Home / General / A Modest Proposal for Shifting the Strategic Calculus in the Korean Peninsula

A Modest Proposal for Shifting the Strategic Calculus in the Korean Peninsula


Robert Kelly, who teaches at Pusan National University, explains why South Korea’s threats of “enormous retaliation” against the North are, for now at least, probably empty rhetoric – despite the fact that as Dan Nexon points out, South Korea has DPRK outmatched in terms of firepower.

Kelly argues:

This probably won’t escalate, because the South Koreans have little appetite for war against NK. The sinking of the Cheonan was a far worse provocation (46 sailors died), but the SK military did nothing, because most South Koreans just want to forget about NK. They don’t want their wealthy comfortable democracy trashed in a war with a ruler they consider a quack. So South Koreans just put up with this stuff.

In an earlier post well worth revisiting, Kelly expanded on precisely why war is so frightening to South Koreans, despite the fact that they would win it:

SK’s hands are tied by the extreme vulnerability of its major population centers to NK retaliation. Specifically, following the above map of Korea’s provinces and cities, Seoul has 10.464 million; Gyeonggi province around it, filled with Seoul’s suburbs, has 11.549 million, and Incheon has 2.767 million. Busan by contrast has just 3.566 million. Korea’s total population is 48.875 million. (Those numbers come from a colleague at PNU’s Department of Public Policy and Management.) Worse yet, Busan’s population is shrinking, and Incheon’s is growing. So this means that 50% of Korea’s population lives within 50 miles of the DMZ, and 30% lives within just 35 miles.

NK knows this, and in order to hold SK hostage against any Southern retaliation for incidents like the Cheonan, it has stationed something like 10-20k artillery and rockets at the DMZ closest to this massive urban agglomeration in northwest SK. In effect then, half of the SK population is a massive city-hostage to NK, and it is only worsening because of Incheon’s rapid new growth. Given that Koreans mostly live in high-rise apartment buildings, some with 60+ stories, the result would be hundreds of World Trade Center collapses. I live in such a high-rise; I can’t imagine that it could realistically withstand a Scud missile or two. 2500 live in my building alone. Consider that all across Gyeonggi, and you have a holocaust.

Now this begs the obvious question: why is South Korea so willing to maintain and even exacerbate this status quo in the long term? Centralizing its population in the northwest not only puts its civilians at tremendous risk but also hobbles the governments’ ability to deter military threats. In other words, it compromises both state security and human security. And in the end it may simply not work, leading to massive civilian casualties.

One answer is that South Korea lacks viable options, but Kelly has a proposal worth contemplating:

What to do? To me it seems rather obvious – the gradual de-centralization of SK’s population (and government and economy) from the northwest. Strangely, I have found almost nothing in the IR-national security literature on SK defense recommending or even discussing this choice. Yet when I suggested it last week at KIDA, multiple SK and US analysts and officers approached me afterwards to discuss the idea. Should Korea’s population be spread more equitably around the peninsula and further south from the DMZ, this would open now strike-back options after incidents like the Cheonan.

There are several objections worth rebutting now.

1. It would be expensive. Ok. Sure. But so is all the ROK defense spending that goes into protecting the northwest already.

2. It would take forever. Yes, this is true. But the stalemate with NK is now entering its seventh decade. To our great surprise, NK has withstood the end of the CW, the collapse of Soviet support, the death of Kim Il Sung, and the famines of the 90s. Rather than taking a perpetually short-term attitude toward NK – when will it just collapse so we can get on with reconstruction? – a better approach might be to consider strategies to win a drawn-out stalemate, which is already what this conflict is anyway. Consider that if decentralization had started in 1990 how much better the post-Cheonan options would be.

3. When NK collapses, this will have been a huge waste of money.
Not necessarily, because there are regional growth and national equity reasons also in support of decentralization. Ie, the ROK is already far too centralized one place (Seoul). Koreans outside of Seoul even call it the ‘Seoul-Republic.’ Like France, SK is wildly unbalanced with one city starving the rest of the country for capital, human talent, government attention, etc. (One sees this quickly living, as I do, in the ‘provinces,’ like Pusan.) Even if NK collapses, it would be healthier for SK to look more like Germany, Canada, or the US, with multiple large cities competing with each other for national resources and talent.

4. Forced population transfer are illiberal and wrong in a democracy. This is the strongest argument. Clearly decentralization would happen most rapidly if it were coerced, but this is, correctly, intolerable. But the government could create lots of incentives short of force. It could move the seat of the ROKG out of Seoul for starters. Brazil did this – for regional equity purposes – in 1960; and West Germany put its capital in sleepy little Bonn, because West Berlin was just too exposed. Israel doesn’t let too many people live near the borders with Gaza and Lebanon. So there is democratic precedent. Also, the Korean government intervenes in the economy all the time to help companies with subsidies and what not. How about directing some of that money outside of the northwest? But I agree it would be tricky; eminent domain, even for national security, would be tough when millions of people are involved.

I’m no Korea expert, so I’m very interested in reactions to this idea from readers and contributors who follow events in the region more closely than I do. I will say that from my sheltered (and admittedly naive) American perspective, it’s such a no-brainer in strategic and humanitarian terms that I’m genuinely curious why it isn’t at least being discussed more seriously. What am I missing?

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  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Centralizing its population in the northwest not only puts its civilians at tremendous risk but also hobbles the governments’ ability to deter military threats.

    This strikes me as being as stupid as “Why don’t they just move New Orleans to somewhere less dangerous?”

    Cities are built on geography and human inertia. What starts as trade routes and resource-rich regions result in the financial, government and service structures to support those primary industries. That’s what causes the influx of immigrants, the concentration of wealth, and eventually the self-sustaining nature of the city.

    Cities don’t die unless that fundamental geographic economic advantage disappears. While there might be ways of encouraging growth in the south, there won’t be a fundamental shift of population without a regional economic incentive.

    Moving the government buildings from one spot to another might shift a population, but only a small portion of it. Only 16 US state capitals are located in the largest city of the state, after all.

    • catclub

      Consider Phoenix and Las Vegas as counter examples. They were supplied plenteous water by the federal government and grew – not due to geography, trade routes and resources.

      Start withdrawing those subsidies and they will shrink. Likewise for growing new cities in SK.

      It could be done.

      • Left_Wing_Fox

        Maybe, but Phoenix isn’t as much of a counter-example as it seems, and Vegas is a significant outlier.

        Phoenix already had the old Salt River irrigation canals servicing effective farmland, which means water reallocation was already using existing geographical features. That in turn lead to the industrial boost that turned the city into the industrial center and transportation hub (via. I-10).

        Las Vegas is an interesting counter-example, but what made the city economically unique and valuable was the legal status that allowed for morally questionable entertainment, which as then turned into a “Disneyland for grownups” tourist center with help from water and power allocation. That’s one city I could see collapsing once gaming and prostitution become more widespread, and government subsidies for power and water were eliminated.

      • djw

        The carrots are a lot less problematic than the sticks.

    • elm

      Except no one is talking about having Seoul “die” or creating a city out of nowhere. Pusan is already the 2nd largest city in S. Korea. Moving the capital there would, in the short term, shift some population. Investing in the university, providing subsidies for businesses to relocate, and whatnot would shift more. Enough to make Pusan the largest city and Seoul the second largest? Probably not and certainly not in any reasonable length of time. But significant population could be rather easily be shifted south without any coercion.

      Is it worth it? Probably not. As pointed out below, Korea is small enough that, while the short range artillery massed in the DMZ can’t reach Pusan, plenty of missiles could. So the civilian population is still in quite a bit of harm’s way.

      (Also, like others, I don’t buy the “you don’t want to be like France” argument. I don’t see anything inherently wrong with having a country’s population concentrated in one metro-area, so there is no benefit in my mind outside of security and civilian safety concerns. And these aren’t big enough, in my non-expert opinion, to justify the effort and cost.)

  • Murc

    Like France, SK is wildly unbalanced with one city starving the rest of the country for capital, human talent, government attention, etc.


    I have the same response to THIS point as I do when people proudly show me a county-by-county breakdown of Presidential voting habits (with vast, vast swathes of red surrounding tiny islands of blue) or talk about how unfair it is that the thirteen largest urban areas in the U.S basically decide how elections go at the expense of ‘the rest of the country.’


    If your tiny hinterland province is getting less support than the massive population centers of your country, assuming all other things equal, then the system is working as intended.

    • Scott Lemieux

      And what’s wrong with France, exactly? It’s a wealthy country. Paris is fantastic. Many of the provincial areas are very, very nice. What’s the problem? What would moving a million people from Paris to AVignon and Lyon and Nice accomplish?

      • elm

        Shorter lines at the museums and cafes.

    • ajay

      Like France, SK is wildly unbalanced with one city starving the rest of the country for capital, human talent, government attention, etc.

      This may be true of Korea but I don’t think it’s true at all for France. Yes, Paris is very big and very rich. But no bigger than London, in a country with a similar population. And the European Parliament’s in Strasbourg, the aerospace industry is clustered around Toulouse, the heavy industry is still in the north-east, a lot of the tourism industry is in the south and the Loire valley, the chemical industry’s in the Rhone valley, etc. In fact, there’s less of a regional mismatch in France than in the UK, Spain, Italy or Germany.

  • Gwen

    Actually, this strikes me as dumber than the “move New Orleans” example. First, New Orleans is much smaller than Seoul. Second, hurricanes are a problem that will continue to face the Gulf Coast forever… the benefits are literally stretched out over infinity, whereas NK could collapse in 10 years, so that definitely skews the cost-benefit analysis.

    I say that being a Gulf Coast resident… I live in Galveston-“why haven’t you people figured out that living on a sandbar is a bad idea”-Texas.

    The solution that is obvious to me is to end all aid to North Korea until artillery and rockets are moved away from the DMZ and declare a policy of massive nuclear retaliation in response to artillery shelling.

    I know that amounts to “solving a hostage crisis by taking your own hostage,” but we’re dealing with a certified socio/psychopath kook here, and nothing less will suffice.

    (And no, I am not a Republican or even a neo-con, just a realist liberal Democrat).

    • NBarnes

      Don’t you need a ‘what to do if NK says, `Sure!` and pushes the Big Red Button’ plan for that to work? A really really good plan? I think you’re overlooking the part where we aren’t sociopathic kooks and thus care what happens to all the people in Inchon and, additionally, in NK. It’s true that this limitation puts us one-down when dealing with the NK leadership, but that’s the problem already.

      • Gwen

        Well, I suppose I forgot the “we’re not kooks also” part.

        This is why, despite being a Texan, I can recognize it’s probably a good idea that nobody from Texas ever be allowed to be President again.

        Stop us before we kill again, etc etc.

    • aknoxmax6

      “I am a realist liberal Democrat”??? Advocating we attack NK with “massive nuclear retaliation” for any further artillery attack??? Cut off food aid until longstanding military policy that NK views as a cornerstone is moved away from the DMZ??? This is not a liberal Democratic view.

      Neither is the forementioned movement of whole cities in order to open up options for escalating military conflict. Are we to call it a success if there are only 30% of the population exposed to war??? Are we to think so small that “lacking viable military options” could not be a good thing. Where would escalation lead? Might not the SK view of “little appitite for war” be a better foundation for finding a way forward?

      • djw

        Yeah, most ‘realists’ who understand the meeting of the term that I’ve met are pretty iffy about unnecessarily starting nuclear wars.

      • The Perfect Guest

        Thank you.

        Kelly expanded on precisely why war is so frightening to South Koreans, despite the fact that they would win it:

        Does Kelly consider this possible explanation? Even if a “win” didn’t involve huge casualties on their own side, it would involve killing huge numbers of people who, though the enemy, are also of their own nationality, language, culture, etc. That is, maybe there’s an aversion to war simply because of an aversion to killing large numbers of the population with whom they identify and hope to restore as their countrymen when the two Koreas are reunited? That war might actually not be the best way to bring about that desired end goal?

        In other words, maybe most folks in SK don’t actually hate the folks in NK nearly as much as their respective governments hate each other. Maybe their aversion to war is greater than their desire for unification. Maybe their desire for unification is driven more by shared national identity then by Right/Left ideology. Maybe they understand that unification by force can’t work, as the war itself ought to have demonstrated by now.

        Maybe they’re no more interested in inflicting huge casualties on the North than they are in suffering same. Or just not as interested in inflicting casualties on the North as some in the IR punditry may be.

        Armchair generals and some serious people among IR professionals want to see more military options but seem to be more interested in this than are the people of the country in question, whose aversion to renewed war can only be explained by their own vulnerability to civilian casualties. Because otherwise, there clearly is no good reason not to go to war.

        • Nathan

          Depends on the generation of the Korean involved.

          • The Perfect Guest

            Point taken. But the people who fought in the hot war in the 50s when they were young are all at least in their 70s now. Since the post is about long-term security strategy, ought not younger generations’ attitudes carry more weight since they’ll actually be around to see how the strategy works?

            (I’m assuming it’s the older generations, especially war veterans, who take a more hawkish stance.)

            By “works” I mean, “accomplishes the goal.” The goal, long term, is reunification, yes? Does making the civilian population somewhat less vulnerable to mass casualties over the long term contribute in a meaningful way toward that goal? As others have pointed out, it doesn’t really pass a cost-benefit test from a security standpoint.

  • ajay

    I think the main reason is this:

    At present, 22 million Koreans live in Seoul and the surrounding area. Even a massively succcessful dispersion process wouldn’t move them all. Even if it moved 90% of them, that would still leave 2 million Koreans within artillery range: and that would still be enough to serve as hostages. The Soviet nuclear deterrent would still have worked if the missiles had all been aimed only at Green Bay WI and Birmingham AL rather than New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington etc.

    • Hmm. That’s a good point, at least in explaining why it might not be seen as an effective solution to the basic strategic quandary. Though in human security terms, reducing the most vulnerable civilians by a hypothetical 20 million seems like a worthwhile goal in itself.

      • Left_Wing_Fox

        Maybe, but history has not looked kindly on the cost-benefit analysis of forced relocation.

        There have been some good ideas and comments here about policy shifts which could save lives in case of an artillery strike at Seoul, (I.e. economic incentives for development of southern cities, clear end effective evacuation plans, zoning or building code requirements which could aid in minimizing casualties) which would be far less disruptive than directed relocation.

        • DocAmazing

          Maybe, but history has not looked kindly on the cost-benefit analysis of forced relocation.

          Last time I looked, Andrew Jackson was still on the $20 bill.

          • The Perfect Guest

            And your use of him as an example with no need for explanation since we all know exactly what you’re talking about, shows that history, if not the US Treasury, has not judged him kindly.

  • Simple mind

    Don’t they plan on reunification some day? In the meantime, you can’t declare war on yourself. BTW, 60 years of crisis…kinda demonstrates the limits of US power…

  • Thinking further about just the question of moving the capital (not the same thing as ‘moving the entire city’ but, as Kelly argues, a non-coercive step that would send a signal to DPRK and possibly incentivize a longer-term, gradual decentralization of the ROK population): it’s actually done more often than you might think. Here is an interesting working paper post-dating the move of the Kazakhstan capital city, and discussing the geopolitics of capital relocation in the latter twentieth century.

    • Murc

      I’d say moving the capital form Seoul makes sense from a purely practical standpoint (If, in the year 2015, war is beginning, you probably don’t want all your most important government offices, officials, and top military brass someplace where they can potentially get flattened during the opening salvo) but will almost certainly never happen due to a ‘pride’ standpoint; the place has been Korea’s capital (though not under its current name) for something like six centuries. It would be like asking the French or British to move their seat of government from London or Paris.

      (Yes, I know the latter actually happened. Being conquered by Germany will do that to your capital.)

  • djw

    I think a good way to think about this proposal is to ask two questions:

    1) Which policies designed to shift population are consistent with a free, open society and a liberal democratic government, and which are not?

    2) Are the policies in first category likely to produce a population shift of such magnitude that the geopolitical security situation would change in a meaningful way?

    Having a frank conversation about precisely how to do this. If the plan is to, say, increase the investment in Busan National University at the expense of Seoul National University, or to provide tax incentives to those who invest in industry in the South, or whatnot, that’s fine and good. But it seems pretty unlikely to me that sort of thing is going to be enough. I’m no Korea expert, and I’ve been re-reading James Scott’s Seeing Like A State lately, which always puts me in a skeptical mood about this sort of grand, ambitious scheme, but I’d be more than a little surprised to see (2) be answered in the affirmative.

  • Charlie Sweatpants

    Take this with a great big grain of salt, but couldn’t most of the sting be taken out of the hostage problem with a serious civil defense/evacuation plan?

    You couldn’t move 20 million people overnight obviously. But presuming Seoul and the northwest have very extensive and well maintained infrastructure it should be feasible to move millions of people out of there relatively quickly. You’d need to have it planned ahead of time, and you’d need to practice at least part of it with some regularity, but if the European powers could mobilize millions of troops in just a week or so in 1914, shouldn’t a century of technological improvement enable the Koreans to do something similar with kids and non-essential civilians?

    The evacuees would have to have dedicated destinations, either with family/friends outside of the likely fire zone or in pre-fab housing. Precautions would need to be taken about provisions, drinking water, sewage, fire protection, etc. But the chief problem is one of scale, and scale is something industrialized economies do very well.

    Seoul and the people slated to remain behind would need to be prepared as well. Again though, this is mostly a question of scale. Assuming you’re only worried about conventional artillery and not nuclear or chemical rounds, bunkers wouldn’t need to be overly deep or overly provisioned. You’d just need to make sure that everyone who’s going knows when and where to go, and everyone who’s staying knows where to seek shelter when the sirens go off.

    To repeat, you couldn’t do this overnight. (And for all I know something along these lines already exists.) It would require years of planning and the occasional massive civil defense drill. But assuming you had a few days/weeks of crisis as a warning, there’s no reason you couldn’t get Seoul and the surrounding area into a position where the DPRK could smash all those high rises without inflicting unacceptable (guh, now I feel like General Ripper) civilian casualties.

    There are a lot of problems with this:

    a) how long could you maintain the evacuated population in the event of a prolonged crisis?
    b) would this create an incentive for an all out DPRK attack earlier in a crisis?
    c) it wouldn’t be cheap
    d) it would be disruptive of civilian life
    e) lots more that I’m sure I haven’t thought of on account of I’m no Korea expert

    I wouldn’t even suggest this, except that if several US and SK analysts/officers want to hear more about permanently relocating the population by fiat, then this can’t be completely out of the realm of the possible.

  • Jonathan

    A quick and easy solution to NK in five easy steps.

    1) Acknowledge that it’s in China’s national security interests to have a buffer client-state on the Korean peninsula.

    2) Strike a deal with China that the US will remove 90% of its forces from SK if China backs regime change in NK.

    3) Pay China $50-60B for reconstruction and regime change in NK.

    4) Let China lead the regime change. Let them plan the reconstruction. And threaten SK with economic sanctions if they interfere.

    5) Profit.

    • Nathan

      Chinese wouldn’t saddle themselves with that, not for all the Tea in Tealandia

    • S Physicist

      I’m sure that South Korea will love that plan. But ignoring the opinions of our small allies–why would the Chinese agree? Even if they believe that they can prevent serious instability in a starving country that has nuclear weapons, a million-man army with heavy weapons, and that adjoins a part of their country that has, to my understanding, a large ethnically Korean population, they’d probably expect a good portion of those newly idle American forces to be sent to defend Taiwan and/or muck about in the South China Sea.

      • David M. Nieporent

        Who cares about the Chinese? They’re not the big obstacle to that plan. Here’s the real question: why would the North Koreans agree? (Or, rather: why would the North Korean government agree?) It’s the North Koreans who are threatening peace, not the Chinese.

        • Jonathan

          The North Koreans would agree because they get 90% of their food, fuel, energy, weapons, and material from China. They can’t survive without China.

          How the hell does launching ballistic missiles, detonating nukes, sinking SK ships, and shelling SK territory count as “threatening peace”?

          North Korea is trapped between two powers in the US and China. Their whole game has been siding with China while using US interest as leverage against outright Chinese control.

      • Jonathan

        China would agree because NK has nuclear capability. Assuming the reason China supports NK is to have a buffer state on the peninsula and a client state is can act through, a nuclear-armed NK is actually undesirable. The only reason China keeps supporting the NK regime is that any regime change in NK would end up bring the country closer to the SK-US axis and out of Chinese control. Moreover, NK knows this. It gives them leverage with China because it’s either them or no one. If you eliminate that disincentive, China would naturally exert more force on NK for regime change.

        SK wouldn’t like that. They’d probably like it more than a nuclear-armed hostile state within artillery range of most of their population. The US could use the carrot of a more favorable trade agreement and the stick of tariffs on Korean goods to pressure the SK government to go along with the plan. This also has the benefit of being plausibly deniable because the trade dispute has been going on. The economic cost to the US would be offset by the benefits of stability in the region allowing a draw-down of forces.

        I also meant withdrawing those troops from the theatre all together. Possibly even standing down those units permanently. In fact, regardless of what’s going on in Korea, it’s in the US best interest to ease military tensions with China. I think the US should be running joint exercises with China like we do with Japan. The last half-century of Sino-American relationships has been marked by China’s attempts at a closer relationship and America’s attempts at hostility. That needs to change.

    • LosGatosCA

      Pay the Chinese $50-60B? By borrowing more from them?

      Seriously, on foreign policy, the Chinese seem to be pretty good at not forcing any action that doesn’t accrue immediate advantage and letting the rest of the game come to them rather than chasing short term dreams that waste resources and de-focus them.

      My uneducated guess is that they are willing to play the NK self-destruct strategy for another 7 decades if necessary. Or at least until there becomes some compelling reason to act, which there is clearly not at this point, at least in their eyes.

      Raise it up a level – do the Japanese want the Chinese being the unifiers and thereby ultimate protectors of Korea? Would any serious US interests be served by such a Chinese success? (serious excludes neo-cons, who have already strengthened Iran). Do the Koreans want to be dominated by the Chinese? NK is a buffer on their side as well. The Chinese know these answers. Therefore, any acceptable deal to the US, Japan, and SK means, de facto, the Chinese are getting the shitty end of the stick.

      The status quo is an ugly, uncomfortable, high maintenance equilibrium point but all other alternatives to establish a new equilibrium point are even higher cost, just as ugly, and riskier to the point of even greater discomfort.

      Personally, I don’t find it so much different than the Middle East in terms of insolvability. Learn to stop worrying and love the bomb.

  • I think just looking at Brasilia is a good counterexample to all of this. Brazil may have moved the government into the hinterland. But it made virtually no difference in population patterns. It’s not like Rio and Sao Paulo somehow became less important to the Brazilian economy. Or that people stopped moving there.

    For that matter, the creation of Washington D.C. definitely did not undermine the dominance of New York in American life.

    On top of this, South Korea is a very small nation. Land is extremely expensive. They are concerned about their vulnerability of having to import rice, cabbage, and other staples. Land to put 20 million people in the southern part of the country is all going to come from farmland. This would have pretty massive costs, not only financial, but societal and environmental.

    And even if this was all successful, wouldn’t North Korea still be able to lob missiles throughout the nation, simply because it is so small?

    • Nathan

      Or similarly, the creation of Canberra slow down the development of Sydney and Melbourne one iota.

    • elm

      I know less about Brazil than you do, but aren’t there over 3 million people in Brasilia and its suburbs? How many would be there without the capital located there? Wouldn’t they mostly be living in Sao Paulo and Rio instead? 1 million more people in each city isn’t nothing.

      • Sure, there are 3 million people who would be living somewhere else. It’s complicated though to say that they’d all be living in Rio or Sao Paulo (and frankly I don’t know much about what I’m about to say) but one would assume that Brasilia has drawn heavily from rural areas surrounding it. Now, perhaps those people would go to Rio instead, but I don’t know.

        In any case, Brasilia certainly hasn’t caused any kind of population decline in the big coastal cities and it’s unlikely that Korea moving its capital to Pusan would be any different.

  • djw

    Right; I’m cautiously optimistic about a competent, non-authoritarian state creating a new population center and attracting a substantial number of citizens. I’m not at all competent they can accurately target *which* citizens in large numbers. I’m even less confident a non-authoritarian state can target one of the world’s megacities for an orderly, liberal de-population.

  • min

    From my South Korean perspective (and as a student of IR), something is missing in Kelly’s analysis. Put it simply, we (I live in Seoul) just don’t care about NK as much as people outside assume we do. Despite the recent artillery shelling of an island which could qualify as an act of war, people here is still enjoying Asian Games (Asia’s Olympic Games) and mourning over losing the soccer match. While the president called for a stern retaliation, people just don’t take it in a literal sense. That’s the daily life here in SK. Yet, whether this would persist in the future if NK continues to poke in the eye of SK is another matter that requires more in careful analysis.

    • CBrinton

      I think it could. Consider the period around 1967-69, when the North Koreans, for reasons still not adequately explained, initiated a major series of incidents along the DMZ and elsewhere (including a serious attempt to assassinate Pak Chung Hee). Several hundred South Korean soldiers were killed, along with 40 or 50 American GIs. The South Koreans got used to it, and went along with their lives. I doubt they’d behave much differently today.

      I personally agree that SK is too Seoul-centered, but this will not change out of fear of the North Koreans. A shelter-building program is much more plausible (albeit also not terribly likely IMO).

  • Scott de B.

    Isn’t a far simpler answer to have a refined counterbattery barrage ready to go when needed?

  • I am the author of the post Dr. Carpenter cites. I would also encourage readers to leave commentary on the page of the original post or my most recent post on the NK issue. I am automatically notified of comments and can respond more rapidly.

    Let me try to answer a few of the objections proposed:

    1. ‘You can’t just move cities.’ Perhaps, but that misstates my suggestion. Seoul is very old city with strong emotional roots in Korean national identity. It will not move. But it can shrink. Its postwar explosion into a megalopolis is a direct result of (reversible) policy choices – including the government’s susbsidization of mega-firms (chaebol), huge infrastructure projects like the Incheon airport, and most importantly, the legacy of authoritarian political centralization. Like most dictators, SK’s pre-democratic generals centralized almost everything (in Seoul) in order to more easily control the state. This legacy survived and worsened, gradually depopulating Korea’s other major cities (Pusan, Daegu, Dajeon) as everyone now wants to ‘move up’ (the local term) to Seoul. It has become a vacuum that hoovers up talent relentlessly and starves the rest of the country, and it is actually getting worse now, not better: Pusan, the second city, is shrinking and aging, while Incehon, right next to Seoul, is booming. (This has slowly become a bigger issue in Korean politics in the last two decades as the imbalance between Seoul and the rest has become genuinely extreme. The ‘Sejong City’ project aims to move the capital, although the local argument for rebalancing away from Seoul is made mostly for regional equity, not national security, purposes.) In short, Seoul’s centrality relfects historical path-dependence that can be reversed by new policy choices, although Seoul-based elites in almost all fields oppose this as a major inconvenience.

    2. ‘It is illiberal to move them.’ Yes, it is, but a) deomcracies make such calculations all the time, b) living next to NK is vastly more disruptive than refusing to move for the development of a mall or something, and c) I don’t endorse coercion but incentivization. The West Germans imposed all sorts of restrictions on the residents of West Berlin that didn’t apply elsewhere, and Israel too uses zoning codes and such all the time for political purposes. SK already prevents people from living even closer to the DMZ. Also, Korea, unlike Western states, embraces state-led development and expects the state to do these sorts of things. Americans find ’eminent domain’ a culturally unacceptable intrusion on personal freedom, but I bet if you polled Koreans you wouldn’t get nearly that sort of anger. The role of the state in Korean life is much greater, subtler, and desired than it is in the US. Further, all sorts of places are deemed off-limits for residence for national security reasons in many countries. Finally, it hardly strikes me as ‘residential fascism’ or something to encourage people not to live right next door to a super-dangerous enemy. Indeed, I am rather amazed that SK never did anything to halt this decades ago. The scale, not the legality, strikes me as the real problem. There are just so many people in Seoul and Kyeonggi; any serious plan to encourage relocation would take forever and cost mountains of money. On top of the demographic movement would be the further costs of an economic and political shift. It seems ridiculously expensive when the money could be spent on so much else. But if unwinding the already-exising over-population would be hard, the government could still take steps to prevent it from worsening in the future, as it is doing right now (point 1 above).

    3. ‘Can’t we just protect them by destroying the weapons targeted at them?’ This is what US Forces in Korea (USFK) hope, and they will tell you that in the first few hours of a war, they are going to fly hundreds of sorties to get the canon and artillery. In response to this NK has put, by some estimates 20,000 artillery and rockets at the nearby DMZ as a counter. I have not meet any analyst here – military or cilivian, Korean or America – who believes that allied air power could get them all without several hours (minimum) of bombing runs. Given that most Koreans live in closely clustered high rises, not dispersed homes, you only one need one or two shells or rockets to kill 2000 people. The referent image should be the hundreds of World Trade Center towers clustered tightly in an area smaller than Rhode Island collapsing under a rain of shells. You don’t more than a few hours of Northern shelling to create a holocaust.

    4. ‘Can civil defense protect them?’ Probably not. First, Seoul/Kyeonggi’s transportation network would be dwarfed by the scale. Seoul traffic is already some of the worst in Asia. The subways are bursting during rush hour. The dilemma is similar to New Orleans’ one road out during Katrina. 2. The area around Seoul is hilly and rugged. 75% of the Korean population lives on only 25% of its landmass (that’s one reason we all live in enormous apartment towers). There is simply no where close to Seoul to handle the scale of movement unless you had many weeks to disperse them all over the peninsula. Finally, as I said in the orignal blogpost, NK artillery at the DMZ faces a severe ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ dilemma: once the war starts, allied air power is going to hammer these sites relentlessly. So if you start moving people out of Gyeonggi preemptively in a slow-moving crisis (like summer 1914, or right now in Korea?), you are signaling to the North to strike first before its deterrent evaporates.

    For all these reasons, it seems to me that there is no short-term answer, but that a medium-term policy incentivizing residence and investment elsewhere is the way to go. That should probably include decentralization of authority to Korea’s provinces, the movement of the capital to either Sejong City or Daejeon (because they are in the geographic middle of the country [and not Busan, because it is too far away]), and the subsidization of economic development outside of the northwest.

    • ajay

      I would be interested to hear comments on Dr Kelly’s argument above, specifically on these points:

      How widespread are bomb shelters in Seoul? Is it feasible to get most of the population underground given (say) an hour’s warning? These shelters need not be particularly deep. An artillery shell is a lot smaller than an aerial bomb – ten or fifteen pounds of explosive rather than five hundred. And any barrage would be very limited in time – yes, it would last several hours, possibly even a couple of days, but this is small compared to the months of bombardment suffered by other cities in the past, which the vast majority of their citizens nevertheless survived.

      Given that most Koreans live in closely clustered high rises, not dispersed homes, you only one need one or two shells or rockets to kill 2000 people.

      I am very sceptical that one or two artillery shells could bring down a high-rise. For all the WTC comparisons, remember that it took many tonnes of jet fuel, and the impact of an entire airliner, to bring down the towers. The 1993 WTC bombs were bigger than any artillery shells, and also much better placed, and left the towers essentially undamaged.

      Don’t forget, too, that the artillery will be firing blind. And dense as Seoul is, more than half its area is still open space – streets, parks, unused ground, car parks.

      • Left_Wing_Fox

        Well, considering I was the person lobbing round the word “stupid”, I may as well respond.

        My two major objections were to your first two points, i.e. how much of an effect the government has in the demographic shift of cities as opposed to geography and economics, and coercion versus incentives.

        While you make good points about the centralization of power through the pre-democratic governments, I still get the feeling that government incentives would be insufficient to overcome the economic and emotional inertia of a growing city, or do so in a meaningful timeframe given the rapidly escalating tensions between North and South.

        I do think ajay raises some excellent ones about the relative destructive power of artillery on a skyscraper; it would be nice to see some testing or modelling to that end.

        As it is, I don’t have any objections to government plans to shift it’s headquarters or economic incentives to southern cities to reduce potential casualties or disruptions in case of war. I just don’t see it as having a major effect on strategic policy between the two nations.

        • ajay

          The first month of the London Blitz, for example, saw 13,000 tonnes of high explosives dropped on London. That’s the equivalent of 2.6 million artillery shells – far more than I think anyone’s expecting to land on Seoul, more than the DPRK could fire without wearing the barrels of every one of its long-range guns smooth. (And it also saw London hit by a million incendiary bombs.) And despite this, London suffered “only” 16,000 casualties. Unless we’re assuming use of chemical weapons, or a completely unexpected attack, I don’t see how one gets to hundreds of thousands of casualties.

          • This response is cross-posted to my original post.

            According to the Korean SBS News website, there are 3900 bomb shelters in Seoul. They and the subway system, which is very extensive, are rated to hold 30M people, it says. At least so my (Korean) wife and I found on the internet after 10 minutes of digging. But I highly doubt that 30 M figure, and worse, no one has any idea where the shelters are. Certainly none of my friends and family near Seoul have any idea what to do in the case of a war. Nor does SK run civil air defense drills to practice this scenario. The bomb shelters are pretty old (from the war in most cases it says) and unmaintained. Also, we could not find anything on bomb shelters in Kyeonggi. In short, I just don’t think it is possible to move 24 million people under ground in a few hours. That seems heroic.

            As for the WTC analogue, I think it holds because the WTC was a properly maintained, modern, well-zoned and -coded edifice deeply rooted in Manhattan’s bedrock. It therefore required the massive 9/11 strike to pull them down. While the most recent apartment towers here meet those demanding specs, the vast majority don’t. Korea still has a lot of old, beat-up housing from the 60s-90s, before codes were well-enforced and all that. You see a lot of these old apartment blocks very easily just driving around here, and the government doesn’t condemn or replace housing like that because residential space was at a premium for so long. (Although Korea’s population growth is slowing and a real estate glut is beginning to appear, so that may change.) But looking out my window right now, I find it hard to imagine that these buildings would be standing after a rocket barrage. But this is my limit on architecture and munitions. You may know better than me.

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  • E.

    This post, and its associated commentary provide fodder for at least another full post in response, but allow me to make a few observations.

    1. Moving South Korea’s “center of gravity” is impractical in terms of the time it would require to accomplish, and the difficulty of getting outside of the range of the North’s longer-range missiles.

    2. War is frightening to South Korea “despite the fact that they would win it.” – What’s frightening is that people actually think this way. I’ll publish an essay presently detailing the hidden costs and inherent problems in a military solution (or any other sort of abrupt regime change.)

    3. So, if shifting cities and going to war isn’t the right answer, what’s the solution? Read this post for a complete answer to that question.

  • I disagree with Kelly that the sinking of the Cheonan was a far worse provocation (46 sailors died) than the attack on land. Navy Ships are over the horizon, out of sight.

    Neighborhoods burning is a powerful image on TV. Doesn’t help that the population has fled the island for fear of safety.

    A military attack on civilian neighborhoods is very different than an attack against a naval vessel. How the population perceives an attack – against us (national) vs against me (personnal) – is an important detail.

    See the USS Cole bombing and political reaction by the Clinton administration – just 10 years ago I might add – for a recent example towards my point.

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