The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Is war coming on the Korean Peninsula?

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 25, 2024 - 05:18

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These days, Seoul is very confused about the possibility of war breaking out.

There is a hard, cold warning that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has decided to go to war, and that the Korean Peninsula is seriously in danger. On the other side, there is fierce opposition that the threats from Kim are only psychological warfare.

The two voices contain different assumptions and premises, leading to different responses. If the former "war decision" argument is correct, half a million regular troops in the Republic of Korea and 2.7 million reserve forces should be put on high alert. Seoul should undertake the equivalent of martial law as a proper preparation.

If there is a war on the peninsula, it is highly likely to escalate into World War III, including nuclear war. Within one week of the outbreak of war, the death toll could be in the millions, and many of Korea's ultra-large manufacturing facilities, including Samsung Semiconductor and Hyundai Motor, would be destroyed, sending the two Koreas back to the Paleolithic era.

If the latter "crisis exaggeration" argument is correct, it would be reasonable for South Korea to focus on psychological warfare. Some people might propose that we unleash more harsh blackmail and intimidation than the North.

If we are to take effective responses to the threats or the crisis, we need to figure out the relation between the two approaches. Since they look contradictory, we should be cautious in reviewing them.

The starting point of the review should be where the problem began. Pyongyang is the epicenter of the war rumor. North Korean media reported in the early days of the new year that Kim declared that the South and the North are not relatives but two warring countries and threatened to decimate the South if he saw an opportunity.

He stated that the constitution of North Korea should specify the Republic of Korea as a prime enemy. He publicly expressed his intention to scrap the old principles his father and grandfather proposed regarding reunifying the two Koreas, including independence, peace and national unity. He said he would not avoid war if the opportunity arose. Kim's threat used the harshest expressions but without much repercussion. Kim has already made similar remarks many times.

The statements have received tremendous attention since they were re-examined through a contribution by Robert Carlin, an expert on North Korea in the US, and Siegfried Hecker on Jan. 11. Carlin is the most reliable expert in the world in deciphering North Korea's inner thoughts and strategies. Hecker is the world's top expert in knowledge and insight into North Korea's nuclear weapons capabilities. The two heavyweight experts warned that Chairman Kim has decided to go to war and that the Korean Peninsula is facing its most dangerous period since 1950. Their warnings are not something that can be ignored or taken lightly.

South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik raised the "crisis exaggeration" argument in a media interview on Jan 16. He stressed that the war concerns raised by US experts were exaggerated and that South Korea should not be swayed by the psychological warfare.

The South Korean defense minister is the one who must have the most accurate information, the sharpest analysis, and the most effective judgment on North Korean military issues on the planet. Therefore, it is not possible to ignore the crisis exaggeration argument easily.

Though both arguments look contradictory, it should be noted that they are at different levels of analysis. The war decision argument focuses on Kim's intentions and plans, and a major point of the argument is that there must be appropriate responses like crisis management to reduce the level of danger.

The crisis exaggeration argument focuses on the possibility of war occurring in the future. It stresses that North Korea is significantly lacking in the ability to wage war due to a lack of economic power. It also pointed out that it would be challenging for Kim to win domestic support for going to war and that it is also difficult to escape pressures or manipulation from the US, China and South Korea.

So, both arguments are reasonable and complementary.

If we mix the two approaches, we can get a more comprehensive plan and valuable guidelines on how to respond to threats, if not crises. First, it is necessary to take Kim's decision to wage war seriously. A situation in which a military leader who leads formidable weapon systems, including nuclear weapons and 1.2 million regular troops, threatens war is not a matter to be lightly laughed off.

There should be diplomatic efforts to prevent Kim from going to war. It is necessary to constantly inform him that the dissatisfaction of the desire is not resolved through war but rather destructive consequences for everybody. At the same time, an attractive scenario should be presented to solve the problem peacefully through dialogue and negotiation instead of war.

South Korea should make more diplomatic efforts to induce cooperation from the US and China. The South should encourage the United States to engage in dialogue and negotiations with North Korea while increasing its ability to carry out extended deterrence programs considering the possibility of a nuclear attack from North Korea. China should be asked to collaborate in establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula in addition to the goal of denuclearizing the peninsula.

Maintaining cool-headedness, not panic, is crucial for an effective response. However, a sober response does not include wild countermeasures like stronger blackmail or intimidation, which only cause the situation to deteriorate.

The likelihood of a war on the Korean Peninsula will be near zero if these guidelines are complied with. However, the possibility of war will explode without diplomatic efforts with the false interpretation that war is either inevitable or impossible.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.