To Reunify a Polarized Peninsula: Complex Warfare with Korean Characteristics
Thomas A. Drohan
Using concepts of complex warfare from previous SWJ articles on China and Japan, this article applies the same holistic approach to Korean security strategies in the information environment, with comparisons to strategies from China and Japan.
To discern how the Koreas wage complex warfare using both cooperation and confrontation today, we’ll start with world view, threat assessment, and combined effects strategy.
Understanding these aspects of the information environment is critical to producing superior effects—the great-results test of any “power” or actor.
Korea’s World View, Threat Assessment, and Combined Effects Strategy
Both Koreas share a common world view that attends to main power alignment while emphasizing self-reliance. Each of these considerations refracts differently in the contrasting political systems of totalitarian North Korea and democratic South Korea. The historical context of this world view remains extremely influential today.
For five thousand years, inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula have dealt with prying neighbors through strategies of cooperation and confrontation. Predatory powers are fixtures in a Korean information environment where peninsular alignment or alliance is seen as pivotal to neighborly calculations of security. Location and neighbors matter.
Korean civilization developed in-between expansionist empires and nation-states. Consequently, Korean rulers have had to manage multiple centers of power to eke out sovereignty. Korean society is a resilient fabric, one that has been repeatedly stretched, torn, and repaired in response to foreign invasions and occupations. The rugged peninsula and outlying islands have been contentious territory among the Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and western powers.
Main Power Alignment
In describing the pragmatic practice of aligning with a major power, the term sadaejuui (attending to the big power) is popularly evoked. The meaning is often derisive. Its contemporary use tends to portray major powers’ condescending attitudes toward Koreans, with the latter having to placate the major powers. Dating back to Korean dynasties as tributaries of Chinese empires, the connotation is that of being controlled, after resisting and ultimately giving in to a stronger power.
In the late 19th century Choson dynasty, for instance, there were two main political parties. The Sadae (“main power”) Party in Korea was status quo, which prior to Japan’s defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) meant pro-China. The domestic opposition was the reformist and pro-Japan Kaehwa (“enlightenment”) Party. For Korean leaders, successfully managing the influence of a foreign power meant aligning with another power in their midst. Foreign interference remains a contentious issue today.
This utilitarian ethic of aligning with a main power clashes with other societal beliefs, from neo-Confucianism and religious principles to community-based populism. Pride in national autonomy stores intense feelings and fuels outrage. Which power ought to be confronted, and which accommodated, if any? Which parties, factions and individuals can be trusted, and under what conditions? How can sovereignty be protected and reconciled with the interests of resented foreign powers?
These questions test deeply held concerns and convictions in Korean society. In both North and South Korea, sadaejuui characterizes a fundamental practice of Korean security. No official documents admit the term. In contrast to this grudgingly recognized national interest, self-reliance is an ingrained value.
In North Korea, self-reliance is officially known as juche, a vague concept designed to legitimize the Kim dynasty. Apart from its monolithic role as Kim Il-sung-ism, juche’s tangible facets include revenue-generating activities. Pyongyang actively promotes money laundering, narcotics smuggling, counterfeiting, human trafficking, illegal weapons sales, and other lucrative crimes. Tragically, hate-generating propaganda covers for the lack of national self-reliance with respect to basic needs such as food, water, shelter, health, and electricity. Since the massive famine of the mid-1990s, North Koreans’ self-reliance includes the not so secret embrace of illicit private capitalism.
In South Korea, assorted conceptions of self-reliance float freely about, from the traditional jagileul uijihaneun (depending on oneself), to business diversification strategies — jageub-ui (self-sufficiency), to self-absorbed honjok (loner tribe).
Korean cultural narratives on both sides of the de-militarized zone emphasize Confucian principles such as loyalty, resolve, harmony, and justice. Priorities begin with the family ties that help manage life’s challenges. Figurative analogies describe the environment as interrelated opposites — um (light, hot) and yang (dark, cold). People are expected to accept the immutable and shape the changeable. Confrontation is natural, a practical complement to cooperation. Achieving that relative harmony has been a continuous national struggle against the oft-reminded 900 invasions (117). A cultivated heritage of having borne the brunt of injustices reinforces societal awareness of vulnerability, and the need to compete.
Korean ancestry includes a minjok (“ethnic nation”) identity rooted in a strong and just legendary founder, King Tangun, mythical equivalent to China’s emperors claiming a Mandate of Heaven and Japan’s sun goddess Amaterasu. Another identity is minjung (“the people”), which conjures up populist struggles against oppression. Both constructs promote a self-reliance imbued with values of resilience and endurance to build a strong nation capable of facing down threats.
The main threat to Koreans has been external invasion in the forms of Chinese control, Russian and Western probes, and Japanese colonization. Koreans have assessed foreign powers from a frame of sadaejuui and self-reliance. Countering threats has involved both confrontation and cooperation.
Invasions of Korean territory date back to China’s Han dynasty in 109 BC, a period of aggressive expansion following the Qin dynasty’s unification of warring states in 221 BC. Sui and Tang Dynasty emperors launched several campaigns to subdue Koreans during a period of three Korean kingdoms (Silla, Paekche, Koguryo; 57 BC-668). This contested history stirs a textbook war today.
Koreans’ arguably first unified dynasty, Silla (668-935), was followed by Koryo (935-1392) and Choson (1392-1910). Each dynasty confronted and cooperated with Chinese, Russian, and Japanese empires to win sovereign prerogatives. China’s Yuan dynasty Mongols led invasions of Korea in 1231, imposing indirect control. That subjugation was followed by China’s Ming dynasty suzerainty until 1644. Large-scale Japanese invasions (1592, 1597) were eventually defeated. However, the Manchus’ defeat of the Ming brought the Qing dynasty to China (1644-1912) and new invasions to Choson. Japan’s defeat of Qing China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 led to outright colonization of the Korean peninsula (1910-1945).
The stream of invasions has left indelible marks on the Korean psyche. As a way to characterize their impact, we refer to two types of threat patterns. They are described in terms of being viewed from outside the peninsula inward, and then from the inside-out.
The basic outside-in threat pattern has been external powers exploiting lack of domestic unity in Korea to dominate the peninsula or deny it to their rivals. Here are a few examples from modern history:
- Great Britain blocked a Russian Navy attempt to establish a base on Tsushima Island in 1861 China restricted Russian diplomatic access in Korea until 1884 [22-23])
- Japan defeated China (1895, 115-118) and Russia (1905, 154-155), colonizing Korea until 1945
- The USSR and US accepted Japan’s surrender separately to occupy Korea in halves (1945)
In 1945, Korean efforts to reunify their country evaporated in new big power disagreements. The Moscow Agreement (December 1945) had planned a five-year trusteeship of four external powers—the US, USSR, China, and Great Britain. However the joint US-USSR commission charged with implementing the Moscow Agreement was very much the arena of ideological warfare. The Soviets refused to include non-communist groups in the formation of a provisional Korean government. They subsequently rejected United Nations Resolution 112, which called for general elections to express the will of the Korean people.
Instead, Moscow reached in to groom Kim Il-sung, a Soviet Army anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter in Manchuria, as their proxy in Pyongyang. With Russian support, Kim out-maneuvered rivals to head the Korean Workers Party and become Premier of the Democratic Republic of North Korea.
In the South, United Nations-monitored elections brought anti-communist Rhee Syng-man into power as the first President of the Republic of Korea. Rhee had prepared by leading the Provisional Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai while in exile (1919-1939), mostly from Hawaii.
The basic inside-out threat pattern has been Koreans focusing on their’ common former colonizer, and seeking externally favorable conditions to reunite the peninsula. Both Korean leaders saw Japan and each other as threats to a unified Korea, and sought reunification on their own terms.
Kim Il-sung was necessarily aligned with the USSR (Josef Stalin) and prudently chose to curry China’s favor (Mao Zedong) as well. Kim regarded US support of the South as the next greatest threat. He garnered Stalin’s support under a wary assumption of no US intervention (33-34).
Rhee suffered the cost of perceived dealignment from his presumed patron power, the United States. South Korea appeared isolated from outside support after US Secretary of State Dean Acheson described a defensive perimeter excluding the Korean Peninsula. Within six months Kim Il-sung invaded the South (June 1950). Ironically, Acheson’s comments may have been calibrated to gain Congressional approval for Korean aid.
Both Korean leaders saw Japan and each other as threats to a unified Korea, and craved reunification on their own terms. Kim Il-sung, necessarily aligned with the USSR (Josef Stalin) and currying China’s favor (Mao Zedong), regarded US support of the South as the next greatest threat. He garnered Stalin’s support under a wary assumption of no US intervention (33-34). Rhee suffered the cost of perceived dealignment from his presumed protector, the United States. Within six months of US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s press club remark that described a defensive perimeter excluding the Korean Peninsula, Kim Il-sung invaded the South (June 1950). Ironically, Acheson’s comments may have been calibrated to gain Congressional approval for Korean aid.
After three years of fighting that saw Chinese forces save North Korea from outright defeat, a military armistice stopped most hostilities in 1953. No peace treaty was signed. While Rhee pointlessly rejected the armistice (38), Kim blamed wartime failures on conspirators and methodically consolidated his power by eliminating externally aligned domestic factions.
Ever since, North Korea’s Kim-led syndicate has used every opportunity to eliminate domestic threats and manipulate main power rivalries. South Korean leaders have taken variable approaches to domestic threats and managed main power relations with non-coercive methods.
Next we describe each Korea’s assessment of threat in turn. Note that there is no mutual diplomatic recognition between North Korea and South Korea. Each state claims to be the sole legitimate government on the peninsula.
North Korea is notorious for using violence to create and control threats. A Congressional Research Service Report tallies: thousands of armed infiltrations; at least three Presidential assassination attempts; nearly 500 kidnappings; two large-scale bombings; assorted murders of South Korean civilians and military personnel; politically timed missile launches and nuclear detonations; and threats to devastate South Korea, Japan and the United States. Add to that the Kim regime’s use of force against its own citizens —100,000 political prisoners in labor camps and massive human rights violations.
Pyongyang’s violent blend of sadaejuui and self-reliance is manifested in the foreign policy behavior of its three successive Kims: Kim Il-sung (Great Leader; posthumously, Eternal President); his eldest son Kim Jong-Il (Dear Leader; posthumously, Eternal General Secretary); and his youngest son Kim Jong-un (2011-present, Dear Respected Comrade as of this writing). Synopses of the leaders follow.
(1) Kim Il-sung (1948-1994) manipulated China to support his invasion of the South (1950), precluding Mao’s liberation of Taiwan. Kim #1’s war engaged and entrapped China, prompting Mao to supplicate Stalin for resources. Postwar aid and North Korean mass labor spurred reconstruction of a Great Leader-iconic capitol, factories and cooperatives. Kim signed Chinese and Soviet friendship treaties (1961), and invoked threats to inspire forced labor and his own bloodline ideology. Economic growth exceeded the South‘s until 1965. Before the USSR’s collapse, Kim secured Russian nuclear training, a research reactor, and debt deferments. Then he requested Chinese technology (Kindle loc 93-109 of 5256). He died just before a planned first-ever summit with a South Korean President (#6), Kim Young-sam.
(2) Kim Jong-Il (1994-2011), eldest son of Kim Il-sung, had been designated successor since 1980. Absent the military credibility of the Great Leader, Kim #2 master-narrated a pseudo-Confucianist fantasy in which he gifted basic needs to his people. He actually provided mismanaged projects, massive famine, and economic decline. Despite China’s call for Pyongyang “to conform to its denuclearization commitment...and back [return] to the Six Party talks,” the Dear Leader achieved his father’s goal of an independent nuclear weapon (2006). His shift to a songun (military-first) policy compelled mass nationalism (7), presumably for reunification. He accepted a US proposal to hold Six-Party Talks (2003-2007), seeing its six rounds and calling its bluff with a nuclear hand (detonation #2, 2009).
(3) Kim Jong-un (2011-present), youngest son of Kim Jong-il, was named successor comparatively late (2009). Without the Party connections of the Dear Leader, his byungin policy (2012, para 6) calls for the dual pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapons. This ambitious departure from a phased approach probably placates power brokers. Kim #3 has met with President Xi Jinping four times, including once in Pyongyang, despite Xi’s objection to nuclear tests (#3 in 2013, #4 and #5 in 2016, #6 in 2017). The young leader has had two summits apiece with President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump (plus a short-notice meeting), held a summit with President Vladimir Putin, proposed Four-Party Talks, and now claims thermonuclear-tipped, solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles.
South Korean administrations have balanced North Korean, American, Chinese and Russian relations by modulating military, economic and political priorities. Forty years of military-dominated rule and state capitalism gave way to expanded competition across a faction-rich political spectrum. The practice of sadaejuui and self-reliance included regular use of state domestic violence until democratization took hold in the 1990s. Today’s mature democracy retains vestiges of a robust internal security apparatus. Bus loads of national police may be seen in South Korea’s urban centers, poised more to out-number potential demonstrators than to detect Northern infiltrators.
(1) Rhee Syng-man (1948-1960). During armistice negotiations (1953), President Rhee’s single-minded focus on North Korean communism led him to actively subvert US efforts to end the fighting. He saw political opposition to his control and any option short of a reunified Korea as a national security threat. While Rhee oversaw land and education reforms, the violent nepotism of his rule culminated in mass protests, and his resignation.
(2) Yun Po-sun (1960-1962). Elections brought in conservative President Yun Po-sun and progressive Prime Minister Chang Myon. Their government was unable to overcome the swell of wartime grievances and contending expectations among numerous factions. Most fatefully, the military.
(3) Park Chung-hee (1963-1979) led a coup in 1961 and was elected two years later. Despite US objections to military rule, Park secured US assistance (110) that lit chaebol-led industrialization, and then declared martial law (1972). Facing intensified North Korean attacks (1967-1975), an assassination attempt that killed his wife (1974), the Nixon Doctrine (1969), South Vietnam’s demise (1975), and President Carter’s announcements to reduce forces (1977) and recognize China (1978), Park sought nuclear weapons from France. US pressure and a conditional promise to increase forces stopped that program. Park secured more US military aid (3 Mar/22 Oct 77, 2 Feb/26 Jul 78) as he centralized power, until assassinated by his erstwhile friend, Director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency.
(4) Choi Kyu-hah (1979-1980), Vice President, held the presidency for nine months after Park’s death. A career foreign service officer concerned about internal threats to democracy, Choi stepped down following another coup, this time led by Park protege Major General Chun Doo-hwan.
(5) Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988) seized control by commandeering units under US-led Combined Forces Command. Chun arrested opponents, took over Central Intelligence, declared martial law, closed the National Assembly, and authorized force against demonstrators in Kwangju, killing hundreds. North Korean attacks included trying to assassinate Chun—killing 17 (1983), and blowing up a Korean Airlines flight—killing 115 (1986). The latter was meant to deter participation in the Seoul-hosted Olympics (1988). Chun oversaw urbanization and slower economic growth, and repressed subversion. As US officials disapproved of his methods, the alliance focused on deterring and defeating external attacks.
(6) Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993), Chun’s academy classmate, was a surprise reformer who recognized home-grown authoritarianism as a threat. His call for a new Constitution led to direct Presidential elections, which he won against a split opposition. As the Soviet bloc melted, Roh’s Nordpolitik policy engaged the continent through China, Russia, and former communist states. As Pyongyang built nuclear reactors (Kindle loc 622 of 6256), Seoul obtained a bilateral denuclearization agreement (1992). Economic modernization and democratization in the South began to influence the alliance. US officials agreed to relinquish peacetime command of South Korean forces, which was implemented in 1994.
(7) Kim Young-sam (1993-1997), a career politician, became the first non-military President since Rhee. Considered to be a moderate, he nevertheless managed threats via disruptions. Kim dismissed politically-involved military officers and had Roh and Chun indicted, then pardoned them. He expanded US-North Korean negotiations with Four-Party Talks, then supported, then undermined, the Agreed Framework. In Beijing, Seoul sought dialogue with Pyongyang. However in Tokyo, Seoul talked economic sanctions (513-514). Kim’s term was an inconsistent centrism of opposed positions. His reforms strategically powered South Korea’s entry into the World Trade Organization (1995) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (1996).
(8) Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), kidnapped in 1973 at Park’s behest and freed after timely American pressure, instituted a Sunshine Policy to transform the Northern threat. As economic growth and China trade blossomed,Kim financially induced a summit (2000) and built railways to link both Koreas with the Eurasian continent and Pacific coast. In a summit with Vladimir Putin (2001), Kim endorsed the anti-ballistic missile treaty that George W. Bush sought to end. Skeptical of US evidence that Pyongyang had highly enriched uranium, Kim obliged while Bush antagonized the North. That combination did not work. In 2003, North Korea stormed out of the Non Proliferation Treaty, admitted to possessing a nuclear weapon, and threatened preemptive attacks.
(9) Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), human rights attorney, won election on a tragic wave of anti-Americanism (1). As he assumed office, Pyongyang’s missile launches were followed by the reprocessing of spent fuel rods (2003), nuclear threats during the Six-Party Talks (2003-2006), and first nuclear detonation (2006). All refuted the 1992 Korean accord. Roh sought self-reliant defense as the US sought to broaden the alliance regionally and with respect to instruments of power. Roh’s pursuit of North-South reciprocity in a multilateral negotiating context enabled Seoul to engage Pyongyang.
(10) Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), Hyundai CEO and Seoul Mayor, expanded South Korea’s global presence with a New Asia Initiative. New relationships included nuclear energy partnership with the US, space power partnership with Russia, comprehensive cooperative partnership with China, and Arctic engagement with Greenland and Norway. Toward North Korea, Lee tried conditional reciprocity (14) bolstered by a closer US alliance. The latter meant South Korean wartime command of forces, which is still pending.
(11) Park Geun-hye (2013-2017), Park Chung-hee’s daughter, began her term asserting a balanced policy toward North Korea based on trust-building, dialogue, and strength. Pyongyang’s next missile launch and nuclear test reoriented that idea, pushing Park to beckon China for countermeasures. Beijing was unmoved. Park continued South Korea’s broad global engagement while trying to synch with American presidential nuances such as strategic patience (Obama) and maximum pressure (Trump).
12) Moon Jae-in (2017-present), former chief of staff to Roh, seeks economic cooperation, integration, then reunification with North Korea. He seems to moderate the enigmatic Kim Jong-un—Donald Trump relationship. His administration assesses Pyongyang with a wary desire for engagement and controlled hopes for reunification. Moon’s continuation of policies that seek to transform threats via integration include the Northeast Asia-Plus Community of Responsibility, New Northern Policy, and New Southern Policy. As the Kim dynasty to the North builds its nuclear capability, South Koreans also debate the possibility of an independent nuclear deterrent.
Combined Effects Strategy
As a reminder of the complex warfare model introduced previously, the following diagram depicts the eight basic types of effects interacting among sentient actors in the information environment. These effects are cooperative (dissuade, persuade, secure, induce) and confrontational (deter, compel, defend, coerce). Each desired effect may be brought about using any instrument of power (diplomatic, informational, military, economic, social).
A. North Korea Nuclear and Complex threats (North Korea, South Korea, US, China, Japan; 1953-now)
B. South Korea Occupation of Dokdo (Japan-Takeshima; 1952-now) and Ieodo (China-Suyan; 1987-now)
Both cases reflect Korean struggles to achieve a reunification. This assumption requires a caveat in South Korea, where globalization is reducing some incentives for reunification. Increasingly, South Koreans favor peaceful coexistence over reunification with a reactionary regime. In North Korea, Party propaganda exhorts an inured population to sacrifice for reunification. Many factors affect reunification, such as main power alignments, various forms of self-reliance, territorial disputes, financial costs, all-domain weapons programs, economic development, and transnational linkages.
To account for this complexity yet also recommend decisions, we analyze the cases in three parts: historical background of each case; combined-effects strategy of North Korea and South Korea; and interacting strategies of North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia.
A. North Korean Nuclear and Complex Threats
In November of 1950, five months after North Korea’s invasion of the South, Chairman Kim Il-sung absorbed President Harry Truman’s threat to consider using atomic weapons. The subsequent lack of US will to use the weapon that ended the Pacific War, and China’s will to massively intervene with ground troops, led to the armistice (1953). Within a decade, the Soviet Union had provided North Korea technical training and a nuclear research reactor. This effort was followed in 1964 by China’s first nuclear weapon detonation. By then, all foreign troops except technical advisors had left North Korea. With domestic room to maneuver, two developments pushed Kim to achieve an independent nuclear capability.
First, there were ideological differences among Pyongyang (purges of pro-China/Soviet communists), Moscow (de-Stalinization, perestroika and glasnost, nationalist capitalism) and Beijing (post-Mao reforms, nationalist socialist-capitalism). North Korea’s main patrons were developing politically and economically.
Second, both main powers were unreliable as allies. The USSR was non-committal, China was difficult to work with on an equal basis, and neither supported another North Korean attempt at reunification.
In South Korea, leaders generally desired closer ties with American democratic capitalism. All wanted an in-place tripwire that committed the US to defending against another North Korean invasion. The same resident US influence, however, presented a problematic image of obliging US interests too much. Any alignment with US policy was subject to criticism for being too much sadaejuui and not enough self-reliance. US pressure, for instance, had prevented South Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, seemingly locking Seoul into a permanent US military presence.
In contrast, the non-resident USSR, then non-resident but closeby China, actively supported North Korea’s nuclear program. In addition both communist regimes enacted domestic reforms that Kim-ism would not. So even though Russian ties never included commitments to actually defend North Korea, Moscow’s socialist credentials remain important to Pyongyang. In 1989, Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy reversal that demanded North Korea pay market prices for Soviet oil shocked North Korea’s command economy. However, it was the specter of Russian liberalization that Kim saw as the greater threat.
Similarly, China’s peace treaty with South Korea (1992) shocked North Korea diplomatically. However, , it was Beijing’s post-Tiananmen Massacre reforms that mattered more to Kim. The reforms strengthened Communist Party control of state capitalism, a fix that suited Pyongyang’s first special economic zone (Rason, 1991) designed to attract foreign investment.
In both cases, the absence of Chinese and Soviet tripwire forces in North Korea, itself a deliberate Kim policy designed to prevent foreign influence, provided Pyongyang more domestic freedom of action. This domestic space empowered Kim to manipulate both great powers using all instruments of national power.
North Korea has used that maneuver space to break every agreement it has signed and to develop weapons of mass effects. The payloads are nuclear, biological, chemical, high-explosive, and cyber information. See the Arms Control Association’s chronology of nuclear and missile programs here. Beginning with the 1985 Non-Proliferation Treaty up to its current pledge to denuclearize and stop long-range missile tests, North Korea’s record is to threaten, promise, dare, demand, deny and deceive, all while conceding nothing in return.
Meanwhile Pyongyang continues to develop and leverage nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons, high-explosive missiles, and cyber theft. Kim Jong-un is positioned to demand an end to economic sanctions and retention of his nuclear weapons capability. North Korean strategy is poised to use nuclear weapons as much more than weapons of mass destruction. There are many effects that do not risk retaliatory destruction.
Mass-effects weapons are part of Pyongyang’s basic cause-and-prevent strategy: (a) cause confrontation among main powers—primarily the US and China, and to a lesser degree Russia and Japan; (b) to prevent domestic intervention by any main power. This strategy aims to ensure the Kim dynasty’s survival as an independent Korean regime capable of achieving reunification.
B. South Korea’s Occupation of Dokdo and Ieodo
Since 1954, a year after US forces stopped using Dokdo as a bombing range, South Korean forces have occupied its two small main islands located 135 miles east of the Korean Peninsula. South Korea’s Dokdo Research Institute proclaims Ten Truths About Dokdo Not Known In Japan. The basis for these claims are ancient references to an island claimed to be Dokdo followed by settlers in Ulleungdo who named the rocks (dok: stone). French, Russian, British and Japanese passers-by also name-claimed them (75) as Liancourt Rocks (1849), Olivutsa Rocks (1854), Hornet Rocks (1855), and Takeshima (1905), respectively.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes detailed claims about Takeshima (Dokdo) dating back to the mid-17th century, all of which are rejected by South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, either as a matter for negotiation or for judicial settlement.
Ieodo is a submerged rock where the claimed exclusive economic zones of China and South Korea overlap. The spot is 93 miles southwest of South Korea’s Mara Island and 178 miles from China’s Yushan Island. While the South Korean Government proposes that the midpoint be based on respective coastlines, China’s authoritarian regime insists on factoring in population and length of coastline.
Just as Dokdo is wrapped up in Japan’s colonization of South Korea, Ieodo’s context re-signals imperial China’s control over Korean territory. South Korea’s placement of a plaque (1951) and beacon (1987), and construction of an oceanographic research facility (2001) and helipad (2003), enable a degree of operational control. Seoul proactively deters and fiercely defends against illegal Chinese fishing, no doubt intensified by Chinese economic and territorial designs on North Korea. China’s threats to use force to block South Korean forces from exercising in its own territorial waters (302) with US forces add to Seoul’s well-founded suspicion.
North Korea’s Coercion-infusion Strategy
The chart below provides examples of North Korean DIMES-wide, all-domain effects and activities that generate them. These combinations of effects largely coerce domestic and main power targets in the following pattern. DIMES elements are capitalized to highlight instruments of power.
Diplomatically, North Korea compels and coerces adversaries, and persuades and induces partners. Tools for coercion tend to be provocations that threaten Military actions or provide territorial access. Tools for persuasion generally consist of diatribes and visits, backed by diplomatic-bag bribes. Coercion is ever-present; infused.
Information is crafted to compel and coerce adversaries, and persuade partners. Diplomatic and Informational coercion are force-multiplier infusions for state-sponsored crime to induce Economic transactions and investment.
Domestically, authorities’ Social persuasion is less purely ideological (as in Kim Il-sung’ s day) and more pragmatic. The proliferation of market exchanges and portable foreign information (Chapter 2) competes with payoffs, nepotism, and surveillance technology. External Social persuasion directed toward foreign actors seems limited to the provision of labor, where that is risked against UN sanctions.
TABLE 1: North Korea DIMES-wide, All-domain Effects
South Korea’s Inducement-led Strategy
South Korean effects and activities are relatively ad hoc, except for military deterrence and defense, which have been deliberately planned and well-sustained. Seoul musters combinations of effects in the following pattern:
- Diplomacy is persuasive when dialogues, policies, and Information shape main powers’ interests.
- Tools for persuasion include a globalizing Economy, cultural (Social) appeal, and activities that enhance both peninsular and continental security. Information campaigns persuade actors of Seoul’s resolve with respect to territorial integrity, dialogue-based reunification, and global Economic competition.
- Military deterrence and defense focus more narrowly on territorial threats, even as Diplomatic, Informational and Economic effects broaden in geographic scope.
- Externally-directed Social effects are a product of South Korea’s Economic success and talent. In contrast to North Korea, South Korea’s domestic Social foundation is becoming multi-racial.
- Pyongyang’s racist nationalism seeks to exploit this demographic as if it were a vulnerability.
TABLE 2: South Korea DIMES-wide, All-Domain Effects
Using our description of patterns, and details from the two tables above, we anticipate how Korean strategies interact in terms of effects. First, let’s identify best current and future synergies.
North Korea’s current synergy is to coercively envelop South Korea’s military deterrence and defense with broader effects, while controlling information in North Korea and exploiting divisions among relevant powers. The latter are South Korea, the US, Japan, China and Russia. Pyongyang is executing this strategy of manufactured hostility. The overall combination of external envelopment and exploitation, and internal protection, creates opportunities to out-maneuver main powers and build a degree of self-reliance (juche).
Juche has been an economic failure in providing basic necessities, but a success with respect to the ability to punish people. This depraved punishment is a tragic form of self reliance that ordinary North Koreans bear. Table 1 provides examples of how Pyongyang elites combine these various cooperative and confrontational effects of compellence, inducement, persuasion, and coercion.
Nuclear and other mass-effects weapons enable North Korea’s strategy, but the critical element is information control. The Kim regime’s ideology relies on near-total control of information, a problematic requirement. We can expect any decentralized engagement, therefore, to be regarded as a threat. That assessment is a strategic vulnerability to the extent that resilient command and control relies on distributed authorities.
To out-compete adversary strategies, future Kim cronyism will need to be flexible, such as promoting initiative within its narrative while tolerating self-interested loyalty. The expansion of private markets is a potential indicator of such informal flexibility even though it departs from Kim Il-sung-ism. Given this ideological contradiction, we can expect to see an expansion of delegated authority among trusted elites to extend the regime’s monitoring of information. This broadened oversight may accommodate more cooperation and less confrontation. Kim Jong-un appears to be doing this as new, and formerly “corrupt,” practices stretch his power base.
South Korea’s ideal synergy would be if Seoul and Washington agreed on combining cooperative and confrontational effects. Such as a Sunshine Policy with non-negotiable alliance exercises. That type of combination has been rare and temporary. Instead, we see Seoul policies that partly suit Washington priorities and partly accommodate North Korean and Chinese priorities. Such as US-South Korea military exercises in rote scenarios (the North massively invades the South again) that do not address ongoing threats from China, Russia and North Korea (cyber attacks, political interference, military incursions).
Therefore Seoul’s best future-oriented combined effect is to globally induce Pyongyang to conform to international norms by expanding economic and political engagement around North Korea. Engagement with North Korea should occur in a global rather than exclusively bilateral context. Engage to shape networks. Actors that flaunt international norms while mouthing them, such as China under Xi and Russia under Putin, are the main challenge. Table 2 contains examples of how Seoul can generate such a Northern Policy-type effect via all-tools persuasion, military deterrence and defense, and economic inducements.
Our next section answers the question, how will Pyongyang’s coercive envelopment interact with Seoul’s global inducement?
Coercion Meets Inducement
For North Korea, the coercive envelopment that it takes to out-compete South Korean global inducement requires economic modernization and unprecedented control over information. Achieving total control of the domestic information environment, even for the Kim regime, is not possible if contested. Let’s see why.
Under the Kim 3 regime so far, North Korea’s envelopment strategy relies on two major activities.
First, the strategy foments main power rivalries to counter and circumvent the South Korea-US alliance’s military deterrence and defense. A rising China can limit US power projection. However from North Korea’s standpoint, this is not preferable to US military superiority. China, not the US, claims territory also claimed by North Korea— Gando, Mount Paektu, Yalu and Tumen Rivers, and the Yellow Sea. Whether China or the United States has the advantage in a particular domain is not as relevant to Pyongyang as keeping main power rivalries simmering.
A military standoff among main powers and a nuclear North Korea leaves Pyongyang more room for diplomatic and information maneuver. If Pyongyang succeeds in eliminating economic sanctions with the support of China and Russia, its options expand. A limited North Korean nuclear capability does not change that calculation with respect to nuclear-armed main powers, though it might create a new one—Japan. If Tokyo were to consider a nuclear deterrent, that controversy would also provide Pyongyang more opportunities to divide the main powers.
Second, Pyongyang must prevent North Korean elites and the public from accessing more and more information. The former may be bought off, but the population cannot be compensated or suppressed as portable technologies provide access to more sources of information.
Economic development creates more information—financial, trade, manufacturing and services—all potential sources of power. Although North Korea does not have restless minorities as in China, Pyongyang easily could have a restless majority as expectations exceed incentives. How?
The Kim regime’s envelopment strategy requires more information and more control. To out-perform main powers, Kim’s top-down orchestration of diplomacy, information and military activities relies on information dominance at home. The social foundation for this environment is uncontested domestic control. Eliminating economic sanctions to open opportunities for growth can undermine Pyongyang’s control even if it also feeds a mass-effects arsenal. Pyongyang will be forced to modernize its control of domestic information. While Chinese and Russian information controls certainly provide different techniques for repression, the technologies can be contested in ways that are difficult to stop.
As Pyongyang continues to foment main power rivalries and tighten domestic control over information technology, the need for economic integration becomes acute. Increasingly, competitive economies need instantly transparent access to information. Criminal economies such as North Korea’s can be reduced via international enforcement. Self-reliance in nuclear capability, however, may be possible.
How does Pyongyang’s coercion-plus strategy compare to Seoul’s strategy of global inducement?
As with most democracies, South Korea struggles to maintain a consistent or coherent policy over time. A global inducement strategy, however, can exploit the trends it helps create. In this respect, political and economic engagement on the Eurasian continent and throughout the Indo-Pacific are critical to surrounding North Korea with Korean-branded success. The sustained set of combined effects detailed in Table 2 can out-perform North Korea’s coercion-heavy hand with its greater breadth and depth. Inducement can prevail over coercion as long as Seoul has a credible military deterrent and defense. Economic growth is key to sustaining the strategy.
South Korea’s economy is capable of increasing its defense outlays to provide a convincing conventional superiority. Pyongyang elites know this. Political will, however, has been variable. The military aspect of US-South Korean relations has indeed provided credible capability and leadership. Seoul needs nuclear deterrence, extended (US) or organic. The US extended deterrent can continue to underwrite South Korea’s economic success, at a domestic political cost of self-reliance and main power alignment. Yet, strategic effects that result in desired North Korean behavior matter most. In that regard, the economic growth and military alliance have not prevented nuclearization.
A better approach is to coordinate a synergistic strategy that involves all instruments of power. Global inducement requires expansive diplomatic and economic engagement, which in turn requires more than peninsular deterrence and defense. The military alliance with the US has enabled South Korea’s economic and technological development, and promoted democratic civil-military relationships. For the US, the benefits of the alliance are also DIMES-wide, and should be appreciated from that broad perspective. What types of military activities can combine with what types of non-military activities to cause North Korean de-nuclearization? A superior strategy of South Korean global inducement is the place to start.
Our holistic approach to strategy in the information environment considered how the Koreas wage effective complex warfare through cooperation and confrontation. We applied a common world view to both Koreas: main power alignment (sadaejuui) and self-reliance (juche and freely formed concepts) that blends pragmatic interests with socially conditioned values.
This Korean worldview refracts through starkly different political-economic systems that struggle to retain sovereignty amidst interventionist powers. Reunification remains a common goal of North and South Korea, but on vastly different terms and specific conceptions of threat.
Threat assessments, which historically have been directed against invasions and domestic interference by main powers, reflect strongly contested narratives. Narratives shape social perceptions and contain assumptions about enduring threats to Korean sovereignty.
North Korea’s violent mix of sadaejuui and juche creates threats that underpin a cultish ideology of sole-source rule. “Self” reliance is supposed to reinforce exclusive trust in “us” - the Kim family. This construction of permanent threats selectively draws from a history of predatory powers. The social manufacturing of threats is rigidly intolerant of domestic dissent. To the extent that the Kim regime is uncontested at home, it is therefore free to manipulate main power relations. This in turn helps preserve its idiosyncratic rule and set more conditions for reunification.
South Korea’s blend of sadaejuui and self-reliance has been externally non-violent and internally transformative. Economic success, protected by credible military alliance with a main power, the US, has fueled a vibrant democracy and globalizing economy. As a result, Seoul’s main power alignment has broadened to include positive relations with all main powers. Self-reliance is networked, a business practice that generates diverse strategies to deal with competitive threats.
The combined effects strategies of the two Koreas reflect these disparate approaches to assessing threats.
North Korea seeks to coercively envelop the South Korea-US alliance with a two-pronged approach. Pyongyang attempts to: (1) compel and induce adversaries via provocations that threaten coercion; and (2) persuade and induce partners via territorial access and illicit transactions that enrich its loyal elite. Domestically, control over information sells a racist nationalism as morally legitimate.
South Korea’s strategy is one of global inducement. Seoul attempts to persuade and induce adversaries and partners via a globalizing economy and cultural appeal. Military alliance with the US deters and defends against the use of force on South Korean territory. A multi-racial society is beginning to emerge, one that will transform South Korean identity in a complex domestic and global context.
Comparing both strategies, Pyongyang is executing its best synergy of coop-frontation, while Seoul either cooperates or confronts. US efforts to do the same are seldom in step. Relative to the South, the North has been able to orchestrate diplomatic, informational, military, economic and social activities that seize the initiative and shape future outcomes. The South’s strategy creates its own synergistic effects, but struggles to sustain them over the long-term due to changing political priorities. What can be done?
As the two strategies interact, Seoul’s global inducement can prevail over Pyongyang’s coercive envelopment by exploiting the North’s basic dilemma.
North Korea’s core problem is that it must simultaneously modernize its system of controlling domestic information, and manipulate main powers. The Kim regime’s authoritarianism creates a dilemma of undesirable alternatives: (A) politically risky modernization; or (B) increasing dependence on modernizing main powers.
Whether North Korea achieves both authoritarian modernization and national independence is not a matter of self-reliance. The outcome depends upon the strategies of other powers. We propose the following two options for South Korea and the United States.
First, Seoul and Washington should agree on maintaining economic sanctions as long as Pyongyang refuses to de-nuclearize. Economic sanctions accelerate the Kim regime’s need to embrace capitalist reforms, even if in corrupt forms. Sooner or later, however, a Sunshine-inspired South Korean president will relax economic sanctions in the hope that the North will eventually de-nuclearize. This risky step might be insured by the technological feasibility of a countervailing South Korean nuclear deterrent.
Second, Seoul and Washington should agree on how to cooperate with and confront North Korea, China, and Russia. This politically ambitious course can induce the dilemma of North Korean strategy. The effort could combine the Moon administration’s New Northern Policy and the Trump administration’s (and Japan’s Abe administration’s) Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concepts. Converting these policies into effective strategies would require operationalizing them in terms of specific effects, such as inducement.
For instance, the FOIP vision of Ensuring Peace and Security (22-23) by protecting the maritime domain should include exercises that develop capabilities to induce territorial withdrawal, not just to deter and defend against territorial invasion. This nuance means orchestrating military actions in concert with diplomatic, informational, economic and social activities. In a similar fashion, the New Northern Policy should specify what it intends to prevent and what it intends to cause, in terms of inducing behavior.
Broader relationships need to be considered as well, such as the South Korea-China-Japan summit, the US-Japan alliance, and the Australia-India-Japan-US Quad. Building options along the Eurasian-Pacific edge can help moderate the periodic rupturing of South Korea-Japan relations that Pyongyang is keen to exploit.
In comparison to North Korea’s dilemma, South Korea’s dilemma is not between undesirable modernization and undesirable over-dependence on main powers. South Korea’s dilemma is between: (A) an increasingly distinct South Korean nation-state compared to North Korea; and (B) a reunified Korean state of two nations. Both of these alternatives are undesirable to different groups in South Korea.
Option A is where South Koreans are today, dealing with the world’s most authoritarian regime armed with nuclear weapons bent on coercive reunification. Option B will require significant financial costs, political reforms, and unprecedented cooperation among main powers. However, a reunified Korea could become a global power in its own right. Seoul’s inducement strategy is a characteristic pathway to that goal.
A combined effects approach to complex warfare offers a broad perspective to holistically grasp and analyze contemporary strategies. As we argued in previous articles on China and Japan, superior strategy involves comparing threats and integrating effects, and considering all instruments of power across all domains.