Op Eds & Articles

Seoul’s Dilemma: How should Seoul respond to Pyongyang’s provocations?
By: Dr. Alon Levkowitz
December 1, 2010

Dr. Alon Levkowitz teaches Korean studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa.

How should Seoul respond to Pyongyong’s latest provocations? This is the impossible question that Seoul has been facing over recent months.

Will South Korea retaliate towards North Korea as right-wing sources in Israel called upon Seoul to do, hoping that it might serve as a model to deter Iran as well?

If one looks at Seoul’s response after the Cheonan ship incident (46 sailors killed after being hit by a North Korean torpedo) in March this year and the Yeonpyeong Island incident (2 soldiers and 2 civilians killed) in November, one could conclude that Seoul will not retaliate.

Seoul well knows what the price tag is of any military action against North Korea: The fear of an unintended conflict where North Korea would drag the region into a war that no one wants.

If Seoul chooses not to bombard missile sites in North Korea, should it condemn the provocations and pursue sanctions through the UN Security Council? Or should it choose other alternatives such as disengaging from North Korea by halting any economic assistance to the North?

The Cheonan ship incident and the latest North Korean provocation in the Yeonpyeong island incident raised new voices in South Korea that, for the first time in the last two decades, called for a more active retaliation against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) provocations. For the time being, Seoul has decided to pursue a military drill with the United States and deter the North by stating that Pyongyang will pay a higher price if it decides to pursue further provocations, as some analysts argued that North Korea will continue its provocation policy.

Seoul’s North Korea policy should take into account three main factors that will influence any retaliation:

The first factor is the transition period in Pyongyang. The election of Kim Jong-un as North Korea’s new leader signaled the beginning of the change of the guard in Pyongyang. In order to legitimize and consolidate his leadership, Pyongyang may create provocations that will allow him to strengthen control over the army and the party. Seoul knows that Pyongyang may retaliate to legitimize Kim Jong-un as the new leader of North Korea. Seoul even estimated that Pyongyang might carry out a third nuclear test in the near future. Seoul should consider whether it wants to destabilize this transition process by, for example, increasing the economic pressure on Pyongyang or whether it should indirectly assist Kim Jong-il to “crown” his son without the fear that his regime is under threat, by “absorbing” some of North Korea’s provocations.

The second factor is the support of Seoul’s allies. Would Washington, Tokyo or Beijing support a military retaliation by Seoul? The neo-conservatives in Washington and Tokyo – and even in Seoul – would like to support a military retaliation against Pyongyang. But they are wary that any military act by Seoul may well encourage the North to escalate a conflict in the region. That is why Beijing, Washington and Tokyo, while disagreeing with Pyongyang’s provocations, will try to resolve the issue without using direct military force against the DPRK.

The third factor is the economy. The South Korean economy is an important factor that the Republic of Korea (ROK) President Lee Myung-bak would have to take into consideration when he makes the decision whether to use military force in order to retaliate to North Korea’s next provocation. One should remember that South Korea’s stock exchange dropped 0.79% following the Yeonpyeong island incident on November 23rd. How will the South Korean market respond to an increasing tension with North Korea next time?

President Lee Myung-bak faces a difficult dilemma. How should he respond to Pyongyang’s next provocation without providing North Korea with an excuse to increase tensions between the two states while at the same time, deterring Pyongyang from pursuing its provocation tactics?

In order to make a stand against the DPRK’s further provocations, President Lee will have to respond when the next military provocation occurs. One could argue that the South Korean army’s limited response in the Yeonpyeong island incident – firing at the North Korea artillery which didn’t led to any further escalation – would serve as a model for Seoul’s retaliation policy in the future.

In addition to limited military retaliation, we could expect that Seoul will increase its economic sanctions on North Korea so as to increase the price tag of any further provocations that Pyongyang might want to pursue. For the time being, Seoul hopes that North Korea will not escalate the tension in the Peninsula. But if Pyongyang will continue to provoke, Seoul will have no choice but to reevaluate its policy towards the North and consider if it needs to take higher risks by increasing the pressure on Pyongyang.

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