In the Face of Provocation: What are Our Corresponding Measures?

General Han Min-Koo, 36th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the ROK

SEOUL, May 14, 2013 – In Part 3 of Asia Society Korea Center’s lecture series “Perspectives on the Future of the Korean Peninsula,” General Han Min-Koo gave a lecture called In the Face of Provocation: What are Our Corresponding Measures? Possible countermeasures by South Korea in response to ongoing North Korean behavior. General Han is the 36th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Republic of Korea and his over 40 years of experience in the top echelons of military service enabled him to offer an unrivaled perspective on dealing with North Korea.

General Han began the narrative of the current tension on the Korean Peninsula in December 2011, when Kim Jung-un officially took power. “He established his own foundation of power, adopting the military-first policy and seeking to establish North Korea as a nuclear-armed state,” General Han said, “By doing so, [he is] trying to abide by the guidelines set by his late father, Kim Jong-il.” The world watched with alarm as North Korea’s subsequently conducted a long-range missile launch, a third nuclear test, and nullified the armistice agreement with the South.

“Right now, we’re seeing a breather, so to speak, a lull in North Korea’s provocative behavior,” said General Han. He attributed it in part to South Korea’s consistent stance towards Pyongyang as well as the “right policy responses” by the U.S., China, Russia, and Japan.

General Han referenced a South Korean defense white paper to give a more nuanced understanding of the North Korean threat. The 2012 white paper reported that there had been 2,953 instances of North Korean provocations, 66% of which consisted of infiltration along the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone), maritime zones, rivers, and third-party countries. Another 34% involved acts of terror against the South’s President, aircraft, and U.S. military stationed in the South. “Since 2009, we see more manifest threats in the form of cyberspace terrorism, GPS jamming attacks, and threats using nuclear weapons and missiles,” said General Han.

General Han asserted that the key to understanding North Korea’s behavior was its military spending. Experts have long questioned how North Korea has been able to build up its military capability despite poor economic conditions. General Han explained that between 1967 and 1971, North Korea announced that 30-32% of its budget went to the military annually. However, since 1972, the regime has taken to publicizing that it only spends 17% of its budget on the military. “The reason [for this] is that in 1972, North Korea adopted the principle of the ‘second economic front’ [that] deals with production and distribution of weapons,” General Han said, “From that point on, experts conclude that North Korea has been systematically hiding the real extent of its military budget.”

“If you go through the steps of measuring the real value of North Korea’s military spending in 2010… It becomes about 8 billion dollars,” General Han said, comparing it to the official value of only about 640 million USD. Take into account the money spent on nuclear weapon capabilities and it approaches 9 billion dollars, he added.

General Han shared that with the 4th largest standing military in the world and a high tolerance for risk, North Korea poses a very serious threat to Seoul and neighboring countries. “In order to achieve its strategic objective of regime survival, it has made it clear that it’s willing to use the military as a means of diplomacy,” he said, “I personally believe that North Korea’s provocation will continue depending on its own domestic needs.”

In response, South Korea and U.S. combined forces are continuously conducting surveillance and reconnaissance over North Korea and have a stable handle on crisis management. General Han highlighted that the South Korean military has amassed several decades of experience in the case of localized counter-provocations. It also has an advantage over North Korea in terms of its Navy, Air Force, quality of weapons, and ability to continue with war. “We have made scenarios and we are preparing accordingly,” said General Han.

According to General Han, North Korea considers it essential to have the ability to threaten America and hold South Korea hostage with its nuclear weapons. “The proper response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons is to deny them their strategic objectives,” said General Han, “For all of us to integrate our diplomatic, political, economic, and military efforts to come up with a viable response to this problem.”

Given that North Korea has determined not to give up its nuclear weapons, General Han discussed the need for a more permanent solution to the issue. “In the short-term, we need a viable strategy of military deterrence against North Korea,” he said, “In the long-term, we need to seek a change in North Korea’s regime, or we need to make possible a reunification led by Seoul."


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