[Column] Less determination for war, more determination for dialogue

Posted on : 2024-01-22 16:47 KST Modified on : 2024-01-22 17:01 KST
Yoon would do well to know that force should be the final recourse, not the first
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea writes in the guest book of the 25th Infantry Division at Sangseung Observation Post on Oct. 1, 2023, which marked Armed Forces Day. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea writes in the guest book of the 25th Infantry Division at Sangseung Observation Post on Oct. 1, 2023, which marked Armed Forces Day. (Yonhap)

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, inter-Korean affairs and unification editor

“Do you think we’ll really go to war?”
A while ago, a senior colleague of mine asked me this, his face filled with worry. To him, the question of whether war would break out on the Korean Peninsula was not a matter of speculation, but a tangible issue rooted in reality.
This senior colleague has been getting ready to move out of the city to take up farming in the countryside upon his retirement later this year. He’s been planning to settle down somewhere north of Seoul, which would put him much closer to North Korea. But now with Pyongyang blustering about war more and more frequently, his plans to retire to the countryside have become more and more uncertain.
To address mounting concern over the possibility of war breaking out on the peninsula since the start of the new year, President Yoon Suk-yeol stated during a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday that if North Korea conducts any provocations, Seoul’s “punishment will be several times stronger.” Yoon’s messaging revolves around preventing war in the first place through “deterrence by punishment” by demonstrating the South’s willingness and determination to strike back hard.
But while opting to manage risk by focusing on deterrence by punishment can be effective in preventing provocations, it also carries a higher risk of a crisis quickly escalating into war in the event North Korea does carry out a provocation. Since North Korea will be expecting a hefty retaliation once armed conflict becomes a reality, there is no reason for them to shy away from letting things escalate into war. In fact, they may conclude that it would be more effective for them to go ahead with an all-out attack from the get-go.
This is what prompted the Economist news magazine to write of the situation: “Yoon Suk-yeol, now South Korea’s president, promised on January 16th to respond to provocations ‘with a punishment multiple times more severe.’ Such an overreaction would be more likely to start a war than Mr. Kim’s wild rhetoric about conquering the South.”
The upcoming combined South Korea-US military exercises slated for March will be a crucial point that tests whether this rhetoric turns into something more. North Korea has been outspokenly critical of these drills, which have been taking place in mid-March for the past few years, characterizing them as preparations for an invasion of the North under the guise of military exercises.
The Team Spirit exercises were the forerunner of the current military drills. Congressman Gary Ackerman, who visited Pyongyang in October 1993 and met with then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, stated that Kim’s hands “shook with anger” when the drills were mentioned.
Similar circumstances arose in Europe during the autumn of 1983, when the Cold War was at its peak. When the US and NATO conducted the Able Archer 83 military exercises in Belgium on Nov. 2, 1983, the world found itself on the brink of nuclear war.
The Soviet Union was on its toes for this annual exercise because of the changes made to the Able Archer program and because of the quickly souring political climate.
When the Soviet Union shot down the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in September 1983, the US and NATO ran drills for every possible form of warfare, from conventional and chemical to nuclear. It was at this time that the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, which is capable of nuclear attacks, and intermediate-range nuclear missiles were first introduced to the exercises. In a speech in March 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan of the US called the Soviet Union the “evil empire.”
Despite such name-calling, after Reagan received a CIA report that stated that the military exercises made the Soviet Union fearful of a preemptive strike. He wrote the following in his diary on Nov. 18, 1983: “I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way soft on them we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that.”

In a speech given the following January, Reagan stated, “The fact that neither of us likes the other's system is no reason to refuse to talk. Living in this nuclear age makes it imperative that we do talk.”
In December 2010, when public opinion was leaning heavily toward taking a harder approach with North Korea following its shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, Maj. Gen. John A. McDonald, head of the ROK/US Combined Forces Command operational staff, stated in an interview with a South Korean news outlet that soldiers should become involved only when political compromise — that is, diplomacy — “becomes impossible.”

“Soldiers should be the last to go to the battlefield,” he said, implying they were a last resort.
South Korea’s Yoon should not be claiming that the final recourse is the only recourse. The president is the final authority on crisis management on the Korean Peninsula, responsible for preventing accidental clashes between the two Koreas and ensuring that they do not escalate should they occur. 
In the 1980s, the foundation of President Reagan’s foreign policy was “peace through strength,” making it the predecessor of the Yoon administration’s current policy with the North.
I can only hope that Yoon adopts not only Reagan’s old catchphrase, but his courage in reaching out for dialogue with the “evil empire,” the Soviet Union.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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