The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Distorted myth of strong response

By Korea Herald

Published : June 14, 2024 - 05:31

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On the Korean Peninsula, military tensions have surged to another high.

The tensions began to increase on May 10, when North Korean defector groups sent balloons with anti-North Korea leaflets from South Korea to the North. On May 28, the North sent hundreds of balloons filled with garbage, including excrement, and released a statement that mocked the same balloons as freedom of expression from the South and that balloons from the North are in violation of international law. On May 31, South Korea's Ministry of Unification warned in a government statement that it would take unbearable measures unless the North stopped provocations. On June 1, North Korea rereleased its filth balloons. On June 4, South Korea declared the end of an inter-Korean military agreement, and the North Korean defector group flew propaganda leaflets again on June 6. On June 8, North Korea released a third wave of trash balloons. On June 9, South Korea restarted loudspeakers aimed toward the North. On June 10, the North also reinstalled loudspeakers pointed to the South.

As the situation becomes urgent, anxiety over security on the Korean Peninsula has spread and deepened again.

Residents of the Demilitarized Zone are protesting in front of the presidential office to ban the distribution of the leaflets, at the root of the problems, but have not received any positive answers. The presidential office's cold response reflects President Yoon Suk Yeol's firm will to maintain a strong stance against North Korea. His desire might be to be recognized as a heroic leader. However, a strong response is not directly related to a courageous leader.

A heroic leader should have not only bravery, but also charisma to inspire even his or her enemies with flexible strategies. If a strong response that excludes inclusion is regarded as heroic leadership, it is only a fatal illusion. A little thought can show that it is a wrong myth that a strong response can make splendid leadership.

First, South Korea can choose a method different from a hard-line response as the preferred method for weaker countries.

When a powerful country comes into conflict with another country, it is possible to simultaneously use both a hard line and a soft response. However, if a weak country responds moderately to provocations from a neighboring country, it will be seen as humiliated. No country's people support the humiliating treatment of pressure from other countries. Therefore, a leader of a weak country must take hard-line measures.

Compared to North Korea, South Korea is a powerful country.

How much different are the two Koreas in terms of national competence? Comparing per capita income would be the most evident contrast. Based on purchasing power, South Korea has a personal income of about $60,000. North Korea is at about $1,800.

The population is twice as different, so in terms of the country, the South in total is about $3 trillion dollars, while the North is some $40 billion. There is a 75 times difference.

Some might say that North Korea is ahead in military power. However, in terms of conventional military power, the South ranked fifth in the world in the recent Global Firepower ranking, while the North is No. 36. When comparing the defense budget, Seoul spends $50 billion, while Pyongyang has a budget of $4 billion. There is a 12-fold difference.

Second, when a powerful country adopts a hard-line response, it becomes a stiff response if it lacks a sense of balance.

Powerful nations negotiate to resolve conflicts with weak or competing nations by appropriately combining the hard-line and moderate options. If you stick to the hard-line policy unconditionally, the policy is simply a stiff one.

No one can achieve good results if a project is processed rigidly. Diplomacy is based on the premise that foreign countries with different communication codes have different goals and approaches. Negotiations are bound to fail if one country insists on a rigid attitude because it cannot inform the other country of its position or understand the other country's demands.

Third, it should be deeply recognized that hard-line countermeasures on the Korean Peninsula are banned. The 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement prohibited hostile acts against warring parties on the Korean Peninsula around the Demilitarized Zone. The anti-Pyongyang leaflet violates that agreement as part of psychological warfare.

South Korea is superior to North Korea in terms of economic and military power and is also overwhelmingly superior in terms of cultural capacity and political institutions. South Korea is also one of the leading countries in most areas regarding compliance with international norms.

It would be a serious loss to South Korea if the international community recognizes that South Korea violates the Korean Armistice Agreement and is no different from North Korea, which is treated as a rogue state.

It may be argued that it is unpleasant and frustrating that we cannot respond strongly to provocative actions from the North. However, it should be understood that various norms ultimately safeguard the strong.

In the international community, great powers exploit weaker countries by creating international standards in their favor and pressuring smaller ones to abide by them. So, if there is an agreement between the two Koreas, whatever the content, South Korea has an unconditional advantage.

This is especially true of military agreements. Nevertheless, for South Korea to break the Armistice Agreement or various inter-Korean agreements by itself, which are advantageous devices for controlling North Korea, is nothing but self-harm.

Fourth, rather than solving the problem, a strong response from a powerful country moves toward exacerbating it. Weaker countries unconditionally prefer a hard-line reaction in the event of a situation, as previously stated. The window for solving the problem could be opened if a powerful country responds moderately. However, if a powerful country responds strongly, the weaker countries have no other way but an even harder response. In the process, the problem worsens and grows.

Without flexibility, a strong response is not that strong, and does not make a magnificent leader.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is an adjunct professor at Sogang University. He is a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and a former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.