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The most important military developments in North Korea since Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un assumed power in December 2011 have been his decisions to fast-track the country’s nuclear weapons program, nascent submarine-launched ballistic missile capability, and asymmetrical assets such as its super-large multiple rocket launchers (MRLs). While Kim has not reduced the conventional forces of the Korean People’s Army, the qualitative gap between the two countries’ conventional forces—particularly those the two Koreas have arrayed across the thirty-eighth parallel—has begun to shift in South Korea’s favor. In response, because Kim cannot afford to revamp his conventional forces while continuing to augment his weapons of mass destruction, he has opted to emphasize nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, long-range artillery, and increasingly robust MRLs to offset the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) firm commitment to its own military modernization.

Assessing prospects for conflict and military balances necessitates delving into key political factors. The Korean Peninsula is hardly an exception. Political forces are particularly dominant on the peninsula today because of the critical impact of U.S. President Donald Trump’s overtures toward North Korea and his branding of South Korea as a defense free rider. No U.S. president has contested the fundamental rationale for maintaining the U.S.-ROK alliance or pursued such personal diplomatic solutions with North Korea to the degree that Trump has. While Trump was the first sitting U.S. president to meet with a North Korean leader, his decision to cancel major U.S.-ROK military exercises, his constant pressure on South Korea to pay much more for shared defense costs, and his willingness to ignore Kim’s provocations (including multiple short-range missile tests) have resulted in confusion, mixed signals, and, worst of all, uncertainty for U.S. and South Korean military planners.

Chung Min Lee
Chung Min Lee is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Asia Program. He is an expert on Korean and Northeast Asian security, defense, intelligence, and crisis management.
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Meanwhile, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s de facto one-sided engagement with Kim has also contributed to the politicization of South Korean security given the immense importance he has attached to fostering inter-Korean détente. Moon continues to believe that Kim is a fundamentally different leader compared to his father and that he will keep his promise of denuclearization. The Moon administration remains optimistic about the resurgence of inter-Korean talks and continues to press for U.S.–North Korea dialogue. Seoul currently believes that implementing a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is eminently possible provided that the United States and South Korea offer North Korea key incentives. Only time will tell if such confidence bears fruit. But Kim is highly unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons since they play a crucial role in propping up his regime. A nuclearized North Korea also wields significant political weight and even though China continues to call for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (and not explicitly North Korea), there is little Beijing can do to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program.

It would not be unprecedented for two foes with decades of animosity and rivalry to turn over a new leaf and introduce landmark political and military changes. Former U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan’s and George H. W. Bush’s concerted efforts with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War are a primary example. Yet Reagan and Bush were very different presidents from Trump. Bush had a wealth of experience on foreign policy and national security. And while Reagan came to office with virtually no international background, he trusted his national security team and the intelligence community. Indeed, no U.S. president before Trump publicly denigrated his intelligence community or second-guessed its utility as blatantly as the current U.S. president has. One wonders how North Korea, or for that matter other adversaries such as China and Russia, feel when the occupant of the Oval Office ignores his intelligence community and relies more on cable news networks to understand current events and critical items on the country’s national security agenda.

Kim’s military strategy will likely remain constant for the next several years. While it is not impossible to imagine a last-minute nuclear deal between Trump and Kim before November 2020, the chances remain slim. The U.S. presidential election cycle is well under way, and domestic politics will consume much of Trump’s bandwidth. If Kim cannot secure a nuclear deal during Trump’s first term, that means he would have to either wait until Trump is re-elected in November 2020 or deal with a new U.S. president starting in January 2021. Either way, Kim may have already concluded that the negotiating window with the United States and his initial hopes of a breakthrough with Trump have faded.

If Pyongyang’s core military strategy and policies remain unchanged, how will that continue to affect Seoul’s ability to objectively assess and respond to the wide range of threats North Korea poses? Most pervasive is the increasingly growing gap between the Moon administration’s rosy expectations of the state of inter-Korean relations and unchanging strategic realities. While Moon continues to place great faith in Kim’s goodwill, the North Korean leader and the state organs he controls have not reciprocated.

Even as North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear warheads is growing, . . . Seoul and Washington are pursuing policies that have not constrained or deterred Kim’s policies.

The Moon government’s overarching North Korea policy is premised on providing Kim with incentives that will ultimately convince him to keep his promise of denuclearization. But hope is not a strategy, much less a viable national security policy. At a critical juncture when North Korea’s stockpiles of nuclear warheads and other weapons of mass destruction are growing, national leaders in Seoul and Washington are pursuing policies that have not constrained or deterred Kim’s policies.

Consequently, it falls on South Korean and U.S. professional diplomats and bureaucrats to ensure that, despite mixed and oftentimes confusing and contradictory signals, combat readiness is maintained, strategic and tactical intelligence remains unencumbered by political considerations, and military interoperability is sustained. Absent concerted efforts to accomplish these objectives, the ROK-U.S. alliance is likely to be eroded by political forces. Both the National Assembly in South Korea and the U.S. Congress should play much more assertive roles when it comes to ensuring that ROK forces and their U.S. counterparts can readily meet deterrence and defense missions regardless of conflicting political directives.

Whether Moon and Trump will seek to recalibrate their approaches toward North Korea remains uncertain and unclear. But there has been no indication that Kim is on the cusp of changing his basic strategy toward South Korea or that he is seriously contemplating negotiating away nuclear weapons in exchange for normalized ties with the United States and key economic benefits. South Korean security must continue to be based on a strong alliance with the United States even though maintaining an even keel under the Trump administration continues to be an unprecedented challenge.