Paper #17. Comparative Threats and Integrated Effects in East Asia: the Koreas

  • Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.
  • Asia-Pacific, Security, Strategy
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Using complex warfare concepts from Papers #13 (East Asia), #14 (China) and #16 (Japan), we apply and compare that holistic approach to Korean security strategies. 

To discern how the Koreas wage complex warfare through cooperation and confrontation today, we consider world view, threat assessment, and combined effects strategy. 

Understanding these aspects of the information environment is critical to producing superior effects—the great-results test of any power. 

Korea’s World View, Threat Assessment, and Combined Effects Strategy

World View

Both Koreas share a common world view that attends to main power alignment while values self-reliance. Each of these considerations refracts differently in the contrasting political systems of totalitarian North Korea and democratic South Korea. The historical context of this world view remains extremely influential today.

For five thousand years, inhabitants of the Korean Peninsula have dealt with prying neighbors through strategies of cooperation and confrontation. Predatory powers are fixtures in a Korean information environment where peninsular alignment or alliance is seen as pivotal to neighborly calculations of security.  Location and neighbors matter.

Korean civilization developed in-between expansionist empires and nation-states. Consequently, Korean rulers have had to manage multiple centers of power to eke out sovereignty. Korean society is a resilient fabric, one that has been repeatedly stretched, torn, and repaired in response to foreign invasions and occupations. The rugged peninsula and outlying islands have been contentious territory among the Koreas, China, Russia, Japan and western powers.

Main Power Alignment

In describing the pragmatic practice of having to align with a major power, the term sadaejuui (attending to the main power) is popularly evoked. The meaning is often derisive. Its contemporary use tends to portray condescending major power attitudes toward Koreans, with the latter having to placate the major powers. Dating back to Korean dynasties as tributaries of Chinese empires, the connotation is that of being controlled, after resisting and ultimately giving in to a major power. 

In the late 19th century Choson dynasty, for instance, there were two main political parties. The Sadae (“main power”) Party in Korea was status quo, which prior to Japan’s defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) meant pro-China. The domestic opposition was the reformist and pro-Japan Kaehwa (“enlightenment”) Party. For Korean leaders, successfully managing the influence of a foreign power meant aligning with another power in their midst. Foreign interference remains a contentious issue today.

This utilitarian ethic of aligning with strength clashes with other societal beliefs, from neo-Confucianism and religious principles to community-based populism. Pride in national autonomy stores intense feelings and fuels outrage. Which power ought to be confronted, and which accommodated, if any? Which parties, factions and individuals can be trusted, and under what conditions? How can sovereignty be protected and reconciled with the interests of resented foreign powers?

These questions test deeply held concerns and convictions in Korean society. In both North and South Korea, sadaejuui characterizes a fundamental practice of Korean security. No official documents admit the term. In contrast to this grudgingly recognized national interest, self-reliance is an ingrained value.


In North Korea, self-reliance is officially known as juche, a vague concept designed to legitimize the Kim dynasty. Apart from its monolithic role as Kim Il-sung-ism, juche’s tangible facets include revenue-generating activities. Pyongyang actively promotes money laundering, narcotics smuggling, counterfeiting, human trafficking, illegal weapons sales, and other lucrative crimes. Tragically, hate-generating propaganda covers for the lack of national self-reliance with respect to basic needs such as food, water, shelter, health, and electricity. Since the massive famine of the mid-1990s, North Koreans’ self-reliance includes the not so secret embrace of illicit private capitalism. 

In South Korea, assorted conceptions of self-reliance float freely about, from the traditional jagileul uijihaneun (depending on oneself), to business diversification strategies of jageub-ui (self-sufficiency), to self-absorbed honjok (loner tribe). 

Korean cultural narratives on both sides of the de-militarized zone emphasize Confucian principles such as loyalty, resolve, harmony, and justice. Priorities begin with the family ties that help manage life’s challenges. Figurative analogies describe the environment as interrelated opposites — um (light, hot) and yang (dark, cold). People are expected to accept the immutable and shape the changeable. Confrontation is natural, a practical complement to cooperation. Achieving that relative harmony has been a continuous national struggle against the oft-reminded 900 invasions (117). A cultivated heritage of having borne the brunt of injustices reinforces societal awareness of vulnerability, and the need to compete. 

Korean ancestry includes a minjok (“ethnic nation”) identity rooted in a strong and just legendary founder, King Tangun, mythical equivalent to China’s emperors claiming a Mandate of Heaven and Japan’s sun goddess Amaterasu. Another identity is minjung (“the people”), which conjures up populist struggles against oppression. Both constructs promote a self-reliance imbued with values of resilience and endurance to build a strong nation capable of facing down threats. 

Threat Assessment

The main threat to Koreans has been external invasion in the forms of Chinese control, Russian and Western probes, and Japanese colonization. Koreans have assessed foreign powers from a frame of sadaejuui and self-reliance. Countering threats has involved both confrontation and cooperation.


Invasions of Korean territory date back to China’s Han dynasty in 109 BC, a period of aggressive expansion following the Qin dynasty’s unification of warring states in 221 BC. Sui and Tang Dynasty emperors launched several campaigns to subdue Koreans during a period of three Korean kingdoms (Silla, Paekche, Koguryo; 57 BC-668). This contested history stirs a textbook war today. 

Koreans’ arguably first unified dynasty, Silla (668-935), was followed by Koryo (935-1392) and Choson (1392-1910). Each dynasty confronted and cooperated with Chinese, Russian, and Japanese empires to win sovereign prerogatives. China’s Yuan dynasty Mongols led invasions of Korea in 1231, imposing indirect control. That subjugation was followed by China’s Ming dynasty suzerainty until 1644. Large-scale Japanese invasions (1592, 1597) were eventually defeated. However, the Manchus’ defeat of the Ming brought the Qing dynasty to China (1644-1912) and new invasions to Choson. Japan’s defeat of Qing China in 1895 and Russia in 1905 led to outright colonization of the Korean peninsula (1910-1945).

The stream of invasions has left indelible marks on the Korean psyche. As a way to characterize their impact, we refer to two types of threat patterns. They are described in terms of being viewed from outside the peninsula in, and then from the inside-out.


The basic outside-in threat pattern has been the following: external powers sense and exploit lack of domestic unity in Korea to dominate the peninsula or deny it to their rivals:

  • Great Britain blocked a Russian Navy attempt to establish a base on Tsushima Island in 1861    
  • China restricted Russian diplomatic access in Korea until 1884 (22-23)
  • Japan defeated China (1895, 115-118) and Russia (1905, 154-155), colonizing Korea until 1945
  • USSR and US accepted Japan’s surrender separately to occupy Korea in halves (1945)

In 1945, Korean efforts to reunify their country evaporated in new big power disagreements. The Moscow Agreement (December 1945) had planned a five-year trusteeship of four external powers—the US, USSR, China, and Great Britain. However the joint US-USSR commission charged with implementing the Moscow Agreement was very much a main power arena of ideological warfare. The Soviets refused to include non-communist groups in the formation of a provisional Korean government. They subsequently rejected United Nations Resolution 112, which called for general elections to express the will of the Korean people. 

Instead, Moscow reached in to groom Kim Il-sung, a Soviet Army anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter in Manchuria, as their proxy in Pyongyang. With Russian support, Kim out-maneuvered rivals to head the Korean Workers Party and become Premier of the Democratic Republic of North Korea.

In the South, United Nations-monitored elections brought anti-communist Rhee Syng-man into power as the first President of the Republic of Korea. Rhee had prepared by leading the Provisional Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai while in exile (1919-1939), but as an outsider mostly living in Hawaii.

The basic inside-out threat pattern has been inhabitants of Korea focusing on their common former colonizer, and seeking externally favorable conditions to reunite the peninsula. Both Korean leaders saw Japan and each other as threats to a unified Korea, and sought reunification on their own terms.

Kim Il-sung was necessarily aligned with the USSR (Josef Stalin) and prudently chose to curry China’s favor (Mao Zedong) as well. Kim regarded US support of the South as the next greatest threat. He garnered Stalin’s support under a wary assumption of no US intervention (33-34).

Rhee suffered the cost of perceived dealignment from his presumed patron power, the United States. South Koreans felt isolated from outside support after US Secretary of State Dean Acheson described a defensive perimeter excluding the Korean Peninsula. Within six months Kim Il-sung invaded the South (June 1950). Ironically, Acheson’s comments may have been calibrated to gain Congressional approval for Korean aid.


After three years of fighting that saw Chinese forces save North Korea from outright defeat (and reunification on Seoul’s terms), a military armistice stopped most hostilities in 1953. No peace treaty was signed. While Rhee pointlessly rejected the armistice (38), Kim blamed wartime failures on conspirators and methodically consolidated power by eliminating externally aligned domestic factions.

Ever since, North Korea’s Kim-led syndicate has used every opportunity to eliminate domestic threats and manipulate main power rivalries. South Korean leaders have taken variable approaches to domestic threats and managed main power relations with non-coercive methods.

Next we describe each Korea’s assessment of threat in turn. Note that there is no mutual diplomatic recognition between North Korea and South Korea. Each state claims to be the sole legitimate government on the peninsula.

North Korea

North Korea is notorious for using violence to create and control threats. A Congressional Research Service Report tallies: thousands of armed infiltrations; at least three Presidential assassination attempts; nearly 500 kidnappings; two large-scale bombings; assorted murders of South Korean civilians and military personnel; politically timed missile launches and nuclear detonations; and threats to devastate South Korea, Japan and the United States. Add to that the Kim regime’s use of force against its own citizens —100,000 political prisoners in labor camps and massive human rights violations.  

Pyongyang’s violent blend of sadaejuui and self-reliance is manifested in the foreign policy behavior of its three successive Kims: Kim Il-sung (Great Leader; posthumously, Eternal President); his eldest son Kim Jong-Il (Dear Leader; posthumously, Eternal General Secretary); and his youngest son Kim Jong-un (2011-present, Dear Respected Comrade as of this writing). Synopses of the leaders follow.

(1) Kim Il-sung (1948-1994) manipulated China to support his invasion of the South (1950), precluding Mao’s liberation of Taiwan. Kim #1’s war engaged and entrapped China, prompting Mao to supplicate Stalin for resources. Postwar aid and North Korean mass labor spurred reconstruction of a Great Leader-iconic capitol, factories and cooperatives. Kim signed Chinese and Soviet friendship treaties (1961), and invoked threats to justify forced labor and his own bloodline ideology. Economic growth exceeded the South‘s until 1965. Before the USSR’s collapse, Kim secured Russian nuclear training and a research reactor while requesting Chinese technology (Kindle loc 93-109 of 5256). He also obtained Soviet deferments on debt. He died just before a planned first-ever summit with a South Korean President (#6), Kim Young-sam.

(2) Kim Jong-Il (1994-2011), eldest son of Kim Il-sung, had been designated successor since 1980. Kim #2 master-narrated a pseudo-Confucianist fantasy in which he gifted basic needs to his people. He actually provided them mismanaged projects, massive famine, and precipitous economic decline. Despite China’s call for Pyongyang “to conform to its denuclearization commitment…and back [return] to the Six Party talks,” the Dear Leader did manage to achieve his father’s goal of an independent nuclear weapon (2006). His shift to a songun (military-first) policy compelled mass nationalism (7) for reunification. He accepted a US proposal to hold Six-Party Talks (2003-2007), seeing its six rounds and calling its bluff with a nuclear hand (detonation #2, 2009).

(3) Kim Jong-un (2011-present), youngest son of Kim Jong-il, was named successor comparatively late, in 2009. Without the Party connections of the Dear Leader, his byungin policy (2012, para 6) calls for the dual pursuit of economic development and nuclear weapons. This ambitious departure from a phased approach probably placates power brokers. Kim #3 has met with President Xi Jinping four times, including once in Pyongyang, despite Xi’s objection to nuclear tests (#3 in 2013, #4 and #5 in 2016, #6 in 2017). The young leader has had two summits apiece with President Moon Jae-in and President Donald Trump (plus a short-notice meeting) and one with President Vladimir Putin, proposed Four-Party Talks, and now boasts thermonuclear-tipped, solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles. Based on US intelligence estimates, Pyongyang may have 30-60 nuclear weapons.

South Korea

South Korean administrations have balanced North Korean, American, Chinese and Russian relations by modulating military, economic and political priorities. Forty years of military-dominated rule and state capitalism gave way to expanded competition among conservatives, centrists and liberals. The practice of sadaejuui and self-reliance included regular use of state domestic violence until democratization took hold in the 1990s. Today’s mature democracy retains vestiges of a robust internal security apparatus. Bus loads of national police may be spotted in South Korea‘s urban centers, poised more to out-number potential demonstrators than to detect Northern infiltrators. 

(1) Rhee Syng-man (1948-1960). During armistice negotiations (1953), President Rhee’s single-minded focus on North Korean communism led him to actively subvert US efforts to end the fighting. He saw political opposition to his control and any option short of a reunified Korea as a national security threat. While Rhee oversaw land and education reforms, the violent nepotism of his rule culminated in mass protests, and his resignation. Elections brought in conservative President Yun Po-sun and progressive Prime Minister Chang Myon. Their government was unable to overcome the swell of wartime grievances and contending expectations among numerous factions. Most fatefully, the military.  

(2) Yun Po-sun (1960-1962). Elections brought in conservative President Yun Po-sun and progressive Prime Minister Chang Myon. Their government was unable to overcome the swell of wartime grievances and contending expectations among numerous factions. Most fatefully, the military. 

(3) Park Chung-hee (1963-1979) led a coup in 1961 and was elected two years later. Despite US objections to military rule, Park secured US assistance (110) that lit chaebol-led industrialization, and then declared martial law (1972). Facing intensified North Korean attacks (1967-1975), an assassination attempt that killed his wife (1974), the Nixon Doctrine (1969), South Vietnam’s demise (1975), and President Carter’s announcements to reduce forces (1977) and recognize China (1978), Park sought nuclear weapons from France. US pressure and a conditional promise to increase forces stopped that program. Park secured more US military aid (3 Mar/22 Oct 77, 2 Feb/26 Jul 78) as he centralized power, until assassinated by his erstwhile friend, Director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency. 

(4) Choi Kyu-hah (1979-1980), Vice President, held the presidency for nine months after Park’s death. A career foreign service officer concerned about internal threats to democracy, Choi stepped down following another coup, this time led by Park protege Major General Chun Doo-hwan. 

(5) Chun Doo-hwan (1980-1988) seized control by commandeering units under the US-led Combined Forces Command. Chun arrested opponents, took over Central Intelligence, declared martial law, closed the National Assembly, and authorized force against demonstrators in Kwangju, killing hundreds. North Korean attacks included trying to assassinate Chun—killing 17 (1983), and blowing up a Korean Airlines flight—killing 115 (1986). The latter was meant to deter participation in the Seoul-hosted Olympics (1988). Chun oversaw urbanization and slower economic growth, and repressed subversion. As US officials disapprovingly tolerated his methods, the alliance focused on deterring and defeating external attacks.

(6) Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993), Chun’s academy classmate, was a surprise reformer who recognized home-grown authoritarianism as a threat. His call for a new Constitution led to direct Presidential elections, which he won against a split opposition. As the Soviet bloc melted, Roh’s Nordpolitik engaged the continent through China, Russia and former communist states. As Pyongyang built nuclear reactors (Kindle loc 622 of 6256), Seoul obtained a denuclearization agreement (1992). Economic modernization and democratization in the South began to influence the alliance. US officials agreed to relinquish peacetime command of South Korean forces, which was implemented in 1994.

(7) Kim Young-sam (1993-1997), a career politician, became the first non-military President since Rhee. Considered to be a moderate, he nevertheless managed threats via disruptions. Kim dismissed politically-involved military officers and had Roh and Chun indicted, then pardoned them. He expanded US-North Korean negotiations with Four-Party Talks, then supported, then undermined, the Agreed Framework. In Beijing, Seoul sought dialogue with Pyongyang. However in Tokyo, Seoul talked economic sanctions (513-514).  Kim’s term was an inconsistent centrism of opposed positions. His reforms strategically powered South Korea’s entry into the World Trade Organization (1995) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (1996).

(8) Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), kidnapped in 1973 at Park’s behest and freed after timely American pressure, ran a Sunshine Policy to transform the Northern threat. As economic growth and trade with China blossomed, Kim financially induced a summit (2000) and built railways to link both Koreas with the Eurasian continent and Pacific coast. In a summit with Vladimir Putin (2001), Kim endorsed the anti-ballistic missile treaty that George W. Bush sought to end. Skeptical of US evidence that Pyongyang had highly enriched uranium, Kim obliged while Bush antagonized the North. In 2003, North Korea left the Non Proliferation Treaty, admitted to possessing a nuclear weapon, and threatened preemptive attacks. 

(9) Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), human rights attorney, won election on a tragic wave of anti-Americanism (1). As he assumed office, North Korean missile launches were followed by the reprocessing of spent fuel rods (2003), nuclear threats during the Six-Party Talks (2003-2006), and the first nuclear detonation (2006), all in spite of the 1992 accord. Roh sought self-reliant defense as the US sought to broaden the alliance regionally and in terms of instruments of power. Roh’s pursuit of North-South reciprocity in a multilateral negotiating context enabled Seoul to engage Pyongyang.

(10) Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013), Hyundai CEO and Seoul Mayor, expanded South Korea’s global presence with a New Asia Initiative. Relationships include nuclear energy with US partnershipspace power with Russian partnershipcomprehensive cooperative partnership with China, and Arctic engagement with Greenland and Norway. Toward North Korea, Lee tried conditional reciprocity (14) bolstered by a closer US alliance. The latter meant South Korean wartime command of forces, which is still pending.  

(11) Park Geun-hye (2013-2017), Park Chung-hee’s daughter, began a self-described balanced policy toward North Korea based on trust-building, dialogue, and strength. Pyongyang’s next missile launch and nuclear test reoriented that approach, pushing Park to beckon China for countermeasures (not forthcoming). Park continued South Korea’s broad global engagement while trying to synch with American presidential nuances such as strategic patience (Obama) and max pressure (Trump). 

(12) Moon Jae-in (2017-present), former chief of staff to Roh, seeks economic cooperation, integration, and reunification. He seems to moderate the enigmatic Kim Jong-un—Donald Trump relationship. Moon’s administration assesses Pyongyang with wary engagement and controlled hopes for reunification. His continuation of policies that seek to transform threats via integration include the Northeast Asia-Plus Community of Responsibility, new Northern Policy, and New Southern PolicySouth Koreans debate reunification and the possibility of an independent nuclear deterrent.

Combined Effects Strategy

As a reminder of the complex warfare model introduced in previous papers, the following diagram depicts the eight basic types of effects interacting among sentient actors in the information environment. These effects are cooperative (dissuade, persuade, secure, induce) and confrontational (deter, compel, defend, coerce). Each desired effect may be brought about using any instrument of power (such as diplomatic, informational, military, economic, and social). 


In comparison to 17 Chinese and two Japanese cases of combined effects discussed in earlier papers, we consider two inter-related Korean examples from a common perspective of achieving reunification:

A. North Korea Nuclear and Complex Threats (North Korea, South Korea,
US, China, Japan; 1953-present)

B. South Korea Occupation of Dokdo (Japan-Takeshima; 1952-present) and
Ieodo (China-Suyan; 1987-present)

Both cases reflect Korean struggles to achieve a reunification. This assumption requires a caveat in South Korea, where globalization reduces some incentives for reunification with a reactionary regime. In North Korea, propaganda exhorts an inured population to sacrifice for reunification. Many factors affect reunification, such as main power alignments, forms of self-reliance, territorial disputes, financial costs, all-domain weapons programs, economic development, and transnational linkages.

To account for this complexity yet also recommend decisions, we will analyze the cases in three parts: historical background of each case; combined-effects strategy of North Korea and South Korea; and interacting strategies of North Korea, South Korea, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia.

Historical Background

A. North Korean Nuclear and Complex Threats

In November of 1950, five months after North Korea’s invasion of the South, Chairman Kim Il-sung absorbed President Harry Truman’s threat to consider using atomic weapons. The subsequent lack of US will to use the weapon that ended the Pacific War, and China’s will to massively intervene with ground troops, led to the armistice (1953). Within a decade, the Soviet Union had provided North Korea technical training and a nuclear research reactor. This effort was followed in 1964 by China’s first nuclear weapon detonation. By then, all foreign troops except technical advisors had left North Korea. With domestic room to maneuver, two developments pushed Kim to achieve an independent nuclear capability. 

First, there were ideological differences among Pyongyang (purges of pro-China/Soviet communists), Moscow (de-Stalinizationperestroika and glasnostnationalist capitalism) and Beijing (post-Mao reformsnationalist socialist-capitalism). North Korea’s main patrons were developing politically and economically. 

Second, both main powers were unreliable as allies. The USSR was non-committal, China was difficult to work with on an equal basis, and neither supported another North Korean attempt at reunification. 

In South Korea, leaders generally desired closer ties with American democratic capitalism. All wanted an in-place tripwire that committed the US to defending the South against another North Korean invasion. The same resident US influence, however, presented a problematic image of obliging US interests too much. Any alignment with US policy was subject to criticism for being too much sadaejuui and not enough self-reliance. US pressure, for instance, had prevented South Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, seemingly locking Seoul into a permanent US military presence.

In contrast, the non-resident USSR, then China, actively supported North Korea’s nuclear program. In addition both communist regimes enacted domestic reforms that Kim-ism would not. So even though Russian ties never included commitments to actually defend North Korea, Moscow’s socialist credentials remain important to Pyongyang. In 1989, Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy reversal that demanded North Korea pay market prices for Soviet oil shocked North Korea’s command economy. However, it was the specter of Russian liberalization that Kim saw as the greater threat

Similarly, China’s peace treaty with South Korea (1992) shocked North Korea diplomatically, but it was Beijing’s post-Tiananmen Massacre reforms that mattered more to Kim. The reforms strengthened Communist Party control of state capitalism, a fix that suited Pyongyang’s first special economic zone (Rason, 1991) for attracting foreign investment. 

In both cases, the absence of Chinese and Soviet tripwire forces in North Korea, itself a deliberate Kim policy designed to prevent foreign influence, provided Pyongyang more domestic freedom of action. This domestic space empowered Kim to manipulate both great powers using all instruments of national power. 

North Korea has used that maneuver space to break every agreement it has signed and to develop weapons capable of producing mass effects. The payloads are nuclear, biological, chemical, high-explosive, and cyber information. See the Arms Control Association’s chronology of nuclear and missile programs here. Beginning with the 1985 Non-Proliferation Treaty up to its current pledge to denuclearize and stop long-range missile tests, North Korea’s record is to threaten, promise, dare, demand, deny and deceive, all while conceding nothing in return.

Meanwhile Pyongyang continues to develop and leverage nuclear weapons, biological weaponschemical weaponshigh-explosive missiles, and cyber theft. Kim Jong-un is positioned to demand an end to economic sanctions and retain his nuclear weapons capability. North Korean strategy is certain to use nuclear capability as more than weapons of mass destruction. 

Mass-effects weapons are part of Pyongyang’s basic cause-and-prevent strategy: (a) cause confrontation among main powers—primarily the US and China and to a lesser degree Russia and Japan; (b) to prevent domestic intervention by any main power. This strategy aims to ensure the Kim dynasty’s survival as an independent Korean regime capable of achieving reunification. 

B. South Korea’s Occupation of Dokdo and Ieodo

Since 1954, a year after US forces stopped using Dokdo as a bombing range, South Korean forces have occupied its two small main islands located 135 miles east of the Korean Peninsula. South Korea’s Dokdo Research Institute proclaims Ten Truths About Dokdo Not Known In Japan. The basis for these claims are ancient references to an island claimed to be Dokdo followed by settlers in Ulleungdo who named the rocks (dok: stone). French, Russian, British and Japanese claimants also name-claimed them (75) as Liancourt Rocks (1849), Olivutsa Rocks (1854), Hornet Rocks (1855), and Takeshima (1905), respectively.  

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs makes detailed claims about Takeshima (Dokdo) dating back to the mid-17th century, all of which are rejected by South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, either as a matter for negotiation or for judicial settlement.

Ieodo is a submerged rock where the claimed exclusive economic zones of China and South Korea overlap. The spot is 93 miles southwest of South Korea’s Mara Island and 178 miles from China’s Yushan Island. While South Korea proposes that the midpoint be based on respective coastlines, China insists on factoring in population and length of coastline. 

Just as Dokdo is wrapped up in Japan’s colonization of South Korea, Ieodo’s history re-signals China’s imperial control over Korean territory. South Korea’s placement of a plaque (1951) and beacon (1987), and construction of an oceanographic research facility (2001) and helipad (2003), enable a degree of operational control. Seoul proactively deters and fiercely defends against illegal Chinese fishing, no doubt intensified by Chinese economic and territorial designs on North Korea. China’s threats to use force to block South Korean forces from exercising in its own territorial waters(302) with US forces add to Seoul’s suspicion. 

North Korea’s Coercion-infused Strategy

The chart below provides examples of North Korean DIMES-wide, all-domain effects and activities that generate them. These combinations of effects largely coerce domestic and main power targets in the following pattern.

Diplomatically, North Korea compels and coerces adversaries, and persuades and induces partners. Tools for coercion tend to be provocations that threaten Military action or provide territorial access, backed by enough nuclear weapons to obliterate the South. Tools for persuasion generally consist of diatribes and visits, backed by diplomatic-bag bribes. Coercion is ever-present; infused. 

Information is crafted to compel and coerce adversaries, and persuade partners. Diplomatic and Informational coercion work together as force-multiplier infusions for state-sponsored crime to induce Economic transactions and investment. 

Domestically, authorities’ Social persuasion is less ideological (as in Kim Il-sung’s day) and more pragmatic. The proliferation of free market exchanges and portable foreign information (Chapter 2) competes with payoffs, nepotism, and surveillance technology. External Social persuasion directed toward foreign actors seems limited to the provision of labor, where that is risked against UN sanctions.

All of the above is cloaked by an increasingly thin ideological veneer of persuasive legitimacy built on compelled obedience, induced racist nationalism and elite support, and coerced loyalty.  

TABLE 1: North Korea DIMES-wide, All-Domain Effects

 DomesticSouth KoreaUS ChinaJapanRussia
D Compel and Coerce to press US for reduced or degraded  forces in Korea via  provocationsCompel and Coerce aid, recognition as nuclear state,  withdraw forces, stop sanctions via provocationsPersuade support of security partnership via access;
Induce priority attention via visitations
Compel wartime atonement, compensation via timely demands;  Coerce to end sanctionsPersuade relief for sanctions via North Koreans in Russia;
Induce priority  attention via visits
IPersuade legitimacy via juchesongunbyungjin;
Compel obedience via restricting civ-pol liberties
Deter dissent and free marketization of  economy via  informants
Persuade domestic support for Kim Jong Un;
Dissuade economic sanctions via social media exploitation (Arirang Meari); 
Coerce wealth transfer via cyber theft;
Deter information via controlled media and internet access
Compel respect; Dissuade ignoring North Korea issues; Coerce transfers of wealth and change in US media coverage of North KoreaPersuade support of Kim-ism ideology via websites on China (Paekdu Hanna);
Dissuade advocacy of reforms via benefits of control 
Compel recognition of discrimination against North Koreans in Japan; Persuade public to accept North Koreans in JapanPersuade media collaboration to support Pyongyang’s position in disputes with Washington 
M Induce unified nationalism via conscription, parades and weapons testsDeter attack via preemptive limited strikes (Yeonpyeong Island shelling, 2010); 
Coerce opportune vulnerability (torpedoing of Cheonan
Deter and Defend against regime change; Coerce fear of nukes via missile launches; Compel diplomatic demands via cyber and electronic disruption (24-25)Deter intervention via independent ops;
Secure support for  North Korean ops via military exchanges
Deter and Defend against territorial intrusions;
Coerce Japan to admit vulnerability to North Korean attack via missile and special ops
Deter unwanted intervention via independent operations;
Defend territory and exclusive economic zone against illicit Russian fishing via patrolling  
EInduce elite political support via rewards and UN-sanctioned luxury goodsInduce acquisition of currency and negotiating leverage via joint ventures  (Kaesong Industrial Complex)Defend against economic sanctions via criminal economyInduce trade (Graph #1), aid (11) and investment via infrastructure, border transactions, and resident workers; Induce collaboration to evade UN sanctions. via payoffs Induce interests in trade via resident  businesses (Chongryon)Induce investment in infrastructure via inter-Korean trans-shipment quid pro quo
SCoerce loyalty via execution, detention, forced labor, torture;
Compel racist nationalism via instrumental ethnicity
Persuade Korean solidarity via exploiting common historical disputes; Induce domestic dissent via cooptationInduce social hatred against Americans via via museums, Korea Central News AgencyPersuade mutual social control via repatriation of defectorsInduce support of North Koreans in Japan via social action Secure ties with Russian businesses avoiding sanctions 

South Korea’s Inducement-led Strategy

South Korean effects and activities are relatively ad hoc, except for military deterrence and defense, which have been deliberately planned and well-sustained. Seoul musters combinations of effects that largely induce behavior in the following pattern:

South Korean Diplomacy is persuasive when dialogues and policies shape main powers’ interests. The tools to do this include a globalizing Economy, cultural appeal, and activities that enhance both peninsular and continental security. Information campaigns persuade actors of Seoul’s resolve with respect to territorial integrity, dialogue-based reunification, and global Economic competition. Military deterrence and defense focus narrowly on territorial threats, even as Diplomatic, Informational and Economic effects broaden in geographic scope. Externally-directed, desired Social effects are activated by South Korea’s Economic success.

In contrast to North Korea, South Korea’s domestic Social foundation is becoming multi-racial. Pyongyang’s racist nationalism seeks to exploit this demographic as if it were a vulnerability. 

TABLE 2: South Korea DIMES-wide, All-Domain Effects

 DomesticNorth KoreaUSChinaJapanRussia
D Persuade dialogue, denuke and re-unification via inter-Korean agreements Persuade support for One Belt One Road participation and new Sunshine Policy via inter-Korean agreementsPersuade support for linking Koreas to Eurasia via New Northern Policy; cultural diplomacyPersuade support for Korean business and heritage via cultural diplomacyPersuade support for linking Korean infrastructure to Russia via New Northern Policy
IPersuade support for capabilities against North Korean aggression and for unification via defense and reunification White Papers, social media outreach Persuade respect for economic and military strength  Persuade US to value its defense commitment and South Korean political and economic development via public diplomacyPersuade Beijing of Korea’s territorial integrity (Koguryo and China’s unilateral ADIZ 2013)Persuade Japan to accept wartime responsibility (comfort women, textbook issue)Induce interests in South Korean investment and peninsular economic development via incentives for improving  infrastructure
MPersuade public of need for conscripted military service Defend territorial integrity and Deter attacks via proactive deterrence (22)Co-defend and Co-deter via a more equivalent allianceDefend and  Deter against  territorial intrusionsvia air defense zone, patrols and outposts (Ieodo)Defend and Deter against territorial intrusions via air defense zone, patrols and outposts (Dokdo) Defend and Deter against territorial intrusions via air defense zone, patrols and outposts 
EBalance income, social welfare and growth (Moon: job-led growth)Induce political moderation via economic ties (renewed Sunshine Policy; inter-Korean railwayInduce commitment to ROK defense (host nation sharing); Persuade aid to PyongyangSecure globalized China trade via risk-based investments & “processing tradeInduce reversal in trade imbalance via joint business ventures and increased domestic competition   Induce access via Korean energy  cooperation (gas bridges, etc.) 
SPersuade multi-racial nationalism via globalized culture and expanded international supportPersuade cultural connections via tourism (outside UN sanctions)Induce integration of Korean-American communities via long-term engagement Persuade acceptance as via business successPersuade and Induce  acceptance via political-legal advocacy (Mindan)Induce tourism and follow-on ties via no-visa requirement for visits

Interacting Strategies

Using our description of patterns, and details from the two tables above, let’s anticipate how Korean strategies interact in terms of effects. First, we identify best current and future synergies. 

Best Synergies

North Korea’s current synergy is, coercively envelop South Korea’s military deterrence and defense with broader effects, while controlling information in North Korea and exploiting divisions among relevant powers. The latter are South Korea, the US, Japan, China and Russia. Pyongyang is actually executing this strategy of manufactured hostility. The combination of external envelopment and exploitation, and internal protection, creates opportunities to out-maneuver main powers and build a degree of self-reliance (juche). 

Juche has been an economic failure in providing basic necessities, but a success with respect to the ability to punish people. This depraved punishment is a tragic form of self reliance that ordinary North Koreans bear. Table 1 provides examples of how Pyongyang elites combine these cooperative and confrontational effects of compellence, inducement, persuasion, and coercion.

Nuclear and other mass-effects weapons enable North Korea’s combined-effects strategy, but the critical piece is information control. The Kim regime’s ideology relies on near-total control of information, an impossible requirement. We can expect any decentralized engagement, therefore, to be regarded as a threat. That assessment is a strategic vulnerability to the extent that resilient command and control relies on distributed authorities. 

To out-compete adversary strategies, future Kim cronyism would need to be flexible, such as promoting initiative within its narrative while tolerating self-interested loyalty. The expansion of private markets is a potential indicator of such informal flexibility even as it appears to depart from Kim Il-sung-ism. Given this ideological contradiction, we can expect efforts to expand Kim Jong-un’s persona and delegated authority among trusted elites to extend the regime’s monitoring of information. Such broadened oversight may accommodate more cooperation and less confrontation. Kim Jong-un appears to be doing this as corrupt practices stretch his power base. 

South Korea’s ideal synergy would be if Seoul and Washington actually agreed on combining cooperative and confrontational effects. Such as a Sunshine Policy with non-negotiable alliance exercises. That type of combination has been rare and temporary. Instead, we see Seoul policies that partly suit Washington priorities and partly accommodate North Korean and Chinese priorities. Such as US-South Korea military exercises in rote scenarios (the North massively invades the South again) that do not address ongoing threats from China, Russia and North Korea (cyber attacks, political interference, military incursions).

Seoul’s best future-oriented combined effect, then, is to globally induce Pyongyang to conform to international norms by expanding economic and political engagement around North Korea. Engagement with North Korea should occur in a global rather than exclusively bilateral context. Actors that flaunt international norms while mouthing them, such as China under Xi and Russia under Putin, are the main challenge. Table 2 contains examples of how Seoul can generate such a Northern Policy-type effect via all-tools persuasion, military deterrence and defense, and economic inducements.

How is Pyongyang’s coercive envelopment likely to interact with Seoul’s global inducement?

Coercion Meets Inducement

For North Korea, the coercive envelopment that it takes to out-compete South Korean global inducement requires economic modernization with controls over information. Achieving total control of the domestic information environment, even for the Kim regime, is not possible if contested. Let’s see why. 

Under the Kim #3 regime so far, North Korea’s coercive envelopment strategy relies on two major activities. 

First, the strategy foments main power rivalries to counter and circumvent the South Korea-US alliance’s military deterrence and defense. A rising China may help limit US power projection. However from North Korea’s standpoint, Chinese capability is not necessarily preferable to US military superiority. China, not the US, claims territory also claimed by North Korea— GandoMount Paektu, Yalu and Tumen Rivers, and the Yellow Sea. Whether China or the United States has the advantage in a particular domain is not as relevant to Pyongyang as keeping main power rivalries simmering.

A military standoff among main powers and a nuclear North Korea afford Pyongyang more room for diplomatic and information maneuver. If Pyongyang succeeds in eliminating economic sanctions with the support of China and Russia, its options to create effects expand. A growing North Korean nuclear and other mass-effects capability might nuclearize Japan. If Tokyo were to consider a nuclear deterrent, that controversy would also provide Pyongyang ample opportunities to sow divisiveness among main powers.     

Second, Pyongyang must prevent North Korean elites and the public from accessing more and more information. The former may be bought off, but the population cannot be compensated or suppressed as portable technologies provide access to more sources of information.

Economic development creates more information—financial, trade, manufacturing and services—all potential sources of power. Although North Korea does not have restless minorities as in China, Pyongyang easily could have a restless majority as expectations exceed incentives. How?

The Kim regime’s envelopment strategy requires more information and more control. To out-perform main powers, Kim’s top-down orchestration of diplomacy, information and military activities relies on information dominance at home. The social foundation for this environment is uncontested domestic control. Eliminating economic sanctions to open opportunities for growth can undermine Pyongyang’s control even if it also feeds a mass-effects arsenal. Pyongyang will be forced to modernize its control of domestic information. While Chinese and Russian information controls certainly provide different techniques for repression, the technologies can be contested in ways that are difficult to control.

As Pyongyang continues to foment main power rivalries and tighten domestic control over information technology, the need for economic integration becomes acute. Increasingly, competitive economies need instantly transparent access to information. Criminal economies such as North Korea’s can be reduced via international enforcement. Self-reliance in nuclear capability, however, may be possible.

How does Pyongyang’s coercion-plus strategy compare to Seoul’s strategy of global inducement?

As with most democracies, South Korea struggles to maintain a consistent or coherent policy over time. A global inducement strategy, however, can exploit the trends it helps create. In this respect, political and economic engagement on the Eurasian continent and throughout the Indo-Pacific are critical to surrounding North Korea with Korean-branded success. The sustained set of combined effects detailed in Table 2 can out-perform North Korea’s coercion-heavy hand with its greater breadth and depth. Inducement can prevail over coercion as long as Seoul has a credible military deterrent and defense. Economic growth is key to sustaining the strategy. 

South Korea’s economy is capable of increasing its defense outlays to provide a convincing conventional superiority. Pyongyang elites know this. Political will, however, has been variable. The military aspect of US-South Korean relations has indeed provided credible capability and leadership. Seoul needs nuclear deterrence, extended (US) or organic. The US extended deterrent can continue to underwrite South Korea’s economic success, at a domestic political cost of self-reliance and main power alignment. Yet, strategic effects that result in desired North Korean behavior matter most. In that regard, the economic growth and military alliance have not prevented nuclearization.  

A better approach is to coordinate a synergistic strategy that is bigger than the “M” in DIMES. Global inducement requires expansive diplomatic and economic engagement, which in turn requires more than peninsular deterrence and defense. The military alliance with the US has enabled South Korea’s economic and technological development, and promoted democratic civil-military relationships. For the US, the benefits of the alliance are also DIMES-wide, and should be appreciated from that broad perspective. What types of military activities can combine with what types of non-military activities to cause North Korean de-nuclearization? A superior strategy of South Korean global inducement is the place to start.


Our holistic approach to strategy in the information environment considered how the Koreas wage effective complex warfare through cooperation and confrontation. We applied a common world view to both Koreas: main power alignment (sadaejuui) and self-reliance (juche and freely formed concepts) that blends pragmatic interests with socially conditioned values.

This Korean worldview refracts through starkly different political-economic systems that struggle to retain sovereignty amidst interventionist powers. Reunification remains a common goal of North and South Korea, but on vastly different terms and conceptions of threat. 

Threat assessments, which historically have been directed against invasions and domestic interference by main powers, reflect strongly contested narratives. We sought to understand narratives as strategies because they shape social perceptions and make assumptions about enduring threats to Korean sovereignty.

North Korea’s violent mix of sadaejuui and juche creates threats that underpin a cultish ideology of sole-source rule. “Self” reliance is supposed to reinforce exclusive trust in “us” – the Kim family. This construction of permanent threats selectively draws from a history of predatory powers. The social manufacturing of threats is rigidly intolerant of domestic dissent. To the extent that the Kim regime is uncontested at home, it is therefore free to manipulate main power relations. This in turn helps preserve its idiosyncratic rule and set more conditions for reunification. 

South Korea’s blend of sadaejuui and self-reliance has been externally non-violent and internally transformative. Economic success, protected by credible military alliance with a main power (the US), has fueled a vibrant democracy and globalizing economy. As a result, Seoul’s main power alignment has broadened to include positive relations with all main powers. Self-reliance is networked, a business practice that generates diverse strategies to deal with competitive threats.

The combined effects strategies of the two Koreas reflect these disparate approaches to threat assessment.

North Korea seeks to coercively envelop the South Korea-US alliance with a two-pronged approach. Pyongyang attempts to: (1) compel and induce adversaries via provocations that threaten coercion; and (2) persuade and induce partners via territorial access and illicit transactions that enrich its loyal elite. Domestically, control over information sells a racist nationalism as morally legitimate.

South Korea’s strategy tries to lead with global inducement. Seoul seeks to persuade and induce adversaries and partners via a globalizing economy and cultural appeal. Military alliance with the US deters and defends against the use of force on South Korean territory. A multi-racial society is beginning to emerge, one that will transform South Korean identity in a complex domestic and global context. 

In comparing these contending strategies, we conclude that Pyongyang is executing its best synergy of coop-frontation, while Seoul either cooperates or confronts. US efforts to do the same are seldom in step. Relative to the South, the North has been able to orchestrate diplomatic, informational, military, economic and social activities that seize the initiative and shape future outcomes. The South’s strategy creates its own synergistic effects, but struggles to sustain them over the long-term due to changing political priorities. What can be done?


As the two strategies interact, Seoul’s global inducement can prevail over Pyongyang’s coercive envelopment by exploiting the North’s basic dilemma.

North Korea’s core problem is that it must simultaneously modernize its system of controlling domestic information, and manipulate main powers. The Kim regime’s authoritarianism creates a dilemma of undesirable alternatives: (A) politically risky modernization; or (B) increasing dependence on modernizing main powers.

Whether North Korea achieves both authoritarian modernization and national independence is not a matter of self-reliance. The outcome depends upon the strategies of other powers. We offer the following two options for South Korea and the United States.

First, Seoul and Washington should agree on maintaining economic sanctions as long as Pyongyang refuses to de-nuclearize. Economic sanctions accelerate the Kim regime’s need to embrace capitalist reforms, even if corrupt. Sooner or later, however, a Sunshine-inspired South Korean president is likely to relax economic sanctions in the hope that the North will eventually de-nuclearize. This risky step might be insured by the technological feasibility of a countervailing South Korean nuclear deterrent.  

Second, Seoul and Washington should agree on how to cooperate with and confront North Korea, China, and Russia. This politically ambitious course can induce the dilemma of North Korea’s strategy. The effort might combine the Moon administration’s New Northern Policy and the Trump administration’s (and Japan’s Abe administration’s) Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concepts. Converting these policies into effective strategies would require operationalizing them in terms of specific effects, such as inducement. How?

For instance, the FOIP vision of Ensuring Peace and Security (22-23) by protecting the maritime domain should include exercises that develop capabilities to induce territorial withdrawal, not just deter and defend against territorial invasion. This nuance means orchestrating relevant military actions in concert with diplomatic, informational, economic and social activities. In a similar fashion, the New Northern Policy should specify what it intends to cause and what it intends to prevent, in terms of inducing behavior.

Broader relationships need to be considered as well, such as the South Korea-China-Japan summit, the US-Japan alliance, and the Australia-India-Japan-US Quad. Building options along the Eurasian-Pacific edge can also help moderate the periodic rupturing of South Korea-Japan relations that Pyongyang is keen to exploit. 

In contrast to North Korea’s dilemma, South Korea’s dilemma is not between undesirable modernization and undesirable over-dependence on main powers. South Korea’s dilemma is between: (A) an increasingly distinct South Korean nation-state compared to North Korea; and (B) a reunified Korean state of two nations. Both of these alternatives are undesirable to different groups in South Korea.

Option A is where South Koreans are today, dealing with the world’s most authoritarian regime armed with nuclear weapons bent on coercive reunification. North Korea is not always a unitary actor—there are factions that think differently. Option B would require significant financial costs, political reforms, and unprecedented cooperation among main powers. However, a reunified Korea could become a global power in its own right. Seoul’s global inducement strategy is a path to that common goal.

A combined effects approach to complex warfare offers a broad perspective to holistically grasp and analyze contemporary strategies. As we argued in previous papers on China and Japan, superior strategy involves comparing threats and integrating effects, and considering all instruments of power across all domains.

Author: Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D., Brig Gen USAF ret.

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