The Next Two Years in Korea

By Victor Cha

Republic of Korea Army 21th Division personnel on watch during sunrise, December 22, 2014. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces' flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Republic of Korea Army 21th Division personnel on watch during December 22, 2014. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces’ flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

What must the administration contend with in its remaining two years in office on the Korean Peninsula? First, the United States is likely to see the next series of North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests. These may demonstrate Pyongyang’s crossing of a new technology threshold such as warhead miniaturization, a uranium-based test, more accurate ballistic missiles, or nuclear fusion capabilities. This provocation could come in response to the next set of U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military exercises. It could come in response to UN Security Council actions on North Korean human rights abuses. It could come in response to countermeasures employed by the United States in response to the North’s cyber attacks. Or, it may come without a pretext of Western hostility, and simply after Kim Jong-un has secured summit visits and benefits from either Russia or China (though Russia seems more likely right now given Chinese pique).

In any event, the administration must be prepared to meet these provocations with concrete measures that acknowledge the necessity of deterring a nuclear North Korea. This includes deploying more advanced missile defense systems on the peninsula and its vicinity, as well as encouraging the ROK to enhance its joint operational capabilities with the existing U.S. missile defense assets and ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) sensors in the region. The ROK has been mulling over the idea of implementing an independent missile defense system that consists of SM-2 and PAC-3 missiles, which are designed primarily to counter low-tier missile threats. Yet it is desirable for ROK forces to obtain a multilayered missile defense capability by gradually incorporating higher-tier missile systems such as the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in order to provide more densely knit missile defense architecture against the North Korean threat. There is considerable controversy surrounding these ideas, especially with the deployment of X-band radar, which is an integral part of the THAAD package. Some see these capabilities as ill-advised because they will surely offend the Chinese and Russians, and will come with a high price tag. The key criterion, however, for this decision should be to do what is best to protect Korea’s national security for the long-term. South Korea should not pursue missile defense as a favor to the United States, but because it is in Seoul’s interests to do so. The cost of new defense systems will of course be more expensive, but budgets should not be pinched when it comes to national security, either by the Blue House or by the National Assembly.

The administration must also work to mend Japan-ROK relations. When President Park Geun-hye entered office, she talked about the paradox of political and historical tension in Asia amidst a backdrop of prosperous economic interdependence. Nowhere is this paradox more apparent than in the relationship between Asia’s two most important advanced industrialized democracies. The bilateral relationship between Seoul and Tokyo, and the three-way U.S.-Japan-Korea relationship, should, in the administration’s eyes, be seen as the most reliable source of stability in Asia. Others might argue that the anchor is the U.S. -China relationship, but U.S.-China relations are more the effect, not the cause, of stability. That is, a stable Washington–Beijing relationship equates with regional peace, but the best influence on this relationship is a strong U.S.-Japan-Korea relationship. When the allies are together, this provides the best environment in which to welcome as well as shape China as a rule – abiding rising power, rather than a revisionist one.

So, with the 50th anniversary of Japan-ROK normalization in 2015 as a launching point for spurring greater cooperation, the White House must work to close the gap between the allies in the form of expanded information-sharing agreements military parts servicing agreement (Acquisition and Cross – Servicing Agreement, ACSA), a high tempo of trilateral consultations and exercising, and eventually, a collective defense statement among the three allies. Not all of this can be accomplished in one year, obviously, and it all must be done with a light touch, not American pressure, given sensitivities in Korea, but the message must be clear: The two allies must work together on common security needs despite unresolved historical-emotional issues.

As my colleagues Jenny Jun, Scott LaFoy, and Ethan Sohn, detailed in a recent Korea Chair Platform essay, the administration must also contend with growing cyber attacks from North Korea. North Korea’s technical capabilities have expanded beyond rudimentary distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks into mo re targeted, complex, and well-organized operations involving several stages of exploitation of a system or network. They are capable of social engineering, extended advanced persistent threat (APT) campaigns, and employment of less sophisticated but effective malware. Contrary to popular assumptions, North Korea maintains a fairly competent computer technology base, including the Korea Computing Center (KCC) and the Pyongyang Informatics Center (PIC) as well as several universities such as Kim Chaek University of Technology and Kim Il Sung University’s School of Computer Science. They allegedly have additional military-related institutions to specifically train individuals for cyber operations. The United States must upgrade the U.S.-ROK Cyber Cooperation Working Group, bolster cyber defense against subunits directed at U.S. targets, enhance timely technical information sharing, as well as work jointly to establish international norms and workforce development.

Finally, the administration should see traditional defense, deterrence, and denuclearization policies toward North Korea supplemented by a new element, human rights. The General Assembly resolution in November condemning the North Korean leadership for crimes against humanity that are potentially referable to the International Criminal Court has spooked Pyongyang. The regime has of course seen many UN Security Council sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests, but it has never seen the international community so openly critical of the regime’s treatment of its people. In many ways, this is more threatening to the regime’s legitimacy. 111 nations voted in favor of the resolution. Moreover, the 55 abstentions represented a principled position among some UN member states against country-specific General Assembly resolutions. Hence, they are not to be interpreted as votes in favor of North Korea. North Korea’s inhumane treatment of workers at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, at its mining facilities (the exports of which finance proliferation), and its export of slave labor to over 12 countries all constitute gross infringement on human dignity that impacts national security.

If the United States ever returns to the negotiating table with North Korea, either bilaterally or in the six-party format, the discussion will no longer center solely on denuclearization but will have an equal component that addresses human rights abuses in the country. The quid pro quos will no longer be just freezes on nuclear activity in exchange for food or energy, but demonstrable improvements in human rights, including inspection of gulags, eradication of slave labor, and treatment of refugees, among other issues.

Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at CSIS. You can follow him on twitter @vcgiants.

Interesting in learning more? Join Dr. Cha and the CSIS Asia Program for Asia Pacific Forecast 2015 on January 29.

A version of this article first appeared in the new CSIS publication Pivot 2.0: How the Administration and Congress Can Work Together to Sustain American Engagement in Asia to 2016. Read the full report here.

Victor Cha

Victor Cha

Dr. Victor Cha is senior adviser and Korea Chair at CSIS. He is also a professor of government at Georgetown University.


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