Last week, North Korea launched a missile over the Yellow Sea. Ostensibly it was a spy satellite, but North Korea has obfuscated its missile tests before with such descriptions. Pyongyang tests a lot these days, but this test made headlines because of Seol’s confused response — the South Korean government sent out a text message telling people to take shelter.
Worse, the English-language version of the message was titled “wartime alert.” For a moment, the global media thought a war had broken out in Korea. Twenty minutes later, the government abruptly canceled the alert. Everyone was confused. No one knew what to do or where to seek shelter. Predictably, the criticism was withering.
Civil Defense is Not a Priority
The botched alert illustrated just how unready South Korea is to face the North Korean missile threat. Although everyone knows how many missile tests North Korea conducts — they are in the news all the time — South Korea has made surprisingly little effort to prepare its civilian population for the rain of missiles that would mark the start of a conflict.
In the 15 years I have lived in South Korea, I have never seen a civil defense drill taken seriously. About 10 years ago, the government gave up altogether. In the past, there were drills once a month. An air raid siren would ring for 15 minutes, and citizens were encouraged to find shelter, but few did. Most people just waited around for the siren to end, then they went back to work.
But at least that drill was something. It showed that the government realized the main North Korean threat to the South came from the air. Now there is nothing. I have asked my students and colleagues about this informally for years. No one has any idea what to do.
If there is a silver lining to last week’s confusion, it may be that the South Korean government finally gets serious about civil defense.
It’s All about the Missiles Now
The need for civil defense planning is obvious. Missiles are really the only way North Korea can seriously strike South Korea now. This is a crucial point, too often lost in the intense focus on North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Pyongyang will almost certainly place nukes on some of its missiles, but even if it does not, its missile force is now large and well tested. That force, and not the North Korean army, is the primary threat to South Korea.
The conventional North Korean military attracts a lot of attention. It is large. All North Koreans must serve, so the country’s infantry reserves potentially exceed 10 million soldiers. The army is routinely on TV. We see ferocious-looking cadres marching through Pyongyang. In South Korean movies depicting the Korean War, one sees a committed, efficacious Northern conventional military.
But this military is also underfed, undertrained, and equipped with obsolete weapons. In a hot war with the U.S. and South Korea, allied airpower would take a devastating toll on North Korea’s conventional formations. Most of the ground combat would occur in a narrow area north of Seoul that allied airpower would pound relentlessly. With little room to maneuver — the middle of the Korean peninsula is mountainous — the North Korean traditional military would likely not survive long.
Hence the attraction of missiles to the Northern leadership. They are fast and hard to shoot down. They avoid the conventional strengths of the U.S. and South Korean militaries. And due to the mountainous conditions of much of the peninsula, most South Koreans live in a few, densely populated cities. South Korean cities do not sprawl outward; there is no room. Instead, South Korea builds upward. Its cities are filled with apartment buildings and tall office complexes. These are obviously vulnerable to missile strikes, even without considering nuclear weapons. This is probably why North Korea tests so many missiles.
Missile Defense and Civil Defense
Missile defense, then, is the most pressing strategic issue for South Korea. Missile defense is expensive, and it does not work well, but there is no choice. South Korea is a wealthy country. Its economy is the tenth largest in the world. It has the resources to invest in a roof, even if that roof is leaky.
The obvious supplement to air defense is preparing the population to respond to a missile attack. This entails more organized drilling, more locations deemed as shelters, and more budgetary authority to harden and expand those shelters.
This will be politically uncomfortable. The U.S. gave up on such drills early in the Cold War. But there is no obvious alternative. Last week’s botched drill illustrated how unready South Korean civilians are. Whether one likes it or not, missiles are North Korea’s future, and South Korea should prepare for that.
Expert Biography: Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; RoberEdwinKelly.com) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan and a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.