A surprised world learned last week that Donald Trump had agreed to meet Kim Jong-Un. The unprecedented situation of two South Korean intelligence officials on the White House driveway telling the world that the American president would meet the North Korean leader highlighted a weakness that has long plagued Korean peninsula analysis. The fanatical focus on North Korea’s sensationalist antics led commentators and analysts to neglect the more important player—South Korea.
From an analytical point of view, it has always made more sense to assess and analyse South Korea before turning to North Korea. The trajectory of any crisis on the Korean peninsula is affected as much by the responder’s move as the initiator’s move.
Until recently, South Korea’s responses to North Korea followed a well-worn path—firm resolve, restraint and close coordination with the US. In response, the analytical community became complacent. They assumed that nothing would change—ever. The danger in this complacency can be demonstrated by contemplating how a different South Korean reaction could have radically transformed previous crises.
On 26 March 2010, the Cheonan, a South Korean Pohang-class naval corvette, sank near Baengnyeong Island, killing 46 personnel. A subsequent South Korean-led investigation confirmed suspicions that the corvette had been struck by a North Korean torpedo. South Korea responded by placing pressure on North Korea in diplomatic forums, curtailing diplomatic and trade initiatives, and resuming psychological operations against North Korea. The response was measured and limited.
Had South Korea reacted differently—immediately launching an armed response, demanding an apology or conducting its own covert retribution operation—the Korean peninsula would be a very different place.
Throughout that entire crisis, commentators focused on whether North Korea was responsible, who led the attack, why the act was undertaken and what it meant for North–South relations. To the last, analysts assumed that the South Korean response would follow the well-worn path of firm resolve, restraint and coordination with the US. Analysis was limited to one-half of the crisis trajectory equation.
There are any number of recent events on the Korean peninsula that parallel the Cheonan example. If South Korea had reacted differently to the 1998 Sokcho submarine incident or to the 2010 Yeonpyeong Island bombardment, the Korean peninsula would be very different. But it didn’t. In each crisis, South Korea followed the same well-worn path.
The challenge for an analyst is that dynamic or sudden change draws attention. North Korea’s recent progress in its nuclear and missile programs under Kim Jong-Un serves as an example.
But incremental change is much harder to detect. It can be as simple as the emergence of new debates, new minor party policy positions or the mainstreaming of commentators once thought extreme. Incremental change is often overlooked, but is ultimately just as significant as dynamic or sudden change. I believe that incremental change in South Korea is already underway—but next to North Korea, nobody notices.
There’s a strong rationale to pay closer attention to South Korea. First, the Korean peninsula is at the nexus of competition between China and the US. Changes in either has a greater effect on South Korea than it does on other countries.
Second, the Korean peninsula is a pivot in a region beset by economic, territorial and military competition. Dwarfed by larger powers, South Korea requires an alliance, collective security or an alternative deterrent—and must choose between these options.
Third, the foundations upon which South Korea’s foreign policy rests—the US alliance, regional stability, and the willingness and capacity to defend itself against North Korea by itself in a worst-case scenario—appear to be unravelling.
As a consequence, South Korea may face multiple medium-term decision points. These could include policy choices that substantially transform the strategic calculus of the region: pursuing a nuclear weapons program; strengthening or weakening the US alliance; restructuring its relationship with China; or accepting permanent division, reconciliation or the pursuit of unification with North Korea. Long-held assumptions about South Korea’s foreign policy path should be discarded.
The announcement that a Trump-Kim meeting could take place should awaken the analytical community to South Korea’s role as the real driver of events on the Korean peninsula. This time, South Korea is playing an important facilitative role, reducing the potential for conflict—a role made more important in the continued absence of US diplomatic capacity on Korean peninsula affairs.
But, as we should all know by now, substantial foreign policy change takes only one charismatic, populist leader. South Korea’s next deviation from its well-worn path of firm resolve, restraint and close US coordination may be altogether different—less facilitative, perhaps even aggressive, which could increase the potential for conflict.
Richards J Heuer, the demi-god of intelligence analysis methodology, notes in Psychology of intelligence analysis that the key to competent analysis is to always re-examine problems from the ground up in order to catch aspects lost in incremental reasoning. South Korea has a strong rationale for foreign policy change, and has been in a process of incremental change since the turn of the century.
It’s well time analysts re-examined the Korean peninsula, rejected the outdated, attention-seeking fascination with North Korea, and started to assess and analyse South Korea before turning to North Korea.