The will to fight back
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
The year 2010 was a rough time for the South Korean military. The Cheonan, a Navy corvette, was hit by a North Korean torpedo that March in the Yellow Sea near the Baengnyeong Island and sank, killing 46 South Korean sailors. In November, South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island was shelled by the North, killing two marines and two civilians. The provocations were made as Pyongyang was preparing to name Kim Jong-un its new leader. In both cases, the local public chastised the South Korean military for failing to respond adequately, and trust towards the military plummeted — like today. With an added threat of North Korean nuclear weapons, now seems worse than nine years ago.
In late 2010, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff put their heads together to search for a way to boost military morale. Kim Kwan-jin, who was appointed to defense minister that December, decided to hold a firing drill around Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea as a warning to North Korea. One target was in the waters near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas, which Pyongyang has often reacted highly sensitively to. The North threatened to shell Yeonpyeong Island again if South Korea carried out the drill. But the South did not back down. If the North had followed through with its threat, the South planned to strike the source of that attack, its supporting forces and finally the command post. Tensions peaked, and the Yellow Sea was at risk of becoming a battle site between the two Koreas.
South Korea’s military leadership thought the strategy over. But in the end, it was sure it could win over the North. The South was also sure that if the two Koreas did scuffle in the Yellow Sea during the drill, it would not escalate into an all-out war because North Korea would need more time to mobilize its troops. The South thought the international community would mediate between the two countries before the North scaled up for a full-scale war with South Korea. Based on this analysis, the South Korean military followed through with its Yeonpyeong Island firing drill after receiving formal permission from the commander-in-chief, the South Korean president, to counterattack any provocations from the North. Washington shivered. It tried to convince Seoul not to carry out the drill, fearing war might erupt. Michael Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Seoul in order to cajole the South Korean military, but that, too, did not stop the South. The drill was conducted as planned, and Pyongyang did not respond as it had threatened.
The South Korean military went a step further. Defense Minister Kim told his underlings that if North Korea ever fires at the South, they “should not ask whether to shoot back or not, but first take counteraction then report” to the upper-ranks. The statement was basically an order to every soldier in the South Korean military — no matter how low their rank — to take countermeasures against all North Korean provocations, which in effect, helped the South’s military regain military morale.
After Pyongyang carried out its third nuclear test in February 2013, it threatened to attack Seoul with nuclear weapons. The public was fearful, but the Defense Ministry sternly warned that if the North does attack South Korea with nuclear weapons, the Kim Jong-un regime would be “wiped away” from earth by “the will of the humanity.” The ministry was referring to the U.S. nuclear umbrella, but the South Korean public felt relief and Pyongyang ceased provocation. North Korea threatened the South again in August 2015 by secretly planting land mines near one of South Korea’s military guard posts on the western section of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Two South Korean soldiers were maimed after stepping on them, but the North initially denied any fault and said it would attack the South on all sections of the DMZ. In the end, Pyongyang expressed “regret” over the wounding, which some local analysts saw as the North caving in.
On a positive note, South Korea’s military is still strong. The guideline to immediately take counteraction against North Korea if the North provokes and then subsequently report that counteraction to the upper-ranks is still valid in South Korea’s military. The local public must not be too anxious about the fact that the South’s military is unable to intercept all incoming missiles and rockets from North Korea because no country on the planet can perfectly intercept an incoming ballistic missile yet, no matter how militarily advanced that country is. That’s why the South and the United States have a mission plan to remove North Korea’s missiles as soon as possible in case a war erupts between the two Koreas. There are strategic limits for Pyongyang to keep targeting civilian areas in South Korea with its missiles and rockets. It could arouse fear in the beginning, but the North would be pummeled by the international community.
Recently retired reserve officers say that the South Korean-U.S. allied forces have a plan to remove North Korean missiles and multiple rocket launchers with its missiles and fighter jets in the early stage of a possible war. Current Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said on July 31 during a local defense forum that if Pyongyang provokes, Seoul would “punish with strong force.” North Korea is known to have about 1,000 ballistic missiles, which is around the number South Korea has. North Korean ballistic missiles mostly have a low hit probability, unlike South Korea’s. The North lacks the capability to spy on South Korea’s military, but the South Korea-U.S. allied forces are well-informed about North Korea’s missile bases and operational sites. If Pyongyang ever tries to attack the South with its missiles, Seoul’s surveillance on the North would grow more precise, and the South’s aerial surveillance on North Korea’s forward area, which had been halted under the Sept. 19 inter-Korean military agreement signed last year, would resume.
If Pyongyang does fire a missile, then Seoul would first try to intercept that missile with its Patriot missiles or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) anti-missile system. Next, Seoul would target North Korea’s missile site and command post with its Hyunmoo missile or Army Tactical Missile System. If the incoming North Korean missile hadn’t been intercepted in the first step, then the South Korean Navy would deploy its Aegis-equipped destroyers and submarines to remove North Korea’s missiles, command post and telecommunications system with a precision missile. If that does not work either, then the South Korean Air Force would mobilize its F-35 stealth jets to intercept the North Korean missile in the sky and then directly attack the North Korean command bunker. The command post would be hit with graphite bombs to disable electrical grids, and electromagnetic pulse bombs would be used to cripple the North’s power grid. If the North uses nuclear weapons or shows any hints of using them, then the regime would be faced with U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. The five-year defense plan announced by the South’s Defense Ministry last Wednesday contained steps to greatly improve Seoul’s ability to deter strategic threats from the North, such as nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.
South Korea’s military can deter North Korean missiles by force, but what it really needs now is support from the public and a show of will from the president.
In the past when the two Koreas faced off against each other with saber rattling, the South Korean president and public had the military’s back, which made Pyongyang back down. The United States did promise to protect the South with its nuclear umbrella, but we cannot be too sure. Europe, in the past, did not fully trust the United States to activate its nuclear umbrella against the Soviets when in need, which is why countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) signed an agreement with Washington to deploy U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in those countries. The South Korean government should ask Washington for a more decisive security measure regarding its nuclear umbrella. History shows there are more countries that were defeated in a war because the public and the government were divided than countries that lost because they lacked the military power.
South Korea must pull itself together and enable its soldiers to rebuild their spirit.