Dr. Cha Du Hyeogn Unravels South Korea’s Security Quandary

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Dr. Cha Du Hyeogn Unravels South Korea’s Security Quandary

How the Russia-Ukraine war and the “Trump factor” mesh with mounting tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

Dr. Cha Du Hyeogn Unravels South Korea’s Security Quandary
Credit: Depositphotos

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have surged in recent weeks. In its latest provocations, North Korea sent a flotilla of trash-filled balloons across the demilitarized border into South Korea, with hundreds landing in the South’s territory. In at least two separate incidents in June, North Korean troops crossed over the inter-Korean border – reportedly by mistake, but a clear result of the North’s intensified construction and mining activities in the border region.

The new maneuvers follow North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s declaration of South Korea as its principal enemy last December. Earlier this year, animosity grew when the Kim regime conducted live-fire drills near the disputed sea boundary and tested multiple missiles in defiance of United Nations resolutions.

Adding complexity to the situation is the burgeoning alliance between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited Pyongyang on June 18-19. Their relationship has notably tightened since Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Pyongyang has emerged as Moscow’s vital partner, providing millions of rounds of munitions in exchange for food and raw materials.

This evolving geopolitical landscape has posed challenges for South Korea as the country strives to reconcile its security priorities.

The Diplomat recently interviewed Dr. Cha Du Hyeogn, a North Korea expert and lead researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, to gain deeper insights.

As South Korea responds to the latest balloon attacks, citizens in the South fear escalation. Could tensions rise further?

I don’t think the recent provocation is a mere psychological tactic. It’s important to notice a change in North Korea’s behavioral patterns. Up until May of this year, their actions could be interpreted largely as a show-of-force, while the latest attack clearly signifies an escalation.

North Korea’s deployment of trash-carrying balloons, coupled with the jamming of GPS signals within our maritime borders, presents a conspicuous action aimed at causing property damage and endangering civilian lives. This shift towards more direct forms of aggression suggests a heightened provocation in the future, albeit not on the scale witnessed during the Yeongpyeong bombardment in 2010. 

What factors might be driving North Korea to execute such an unusual attack at this specific juncture?

It seems to be a confluence of factors. First, with media attention on North Korea dwindling lately, the Kim regime is aiming to reclaim the spotlight and bolster its presence. As such, they may adopt a more hawkish stance, particularly with the U.S. presidential election just a few months away.

The recently orchestrated attacks also send a dual message. Within North Korea, the Kim regime is cementing the narrative that the South is no longer a prospective candidate for reunification but rather their foremost adversary. Internationally, Pyongyang is attempting to justify its actions as a reaction to South Korea’s escalating military cooperation with the U.S., as well as anti-Pyongyang leaflets sent by activists from the South.

Moreover, the Kim regime’s frustration in response to two summits with Putin, in 2023 and 2024, is evident. Kim aspired to forge a renewed tripartite alliance with China and Russia aimed at countering the influence of South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. Historically, Pyongyang has been perceived as subservient to Moscow and Beijing. Kim sought to elevate North Korea’s status to one of equality. Unfortunately for him, his endeavors didn’t yield the desired outcome.

What are the consequences of South Korea’s decision to suspend the 2018 Inter-Korean Military Agreement?

Since the end of last year, North Korea has virtually broken the agreement and conducted military drills near the demarcation line, remilitarized guard posts, and launched reconnaissance satellites (although the latest one failed). There is no reason for South Korea to remain committed to an agreement when the North’s persistent defiance raises valid doubts about the efficacy of upholding these terms. 

The agreement was brokered under the preceding Moon Jae-in administration with the hope of fostering a positive change in North Korea’s behavior. But maintaining the agreement becomes untenable and dubious in the absence of reciprocal actions from Pyongyang.

How would you evaluate President Yoon Suk-yeol’s policy toward Ukraine?

I think the Yoon administration’s backing of Ukraine stems primarily from two key factors. First, it aligns with the broader solidarity among democracies in safeguarding a fellow like-minded nation. Second, Korea’s own historical experience of invasion and occupation creates empathy with Ukraine’s struggle. However, while firmly supporting Ukraine, South Korea has refrained from direct military aid to prevent irreparable damage to its relationship with Russia. 

If, however, Moscow stretches its offensive to greater Ukraine, our government must contemplate enhancing our support while ensuring the maintenance of our wartime reserve stocks. We should also explore further expanding our military-industrial capacity to meet the renewed demands.

Some experts suggest South Korea should pivot its security policy to prioritize addressing China’s aggression. 

Experts of this viewpoint often advocate for South Korea to cease its support for Ukraine in favor of prioritizing regional security concerns. To me, this is tantamount to saying we should allow Russia’s complete takeover of Ukraine – a very cowardly move. Allowing territorial concessions in response to Russian aggression would effectively rewrite our modern history.

Likewise, those who say the Taiwan contingency is the most imminent crisis often overlook the unique challenges facing South Korea and Japan in providing military aid during such a regional conflict. Supporting Taiwan carries more immediate implications compared to Ukraine and also risks sending the wrong message to North Korea.

How will things change if Donald Trump retakes the White House in November? 

In a potential Trump 2.0 scenario, rhetoric about reducing troops in South Korea or demanding more defense spending from U.S. allies would probably increase. Additionally, figures like H.R. McMaster [Trump’s national security advisor during 2017-2018]  or Jim Mattis [Trump’s secretary of defense during 2017-2019] will no longer hold positions of influence as they previously did.

In terms of North Korea, I find it improbable that Trump would address the issue head-on, given the failure of such attempts in the 2019 Hanoi Summit and his enduring belief in the adage “no deal is better than a bad deal.” He would probably prioritize other diplomatic opportunities to gain publicity, such as negotiating with Putin on the Ukraine conflict or resolving crises in the Middle East. 

In this scenario, Trump could delegate the responsibility of dealing with North Korea to South Korea and other regional forces.

Would this, in turn, increase the likelihood of South Korea pursuing nuclear capabilities?

When Trump or pro-Trump experts advocate for South Korea going nuclear, it’s doubtful that this implies the U.S. will abstain from traditional military commitments once such a scenario unfolds. Instead, it suggests that the U.S. would remain hands-off on South Korea’s decision. 

Discussions about redeploying tactical nuclear weapons and joining America’s nuclear-sharing group are indeed permissible within the bounds of the NPT and the 2023 Washington Declaration. Nevertheless, regardless of the option chosen, operational discussions hold little to no value without actual deployment.