North Korea’s fifth nuclear test showed “irrationality and recklessness,” Lieutenant General Chun In-bum, who retired in July as Deputy Commander of South Korea’s First Army, told NK News on Monday.
And that could soon pose a problem, because if Kim Jong Un miscalculates that “the democratic world is inept and unwilling to act,” the North Korean leader could end up doing “something really stupid” that puts the Koreas in a situation that “both sides don’t want.”
But Chun, who until 2013 served as Commander of South Korea’s Special Warfare Command and was previously Deputy Chief of Staff of U.S. Combined Forces Combined, said that Pyongyang should “realize there is no way that they are going to win” if a war breaks out.
Nevertheless, South Korea’s military should invest more in its individual soldiers to better prepare to respond to North Korea’s threat, he said, for neither developing an indigenous nuclear weapons program or installing a single THAAD anti-ballistic missile battery are long-term solutions.
Long-term, the South Korean public’s “lack of awareness concerning security matters” is cause for concern, Chun said, potentially reducing support for the military and leading to increased criticism of their responsibilities at a time of an increasing threat from Pyongyang.
NK News: With three nuclear tests in just three years, where do you see the inter-Korean situation going from here? As Ambassador Everard said last week, do you think we are headed for a ‘crunch’?
Chun: What concerns me about this fifth nuclear test is it came at a time when rational thinkers like you and I would think, ‘Why would they do this now, especially when their closest ally, the Chinese, is trying to defend (indirectly) Pyongyang’s position?’
As long as the North Korean regime has some sense of rationality to it, I could understand that. But this time, just slapping us in the face like this, it shows irrationality and recklessness…it shows them not thinking through things and not being prudent. And if this is the case, it is concerning.
Now, having said that, North Korea has always focused on its internal population, so maybe on their foundation day, they needed a really big pick me up, and this was it.
But I hope that the North Koreans will soon realize that having nuclear weapons and using nuclear weapons is different, though this assumes they are a rational player. And this is the part that I’m not really sure about.
I hope that the North Koreans will soon realize that having nuclear weapons and using nuclear weapons is different
And then during all the time their nuclear program is going to require, there is always a chance for miscalculation or a bad judgment factor from both sides of the border, which could turn into something that both sides don’t want. And I just hope that both North Korea and South Korea understand that human error on the DMZ is always a possibility.
NK News: Dr. Stephan Haggard from UCSD wrote on Friday that, because we appear to be entering an era of impunity for North Korea, ‘we are about to see a much much more serious discussion, not of defensive military options, but of preventive ones.’ What do you think about that and what might preventive military options look like?
Chun: It sounds like a very smart way to say ‘attack’ North Korea. I think the North Koreans have read their history, and Kim Jong Un is acting exactly like Hitler did in the late 30s. He’d better stop at a certain point, though, because if he goes any further, the end is very clear; tragedy is very clear.
He is using the very nature of democratic states to pursue his own dictatorial self-survival needs. I hope he has the common sense to not start to believe in his own rhetoric – and this is where it scares me. I hope he is a shrewd man and he knows how far he can get away with things.
(Kim Jong Un) is using the very nature of democratic states to pursue his own dictatorial self-survival needs… I hope he has the common sense to not start to believe in his own rhetoric
But if history has taught us anything, it’s that most likely he probably will not understand, that he will miscalculate and think that the democratic world is inept and unwilling to act. And therefore he’ll do something stupid which will lead to ‘preventive military options.’
And he better know that there are such options and that cooler heads are just putting a lid on them for now. I just hope that humanity will prevail on this issue.
NK News: We’ve got certain figures here in Seoul saying that the time is approaching for South Korea to develop nuclear weapons. Does any of that make sense from a military perspective?
Chun: Of course it does make sense when Koreans think of just Korea. We are surrounded by powerful countries and all throughout our history we’ve been invaded, so you think that nuclear weapons are probably a good answer.
But I think South Korean leaders really should look into what they are calling for.
For instance, how many nuclear warheads are they talking about? Where are they going to put them? What situation would prompt the use of our nuclear weapons? Even if Pyongyang dropped one on Seoul, is the best option for us to drop one on Pyongyang? I don’t know, and it’s important people should think about these questions.
I know there is a lot of talk, but there should be some real common sense down-to-earth discussion about nuclear weapons for Korea.
There should be some real common sense down-to-earth discussion about nuclear weapons for Korea
And if you look at the world, on a bigger scale, there are many other countries that have been invaded every ten years and that are surrounded by powerful countries. So if you think everybody having nuclear weapons would make this world safer, okay. But I don’t think so.
And then there are those who rightfully ask, ‘how come just a few countries can have nuclear weapons and we can’t?’ Well, maybe we just realized too late that this weapon is not that great an idea.
And that’s where I think that this non-proliferation of North Korean nuclear weapons is so critical. Pyongyang needs to realize that it’s not just about their survival, but it’s also about world survival, which is why we cannot allow them to have nuclear weapons.
NK News: Recently we’ve seen North Korean missile tests prompting a decision between the U.S. and South Korea to deploy a THAAD anti-ballistic missile battery on the peninsula. Do you think THAAD is an appropriate response to the type of threat North Korea poses?
Chun: THAAD is one effective means to defend against North Korean ballistic missiles, but it is not the only option.
I do believe THAAD enhances the defense ability of South Korea. Having said that, one THAAD battery in South Korea is not going to solve all problems, and we need more missile defense systems in South Korea.
And yet I do understand the concerns of the Chinese, and so we’ve put ourselves in a very difficult situation. I think it’s important for the world to understand why the Koreans are in dispute within themselves about THAAD because it’s not all that clear-cut.
From a military perspective, THAAD and other defensive anti-missile systems are what we need – and we need more of them. But looking at the bigger picture, the price for all this – and I’m not talking about just the money – but the political, social price, is something that we need to think about when considering whether we are paying too much for this defensive system.
NK News: Presidential candidate Trump has made it clear he wants South Korea to pay more for U.S. military support on the peninsula. From your perspective, why should the U.S. taxpayer pay even a single cent towards South Korean security?
Chun: Because it is very inexpensive. You must ask again, how much is the worth of stability in Northeast Asia? Northeast Asia generates some 35% of all commerce in the world. So, the token presence of US forces on the Korean peninsula provides that stability. The South Koreans are paying for approximately half or more of what the US government is asking us.
I think Mr. Trump does not know exactly the monetary contributions that the Republic of Korea makes towards the alliance; not to mention the political and economic stability we provide the entire region. So I’m very sure that once he and other people in the United States understand that, that they will realize that this is a pretty good deal.
I think Mr. Trump does not know exactly the monetary contributions that the Republic of Korea makes towards the alliance; not to mention the political and economic stability we provide the entire region
Many decades ago this alliance was very one-sided, where the United States provided everything for Korea. But look what happened; 50 million people living in a very prosperous free market economy that generates a lot of trade with the world, which again, helps American policy, strengthens American prestige. If you look at the whole picture of it, I think the Americans will soon realize that it’s worth their expenditure.
NK News: How do the militaries of South and North Korea compare, man for man?
Chun: Right now, an average North Korean serves for thirteen years. The average South Korean serves for twenty-one months. Because of the long service that the North Koreans have, there is a plus to that. It strains their economy, their society and all that, but militarily, expertise comes with time.
Also, the North Koreans seem to have focused on nuclear weapons and a 200,000-man strong special forces – their elite force within their one million plus army. They have not invested in their air force, they have not heavily invested in their ships, but they did invest in rockets and missiles and nuclear weapons.
So I think they have chosen the areas that can compete with the South and the alliance.
Now, there should be no question in anybody’s mind that if ever a war broke out on the Korean peninsula, that the Republic of Korea and its allies can beat the North Koreans. The North Koreans should realize that there is no way that they are going to win.
But, we don’t want war because we are going to have a lot of damage, especially in Seoul. They hold us hostage, and they were very shrewd in choosing their weapons of choice to put us at that stage.
The North Koreans think that because of the liberties that the South Korean military has, that we are a pushover. We do have our problems, but North Korea needs to understand that there is a lot more capacity to this free society than they think and they should not challenge us too lightly.
NK News: You just said there ‘we do have our problems.’ What would be the biggest problem as far as you’re concerned?
Chun: I think civilian support and understanding of the South Korean military because, right now, in my view, we have a very democratic army. But this is an army of traditions and bad habits, and as you know bad habits don’t die very easily.
Although we’ve come miles and miles ahead of where we were when I was a 2nd Lieutenant in 1981, we still have a long way to go in that kind of morale and leadership area.
And then we lack some fundamentals in the foot soldier arena. We make great tanks and ships, but we could do a little bit better with the average rifle and the basics. So that’s where I see some deficiencies.
NK News: And what is the political understanding and support for military needs? Has there been full support for things that the army asks for?
Chun: You ask a very simple question but the answer is very complicated because the political support seems to be there but it’s way different from what I see as the priorities that we need.
I am an infantryman, foot soldier, background-type of guy, with policy experience, but I’ve always felt that your feet should be on the ground. In my view, that the foot soldier comes first; the individual – he needs better personal equipment, he needs more medical benefits, maybe some more pay.
So individual equipment and morale issues would be my priority, and then I would build upon that. I don’t think the politicians really understand that.
And then, what is more critical, is that a lot of my compatriots in the military, they also seem to have their heads in the sky. This is not just the Korean military – I’ve seen it in many other militaries. But I’m just concerned that if something happens we are going to pay for all of this with the individual soldier, the foot soldier. That’s what concerns me.
NK News: You left the army now after many decades of service; how do you feel about the long-term prospects for security and stability in South Korea now?
Chun: To be quite frank with you, I’m concerned. And the reason that I’m concerned – and I say this with a little bit of humor – is that with the ROK-U.S. alliance, maybe we’ve done too-good-a job in giving the Korean people a feeling of security. A sense such that they are no longer as concerned as they should be with the North Korean threat.
So the lack of awareness concerning security matters, which is often times noticed by foreigners as well, is what causes my most sincere concern for the security of this country.
Because this lack of interest generates a whole issue of related problems involving security as a whole – less willingness to support the military, being very critical of the military, misunderstanding of the military, and then we have the political aspects to this as well.
And all of this, in my view, provides less than a secure environment for the Republic of Korea.
NK News: Any final thoughts?
Korea has become one of the most vibrant countries in the world. I hope that the world will be able to appreciate Korea more and recognize that it wasn’t just the United States that helped us in 1950: 16 nations provided military assistance, and another six provided other kinds of aid. It was truly the entire world that helped the Republic of Korea to survive.
People should realize what that sacrifice has culminated into to this day. I think you can appreciate this. There are still a lot of problems, but when you travel to other countries, you can realize something happened here. So I think the world can be very proud of the Republic of Korea because they had a hand in making us and we Koreans appreciate that.
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
Interview picture: L. Byrne, NK News