South Korea’s Potential to Ease Tensions on the Korean Peninsula

► Due to geographic, cultural, and historical proximity, it is evident that the Republic of Korea (South Korea) has a strong interest in actively dealing with the DPRK (North Korea) and in influencing the security situation on the peninsula. The key question is what South Korea can actually do to achieve its goals, beyond merely announcing grand visions or issuing moralistic appeals.


► Potential solutions to maintain stability in the Korean peninsula are to build deterrence, enforce economic sanctions or utilize soft power. There are various potential ways to ease tensions; yet, there are still conflicts that need to be addressed. 






Due to geographic, cultural, and historical proximity, it is obvious that the Republic of Korea (South Korea) has a strong interest in actively dealing with the DPRK (North Korea) and in influencing the security situation on the peninsula. The key question is what South Korea can actually do to achieve its goals, beyond merely announcing grand visions or issuing moralistic appeals.

To approach this question systematically, it is useful to consider that – even though this term is usually avoided in public statements – it is essentially about power. The latter is typically defined as the ability of a state to influence the behavior of other states to get the outcomes it desires. Power can take various forms: it can be coercive, inducive, or coopting.

When looking at these options soberly, we find that South Korea’s potential is limited in terms of hard power. However, it does have options in the field of soft power, even though expectations in this regard need to be realistic, measures will take time to produce outcomes, target groups need to be chosen wisely, and effects will often be indirect.


South Korea’s coercive potential

One way to protect against a military threat is to lead a preemptive war. However, a military attack against North Korea is for many reasons not an option for South Korea. It would inflict massive damage on all Koreans, and it has the potential to trigger a major regional conflict by involving such big powers as the United States, China, and Russia.

A more realistic way to maintain stability is to build deterrence. This is what both Koreas have been doing for decades, both through indigenous efforts as well as by forming military alliances. Accordingly, the potential on the South Korean side is mostly quantitative, not qualitative. It is unlikely that within the next five years, South Korea will decide to break up its relationship with the US and become a military ally of China. Nevertheless, Seoul does face the challenge of an increasingly assertive regional security policy by Beijing, and it has well-known issues in building a close relationship with Japan. Military drills and the deployment of advanced weapons systems are necessary to maintain a high level of deterrence, but at the same time, they are seen as provocations by North Korea and China. South Korea’s government is thus walking a very thin line, with little room for maneuvering.

To account for this, South Korea has in the past years been active in what we could call diversification. It has tried to build additional bilateral ties with countries in the larger region including India and Australia, and it has stepped up its efforts at producing advanced military hardware domestically, such as fighter jets, submarines, missiles, and aircraft carriers. It will very likely continue this policy.

Economic sanctions are often seen as a means of coercion, too. In this regard, South Korea has exhausted its potential years ago by reducing inter-Korean economic exchanges to more or less zero. It stopped inter-Korean tourism in 2008, closed the Kaesong Industrial Zone in 2016, has no presence in the Rasŏn Special Economic Zone, stopped providing large amounts of fertilizer or food aid, and joined international sanctions, which are by now de facto comprehensive. With no trade, no investment, no people-to-people exchanges, and no humanitarian assistance sanctions simply cease to exist as bilateral policy options.


South Korea’s inducive potential

Inducement means offering a potential partner something he wants in exchange for something he would not necessarily do otherwise. Theoretically, and as the past has shown, South Korea would have a lot to offer to North Korea, either in exchange for specific concessions or to more broadly build trust and interdependence. Realistically, there is not much that can be done under the current conditions.

South Korea is a respected member of the international community and can use its clout to help Pyongyang out of its isolation. It is, however, difficult to see how this can be justified towards a domestic electorate even if the political will to do so would exist in Seoul, which does not seem to be the case. Moreover, past experience such as the exchange between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump in 2018 has shown that the North Korean leadership was happy to use the South Korean side as a door opener, but lost interest as soon as it had been able to engage directly with the US.

The most bombastic plans and visions in terms of inducement concern the economic sphere. They range from major infrastructure projects such as railways and communication networks to gas pipelines, joint projects for the exploration of mineral reserves, investment in Special Economic Zones, and trade. None of this is even remotely realistic right now. The US and its allies are showing no intent to ease the existing sanctions against North Korea, and South Korea does not want to openly violate these sanctions. To put it bluntly, any sentence that starts with “As soon as the sanctions have been lifted...” is not worth being finished. Moreover, with Russia and increasingly also China openly opposing new and existing sanctions against North Korea, problematic Western partners such as South Korea are not even needed anymore by Pyongyang.


South Korea’s coopting potential

In essence, coopting is about what Joseph Nye called soft power. Rather than threatening the other side or bribing it, a country can become so attractive that others support it voluntarily.

To explore South Korea’s potential in this field, it is useful to take a more detailed look at North Korea by breaking it down into separate groups, for example, the leader, the elite, the middle class, and the people. I have discussed this in the context of the CRE model and concluded that the elite and the middle class are the most prospective targets for a related policy. As the experience of the Cold War in Europe has shown, the passive economic and cultural power of the West should not be underestimated. South Korea’s success in terms of economic development, but also in Pop music and TV dramas has made it attractive for many North Koreans, as surveys among defectors and harsh measures by the Kim Jong-un administration against cultural infiltration show. The problem with this approach is that it takes time to be effective and that it can easily be ruined by blunt campaigns. Both speak against an active utilization of soft power by a typically short-term-oriented, hyper-active government.



Against this background, South Korea has few options for direct and immediate action. It is never a bad idea to keep trying to resuscitate avenues for direct negotiations, such as some form of Six-Party Talks. But it would be naive to be too optimistic in this regard. As discussed above, options for coercion and incentivization are also very limited. Therefore, the government in Seoul would be more effective if it focused its efforts on making South Korea’s society more attractive, and refrained from overly activist behavior towards North Korea. Sometimes, less is indeed more. The presidential elections have shown that most South Koreans care primarily about the economy, education, the environment, demographics, and social issues. A country that finds ways to deal with such difficult challenges successfully will be more attractive as a partner for its allies, it will be taken more seriously by its adversaries, and it can more convincingly present itself as an alternative place to live.




Rüdiger Frank is Professor of East Asian Economy and Society – EcoS, and Head of the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna. He holds an M.A. in Korean Studies, Economics and International Relations and a Ph.D. in Economics. In 1991/1992, he spent one semester as a language student at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang and has been researching North Korea ever since. Visiting positions included Columbia University New York, Korea University Seoul and Seoul National University. His major research fields are socialist transformation in East Asia (with a focus on North Korea), state-business relations in East Asia, and regional integration in East Asia.
His most recent books are: (2018) „Unterwegs in Nordkorea: Eine Gratwanderung“, and (2017) „Nordkorea: Innenansichten eines totalen Staates“ (revised edition).
Prof. Frank is regularly consulted by governments, media and businesses on North Korea and East Asia. Since June 2011, he has been working with the World Economic Forum, currently in its Global Future Council on the Korean Peninsula. In September 2013, the leading German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung included Prof. Frank in its list of the 50 most influential German economists.