South Korea needs to brace for asymmetric warfare
The sudden death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, and the presumptive elevation of his son Kim Jong Un, has cast a pall of uncertainty over the region and in Washington. Last year, two military incidents, the torpedoing of a South Korean navy corvette and North Korea's shelling of an island village in the south, killed 50 South Koreans. The concern in the south and in Washington is that Kim Jong Un -- or perhaps one of his rivals for the throne -- may see an advantage in more such incidents as a means of creating a crisis and rallying support. For decades, South Korea and the United States have prepared for a big war on the peninsula. Does Seoul need to do more to prepare for more exotic and asymmetric attacks like those that occurred last year?
Kim Duk-ki, a captain in South Korea's navy and previously an adviser to South Korea's president and chief of naval operations, believes the south needs to shift its focus away from preparing for the Big War and toward countering a variety of asymmetric attacks to which the south has become especially vulnerable. Kim's essay in the latest edition of Naval War College Review, published before Kim Jong Il's death, is not only timely but is also good advice for U.S. policymakers.
The 1950-53 war, which saw Seoul overrun twice by enemy armies, is the harsh historical memory which understandably forms the focus of war planning at the U.S.-South Korean military headquarters. Seoul remains in the center of the logical invasion route from the North and much of the city is exposed to artillery and rockets. It should thus be no surprise that preparing for a conventional 1950-style invasion has been the number one task for U.S. and South Korean planners. This imperative has also guided South Korea's heavy defense investment in conventional forces such as tanks, artillery, mechanized infantry, and attack aircraft.
Captain Kim believes that it is time for the south to steer a new course for its military investments anyway from preparing for conventional war and toward countering asymmetric and nonconventional threats. In his essay, Kim discusses the north's well-known interest in ballistic missiles, which, he asserts, the North could use in one-off raids, similar to last year's artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island. Kim mentions the north's interest in special operations raiding, a technique it has used against the South in the past, and its development of small coastal submarines, one of which very likely sank the Cheonan corvette last year.
South Korea's telecommunications and computer infrastructure is one of the most developed in the world, creating a vulnerability to the North's cyberwarfare capabilities. Perhaps most ominously, Kim notes that as a nuclear and ballistic missile state, the north has the capability of delivering an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the south.
Nuisance attacks on the south, like those inflicted last year, have been a part of Pyongyang's behavior for decades. Yet deterrence by retaliation has never been a page in the South Korean playbook; with a much more developed economy and thus much more to lose, the South has always been on the losing side of the "escalation dominance" calculation. The South is similarly disadvantaged concerning its vulnerability to cyber, EMP, missile, and special operations raiding.
Kim recommends rebalancing South Korean military investments away from conventional war and toward active defensive measures such as missile defense, improved coastal anti-submarine defense, and better cyber defenses. Reducing funding for the tanks, artillery, and infantry defending Seoul is a risk. But Kim observes that the North's interest in unconventional tactics is an adaptation to which the south should respond.
Kim's description of South Korea's changing defense problems resembles in many ways the changes to which the Pentagon must now adapt. Kim Jong Il's death may end up sharpening Washington's focus on these changes.