Bracing for the North’s chemical weapons
The author, Ret. Admiral, is former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
After legislation in September authorizing a preemptive nuclear attack by North Korea, its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) poses a substantial security threat to South Korea. If the North deploys tactical nukes in battles after a seventh nuclear test, South Koreans must live under an existential nuclear threat. The Yoon Suk-yeol administration hopes to cope with this situation by ensuring the U.S. nuclear deterrence, but it stops short of underscoring the importance of a watertight security posture based on mobilization of all capabilities of the nation.
Many countries brace for such threats by ensuring an all-out security posture. North Korea repeatedly threatens to reduce South Korea to ashes with its WMDs. How should we defend ourselves? Regrettably, our perception of the threat — and defense posture — is full of loopholes. Many simply brush it off by pointing to the North’s fear of a massive retaliation by the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Would North Korea really not use such weapons? If you think it wouldn’t, that’s a serious miscalculation — particularly given the way North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has behaved. He even ruthlessly assassinated his older half-brother to tighten his grip on power.
Security research institutes, including the RAND Corporation, classifies WMDs into nuclear weapons and the rest, which includes chemical and biological weapons, electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons and cyberwar capability. But circumstantial evidence strongly suggests North Korea would use chemical weapons first before pushing the nuclear button.
After receiving know-how on chemical weapons from China and Russia in 1954, North Korea is assumed to possess 2,500-5,000 tons of them. They can be fired by rockets or dropped by aircraft or loaded onto ballistic missiles at any time. If the North drops 1,000 tons of chemical weapons in Seoul and the capital area, it could cause approximately 125,000 casualties. As North Korea did not sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), it thinks it can avoid criticism if it uses them. Because North Korea does not recognize chemical weapons as WMDs, it believes it can avoid U.S. retaliation, according to Gen. Leon LaPorte, former commander of the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command.
We are well aware of the fatality of chemical weapons. South Korea tries to deter the weapons based on the alliance, but realistically there are many risks. If the allies fail to block just a single chemical bomb, it will immediately send the whole country into a panic.
A bigger problem is the public’s naïve dismissal of WMDs as a threat. Such a laidback attitude prevents the government from drawing up — and carrying out —countermeasures. The experience by South Koreans of incessant provocations from North Korea has made them oblivious to the threat. The government is also reluctant to publicize the danger for fear of provoking unnecessary fear among the public. The administration gives evacuation tips online to citizens to deal with earthquakes, but it does not say anything about threats from chemical weapons. Earthquakes cannot pose a graver threat than chemical weapons. The time has come to establish an effective PR system before it is too late so as to convince the public of the horrendous threat from chemical weapons.
For our collective protection, subways and other underground shelters should be greatly upgraded to defend against chemical weapons. Reliability of the protection system has never been scrutinized, and detailed evacuation guidelines have not been set. Those shelters only carry symbolic meaning. No consensus has been reached on the individual protection system either, as seen in a critical dearth of gas masks, decontamination equipment and related exercises. The government must hand out a gas mask to each citizen and teach them how to put it on. I was shocked to see North Koreans thoroughly preparing for a chemical weapons attack by South Korea even though the country does not have any intention to use such weapons. They do training as they know the lethality of chemical weapons.
A rapid decrease in military draftees in the South due to its low birthrate calls for an epochal change in the structure of our military and mobilization system. Carlyle Institute research shows that South Korea’s military manpower will dwindle to 150,000 by 2040 from 300,000 in 2027 and 400,000 in 2021. The current soldier-based operation system cannot be sustained. The government must change it to an integral system encompassing a regular force, a mobilization force and a reserve force. The reserve force system must be improved to make the best of science and tech talent to meet the demands of modern warfare beyond the level of making up for losses in the regular force.
There is barely any difference between a regular force and a reserve force in Israel. During the 1967 Six-Day War, the country filled 23 of the 30 brigades of ground forces with members of its reserve army. In the Gulf War, the United States mobilized 360,000 soldiers from its reverse army to replace dead or wounded soldiers on the battlefields or to deploy them in logistics support. 28 percent of the Swiss people possess a firearm and receive combat trainings in peacetime. We must change our system in a similar way.
The mobilization system established in 1969 and the government’s Chungmu Plan also need to be revamped to properly reflect the shifts in the economy and demographics. The Chungmu Plan, which specifies government roles for wartime support for the military, in particular, should be fundamentally upgraded. As the plan involves the declaration of martial law and mobilization of civilians — a pillar of military operations during war — it can hardly be carried out without effective support from local governments.
Since the January 21 infiltration of North Korean commandos to attack the Blue House in 1968, military drills have been augmented since 1976 after they changed into joint military-civilian drills. But a weakened sense of security among the public shakes the fundamentals of security. After being appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013, I repeatedly stressed the importance of a joint drill, but unfortunately it became a nominal exercise for lower-level government officials. That led to a collapse of the security sense and obligation of civil servants. What more explanation do I need when the past administration even stopped military drills for the regular forces?
People who have participated in joint drills with the U.S. forces are amazed to see their sincere attitude. Even if they conduct simulation exercises, they sincerely discuss possible countermeasures just like in real battles. What matters is a sense of devotion, repeated exercises, and fixing any problems discovered.
I experienced an interesting development during the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian drill a decade ago. Controversy broke over the bombing of the Hangang Bridge — the first bridge built on the Han River — to block North Korean forces from further advancing to the South. During the 1950-53 Korean War, that was the only bridge on the river bisecting Seoul. But now, there are 33 bridges. And yet, the drill was conducted based on the hypothesis that we still have one bridge on the river. You cannot expect a success from such soulless exercises.
A county’s nuclear development and operation plans are top secret. The information must not be disclosed. But North Korea is a country irrational enough to make public the legislation of a preemptive nuclear attack.
That’s why we must accept the North’s WMD stockpiles as an imminent threat. A minor mistake on our part can lead to the annihilation of the country. Who knew that a superpower could lose over 3,000 citizens from a terrorist attack in 2001? The government must build an integral security system to defend the country. At the same time, it must declare a stern response to the recalcitrant state across the border if it chooses to cross a line.
We coped with Kim Jong-un’s threat to turn Seoul into a sea of fire — and the Yeonpyeong shelling — with cool heads. But chemical weapons cannot be compared to any of its past provocations. The government must accept this existential threat and devise effective measures to deal with it. Foreigners are often surprised to see South Koreans maintaining unrivaled calmness in the most dangerous country on earth. That is a two-edged observation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.