South Koreans are keeping calm, confident that not even Kim Jong-un wants mutual destruction
Joon Nak Choi says there is little sign of real panic in Seoul despite the heated rhetoric and regional preparations for hostilities, because they believe the Kim regime, no matter how ruthless, is neither stupid nor crazy. But what if they’re wrong?
A foreign observer might reasonably conclude that the two Koreas stand on the brink of war. US President Donald Trump recently called “a major, major conflict with North Korea” a real possibility; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has directed his National Security Council to plan for the rescue of Japanese nationals in Korea in case of conflict; and China’s largest city bordering North Korea is “urgently” recruiting Korean translators in preparation for a refugee crisis.
Despite such frightening rhetoric, I saw no hint of panic during my trips to Seoul in late March and mid-April. Seoul residents were more focused on the then-upcoming presidential election rather than the possibility of war. Why were they so unconcerned about war with a nuclear-armed rogue state just 50km to the north?
The answer is that South Koreans seem to intuitively understand that neither the North nor the South wish to risk mutually assured destruction.
Most reasonable observers would agree that Washington would not easily risk North Korean retaliation on metropolitan Seoul’s 25 million citizens, and that Seoul certainly would not grant permission for a pre-emptive strike. Many of the same observers, however, would portray Kim Jong-un and the North Korean regime as irrational or illogical, and fear that Pyongyang would trigger mutually assured destruction on the Korean peninsula to achieve its purposes.
While many South Koreans might verbally agree with this view, their actions belie their words. Few Koreans send their families abroad for the purpose of avoiding war, although many have emigrated to escape economic stagnation, a rigid society, and the unhealthy rigours of the educational system. Indeed, the number of Korean immigrants in the US – their preferred overseas destination – has dropped slightly since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006. While rising incomes in Korea and the 2008 financial crisis may have also influenced this outcome, the absence of an exodus stands in stark contrast to the flight of Hong Kong’s middle class before the 1997 handover, or the plight of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.
South Koreans almost certainly understand that the South has a very substantial technological advantage over the North, armed with some of the most sophisticated tanks, warships and aircraft in the world; many also trust that the US would come to their aid if war broke out. For these reasons, they understand that a major attack by the North might cause grievous damage to the South, but also trigger massive retaliation that would almost certainly result in the North’s collapse.
Their belief that the North would seek to avoid mutual destruction certainly appears to match the evidence. While some observers predicted large-scale conflict after the 2002 naval battle between the Koreas, the 2006 North Korean nuclear test, the 2010 sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and shelling of a sparsely populated island, and the 2014 exchange of fire across the land border, tensions were slowly but surely de-escalated after each of these events.
Having said this, I wonder if South Koreans might actually be underestimating the chances of war. The past does not necessarily predict the future. Furthermore, what many might not intuitively understand is that the deterrence provided by mutually assured destruction has its limits. Scholars have found that leaders can make judgment errors under crisis, when they lack adequate information and face psychological strains. For instance, US president John F. Kennedy made several miscalculations during the Cuban missile crisis even though he was advised by highly competent experts. Had the world been slightly less lucky, Kennedy’s mistakes could have very easily triggered a nuclear war.
Who is to say that Trump and Kim can avoid these pitfalls during a crisis?
Still, South Koreans may very well be right in their collective assessment of Kim and his regime. While they are totalitarian, ruthless and quite possibly evil, they are neither crazy nor stupid enough to easily risk war.
Joon Nak Choi is an assistant professor at the School of Business and Management and faculty associate at the Institute for Emerging Market Studies at HKUST