Why can’t S. Korea retaliate militarily against the North?

By Michael Raska,Special to The China Post

South Korea’s security paradigm has for nearly sixty years focused on sustaining the status-quo — maintaining deterrence and robust defense posture in order to prevent another major outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula.

Its three mutually-reinforcing strategic pillars: defensive deterrence; U.S.-ROK alliance; and forward active defense have defined the baseline of South Korea’s national security conceptions as well as corresponding force structure and operational conduct. Notwithstanding the diverging types of military provocations, crises, and intrusion by North Korea, South Korea has largely refrained from more active and direct responses in order to prevent a major escalation, superpower intervention, and another fratricidal Korean conflict.

However, since the early 1990s, South Korea’s security dilemmas have become progressively more complex. In addition to conventional threats (i.e. scenarios and contingencies linked high intensity conventional wars) South Korea has increasingly faced hybrid conflict spectrum — the amalgamation of asymmetric, low-intensity, and non-linear security challenges. These include two extreme threats on a threat scale — on one end is North Korea’s continuously advancing ballistic missile program coupled with its WMD (nuclear, chemical, and biological) capabilities that provide economic leverage and serve as a force multiplier.

On the other end of the threat spectrum is North Korea’s specter of a failed state. North Korea’s persisting economic and structural decay coupled with prolonged international diplomatic isolation, which broadens the risks of potential instability and volatility — scenarios ranging from implosion to explosion. The resulting hybrid conflict spectrum essentially mitigates the effectiveness of South Korea’s traditional deterrence and defense strategies.

Amid the transformation in the nature and character of North Korean security challenges, South Korean defense planners are increasingly constrained by the risks and costs of a potential confrontations, spillovers, or crises.

In a hybrid conflict spectrum, any type of a retaliatory action or military initiative by South Korea aimed at North Korean force concentrations entails even greater risks of conflict escalation.

First, there are traditional geostrategic constraints. South Korea lacks strategic depth, which essentially precludes any type of elastic defense (i.e. defense in depth that trades space for time) and limits early-warning options.

In geographical terms, the distance between the DMZ and Seoul — the political, business, and cultural center of South Korea — is only approximately 40 km, making the densely populated capital city with over 11 million inhabitants highly vulnerable to a North Korean ground or artillery attack.