A Flexible Strategic Blueprint for the Korean Peninsula

Image: Sr. Airman Giang Nguyen, USAF

Last month, I wrote that the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) recent militarization attempts cannot be sustained due to budgetary and institutional limitations, its inability to achieve strategic parity with its neighbors, and the domestic zeitgeist that is vehemently opposed to militarization attempts by the central government. Notwithstanding the rosy statement by the US government that the effort to transfer the wartime Operational Control (OPCON) to the ROK military “is on schedule,” North Korea’s latest nuclear testing casts doubts on such premature assessments.

Given the budget constraints and Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s frequent, erratic actions, any policy choices the United States makes will be fraught with difficulties. Nevertheless, a combination of diplomatic recognition of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in tandem with consistent and unified policy framework within the US-ROK alliance may offset the threats posed by Kim Jŏng-ŭn.

With this in mind, both the United States and the ROK should consider extending the olive branch to the DPRK through normalization. Despite inherent obstacles, recognizing the DPRK as a sovereign state is desirable since it may avert a costly war between the two Koreas and would lessen the economic burden on South Korea. Further, the United States may successfully wean Kim Jŏng-ŭn away from China and hold him more accountable to international norms.

It must be understood, however, that riding the North Korean beast is still a risky endeavor. Flexibility entails carefully balancing the carrots with sticks to ensure that the US-ROK alliance enjoys a full range of available options. To that end, both the ROK and the United States must “forge a unified policy approach.”

The single most important factor in the flexible approaches towards the DPRK is the issue of OPCON transfer scheduled for 2015. Despite the Obama administration’s assurance that it “will maintain a robust defense posture, backed by…[a] commitment of extended deterrence, including the U.S. nuclear umbrella,” curiously absent in the 2009 Joint Vision are specific guidelines or steps to ensure that the ROK “will take the lead role in the combined defense of Korea.” The ROK military still remains plagued by interoperability issues, budget constraints, and interservice rivalries which hamper coherent military responses against North Korean threats. Further, America’s decision to proceed with the OPCON transfer as scheduled is “dangerously myopic” as it ignores “the asymmetric challenges that [North Korea] presents.”

While the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2003-2008) and many ROK citizens viewed the issue of American OPCON over the ROK forces as an infringement upon ROK’s sovereignty, eventually “all South Korean enthusiasm for OPCON transition ceased, even among ROK sovereignty supporters.” One possibility for the change in attitude may be the “direct comparison of the ROK military to the DPRK military.” South Korean citizens showed “strong support for the U.S.-ROK security alliance in the 80-90 percent range.” The persistent anxiety among South Korean citizens over their own physical security in the aftermath of the DPRK provocations in 2011 may help to explain the ROK’s growing reluctance to assume OPCON at this juncture.

In short, America’s exercise of wartime OPCON over the ROK military helps to deter further acts of aggression by threatening Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s “regime control.” To his credit, Lee Myung-bak implemented a series of deliberate, measured responses in the immediate aftermath of such provocations by the DPRK, but these measures alone may prove insufficient to prevent, let alone, deter further DPRK provocations.

Recent events have shown that “strategic patience” has “run its course.”  What is needed is a flexible strategic blueprint that reflects the geopolitical realities in the region. I do not believe that Kim Jŏng-ŭn will continue to pose existential threats to the US-ROK alliance. Nor do I believe, as some of my ROK military officer friends do, that we should launch a pre-emptive strike against the DPRK. However, until Kim Jŏng-ŭn becomes a responsible actor on the world stage, he will remain refractory. For this reason, both the United States and the ROK should consider delaying the OPCON transfer, lest Kim Jŏng-ŭn construe the transition as dissolution of the extant alliance or as evidence of diminishing American resolve and strength in Northeast Asia.

The aforementioned dual approaches are not contradictory policies, but flexible, and deliberate measures informed by pragmatic concerns. Adroitly balancing the sticks with carrots may induce the DPRK to join the global community as a responsible participant while also successfully deterring further provocations by the DPRK.

Jeong Lee is a freelance blogger who lives in Pusan, South Korea. He has been blogging for two years on International Security issues, and is also a contributing columnist for Americanlivewire.com.

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10 comments to A Flexible Strategic Blueprint for the Korean Peninsula by Jeong Lee

  • [...] I have written previously that the United States should retain the wartime OPCON (Operational Control) for the sake of [...]

  • [...] I have written previously that the United States should retain the wartime OPCON (Operational Control) for the sake of [...]

  • [...] have argued before that “any policy choices the United States makes will be fraught with difficulties.” Indeed, [...]

  • [...] have argued before that “any policy choices the United States makes will be fraught with difficulties.” Indeed, [...]

  • Mr. Rao,

    What is sorely is lacking is a balanced perspective that takes into account different points of view. Simply put, while much has been written from the view point of the US-ROK alliance, very few articles or books have to date shed light on what the North Koreans think.

    The reason why strategic patience has not worked is because we expected Kim Jŏng-ŭn to play by our rules without taking into account what might be motivating his actions. Now, that does not mean that we must cater to his every whim, however.

    I would say that we should try to work with him first as a sovereign leader, and if that fails, have a back-up plan or stick.

    Thank you.

  • A thought provoking but SK’s prism and devoid of NK’s lense what made them to have all these ‘erratic actions’ also can one wish for ‘unification of Korean side’ as Germany witnessed in history? No doubt NK’s these ambitious designs raised eyebrows of many ‘doves’ even so must have fresh rethink to have stability in the region.

  • Dr. Zaid, what I meant when I referred to the DPRK as a “beast” was that it remains unpredictable and intractable. Best not anger it but try to gently flatter and cajole it. At first, that is. That is where diplomatic recognition comes in. After all, did “strategic patience” through sanctions and threats really work?

    If that may seem unfeasible or untenable a strategy, we must carry our stick to show them that we mean business. That’s where US exercise of OPCON over the ROK military comes in. Its function it shall be to remind them that the United States remains committed to the stability in the region by deterring DPRK aggression.

    The other alternative, allowing the ROK to arm itself with nuclear weapons, is simply unthinkable. It would lead to an arms race in the region that may spin out of control and possibly a costly, fratricidal, war.

  • Salaam To All,

    I do not agree that NK is a “Beast” so to speak. It is a necessary part of the Military Industrial Complex of the Romanist Global State “BEAST”. It exists solely to create tension and maintain it so that a bug bear bogey continues to threaten ASEAN, etc. Remember, the Jesuits stopped MacArthur, Mr. Walsh in Particular. If one enters into the normal Geo-political dialogue, one has succumbed to the illusion that maintains the East-vs-West, Us-vs-them didactic wherein Caesar bangs his drums whenever it suits elitists. – Kind Regards

  • I would dispute this.Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s regime has shown no evidence of “being whittled away” from within. In order for that to happen, there must be evidence of erosion of totalitarian control over his people. If anything, the opposite is true. What you forget is that power grows out of the barrel of a gun in the case of the DPRK.

    That said, Kim Jŏng-ŭn seems to have consolidated his grip on the military by virtue of having purged Ri Yŏng-ho last year and having successfully test-fired his rocket last December. Not only that, the number of DPRK defectors to the ROK have steadily decreased since he took power. This speaks to the fact that he has effectively sealed his border. So long as Kim Jŏng-ŭn controls guns and butter and can leverage this to his advantage, I do not see how the DPRK can collapse. And besides, can one seriously base one’s prediction on one article from The Economist?

    Last but not least, yes, quality of weaponry is important. But far more important than the state-of-the-art technology are sound leadership and a coherent strategy. These are areas that the US-ROK alliance has been truly deficient.

    Thank you.

  • This “olive leaf” strategy would seem to already be obsolete. As noted by the Economist’s North Korea briefings in the 09 Feb 13 edition, the regime is being whittled away at the bottom by the market demands sanctions have forced on the country. The objective should be to leave off only just enough pressure to prevent the DPRK from acting militarily. Meanwhile, let the rot continue to set in.

    I should add, the idea of “strategic matching” has to be parsed out. Militarily, the ROK is superior to the DPRK. Quantity may have a quality all its own, but unless its backed up by a reliable logistics chain and sustainable support model that quantity is a liability. The strategic calculus and brutal nature of the DPRK is what gives them the edge.