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As North Korea barrels ahead with beefing up its nuclear weapon capabilities, some observers in South Korea and overseas are citing those arms as a basis for warning that Pyongyang may attempt a “forceful reunification” of the peninsula.
In a recent interview with the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Kookmin University professor Andrei Lankov said that North Korea has “had great success with focusing all its national capabilities on developing nuclear weapons and missiles.” He went on to say that North Korea’s plans for a forced reunification under communism are “not a dream, but a reality.”
As a basis for that prediction, he explained, “If the US were to fight to protect Seoul, the US president would have to consider the possibilities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York suffering multiple North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) strikes that cause countless casualties.”
Citing that interview with Lankov, Chosun Ilbo editorial board member Ahn Yong-hyeon said North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “dreams of subjugating South Korea with nuclear weapons.”
“We don’t have much time,” he warned.
People have claimed in the past that a nuclear-armed North Korea might attempt a communist reunification of the Korean Peninsula, and those predictions aren’t going to stop coming out any time soon. The people making these claims base their predictions on the following scenario.
As a first step, North Korea would use less destructive tactical nuclear weapons to launch, or threaten to launch, a surprise attack on the South. As a second step, it would prevent the US from intervening by threatening an ICBM strike against a major US city.
As a third step, it would neutralize the allied South Korea-US capabilities with nuclear missile strikes against major South Korean and US military bases, while sending special forces en masse to seize major South Korean facilities. Finally, it would send ground forces to complete its unification of the peninsula by force.
Why the North would never attempt an invasion
At first glance, the scenario might seem plausible, but it has some fatal flaws. There are a number of questions we might ask.
How would the South Korea-US alliance respond to the North’s use or threatened use of tactical nuclear weapons to attack the South? Wouldn’t it undertake a military response aimed at reducing losses?
Also, how would the US react to North Korea threatening to strike its major cities with ICBMs to force it to stay out of the situation? Would it bow to those threats in order to avoid suffering its own losses?
We don’t need to think too hard to find the answers. The South Korea-US alliance would respond to the North’s threat of nuclear strikes by showing their ability and willingness to retaliate forcefully. If the North actually did use tactical nuclear weapons, it would respond with massive retaliation.
The alliance already has these capabilities, and it has signaled its willingness to use them. This means that the very first step described above is already unrealistic.
The second step also rests on absurd assumptions. To protect its allies during the Cold War, the US extended its nuclear umbrella even in the face of the Soviet Union, which possessed as many as 40,000 nuclear weapons. This extended deterrence policy has been carried on by the US even after its Cold War with the Soviet Union came to an end.
There’s scarcely any danger that the US would forsake South Korea and capitulate to a North Korean threat that is incomparably weaker than those posed by the Soviet Union in the past or by Russia and China today.
If anything, the US would respond to the North’s nuclear threats against its territory by warning of “retaliation through every available means.” Indeed, it could well decide to attempt a preemptive strike. This has been clearly spelled out by the current administration of Joe Biden, the Donald Trump administration before it, and previous administrations before them.
There’s also another reason bowing to the North Korean threat is not an option for Washington. Alliances are central to its global strategy, and those alliances are based on trust.
That means that the second the US capitulates to North Korea’s threat, the entire basis for its global strategy comes crashing down. Believing they could no longer trust the US, South Korea and other US allies would adopt an “everyone for themselves” approach.
We also can’t ignore the missile defense system that the US has put so much effort into building. Washington has cited North Korea as its biggest justification for pursuing missile defense; if it were to bow to the North’s threats, it would come under fire from people wanting to know what those hundreds of billions of dollars were sunk into the missile defense system for.
But missile defense is also the goose that lays the golden eggs for the US military-industrial complex, and it’s a core part of the US government’s strategy for dominance in the 21st century. There’s no chance the US would be so cowed by the North Korean nuclear threat that it would reduce missile defense to a white elephant.
There are many other grounds besides these for dismissing the predictions that North Korea might use its nuclear capabilities to attempt reunification by force.
The allied South Korea-US forces are closely observing the North’s military activities in real time. South Korea has an economy over 50 times bigger than North Korea’s, and the amount it spends on defense is 1.5 times higher than North Korea’s gross domestic product.
The South also vastly outstrips the North in its ability to wage war. Its stature in the international community is incomparably greater, and it also has over 2.2 million foreign residents. If North Korea were to wage nuclear war against it, it would essentially be opting to go to war with the world.
Perhaps the biggest reason that North Korea would never attempt an invasion is this: if it tries using its nuclear weapons to reunify the peninsula by force, the nation that is most likely to disappear off the map would not be the Republic of Korea, but the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — and the Kim Jong-un regime knows that all too well.
It’s because of this that many have pointed out the absurdity of the notion that North Korea would opt to wage nuclear war preemptively to reunify the peninsula, when the reason it has developed nuclear weapons in the first place is for its survival.
The dangerous obsession of S. Korean hard-liners
Ironically, the two groups that most overestimate North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are the Kim regime and certain South Korean hawks.
The North Korean regime proclaims nuclear armament as a “powerful treasured sword.” Meanwhile, certain anti-North hard-liners view nuclear weapons as capable of unifying the peninsula under communist rule.
Equating nuclear weapons with communist reunification isn’t just unrealistic — it’s dangerous. This sort of over-the-top persecution complex has the potential to poison us.
The apocalyptic fears of North Korean nukes tend to translate into a compulsion toward intensifying the alliance with the US, which leaves us vulnerable to Washington’s more unreasonable and dangerous demands. Also, if we increase what is already an astronomical defense budget, that wastes resources that ought to be used for the public’s welfare. Furthermore, it gets in the way of a productive debate on our North Korea policies, including our response to the nuclear program.
Obviously, we need to be prepared for eventualities. It’s that sort of mentality that has made South Korea’s military capabilities as strong as they are, and the alliance with the US has been strengthened as well.
At the same time, we can’t overlook the dangers that can result when we allow our persecution complex to drive us toward excessively reinforcing our military capabilities and posture. The more intense the arms race and military tensions on the peninsula become, and the more one side’s deterrence collides with the other’s, the greater the risk of some kind of unintended clash occurring.
This is why our diplomacy should adopt the kind of “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” attitude that this era demands.
By Cheong Wook-Sik, director of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute and director of the Peace Network
Image: North Korean state-run KCTV showed the above footage on May 27, 2022, of Kim Jong-un directing a rehearsal ahead of the April 25 military parade. (Yonhap News)