For more than two decades, South Korean leaders have placed their trust in the international community to bring about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Seoul received little reward for this trust. From North Korea’s first H-bomb test, and second successful satellite launch, to Pyongyang walking away from unconditional peace talks, and its continuous advances on intermediate, intercontinental, and submarine-launched ballistic missile technology, the regime remains unphased in its belligerent stance.
The rude awakening that perhaps Pyongyang cannot be deterred by means of sanctions alone is increasingly pushing Seoul toward a moment of strategic departure. As South Korea scrambles to find adequate responses to the North’s expanding missile arsenal and ongoing hostilities, which includes the regime’s use of VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia, Seoul must consider adopting an aggressive unilateral containment policy to counter Pyongyang.
Many South Korean hopes have exclusively rested on the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 on March 2, 2016, which was even heralded by then-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as the toughest and most comprehensive sanctions regime ever imposed by the Council. But, like all the other four major resolutions before it aimed at compelling Pyongyang to close its nuclear and ballistic missile programs “in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner,” Resolution 2270 (and the one after it) has utterly failed to even slow down Pyongyang’s technological progress and aggressiveness.
The latest annual report by the UN panel of experts in charge of reviewing the implementation of the sanctions regime against the North provides a sobering view. The report notes that “despite the support of Member States for strengthened sanctions by the Security Council through two new resolutions adopted in 2016, this effort has not yet been matched by the requisite political will, prioritization, and resource allocation to ensure effective implementation.”
Indeed, the report, which covers the period from February 6, 2016 to February 1, 2017, is replete with examples of North Korean military export activities: surface-to-air missile deliveries to Mozambique, patrol boat refurbishments in Angola, small-arms training in the DRC, guided rocket and aerial missiles deliveries to Sudan, and air force training in Uganda. It also highlights an extensive network of business contacts and joint ventures, stretching throughout the Middle East and Asia, aimed at circumventing financial sanctions, importing dual-use equipment, and smuggling cash, gold, minerals, and luxury goods. Even China’s announcement on February 18, 2017, that it would suspend all coal imports from North Korea this year rings hollow when the report states that “the total value of the export of coal and iron and iron ore [to China] for April to November 2016, after the adoption of the resolution, was higher than for the same period in 2015, before the adoption of the resolution.”
The blatant shortfalls in the UN sanction regime is symptomatic of the lack of strategic foresight that has been stifling South Korean foreign policymaking, and has left several U.S. administrations to tread cautious on the peninsula. Indeed, if Washington and Seoul cannot inspire the international community to act more vigilantly, they must forcefully challenge them to do so.
Following Washington’s lead, Seoul ought to impose unilateral economic sanctions on third states for non-compliance with the international sanctions regime, and even go so far as enforcing a “one Korea foreign policy” that would commit third-party states to choose between maintaining economic ties and diplomatic relations with either Seoul or Pyongyang. Given the complicity of North Korean embassies in the regime’s illicit activities around the globe, this policy would significantly curb Pyongyang’s ability to circumvent international sanctions under the veil of diplomatic immunity. Another step ought to be the blockade of all humanitarian aid flows to the North that are passing through South Korean territory. Following Seoul’s argument for closing the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in early 2016, the humanitarian blockade would be directed at depriving Pyongyang of free fungible resources that could support North Korea’s armed forces and the regime’s proliferation goals.
On the issue of deterrence, Washington and Seoul have already begun to deploy one THAAD battery to the peninsula, following the North’s four ballistic missiles launches on March 6. As a terminal ballistic missile defense (BMD) node, THAAD was designed to defend against short- and medium-range threats in their terminal phase, and is thus not capable of intercepting North Korea’s long-range Taepodong-2 rocket, which put a satellite into earth’s orbit in early February 2016. In fact, the deployment of THAAD is squarely aimed at expanding the footprint of the U.S. Forces Korea by (1) increasing radar and intercept range, (2) enhancing ballistic missile defense interoperability, and, given future radar upgrades, (3) enabling 360-degree situational awareness. More importantly however, South Korea’s decision to accelerate the deployment, despite Chinese, Russian, and increasing domestic opposition, signals both the deep-seated frustration with Beijing’s one-sided “peace and stability” mantra and Seoul’s eagerness for closer U.S.-ROK cooperation moving forward.
Apart from moving on THAAD, South Korea should also unilaterally expand its own ballistic missile defense system, the so-called Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD). Since its formation in 2006, the evolution of KAMD has been marked by strategic ambiguity in an effort to accommodate Chinese security interests. As a result, KAMD is currently not interfacing with the U.S.-led BMD system, and South Korea’s Aegis fleet is still equipped with non-BMD capable SM-2 IIIA/B interceptors. Thus, if the alliance is accelerating THAAD deployment, Seoul should also invest in strengthening its own missile defense posture and focus on interoperability to create a truly multi-layered BMD system that leverages balanced alliance burden sharing.
To be sure, a focus on missile defense alone will not suffice to deter Pyongyang from wielding the nuclear hammer or advancing its ballistic missile program. Two policy options have so far emerged to fill this strategic gap. The first is a re-deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, which were removed from the Peninsula in a good faith commitment by the U.S.-ROK alliance in October 1991. The second is a temporal exit from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to kick-start South Korea’s own nuclear weapons program. Both policy options are sub-optimal, as they do not preclude Pyongyang’s own nuclear activities, and will most likely force Beijing to balance against it. However, if push comes to shove, the re-deployment of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons would be the most prudent approach, given that it leaves the NPT intact and avoids triggering costly legal and economic repercussion against South Korea’s civilian nuclear sector. With the Trump administration’s emphasizing alliance burden sharing and highlighting the relevancy of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, South Korea is in an ideal position to comprehensively cooperate with Washington to aggressively contain the North Korean threat.
The bottom line is that the international community has failed to protect Seoul, and is increasingly failing to also protect Tokyo, from Pyongyang’s bellicose behavior. Furthermore, UN Security Council resolution after resolution has not prevented Pyongyang from advancing its nuclear and ballistic missile program. If there is any lesson Seoul should have learned over the past two decades, it is that nothing short of a strong U.S.-ROK alliance, and an aggressive containment policy, can safeguard the South.
Stefan Soesanto is Non-resident James A. Kelly Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, and Associate Digital Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.