South Korea’s Changing Security Paradigm

SINGAPORE – Since the Korean War ended, the divided Korean Peninsula has stood at the center of complex power constellations in Northeast Asia involving the United States, Russia, China, and Japan. But, while South Korea’s geostrategic location and historical legacy – together with the enduring nationalist sentiments, alliance politics, territorial disputes, and superpower rivalries at play throughout the region – have generated a persistent security dilemmas, the country’s closest neighbor poses its defining security challenge.

The bitter political, strategic, and territorial rivalry between North and South Korea has generated what is essentially a zero-sum conflict on the Peninsula. Given the need to prevent another war, South Korea’s national-security strategy – based on the mutually reinforcing pillars of defensive deterrence, alliance with the US, and forward active defense – has remained relatively constant for more than six decades.

But, in the last decade, South Korea’s security environment has become increasingly complex, as traditional threats, scenarios, and contingencies linked to conventional, high-intensity warfare have converged with asymmetric and unconventional threats. In fact, two major threats, stemming from North Korea’s divergent potential development trajectories, are, by their nature, polar opposites.

The first threat is rooted in North Korea’s pursuit of enhanced military capabilities through a ballistic-missile program and the development of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical, and biological). In recalibrating their WMD development and testing strategies, North Korea’s leaders hope to offset the military and technological superiority of the US-South Korea alliance, thereby attaining greater economic and political leverage in the region, and, most important, guaranteeing the regime’s survival.