Time for Conventional Arms Control On the Korean Peninsula

December 2000

By Yong-Sup Han, Paul K. Davis, and Richard E. Darilek

The first-ever Korean summit in June 2000 was a remarkable event, concluding with a joint statement by the two heads of state that included language on reunification. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung dramatized the results afterward by saying that war would no longer be possible on the Korean Peninsula, but noticeably absent from the joint statement was any mention of the need to ease military tensions and build a durable peace on the peninsula.

It should not be forgotten that North Korea presently has massive forward-deployed offensive forces, including missiles, long-range artillery, and mechanized forces. If Pyongyang's circumstances or intentions changed for the worse—as is surely possible given its basket-case economy and political system—North Korea could initiate a surprise attack according to its traditional military strategy, perhaps trying to seize Seoul with the intention of subsequently bargaining from strength.

The diplomatic breakthrough achieved at the inter-Korean summit and the subsequent missile talks between Pyongyang and Washington are important, but the absence of conventional security issues at the negotiating table should be a major concern—especially to South Korea. The potential for immediate and massive violence that exists between the two Koreas is not a natural state of affairs for nations attempting to normalize relations.

Conventional arms control measures can play an important role in reducing tensions and lessening the likelihood of a devastating conflict. The inter-Korean breakthrough provides a positive diplomatic atmosphere—and therefore an important opportunity—to pursue such measures, but there are a number of other reasons why it is important to move forward as quickly as possible.

First, the reduced sense of threat in South Korea stemming from political detente with the North may lead to complacency or even heightened anti-Americanism as South Koreans reassess the costs and benefits of having American troops in their country. In time, such attitudes could lead the U.S. Congress to likewise reconsider the wisdom and necessity of having U.S. soldiers in Korea. The result could be a premature weakening of both U.S. forces in Korea and of the U.S.-R.O.K. security relationship. It is therefore best to address the threat of North Korea's conventional forces now, while the parties' political will to do so remains strong.

A second reason for raising security issues immediately is that the South is currently planning economic assistance and investments that are exceedingly valuable to the North, including the construction of an industrial complex and related transportation infrastructure in Kaesong. If Seoul gives away too much economically before achieving concessions on military threat reduction, the result could be a somewhat invigorated North Korea with the same unacceptable military capabilities it has today and perhaps even a weakened relationship with Washington.

A third reason is that it is impossible as yet to judge Kim Jong Il's long-term intentions or abilities, much less those of lesser officials and military figures in the D.P.R.K. South Korea would be well advised to pursue an ambitious, probing, and adaptive strategy that clarifies intentions and reduces the risks of war while preserving the ability to back away, toughen up, and prepare for difficulties if developments sour. By reducing the North Korean threat, conventional arms control could prove extremely useful, and even if political developments subsequently worsened, its accomplishments might nevertheless endure and reduce the risks of war.

The current U.S. and South Korean approaches to negotiating with North Korea have been too timid and therefore too risky. Seoul's engagement policy thus far has been a step-by-step approach that starts with political and economic issues and proceeds to security issues—eventually. For its part, Washington will not pay attention to conventional security issues until the nuclear and missile questions are resolved.

Dealing with the security threat on the Korean Peninsula requires a more ambitious, holistic, and adaptive approach that proceeds from the belief that a sustainable and productive engagement policy should include concrete steps to reduce conventional military threats on the peninsula now. Simultaneous political, economic, and security negotiations have the best chance of inducing the desired behavioral changes in the North and reducing the threat of war.

As illustrated by the European experience during the 1990s, arms control can be a powerful instrument for change once the circumstances and decisions allow, but nothing more. If the trends on the Korean Peninsula are in fact as favorable as they seem, conventional arms control should be feasible. However, if the underlying realities are in fact less auspicious, then it is better to know sooner rather than later.

Rather than waiting for an uncertain future, it is important to seize the opportunity provided by the inter-Korean breakthrough now to bring down the source of military tensions as part of changing the hostile relationship. Fortunately, there is also groundwork on which to build.


Background on Korean Arms Control

It is often forgotten that a broad scope of Korean arms control issues were discussed seriously nearly a decade ago. In 1991 and 1992, the South and the North addressed how to improve their overall relationship and how to reduce military tension in the wake of the Cold War's end. They agreed to resolve differences peacefully through dialogue and negotiation, pledged not to use force against each other, and agreed to establish a South-North Joint Military Commission to discuss and carry out steps to build military confidence and realize arms reduction. These were to include the mutual notification and control of large-scale military maneuvers and exercises; the peaceful utilization of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ); exchanges of military personnel and information; phased arms reductions, including the elimination of weapons of mass destruction and offensive capabilities; and verification of such elimination.1

In large part because it regarded discussing U.S. forces as out of the question, the South demanded that confidence building take place before any arms reduction talks, whereas the North demanded that arms reduction take place first. The South proposed that the two Koreas agree to notification and observation of military exercises and maneuvers, peaceful utilization of demilitarized zones, exchange of military personnel and information, verification, and elimination of weapons of mass destruction. The North proposed prohibiting military exercises with foreign countries, changing the DMZ into a peace zone, staging force reductions from 300,000 soldiers to 100,000 (with the phased withdrawals of U.S. forces in Korea being proportional to the reductions made by the two Koreas), reducing offensive weapons in proportion to manpower reduction, and suspending the acquisition of advanced weapons from abroad. Although the North's proposals were patently one-sided in many respects, they were ambitious and discussions proved possible. The two sides agreed that subsequent negotiations would take up confidence-building and arms-reduction measures at the same time.

The sides appeared to be making progress, but the measures were never implemented for several reasons. First, the issue of North Korea's nuclear program emerged and the U.S. focus on that blocked progress on conventional arms control. Second, South Korea and the United States decided to resume Team Spirit military exercises in 1993 when North Korea refused to accept inspection of its nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency. (The Team Spirit exercises, annual military maneuvers symbolic of the highly developed U.S.-R.O.K. alliance, had been cancelled in 1992 to promote Pyongyang's cooperation on nuclear issues.) Third, the North unilaterally violated its commitment not to vilify and antagonize the South and not to intrude forces secretly into the South's territory or its territorial waters. And, finally, the North learned from the nuclear discussions that it could go "over the head" of the South, thereby reducing its incentive to negotiate with South Korea.

Although the inter-Korean arms control discussions yielded important results, a net assessment of the progress made is not encouraging. North Korea achieved some of its aims in the conventional military arena and gained a good deal from the nuclear discussions. Consistent with its objectives, Pyongyang saw a complete pullout of U.S. nuclear weapons from Korea and, in 1997, a unilateral cancellation of Team Spirit exercises by the United States and South Korea. Moreover, it achieved its goal of direct security talks with the United States, rather than South Korea. North Korea now contends that there are two remaining tasks: withdrawal of U.S. forces and cessation of the U.S.-R.O.K. military alliance.

In contrast, South Korea and the United States ultimately gained nothing from the 1991 conventional arms control efforts, though they did make some gains on nuclear and missile issues. During the inter-Korean nuclear talks of December 1991, prompted by unilateral withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, the two Koreas agreed to the principle of denuclearization of the peninsula. In 1994, the United States was able to freeze North Korea's nuclear weapons development program in exchange for heavy fuel oil and light-water nuclear reactors.

More recently, North Korea agreed to a moratorium on its missile test launches, and relations between Washington and Pyongyang eased in the wake of June's North-South summit as the United States lifted economic sanctions and changed the grating "rogue state" appellation to the less offensive "state of concern." There is still no permanent agreement on the development, testing, or export of missiles, but Kim Jong-Il reportedly promised Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in October that North Korea would conduct no further tests of the Taepo Dong-1 ballistic missile. However, these developments will largely benefit the United States, not South Korea.

One other diplomatic development of note has been the Four Party talks, which were convened in December 1997 to work toward replacing the armistice ending the Korean War with a permanent peace agreement. The talks—involving North Korea, South Korea, the United States, and China—served as a forum for addressing confidence-building measures until August 1999. Unfortunately, North Korea resisted movement on security issues because of Washington and Seoul's refusal to include U.S. forces in the agenda. The joint communiqué that followed North Korean Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok's visit to Washington this October mentioned the Four Party talks, but it seems unlikely that they are the most promising forum for addressing conventional arms control. The conventional arms control process needs to be hammered out between the two Koreas without the often overbearing presence of the United States, particularly in light of the conflicting security interests between Beijing and Washington.2

Against this background, what is the context for new negotiations? The Kim Dae Jung government still believes that confidence building should take place before any arms reduction talks. It worries that any premature arms reduction talks will entail reconfiguration and reduction of U.S. troops in Korea, thus jeopardizing deterrence on the Korean Peninsula. Some officials believe that such talks would also be "more than the traffic could bear," an opinion often expressed over the years by U.S. officials focused on nuclear issues. In contrast, North Korea probably still believes that arms reduction should take place first, although, notably, it has indicated willingness to compromise on the future role of U.S. forces in Korea so long as they change their status to one of neutrality or peacekeeping.

Nevertheless, the June summit and subsequent meetings suggest that many changes can occur in the security premises held by the South and by the North. This suggests that defense planners in Seoul and Washington can think anew about reciprocal conventional threat reduction and how to make headway for a peaceful unification, while maintaining Korea's long-term stability and regional status in East Asia. The first chance for conventional threat reduction failed in the early 1990s, but the conditions are more auspicious now.


Objectives for Arms Control

A renewed attempt at conventional arms control on the Korean Peninsula should pursue the following major objectives:

• Facilitating peace, normalization, and potential eventual reunification.

• Deterring invasion or other acts of attempted aggression.

• Avoiding crisis and, if that fails, assuring crisis stability.

• Cutting back on arms competition to enhance strategic stability and permit increased allocation of resources for social and economic development.

• Laying the groundwork for a military transition consistent with the strategic interests of a post-normalization Korea (or two Koreas) in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.

Although it may seem like fluff to some, the first objective is important given Korea's long history of rancor. If the D.P.R.K. has taken the strategic decision to forego unification by force and instead to pursue peace and normalization, then it is important to shift perceptions at all levels of society. Conventional arms control could help. After five decades of ideologically based hostility and mistrust, even modest confidence-building activities could be useful. There are times when perceptions are reality and when changing those perceptions is both feasible and desirable.

That said, the crux of the issue is that the North poses a serious and immediate threat to the South, and deterring invasion and other acts of aggression must therefore remain a top priority. Theoretically, the South could invade the North, but it is not a realistic possibility. It is hard to imagine the United States seeing such an invasion as in its interest under almost any circumstances, and South Korea would have substantial difficulties operating by itself since its military system has long been so intertwined with that of the U.S.-led UN command. Given the number and character of U.S. interventions or near-interventions in the last decade, the North could be legitimately concerned about air and missile strikes by the United States. But the severity of that threat is not a function of the nature of conventional forces on the Korean Peninsula because such strikes could be launched from aircraft carriers or distant bases.

Because the D.P.R.K. has systematically mounted an immediate surprise-attack threat against the South by establishing forward-deployed invasion forces and because that threat is made more acute by geographic asymmetries, conventional arms control should first focus on reducing the danger to the South. If its objectives were traditionally grandiose—as in conquering South Korea—any full-scale D.P.R.K. invasion of the South would be doomed to failure. The only issue would be how long it would take for R.O.K. and U.S. forces to devastate the North's army. However, the North could be successful if it had more limited objectives, such as the capture or siege of Seoul. That scenario remains a nightmare.

In short, the only serious conventional military threat on the peninsula is that of the North launching a surprise attack on the South. Thus, while the overarching objective is an evenhanded one—that neither side should fear surprise attack—addressing the South's invasion concerns has special importance.

Another component of enhancing military security is avoiding crises or, failing that, assuring that crises do not lead to war as the result of misperceptions or instabilities. In particular, there should be no significant real or perceived advantage in initiating hostilities. This is related to the issue of surprise attack but goes well beyond it. It relates to the ability of the sides to defend against attack.

Moving beyond the core security concerns, the sides should have every incentive to reduce the magnitude of defense expenditures so that national resources can be put to more productive ends. Given the very large levels of current Korean forces, normalization should include substantial reductions in force levels and a significant reduction in absolute defense expenditures.

In pursuing conventional arms control on the peninsula, the parties need also to recognize that some well-intentioned actions taken under the rubric of peace, normalization, and arms control could prove harmful to Korea's long-term security interests. When normalization is achieved, Korea (or two cooperating Korean states) will exist in a highly dynamic region of the world, confronted by many opportunities, issues, and challenges. To the north will be a massive neighbor, China, whose long-term behavior may range from that of a good and powerful neighbor and competitor to that of an ambitious regional hegemon. Continuing tensions will exist among China, Japan, and Korea; and problems may arise involving other regional states. A question, then, is how Korea views its long-term regional role.

This question is easy enough to ask, but it deals with a different U.S.-Korean relationship than currently exists. Today, U.S. military leaders dominate planning for the security of South Korea, U.S. ground forces are permanently stationed in the heart of Korea itself, and the United States would in some respects (e.g., air forces, naval forces, and command and control) play the lead role in any defense. In the post-normalization world, that relationship would be history. But what relationship would be suitable?

Korea will probably want to emerge with a much smaller but highly competent military suitable for assuring national sovereignty, participating in regional security affairs, and—as an important part of that—working in long-term partnership with the United States. It is quite plausible that Korea will decide that it is in its long-term interest to host some U.S. forces and encourage regular or occasional visits by others—but all in the context of either continuing to help preserve the peace between the Koreas or promoting regional stability and development. It follows that, in the long run, any U.S. force presence in Korea might logically shift from that of forward-deployed, combat-ready, heavy ground forces to an emphasis on naval forces, air forces, and multilateral ground forces for miscellaneous regional functions. Moreover, any such presence would logically shift toward the periphery of Korea.


Principles for Arms Control

Because of such uncertainties surrounding Korea's strategic future, it is important for South Korea to keep three overarching principles in mind while pursuing these objectives to guarantee that arms control measures that seem useful in the narrow context of bargaining with the D.P.R.K. right now do not prove dangerous in the event that North-South relations sour.

• The R.O.K. should seek actions by the D.P.R.K. that more or less irreversibly reduce the threats posed to the South. The R.O.K. should not rely on good intentions but should recognize that intentions can change for the worse in a heartbeat.

• At the same time, the R.O.K. should itself avoid premature irreversible measures. In particular, once any changes affecting U.S. ground forces occur, they are likely irreversible.

• The R.O.K. should have, at each point of negotiation, options for opening or closing the valve for both economic assistance and military actions.

Clearly, these principles take South Korean interests as their starting point. They are important to protect South Korean security in a transition to a peninsula less fraught with threat, but of course negotiations with the D.P.R.K. require taking North Korean concerns and objectives into account as well. Such consideration produces a broader set of operational principles for discussions that are evenhanded and therefore amenable to consensus and that serve as a point of departure for detailed work between the two sides:

• Both sides should be secure from surprise attack (i.e., surprise attack should be infeasible).

• Both sides should be reasonably secure from the threat of large-scale, deep, conventional invasion.

• Both sides should be secure from being coercively threatened by the other (as from missile attacks).

• Both sides should be secure in knowing that, even in crisis, neither side would have military reasons compelling it to initiate conflict. That is, the sides should be able to manage any crises that emerge despite efforts.

• The Korean Peninsula should not have or export weapons of mass destruction or long-range missiles. Such weapons would be destabilizing on the peninsula and would potentially cause substantial problems for international security as a whole. Korea would be seen as a "proliferator" causing trouble worldwide.

• Although some degree of military modernization should be expected, it should not be of a character or magnitude that could upset the military balance.

• Eventually, the Korean Peninsula should be free from foreign ground forces. In the interim, any such forces should increasingly assume the character of peacekeepers with a UN mandate, rather than major combat forces. It is in the interest of both sides, however, that any such transition occurs slowly, so as to avoid undercutting either the reality or the perception of assured deterrence and stability guaranteed by the U.S. presence.

• Both sides should spend smaller portions of their national products on military preparations—it is in their interest to achieve security and stability at substantially reduced force levels.

• Both sides should be secure from having misperceptions about the military balance causing political instability. As a result, there should be substantial transparency about the quantity, quality, and posture of the two sides' military forces. Potential Arms Control Measures

Numerous confidence-building and arms control measures stem from these objectives and principles. (See Table 1.) Such measures focus on perceptions and can help the inter-Korean reconciliation process by fostering change in perceptions that might otherwise remain.

To cultivate peace and normalization, possibly leading to ultimate unification, confidence-building measures should suspend underground insurgency and vilifying propaganda and should allow frequent political, economic, and military exchanges at all levels. The sides could even discuss ways to use military forces for peaceful purposes, such as the development of infrastructure. The Koreas might also install a hot line to facilitate discussions during crises.

More militarily substantive issues would focus on how forces are operated. For example, such "operational" arms control measures would concentrate on where forces are located, their state of readiness, and the operations they prepare for and routinely conduct. In contrast, "structural" arms control would place limits on the size and character of forces. These measures could reduce the cost of defense generally and could possibly lead to increased strategic and crisis stability. When considering reduction measures, the United States and South Korea should acknowledge from the outset that changes in the status of U.S. forces in Korea is one component of subsequent negotiations with North Korea.

Considering "operational" arms control measures can help move from abstractions to specifics.3 To enhance deterrence on the Korean Peninsula—primarily by making surprise attack difficult—the two Koreas and the United States should create inspector teams to observe and monitor large-scale operations, including any that might occur along plausible invasion corridors. The purpose here is not nitpicking, detailed bean counting, or intrusiveness, but rather substantive protection against surprise attack.

To further reduce the feasibility of surprise attack, the two sides should also create so-called red lines—a geographic line across which it is understood that large military forces should not move. The crossing of a red line should be regarded as an extremely serious provocation—so much as to constitute a casus belli. Although red lines provide no guarantees, they can reduce ambiguities in crises and increase the likelihood that decision makers will recognize and act upon warnings of imminent threat. In turn, such a measure would make surprise attack more difficult to plan and achieve and thereby enhance deterrence—not merely in some ethereal way, but in down-to-earth terms.

When developing red lines, the two Koreas and the United States should implement pullbacks from the Demilitarized Zone—40 to 50 kilometers on the North Korean side and 20 to 30 kilometers on the South Korean side.4 The asymmetry here is important militarily, especially for South Korea's defense of Seoul, which lies relatively close to the DMZ.

The two sides also should prohibit force development suitable for rapid attack or invasion. Less critically, the two Koreas should reduce the level of overall readiness and the pace of training and military exercises. However, their core forces, including those critical in deterring surprise attack, should retain a high degree of readiness. That is, readiness in some respects and of some magnitude is desirable for stability.

Turning to structural measures, the three countries should reduce forces to levels lower than the current total of South Korean and U.S. forces. The sides should also freeze defense budgets, aiming at annual reductions. And they should limit the extent and nature of modernization—but not prohibit it. Modernization can reduce operational costs (smaller, modern forces can sometimes do the job of larger, old ones) and improve confidence in defensive operations. Moreover, it is essential to long-term military competence, which is necessary for regional activities. This said, some modernization could be destabilizing—particularly if it is aimed at improving large-scale offensives.

Beyond these arms control measures, to increase the likelihood of long-term regional stability for South Korea or a unified Korea, the North and the South should encourage each other to discuss a unified Korea's future role at regional security frameworks such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, and other international mechanisms. They should also discuss the transition of U.S. forces from a ground presence to a naval servicing and air presence. Furthermore, they should confer on the goal of eventually establishing Korean forces suitable to assure independence and freedom from coercion that have the ability to participate in international peace actions.



It is time to elevate substantially the attention given to security matters on the Korean Peninsula. The Koreas should initiate an ambitious process of conventional arms control with the aspiration of rapidly achieving major changes. For South Korea and the United States, the approach should be an adaptive one because it is not yet clear what the North's ultimate objectives are, nor even whether Kim Jong-Il has the power to bring about the most urgently needed changes.

The approach should be holistic—treating political, economic, and all security issues in parallel—and all security issues should be considered in a single forum, rather than separating confidence building from force reductions, for example. The North has proven an exceptionally resourceful tactical negotiator. Dealing with issues in a single forum might make it more difficult for the North to pick and choose among proposals. In the same way, it will be important to create and maintain some linkage—whether formal or informal—among the political, economic, and security tracks.

In this context, the United States should not impede or preclude the inter-Korean conventional arms control process by over-focusing on North Korea's missiles. Instead, the United States should use the U.S.-D.P.R.K. missile talks to urge serious inter-Korean conventional arms control talks. The United States should also reject any D.P.R.K. efforts to cut out South Korea and negotiate a peace agreement directly with it.

Since the issues involved are intrinsically issues between the two Koreas, it is essential that the negotiations be between those two parties, rather than some more complex three-party exercise (or, worse yet, four-party talks). However, if efforts are to bear fruit, the South must be able to discuss issues of U.S. forces candidly throughout the negotiation process. That is, the South should acknowledge from the outset that U.S. forces are on the table—albeit with a long time-scale for transition. To be sure, direct U.S. participation will be necessary because of this from time to time. Having special sessions for that purpose, sessions at which the United States would directly participate, is an obvious possibility.

If this approach to conventional arms control on the peninsula is successful, a historical opportunity will have been seized and the threat of war reduced. If it is not, then at least South Korea and the United States will have better information about the North's attitudes and can adapt their overall strategy appropriately. And, in the meantime, South Korea and the United States would have better control over events involving their forces. That is, embedding these matters in a serious arms control negotiation would provide some protection against inappropriate and premature changes that could endanger the South in the event of a sea change in the North.

South Korea and the United States are currently pursuing a poor strategy of engagement with the North. By ignoring security considerations, they are losing the opportunity to insist that North Korea reduce its short-warning-invasion capabilities at a time when North Korea is being promised a great deal politically and economically. It is understandable that the United States has chosen to focus almost exclusively on restraining North Korea's development of long-range missiles and mass-destruction weapons, but U.S. interests are primarily regional and global. The result has been insufficient priority on improving South Korea's immediate security. In this newly positive diplomatic atmosphere, conventional arms control presents an excellent opportunity to rectify that dangerous omission.



Professor Jin-Hyun Paik of Seoul National University and Dr. Seongwhun Cheon of Korea's Institute for National Unification also participated in this project, which was supported by the Korea Foundation.

1. For discussion of the 1991-1992 negotiations, see Yong-Sup Han, "Resolving the Arms Control Dilemma on the Korean Peninsula," in Bjorn Miller, ed., Security, Arms Control and Defense Restructuring in East Asia (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1998).

2. For further discussion of negotiations on the Korean Peninsula and suggestions for change, see Leon V. Sigal, Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); Scott Snyder, Negotiating on the Edge: North Korean Negotiating Behavior (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999); and Morton I. Abramowitz and James T. Laney, Managing Change on the Korean Peninsula (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1998).

3. Paul K. Davis, Conceptual Framework for Operational Arms Control in Europe's Central Region (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1988).

4. Yong-Sup Han, Designing and Evaluating Conventional Arms Control Measures: The Case of the Korean Peninsula (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1993).


Yong-Sup Han is a research fellow at RAND and a professor at Korea's National Defense University. Paul K. Davis is a senior scientist at RAND and a professor at the RAND Graduate School. Richard E. Darilek is a senior researcher at RAND.