative tactics no longer work.
Although no individual Southern reply can effectively threaten Pyongyang’s stability, Seoul can do so in coordination with its allies ― especially during this fragile scenario of succession ― in order to obtain a conditional return to negotiations.
Nonetheless, this policy has the disadvantage of promoting Pyongyang’s provocations in the short-term, even if a direct attack becomes impractical. All in all, when compared to a “dovish” alternative that appears more appealing due to its short-term results, a “hawkish” policy seems to be the optimal reply at the disposal of Seoul.
But despite its merits, the “hawkish” policy may be dropped by Seoul. If Pyongyang is able to resist the pressure and continuously destabilize the region, the current policy will appear useless because there will be no immediate results.
Consequently, impatient domestic and international actors will tend to consider that a “dovish” policy is more effective, influencing Seoul to drop the “hawkish” one. If that occurs under the current strategic conditions, the North will be the greatest beneficiary and the South’s security will end up damaged.
Nuno Santiago de Magalhaes is a researcher (Ph.D. candidate) in politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge and visiting doctoral researcher at Columbia University. In 2010 he was a visiting fellow at Harvard University and, between 2005 and 2008, a scholar at Sogang University in Seoul under the Korean government-sponsored National Institute for International Education (NIIED) program. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.