The failed Hanoi summit meeting between the United States and North Korea in February 2019 effectively scuttled South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s peace process, and his bid to declare the end of the 1950-53 Korean War and activate inter-Korean cooperation. Ever since, Moon has been actively seeking to renew the stalled nuclear talks and inter-Korean dialogue, but there is no momentum on his side.
Considering the deadlocked nuclear talks and North Korea’s recent flurry of missile tests, how should future South Korean governments manage the current events and security hot potatoes?
For an in-depth look, The Diplomat’s Mitch Shin interviewed Lieutenant General (Ret.) Chun In-bum, the president of the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) Korean Chapter and advisory member of the National Bureau of Asian Research. Chun also serves as the vice president of the MIG Alley Chapter of the U.S. Air Forces Association.
Chun previously served as the chief of the Election Support Branch, Civil Military Affairs/Strategic Operations Directorate at the Multi-National Force in Iraq. Chun also served as the director of U.S. Affairs at the Korean Ministry of National Defense and was involved in negotiations and cooperation with the U.S. on the relocation of U.S. forces, camp returns, ROK/U.S. Joint Vision Study, Special Measures Agreement, and the transition of the Wartime Operational Control. Chun commanded the 27th Infantry Division and was the senior member of the U.N. Command Military Armistice Commission. Chun was promoted to lieutenant general in November 2013 and was assigned as the commander of the ROK Special Warfare Command. He retired from active duty on July 31, 2016.
The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tension between the two superpowers – the United States and China – is rising. What are the core differences in what the two superpowers are seeking to achieve in the Northeast Asian region, especially on the Korean Peninsula?
It seems China wishes to turn the clock back about 1,500 years and gain dominance over the Korean Peninsula. On the other hand, the United States wants stability. Growing stability will bring more opportunities in South Korea. It is no accident that South Korea is the only country that gained independence after World War II that has been able to achieve industrialization and political democratization.
In the eyes of South Korea, what are the main obstacles or barriers to transferring wartime OPCON to South Korea, and what does it mean to South Korea?
The main obstacle is a nuclear-armed North Korea and the lack of fundamentals for the South Korean military. North Korea has always had the wrong perception of contempt for the South Korean military, and the U.S. forces in Korea was and is the only deterrent against a North Korean attack. Now that North Korea has nuclear weapons this is a greater problem.
South Korean progressives wrongly approached the wartime OPCON transfer issue from a national sovereignty perspective. This preconception has been driving the South Korean progressives. On the other hand, the Korean conservatives rely on the United States for its defense. I do not agree with their views. However, the genie is already out of the bottle and there is no turning back. The only option for the Koreans is to strengthen the ROK-U.S. alliance and work on [South Korea’s] fundamental capabilities to take responsibility for its defense.
Although many South Koreans think that the U.S. is against South Korea exercising wartime OPCON, I do not agree with this. If this were the case, why would have the United States agree to the transfer of peacetime OPCON in 1994? The United States’ main goal is to ensure the security of the Korean Peninsula.
In the midst of the deadlocked U.S.-North Korea nuclear talks, how do you view Seoul’s “end-of-war declaration” initiative?
I feel that the end-of-war declaration and a peace treaty are long overdue. Having said that, the initiative that is being pursued at the moment seems to be politically driven and not focused on security. This haphazard approach is very dangerous, because it seems to be not looking at the second- and third-order effects of such a declaration. However, I believe the future governments should prepare more thoroughly on this initiative for the security of the country, not for their political purposes.
With North Korea demanding that the U.S. end its so-called “hostile policy,” how should South Korea tackle North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities?
A strong alliance with the United States – represented by U.S. forces in Korea – is more important than ever because of the extended deterrence that the military alliance provides. In order to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, however, we might have to be on a partial level with the North Koreans. What I mean is the reintroduction of U.S. nuclear weapons to the theater or indigenous nuclear weapons for South Korea. Either of these options is not attractive and should only occur with U.S. support and consensus, which is nearly impossible to attain at this moment.
Having said that, with the PRC’s policies as well as the steady improvement in North Korean nuclear capability this option needs to be discussed by the U.S., South Korea, and Japan before it is too late.
As for North Korean demands for the removal of “hostile policies,” it seems it’s just an excuse to either buy time or de facto surrender to North Korean demands. Unless North Korea can show sincerity, I fear we are in for a bad outcome.
Does South Korea have enough self-defense capability to deter North Korea’s threats without the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella?
No. It is an unfortunate fact that North Korean propaganda has depicted the South Korean military as a feeble force. It is more unfortunate that North Koreans believe it. Even though South Korea has an economy that is 40 times greater than North Korea and we have been outspending the North in defense for decades, the truth is that the entire North Korean society focuses on war and its execution while the lack of security awareness has been pervaded into South Koreans. This is why we are always at risk.
The Korean people must commit to a strong ROK-U.S. alliance and yet not rely on the U.S. too much. South Koreans must invest and sacrifice for the country’s national defense more than they are now.