[Viewpoint] Strategies to deter the North

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[Viewpoint] Strategies to deter the North

The ROK-U.S. joint military exercise Key Resolve is to begin on Feb. 28, and the simulation of augmented U.S. forces in case of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula is garnering extraordinary attention. The allies’ Foal Eagle field exercise is also to continue until April 30.

The joint military drill includes exercises in case of sudden change and localized provocation by the North in addition to a full-scale war. The participation of a U.S. aircraft carrier raised concerns about further tension in the West Sea. However, as the saying goes, “if you want peace, prepare for war.” We can never defend peace if we are afraid of the North Korean threat or elevated military tension.

On Feb. 10, Pyongyang blew off a working-level military meeting, the first inter-Korean meeting since the Yeonpyeong Island attack, and said that it does not feel a need to get along with the South. As Pyongyang does not seem sincere, the inter-Korean relationship is not likely to get out of deadlock anytime soon.

According to the U.S. government’s Annual Threat Assessment report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the recent provocations by the North seem to be related to the succession structure. The report also warned that additional provocation is highly likely because the power succession system is still vulnerable.

The internal troubles surrounding Kim Jong-il’s health and power succession may lead to a sudden change in the regime, and it is very possible that Pyongyang will attempt another localized provocation. Therefore, the ROK-U.S. joint drill in preparation for local attacks and sudden change is very reasonable.

However, the primary purpose is to deter North Korea’s provocation and maintain peace on the peninsula. If the possibility for a sudden change is overly emphasized or if we suggest unification by absorption into the South and involvement of U.S. forces in an emergency situation may encourage resistance from Pyongyang and Beijing and could lead to military tension. We certainly don’t need to please Pyongyang and Beijing, but it is better to keep the exercise low key and make sure we fulfill its key purpose.

The Korean Peninsula is very sensitive to international politics. During the Cold War era, the country was divided and military tension dominated the peninsula because of the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, the relationship between the United States and China created a dual structure of dialogue and confrontation.

Last year, Kim Jong-un’s power succession and the aggravating confrontation between the United States and China elevated the military tension on the Korean Peninsula to the maximum. Now that Washington and Beijing are seeking a more friendly relationship, we need to use the opportunity to relieve tension on the peninsula and resolve the nuclear issue.

To deter North Korea’s provocation, we have two strategies. The first is to encourage North Korea to change through dialogue and negotiation, and the other is to establish solid military readiness that Pyongyang cannot dare to provoke.

The two strategies are not contradictory to each other but are supplementary to each other. If we neglect war readiness because dialogue and negotiation are in progress, we will be faced with another Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island incident. If we only emphasize strong readiness, then we will have to swallow the inconvenience of living in elevated tension all the time.

Without reform and opening of North Korea, whether it follows the case of China or Vietnam, we will only have unstable peace. Therefore, the two strategies need to be harmonized properly.

Kim Jong-il has proclaimed that 2012 will be the year it completes the construction of a strong and prosperous nation. It is very likely that he will carry on with another reckless military provocation in order to reinforce the vulnerable succession structure.

When South Korea equips itself with a powerful long-range weapons system to strike key military bases and facilities in the North, augments military strength on the five islands in the West Sea and carries out war simulation drills, we will have the upper hand in deterring North Korea.

Also, we must make efforts to encourage reform and opening of the North. Opportunities for talks should be offered in order to break into the closed system.

The ruling and opposition parties need to pursue consistent bipartisan North Korea policy with a long-term perspective. Only then, can we expect the butterfly effect of democratization that toppled the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak to spread into North Korea.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor at Hallym University of Graduate Studies.

By Koo Bon-hak
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