April 16th, 2012
09:40 AM ET

Why South Korea doesn't respond

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.

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Topics: North Korea

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soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. maguko

    Very interesting point of view and I suppose it's based on reality.I'm not a specialist , but I'm fond of South Korean dramas, especially action dramas and I've noticed there the North-Koreans are some kind of evil or demons. And also the tendency to denounce those to the authorities.That's right , dramas are more or less art, but I couldn't help myself to think that this kind of thinking can be found in the deep of their minds. Another thing happened when the North defectors issue came a while ago and on the national television just a few words about a people's demonstration were said .Well, but this is just an opinion !Thanks for the opportunity!

    April 16, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  2. Dooman

    This is what I don't like about the press. They see just one side of the story, and make it sound like the whole lot is thinking the same. Of course there are a group of people who are not interested in reunification and worry about the economical burden it will cause, but there are also another group who sees the vast political, geographical, economical advantages and need for unification of the Koreas.

    What is changing in Korea is the reaction to the domestic press, which constantly tries to interpret every word and action from North Korea into a threat.

    We know that North Korea will never go for an all out war in the peninsula because it wil mean the end of the Kim family rule. And we know that trying to keep in power is what politics is all about. Its what every ruling party in any form of government in any country does; Pyongyang, Seoul or Washington.

    So its not a lack of passion for unification, its the tiresome threats the press makes up for political reasons that we don't care for anymore.

    April 16, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  3. Greg Hanson

    "Hit back", "strike back"... Is the author crazy? North Korea hasn't exactly launched a missile attack on the South Korean capital, mereley tested a rocket. Why would South Korea "strike back"? Nobody has "striked" anything, so it is then kind of hard to stike BACK. I think the author has played to many video games. This is reality. War means dead people. Only a fool – a madman country leader – would "strike back" at a nuclear bomb nation that has tested a rocket.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
    • Cragglesmacks

      Yep the cost is too much(money,people). South Korea doesn't need North Korea. Smartest thing to do is to watch and be in a position to counter them if they try anything. Too bad we don't have this same policy everywhere :'(

      April 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm |
    • kaxondeus

      ...is incredible how the people perceived this comments,and how many people just see this comments,but not read and understand them...a very healthy advice: READ,DIGEST AND UNDERSTAND BEFORE WRITING!

      April 16, 2012 at 11:49 pm |
      • AllanL

        And you have done that? That is amazing!

        April 17, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • WRG001

      North Korea shelled South Korean civilians. North Korea sunk a South Korean Navy vessel. Yeah, nothing to "strike back" for.....

      April 17, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  4. Joe

    There's no reason for South Korea to strike at it's own brethren. If the US supported puppet government dares to do such a thing, the south korean population will revolt and throw out the government along with the amereican occupiers.

    April 16, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
    • canadian-mountie

      If they over-threw their government and run out the so called "American occupiers" they would all be citizens of the peoples republic of Korea in less than a week

      April 17, 2012 at 1:17 am |
  5. Ki

    The younger generation is more removed from the North Korean conflict. They are also more spoiled and concerned with their own standards of living not dropping. It happens when a country gets developed. Fat and lazy. Look at the US now. The younger generation just wants to bury their heads in the sand. It is the older generation, like my father who grew up during the Korean War, that are more fearful and support a harsh stance. The younger generation doesn't understand any of this. Another parallel can be made of the Cuban exiles in Miami. The younger generation supports an end to the embargo. It is the older exiles that went through the pain that have the hard stance.

    April 16, 2012 at 2:15 pm |
    • Cragglesmacks

      Mandatory military service for men and a well prepared military. South Korea today is much more prepared and responsible in containing North Korea then 60+ years ago. Fat and lazy...yes....relevant.....no....look at the U.S. position in the world we are even fatter and lazier 🙂

      April 16, 2012 at 2:28 pm |
    • Mr. Right

      The younger generation has their heads in the sand? Compared to the baby boomers?!?! Now that's laughable. Its your generation that has pushed America to it's current state of affairs, which I will remind you, are not good sir.

      April 16, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  6. donwantnew

    Excuse me, "Hit back", "strike back"...?!! so does the author say that he find South Koreans strange and stupid because they do not start a war with North Koreans and kill each other? Koreans had already a horrible war destroyed the their land for years when kids could not study, people could not eat or enjoy their lives, losing their friends and families and looking theirs houses bombed. South Koreans are waiting for the right moment until things are naturally happening without too much loss. why does the author talk about how South Koreans prepare slowly? the regeneration program for North Korean defectors is one of them.

    "Hit back", "strike back"... these things will only make those rich who want to sell weapons and make money out of it. and the wannabe rich are obviously not Koreans.

    April 16, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
  7. Hailey

    I really don't get why this article came up. Why would we, South Korea, do something that would just harm us even further? Our government was very stupid when our boat sank from the ACTUAL attack from N.K. but this time we don't even know if the rocket was aimed towards us. We have no reason to attack a this country.

    April 16, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  8. Idiot Midwestern Armchair General

    There is literally nothing good that can happen. Logistically, there is nowhere to run if North Korea decided to shell South Korea, it being a peninsula surrounded on three sides by water. Only the most stupid of logic would motivate someone to draw fire when they live on a peninsula. The only choice actually is to forge North, but then that would be an aggression. What needs to occur is for China to draw down their usage of North Korea as their pawn, hedge and military proxy against the USA-South Korean forces. If only Kim would realize that China does not care about his country, and that to China, North Korea is nothing more than cannon fodder and human shields, perhaps he would see the obsolete nature of his father and grandfathers' regimes in a modern world.

    April 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm |
    • AllanL

      Is it not amazing that every where the Americans have gone, war, suffering, destruction and death are the result? More than 60 years later, the Americans seem to have learnt only one thing: the answer to every question is to kill.

      Killing sprees across the globe mark America's presence. Do you not find that track record, astonishing, depressing?

      April 17, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Tron San



      高官愛錢如命 不敢開戰爭取領土

      事實上所做所為跟 "賣國求和" 是完全相同的


      April 17, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  9. Yoo Jin

    I completely agree with this article. People in South Korea no longer cares about what North Korea does. North Korea's madman acts are not a surprise anymore. Since the 'sunshine' policy, North Korea agreed on engaging in the peace talk with South Korea one day, and the next morning they decided to test nuclear weapons, shoot rockets, and provoke South Korea. North Korea's these kinds of two-faced attitudes, in the long run, sickened South Koreans.
    Also, it's hard to neglect the influence of 'powerful' countries on South Korea's actions. Since, this is an international security issue, South Korea wouldn't be make decisions solely on its own. Any form of 'response' might intensify the tenstion between the two countries and might even lead to war.

    April 16, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  10. RDPS

    I am married to a Korean, and I know my wife could care less about Korean unification. In her eyes they are a separate country already. Yes she fears the economic disaster that unification would be.

    April 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  11. j. von hettlingen

    A renunification of both Koreas at this stage would pose enormous challenges for South Korea, due to the enormous disparities. The North is not prepared to integrate into the South. It has to climb step by step to reach the same level of development as its Southern half. The German reunification had less obstacles to overcome as the East was not a backward country, hermetically sealed to the outside world as North Korea.

    April 16, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • AllanL

      And the way to unseal North Korea is view everything they do as a military threat. That kind of thinking is American and I continue to hope that South Koreans do emulate America's bloody path, in the world.

      April 17, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  12. rightospeak

    People that teach political science and think tank half-brains serve the globalists. In Communist countries political science is called political economy andit is the future Communists' basic curriculum. The fact that North and South Korea should have been united for the good of Korean people long ago or should have never been divided in the first place seems to slip most political minds. WW II was fought , in my opinion and Wyndham Lewis's( he wrote a visionary book " Count Your Dead ....in 1937 " , to preserve Communism which is just another version of Globalism and which Wall Street uses to steal and bring into submission countries that do not play their MONOPOLY GAME.
    If the Korean Peninsula were converted into a United Korea ,everyone, particularly the Korean people , would benefit. No excuse to warmonger, no excuse to let people in North Korea to go hungry. Unfortunately ,all we hear is propaganda from the globalists that hate nationalism, that need a bogeyman to sell armaments. I smell winds of rebellion and it may just start in Greece, where instead of progress they got misery from international bankers.
    I spent many years trying to figure out the political world because nothing made sense ,until one realizes who is running the show.
    I know a little about Koreans – I went to a grammar school with North Koreans , set with them in same classes, many were my friends-just like any other kids. The evil forces that have power are making a living hell out of this world and will kill millions shortly unless they are stopped. WW II could have been easily prevented , but the Evil Forces needed submission to their power and to get richer on wars and it continues to this day.

    April 16, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • Cragglesmacks

      "Why aren't you talking to me anymore various congressmen?" "Ah, you know....the political economy is weak" 😉

      April 16, 2012 at 7:37 pm |
  13. jeremy

    lmao that hella funny

    April 16, 2012 at 7:22 pm |
  14. kohestani

    it is the old ploitics 20 years ago in Germany but it was yesterday & today is today & it is like a movie if u watching one time the secnt time u know it

    April 16, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  15. Brad Ruszala

    Is it really all that humiliating? I think it's more of a setback for a science program. No big deal. The embarrassing thing is that the DPRK cannot feed its people.

    April 16, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  16. Sargon the Great

    South Korea doesn't have to strike back with its military – they will trick the US forces into attacking and sacrificing American lives while South Korean citizens stay in the rear with the gear.
    From CNN April 9. 2012 – "North Korea planning new nuclear test, South Korean intelligence report says" – This "report" was put out there by the South Koreans hoping the US will take the bait and take a more aggressive posture against North Korea or even threaten military strikes. The South Koreans are trying to get the US to fight for them – AGAIN!

    April 16, 2012 at 10:42 pm |
    • JR

      lol what? are you serious? If the US and Russia hadn't randomly split Korea down the middle without even asking the Korean people, then there wouldn't even be a North Korea to fight a war against.

      Also, South Korea has paid the price in blood for both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, where it sent the most troops out of any nation other than the USA fighting a war that didn't even affect them in any way.

      April 16, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  17. matt in nw

    South Korea doesnt respond because they dont need to..... there is nothing they could do that would make the North Korean government look any worse than the North Koreans are doing all by themselves.

    April 16, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  18. happp

    North Korea's mood swings are getting sick

    April 17, 2012 at 12:35 am |
  19. yoojinJ

    I completely agree with this article. People in South Korea no longer care about what North Korea does. Since the 'sun shine policy', North Korea, one day decided to have a peace-talk with South Korea and the next day, provoke South Korea with their 'advanced weapons'. North Korea's threat isn't threatening anymore, and North Korea's false-promises are making people sick of them.
    Also, South Korea can't neglect the influence of the 'powerful country' in this matter. As this is an international security problem, South Korea shouldn't and can't act on its own. One mis-response might intensify the tension between the two countries and might lead to war.

    April 17, 2012 at 12:42 am |
    • CC

      It seems like the rest of the world views the South and North Koreans as hostile enemies who hold grudges but can’t seem to take any action. South Koreans, particularly the younger generation, are totally indifferent and disinterested in North Korea’s retaliation. North Korea’s military might is not a concern at all to most South Koreans, nor is South Korea vulnerable to them. North Korea is unpredictable and at times provoking, but the South Korean population doesn’t feel at all loathed. If anything, they are sympathetic and frightened of North Korea’s collapse and the following unification, for which South Korea will have to directly take on the burden and make sacrifices.

      April 17, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
  20. apsole

    I am the highschool student living in Korea, struggling to get better grade in iBT TOEFL exam and actually, I think the writer of this article has profound understanding about Korea's society. In my opinion, many students are reluctant to discuss about NK problem. This is because they are in notorious study works to do. They don't have time to turn their eyes on these problems. Rather, they spend time relieving their stress by accessing Facebook or playing computer games. As a result, they don't have time to carefully think about this issue, leading to weak comprehension.

    April 17, 2012 at 2:28 am |
  21. Mr Jentz

    A very interesting article. I had no clue about the South Korean indifference.

    April 17, 2012 at 4:57 am |
  22. Benedict

    Truth be told if i where living in a nation that is as developed and wealthy as South Korea,i would focus more on how my economy would continue to grow rather than worry about a nation (though consisting of ethnic brothers) that can't feed it's own people!

    April 17, 2012 at 9:56 am |
  23. krm1007

    I equate North Korea with India. Similar mentalities and communist lineages. Both obsessed with missiles and nuclear bombs while population is starving and in abject poverty.

    April 17, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
  24. concernedkoreanteen

    One thing that makes reunification even more unrealistic and dangerous is the North Koreans' view of South Korea. north koreans are told everyday by their government that it's south korea's fault that they are starving..the kim regime is brainwashing the people to oppose the South's influence. so even if reunification did occur, which would set the South back countless years in terms of economic progress and such, it would fail in the hearts of people. violence would break out and kim il sung fanatics would cause internal strife..a big mess. you just can't change what people believe in their hearts and minds in a single generation, or two or three.

    April 17, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
  25. joe

    To stand by and just observe people starve is evil in my book. The current regime in north Korea has to go. But instead of only American forces, the international community has to band together. Forget the dumb Chinese government, they really, they really don't care about north Korea. I'm not saying unification, but a change in government. They can be the Canada to the south Koreans.

    April 25, 2012 at 5:11 am |
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    June 27, 2012 at 2:54 am |

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