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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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