Updated | Last month, I participated in a delegation trip to Seoul organized by the National Bureau of Asian Research and sponsored by the Korea Foundation.
During the week, we met with dozens of officials and scholars. We focused our discussion on the North Korean threat, to include discussions of US-ROK coordination, the relationship with Japan, and the role of China.
Even though I have spent time researching the North Korea nuclear issue, there were a number of new and diverse perspectives articulated in our meetings.
First, one of the main reasons the United States has not launched limited strikes on North Korean nuclear and missile launch facilities is the fear that North Korea would retaliate by launching a barrage of artillery at Seoul.
The North Korean People’s Army Artillery Command reportedly oversees about 12,000 pieces of tube artillery and 2,300 pieces of multiple launch artillery. The consensus that Pyongyang had “enough artillery to turn Seoul into a ‘sea of fire’” is the main reason cited for why the Clinton administration did not launch such an attack in the 1990s.
This could escalate to a full-blown conflict, which could result in an estimated 20,000 casualties per day.
However, a number of South Korean interlocutors questioned the assumption that if the United States launched a limited surgical strike North Korea would respond in this manner.
The artillery threat is Kim’s trump card; he knows that if he does launch such an attack on Seoul it most certainly means a major US military response. Kim understands that a second Korean War would end with his demise, and therefore he has incentives to avoid such escalation.
Assuming Kim is rational then, it is possible that the United States could conduct a limited surgical strike and North Korea’s response would be minimal. This perspective is not widespread in the United States, but should be seriously considered as it has implications for the costs and benefits of US military options.
Second, the views on President Trump’s North Korea policy were more mixed than expected. On the one hand, South Korean political and military elites expressed support for the fact that North Korea is President Trump’s top priority in Asia.
The perception is that lack of priority among past presidents — President Clinton, President Bush, and President Obama — allowed the problem to develop to the current tipping point. Therefore, President Trump’s focus and urgency on ending the nuclear threat is welcomed.
However, there was a split in perceptions about the role of military options in President Trump’s strategy. A senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official articulated that the ROK and the US are actually on the same page in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat. Both believe in a “maximum pressure, maximum engagement” strategy — with the US stressing the former and the ROK the latter.
In this context, President Trump is not seriously considering military options, but is only threatening to escalate as a part of the diplomatic strategy.
However, some other interlocutors, mostly retired officials or scholars, disagreed. They thought the US threats to use military force were real, and that many in the United States were not adequately considering the lives and livelihoods of South Koreans when they considered the costs of their actions.
A senior adviser to South Korean President Moon has been quoted as saying if the United States attacks North Korea without coordination with South Korea it would mean the end of the alliance.
Third, the case of East and West Germany is not a useful analogue for Korea. There was no animosity between East and West Germany — but the North and South fought a bloody war against each other and have now lived almost seven decades in a state of war.
Moreover, the North Korean regime has been actively brainwashing its population with propaganda against the South that will make it difficult for the two populations to accept each other.
Currently, there are 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea. These individuals go through a special process of re-education so they can learn how to live in a capitalist, open, and democratic society like that of South Korea.
But North Koreans undoubtedly struggle in South Korean society, and are easily identified by language and appearance, if not by geography since after reunification most North Koreans would stay in the North. It will be a difficult social challenge for North Koreans to not be second-class citizens in a reunified Korean society.
Additionally, the economic costs of reunification are unparalleled. East Germany was the jewel of the Soviet empire — the situation never reached the dire level of North Korea today in which the average person has no access to education, healthcare, or basic markets.
Most of the population lives off subsistence farming. When compared to the vibrant economy of the South, the contrast is much starker. Korean unification also would happen at the apex of Chinese power, while German reunification happened as the Soviet Union collapsed.
This increases the likelihood of third party involvement. For all these reasons, it is no surprise that unlike Germans, many South Koreans do not want reunification, especially the younger generations.
In short, the prospect of reunification on the Korean peninsula will be much riskier, more uncertain, and costlier than any such occurrence in history.
Oriana Skylar Mastro is a Jeane Kirkpatrick visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and is writing a book on China’s approach to global leadership. She is assistant professor of security studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
Updated: The new version of the column contains a new headline that clarifies the intentions of the piece.