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South Korea’s show of force and designation of the North as ‘Enemy’

Preeti Nalwa was Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • January 04, 2011

    The year 2010 had been particularly a challenging time for South Korea, forcing the nation to brace itself up militarily against the March “Cheonan” crisis and the November Yeonpyeong island artillery attack by North Korea. After its bravura of conducting military exercises in quick succession on December 20 and 23, 2010 despite warnings of extreme retaliation by North Korea, South Korea in an even more emboldened stance has designated the North as its “enemy” in its 2010 Defence White Paper revealed by its Ministry of Defence on December 30, 2010. Though the biennial paper has deliberately refrained from re-designating North Korea as the “main enemy”, the infelicitous designation is likely to further widen the political gap between the two Koreas.

    North Korea was first referred to as the “main enemy” following the hostile remarks made by a North Korean official during working-level inter-Korean talks held at the truce village of Panmunjeom in March 1994. The term had gained currency amid the circumstances of the first nuclear crisis and remained in prevalence till 1999. Under a conciliatory mood, heralded by the former President Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with North Korea, the South Korean government, following the first-ever inter-Korean summit in 2000, deleted some of the offensive references. The 2004 defence policy paper, issued under the liberal administration of President Roh Moo-hyun, retracted the notion of an enemy in keeping with the spirit of the continued engagement policy with the North, and simply denoted the North as a “direct military threat”. This stance was further softened in the 2006 version of the defence paper, which described North Korea as an existing military threat.

    Contrary to the belief of some analysts who interpret the advantages of the exclusion of the word “main” from the “enemy” construction, the fact remains that the latter connotation by itself is so inimical in content, that it is more than enough to sour the inter-Korean relationship which is already bedevilled with unprecedented hostility. It is believed that the Defence Ministry’s decision to use the term “enemy” without “main” is a balancing act, in acquiescing to the demands of the conservatives to revive the “main enemy” concept and for adopting a more bellicose posture after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea. At the same time, the avoidance of the use of the phrase “main enemy” is a strategy which leaves the option of restarting the inter-Korean dialogue, thus preventing an irreversible embitterment of the relationship.

    South Korea is, in fact, conjuring up a mix of a predominantly hawkish strategy with a pronounced harsh rhetoric against North Korea, while at the same time quixotically evoking the peaceful reunification of the peninsula. According to a Xinhua report, on December 29, 2010, Lee Myung-bak said at a meeting of the unification ministry that “We should make efforts to achieve peace through inter-Korean dialogue while enhancing our defence posture at the same time.” In a shift of focus, at the fag end of the crisis-ridden year, the South Korean Unification Ministry has said that next year’s policy goals would include preparations for unification with North Korea, rather than the previous strategy of improving ties. In a statement, the ministry said that the “North Korean” people would be the priority, explicitly mentioning that it will make special efforts to prepare its totalitarian neighbour’s 23 million people for reunification. It appears that South Korea is prudently making a distinction between the people of the North and its ruling regime, evident from the manner in which its Defence White Paper has employed the phrase “the North Korean government and military is our enemy.” South Korea has stressed upon the need to make preparations for the eventual collapse of the North Korean regime. On August 15, 2010 in a speech marking the liberation of the Korean peninsula from Japanese colonial rule, Lee Myung-bak had even proposed a “reunification tax” to help fund the expected cost of $1 trillion in an eventuality of the two Koreas rejoining.

    The “battle-ready” approach is thus being supplemented with diplomatic finesse, which unfortunately is not giving any perceptible reprieve from tensions on the peninsula. Soon after naming the North Korean regime as its “enemy”, South Korea has, quite abruptly, invoked the desirability of reverting to the forum of Six-Party Talks (SPT), while previously it has persistently refused to restart negotiations with Pyongyang unless the latter honours its denuclearization promises. South Korea’s hard power is intended to deter the North, and it does not propose its unilateral use as a means to effect regime change. In the near future, the mere resumption of the SPT without preconditions, or the inter-Korean dialogue, will constitute a quantum leap, while peaceful co-existence will remain an aspiration, and unification a far cry.

    The end of the year witnessed a renewed resolve by the South Korean leadership to hone the country’s military strength and provide a strong response to any future attacks by North Korea. President Lee Myung-bak had said that “We must launch a merciless, massive counterattack when we are hit by a surprise attack.” The zealous rigour to achieve this aim is evidenced by the South Korean military’s largest air-and-ground firing drills of the year conducted on December 23, 2010, at the training grounds of Pocheon, located about just 30 kilometres from the heavily fortified border. Though the exercises lasted for less than 45 minutes, they were the biggest-ever winter-time air and ground firing drills in terms of the number of weapons mobilized and fired. The joint drills involved 36 mobile artillery guns, six F-15 fighter jets, multiple rocket launch systems, and 800 troops. Brig. Gen. Joo Eun-sik, chief of the South Korean army’s 1st Armoured Brigade, explicitly said that the latest drills were intended at fortifying South Korea’s capability of “destroying the enemy at a single stroke by paralyzing its combat capability with our powerful firepower and manoeuvring equipment.” According to the Associated Press, Brig. Gen. Ju Eun-sik let it be known that the nation “will retaliate thoroughly if the North commits another provocative act like the shelling of Yeonpyeong.”

    Initially, on December 20, 2010, South Korea had first pushed through the exercises on the Yeonpyeong island itself, despite sabre-rattling from North Korea which had threatened to retaliate severely with force if the former goes ahead with the planned live-fire exercise after its announcement by Col. Lee Bung-woo, spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff. The US envoy to the UN, Susan Rice, said the drills were “fully consistent with South Korea's legal right to self defence.” As declared by Col. Robert Givens, deputy chief of military operations for US Forces Korea (USFK), 20 of its members provided command, control, medical, communication and intelligence support for the 90-minute artillery drill. To ensure compliance with the terms of the armistice, members of the Armistice Committee and UN Command representatives were also present. The defence of Yeonpyeong had been beefed up by the JCS which had deployed surface-to-air missiles, more K-9 self-propelled howitzers, and 130-millimeter multiple rocket launch systems on the island.

    Such preparations and precautions seem to have delivered dividends because contrary to its threats of violent retaliation North Korea chose not to strike back. But this should not give reason for the South to become complacent, for North Korea will choose an opportunity that will be advantageous in its reckoning. If South Korea wants to give credence or potency to its evolving strategy of dealing effectively with the North, it should seize upon the avenue of dialogue opened up by the recent visit of Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, to Pyongyang in an attempt to defuse inter-Korean tensions. He had announced that North Korea would allow UN inspectors to resume their monitoring of its nuclear programme, apart from giving serious thought to the creation of a three-way military commission with South Korea and the United States to monitor disputed areas. The North Korean offer to sell 12,000 plutonium rods to South Korea, as a gesture of good faith to prove its willingness to suspend its nuclear programme, is an avenue to re-open dialogue in 2011, whatever be the merit of its value.

    Both Koreas have called for better relations with the other in their own inimitable ways. The KCNA, North’s state-owned media, carried a New Year’s Day joint editorial of the three main official North Korean newspapers including Rodong Sinmun, which said that “Confrontation between north and south should be defused as early as possible.” In South Korea, President Lee Myung-bak, in a televised New Year’s address, said that he is “confident” there will be peace on the peninsula and that South Korea will “continue sustained economic growth.” The unexpected conciliatory New Year messages and diplomatic overtures would hopefully return some semblance of security to the region.

    In the final analysis what Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military leader and politician had said, sounds prophetic for the present complex situation prevailing on the Korean peninsula. He had said that “If you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies”. This refrain could not be more correct to unravel the intense distrust on the Korean peninsula.