The Korea Herald


Cheonan sinking reshapes military strategies

By Song Sangho

Published : March 20, 2011 - 19:34

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S. Korean Armed Forces focus on combined capability, countering asymmetrical threats

This is the first of a two-part series to mark the first anniversary of the sinking of the corvette Cheonan. ― Ed.

North Korea’s torpedo attack on the corvette Cheonan a year ago has prompted South Korea to reshape its military strategies against the belligerent neighbor and sharply raised public security awareness.

To honor the sacrifice of the 46 sailors that perished in the West Sea on March 26, the South Korean military is now stepping up efforts to overcome a series of shortcomings revealed following the tragic incident.

Based on lessons from the sinking, it has focused on strengthening its capabilities to deal with North Korea’s asymmetrical military threats and enhancing “jointness” among all military branches.

The artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November that killed two marines and two civilians has accelerated its endeavors to reform the military, which some said had lapsed into complacency.

“All of us ― our government, military and citizens ― were haughty. (We) had underestimated North Korea’s military threats,” New Asia Research Institute president Rhee Sang-woo told The Korea Herald.

“The urgent tasks facing us (after the sinking) were to raise public security awareness, readjust military strategies against the North, modernize the military structure and systematically increase armaments.”

Rhee spearheaded the efforts to revamp the military after he was appointed to lead a presidential committee on defense advancement in January 2010. He also headed the Commission for National Security Review, which was established last May to check the nation’s security posture and craft measures to improve it.

After the committee’s yearlong research into how to shore up national security, the government announced the 73-point defense reform measures on March 8 that focus on enhancing interoperability, securing “proactive deterrence capabilities” and maximizing efficiency in military operations.

An international investigation concluded last May that the 1,200-ton Cheonan was torpedoed by a midget submarine near the western sea border. The North still denies its involvement.

Localized provocations

Since the 1950-53 Korean War, the South’s military had focused largely on preventing another all-out conflict. It had not paid due attention to the possibility of the North staging localized provocations with asymmetrical weapons such as submarines and weapons of mass destruction.

The Cheonan incident has obviously alerted the South to the possibility of the North resorting to irregular warfare tactics that are less costly, but capable of causing serious political and economic impact in the South.

Experts note that the North has opted to wage low-intensity conflicts while seeking to avoid full-scale war, as it is well-aware it cannot win in a conventional conflict with the U.S.-backed South, equipped with high-tech weaponry.

“South Korea was blindsided by the North as its preparations for low-intensity conflicts or localized provocations were insufficient. North Korea’s ‘hit-and-run’ provocations have now emerged as new threats,” said Kim Jae-yeop, military expert at Hannam University.

“To put it simply, the North has carried out terrorist activities using regular military forces.”

Kim pointed to several reasons why the North feels inclined to stage localized provocations.

“Such provocations end quickly, giving little time for the South to launch a sufficient counterstrike. They can also serve to cause tension that could tighten discipline among its people complaining about food shortages and seeking to defect,” Kim said.

“As they occur in a limited space on the peninsula, the possibility of them escalating into an international dispute is low. They can also cause political divisions here and criticisms over strained inter-Korean ties which are politically burdensome ahead of the presidential elections next year.”

Asymmetrical threats

The impoverished North has sought to overcome its social, economic and political inferiority with asymmetrical military capabilities as they can make a formidable impact at a low cost, experts point out.

The North’s asymmetrical military assets include WMDs such as chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, missiles, long-range artillery and cyber warfare capabilities. They also include some 200,000 special warfare troops.
People view the wreckage of the Cheonan at a naval base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, last week. (Yonhap News) People view the wreckage of the Cheonan at a naval base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, last week. (Yonhap News)

The North has continued to display its asymmetrical capabilities in recent years: It fired a long-range missile in April 2009, conducted a second nuclear test that May, launched “distributed denial-of-service” cyber attacks in July, torpedoed the Cheonan in March 2010 and shelled Yeonpyeong Island with coastal artillery in November.

“Due to serious economic conditions, the North cannot compete with the South with its symmetrical weapons. Thus, it might have thought that asymmetrical strategies and capabilities are the only means to rely on,” said Kwon Tai-young, senior advisor at Korea Research Institute for Strategy.

“The possibility of the North provoking with asymmetrical weapons is not low as it seeks to bring its people together and attract attention from other countries to obtain assistance while grappling with difficulty in solidifying the hereditary power succession process, economic travails and the possibility of instability.”

Experts say that the South can neutralize asymmetrical threats with “reverse asymmetrical strategies” such as mobilizing precision-guided weapons and high-tech intelligence, reconnaissance devices.

“As the North’s asymmetrical capabilities have their own weaknesses, the South can focus on attacking the weak points while minimizing its vulnerability to its asymmetrical threats,” said Kim of Hannam University.


One of the major problems revealed after the Cheonan incident was associated with interoperability, or “jointness.”

Critics have said that jointness has been marred by Army officers dominating key decision-making posts, particularly at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying that the voices of the Navy and Air Force have not been sufficiently reflected in joint military operations.

The Army-dominated JCS might have had difficulty in leading naval operations to deal with the sinking of the Cheonan, they said.

“The JCS should understand capabilities of each armed service and know which one should lead what kind of battle situations. But except for one Air Force general, all of the JCS chairmen were from the Army and most of the top posts are filled with Army officers. In fact, the JCS has been another Army institution,” Kim said.

In efforts to address such problems, the military has decided to maintain the ratio of Army, Navy and Air Force officers at the key JCS posts at 2:1:1. But what matters is a determination to maintain this ratio, as the military has not abided by the non-binding rule.

“Without a balanced approach to treat the three military wings, we cannot achieve genuine jointness. Without stubbornly sticking to the pursuit of their own interests, all military branches should contribute to enhancing jointness,” Kim said.

As part of measures to enhance interoperability, the military also plans to revamp the top command structure for the first time in some 20 years.

Under the plan, the JCS chief will be given limited authority to manage military personnel and supplies in addition to his existing authority to lead military operations, so as to ensure rapid, effective operations.

Chiefs of the three armed services will also have partial authority to lead military operations in areas of their specialty so that they can respond to battle situations in a timely manner.

Proactive deterrence

Seoul has adopted a “proactive” deterrence strategy to replace the previous passive, defense-oriented strategy that was found to be ineffective in the wake of the two deadly attacks last year. The new strategy hinted at the possibility that the South could use a preemptive strike to deter North Korean aggression.

Experts largely concur that Seoul should adopt a more aggressive strategy to stop the North from even thinking of making additional provocations.

“Citizens think we should not allow any more North Korean provocations to occur. There is only a deterrence strategy so as to prevent provocations,” Rhee said.

“A preemptive attack is different from a preventive attack ― launched to eliminate ‘vague’ threats. There is no problem at all (with the preemptive concept), diplomatically as well as in terms of international law.”

But others expressed concerns that a strategy which includes the option of a preemptive strike may face controversy as it could further aggravate inter-Korean ties, spark ideological disputes here and invite international criticism.

“Customary international law permits the use of the preemptive strikes as a self-defense measure when signs of a threat are obvious and the situation is urgent. But the U.N. convention regards it as a virtual taboo,” said Kwon.

“When the North threatens us with nuclear missiles, it would be unavoidable for us to launch a preemptive strike. But when the North provokes with conventional weapons, it would be desirable not to use the preemptive option.”

By Song Sang-ho (