Editor's Note: Robert E. Kelly is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University, South Korea. A longer version of this essay may be found at his website, Asian Security Blog.
By Robert E. Kelly - Special to CNN
Why does North Korea seem to get away with provocations like last week's rocket test? Jennifer Lind argues that North Korea manages to deter counter-strikes through a bizarre mixture of the ‘madman theory’ (what will the loopy, hard-drinking, megalomaniacal Kim family do next?), regional fear of what would follow a North Korean implosion, and traditional nuclear deterrence.
None of that is wrong, but I think she’s missing the big factor – South Korean domestic politics. Lots of countries and other international actors do crazy stuff; the question is whether the target wants to counterstrike and risk escalation. So it is South Korea ultimately (not the U.S. or Japan) that decides whether or not to hit back. And South Korea doesn’t want to strike back for two reasons. One, South Korean population centers are extremely vulnerable to Northern aggression. Two, South Koreans just don’t care that much about North Korea anymore.
Yes, South Korea is extremely vulnerable, and this ties the Korean military’s hands. Fifty percent of South Korea’s population lives in the northwest of the country, in the extremely dense Seoul-Kyeonggi-Incheon corridor.
The southern-most tip of this massive agglomeration is less than 70 miles from the demilitarized zone - the border between North and South Korea. The extreme demographic concentration of the Seoul area is increasing daily. This corridor is a huge, proximate, defenseless city-hostage to the North. North Korea does not need nuclear weapons to jeopardize the South’s center of gravity.
Does it make any sense to hyper-centralize a country in a direct competition with a dangerous neighbor and place the grossly overpopulated national capital just 40 miles from the border? Look at what the West Germans did. But decentralization never happens because of the cost and resistance of Seoul-based elites who like where they live.
Cold War planners used to say that the U.S. had an advantage over the Soviet Union, because its many federal layers of government and widely dispersed population meant it could absorb a Soviet strike better. By contrast, because the Soviets centralized everything in Moscow, they were very vulnerable to a decapitation strike. The logic is the same here. South Korea is extremely centralized (a legacy of the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship), not just politically but in everyway - culturally, economically, demographically. And it is impossible to shield these people from a North Korean rocket and artillery bombardment (even non-nuclear).
That Korean urbanites live in towering apartment blocks only worsens their vulnerability. This dramatically ties the hands of the South Korean government. Even if none of Lind’s three variables applied, the huge risk alone is enough to prevent South Korean escalation or response.
Next, Korea-based Western analysts (myself, Brian Myers, Brendan Howe) have noted the growing disinterest in South Korea for retaliation, or even otherwise engaging North Korea. In an analysis of the 2010 Yeonpyeong shelling, I argued that the most likely way to end the Korean stalemate is greater South Korean commitment to ‘win’ rather than today’s manage-when-necessary-and-ignore-when-possible ‘strategy.’ I also argued for a significant effort to ‘harden’ South Korea to withstand this competition. But when Brendan and I suggested raising South Korean defense spending, which is a paltry 2.3% of GDP, conferees roundly said it is politically impossible.
In the language of international relations theory, South Korea is not really a revisionist power anymore; it is a status quo power. De jure, (i.e., in its constitution), South Korea is committed to unity, but as anyone who lives here can tell you, most South Koreans are genuinely frightened not of North Korea, but of its collapse: The huge amount of money it will cost, the massive, generations-spanning reconstruction it will require, internal ‘refugees’ from the north decamping in southern cities, loss of the hard-won OECD lifestyle in the name of national sacrifice, etc.
A parallel is young Germans by the mid-1980s. They too increasingly saw the inter-German border as a real border, not a temporary division. Divide a community long enough, and it slowly becomes two.
I see this with my students at Pusan University in South Korea all the time. We talk about reunification in class a lot, naturally. It’s an unnerving abstraction to them; they certainly don’t get fired up about it. I have never seen a Korean get passionate, angry, or intensely patriotic about unification, even though they are quite nationalistic as a people. South Koreans get more angry and emotional over territorial disputes with Japan or China than Norht Korea. Just look at the lack of interest and care shown to North Koreans who make it to the South.
South Koreans seem increasingly comfortable letting North Korea go its own, bizarre way. This is why the conservative, anti-communist press in Korea comes off so strident; they’re terrified that South Korea is effectively a status quo power now.
President Lee’s post-Sunshine Policy return to confrontation is very unpopular here (even though lots of Western analysts thought that was wise). The conservatives in this year’s elections here are running as doves now. Lots of Koreas thought that the 2010 Cheonan sinking was a plot by the Lee government or the even Americans, or that it illustrated the incompetence of the administration. There was no post-9/11-style national outburst. And a similar shrug greeted the 2010 Yeonpyeong shelling. In the just-concluded 2012 parliamentary elections, North Korea wasn’t an issue, even though the rocket launch preparation was making global news during the campaign.
This is not appeasement of the ‘madmen’ in Pyongyang. It’s disinterest. More than anything else, South Koreans just want North to go away. If North Korea can hang on a few more decades, the South may not even want unity.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Robert E. Kelly.