Yoon’s latest national security commentary: Calling N. Korea the “main enemy” of South

Posted on : 2022-01-17 17:37 KST Modified on : 2022-01-17 17:37 KST
The conservative presidential nominee followed up remarks about a preemptive strike on North Korea with a Facebook post calling the country South Korea’s “main enemy”
A screen capture of a Facebook post made by People Power Party presidential nominee Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday, when North Korea fired two missiles. The post reads, “[South Korea’s] main enemy is North Korea.”
A screen capture of a Facebook post made by People Power Party presidential nominee Yoon Suk-yeol on Friday, when North Korea fired two missiles. The post reads, “[South Korea’s] main enemy is North Korea.”

Shortly after North Korea fired two ballistic missiles on Friday, Yoon Suk-yeol, presidential candidate for South Korea’s conservative People Power Party, posted on Facebook: “Our main enemy is North Korea.” He invoked the narrative of “the main enemy” just three days after stirring controversy by talking about a preemptive strike on North Korea.

Debate over the rhetoric of “main enemy” has continued for more than two decades, following the publication of South Korea’s first defense white paper in 1988. In that inaugural issue, the Ministry of National Defense said that the goal of national defense was “protecting the state from an armed invasion by the enemy.” In context, “enemy” was assumed to be North Korea, though the paper didn’t make that explicit.

The phrase “main enemy” first appeared in the 1995 defense white paper, during the presidency of Kim Young-sam. The inclusion was designed to appease domestic opinion, which had been inflamed by the threat of turning Seoul into a “sea of fire” that North Korean delegate Pak Yong-su had made in March 1994.

In effect, the rhetorical formula of North Korea being the main enemy arose from domestic political necessity. The rhetoric was kept in defense white papers, which were published annually through 2000. Starting in 2004, however, it was replaced with “direct military threats” or “North Korea’s present military threat.”

After Lee Myung-bak became president, some argued that the language about the “main enemy” should be restored. But Lee Sang-hee, defense minister at the time, opposed that idea. As he explained to the National Assembly’s National Defense Committee in September 2008, “I don’t think it’s right to resume use of the expression ‘main enemy,’ which would plunge our society into the very conflict that North Korea desires.”

That year’s defense white paper described North Korea not as the “main enemy” but as a “direct and serious threat.”

South Korea’s conservatives again pushed for reinstating the “main enemy” language after the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan corvette in March 2010, but the defense white paper that year only said that “the North Korean regime and the North Korean military are our enemies.”

“There is no precedent for using language about a ‘main enemy’ in defense white papers or similar official documents in foreign countries. We took into consideration the fact that the defense white paper is an official government document that is made available to both a domestic and international audience,” an official from the Defense Ministry explained.

Indeed, the concept of a “main enemy” is not used by any country around the world that publishes a defense white paper. The US uses the word “threat,” and Russia uses the term “fundamental threat.” Even countries in conflict — including India and Pakistan, Israel and the Arab states, and China and Taiwan — avoid the term “main enemy.”

All avoid describing a specific country as the “main enemy” because not doing so serves their national interest. They instead use the term “threat,” which helps them respond flexibly to rapidly changing circumstances while maintaining strategic ambiguity.

The administration of Lee Myung-bak had its own rationale for avoiding the term “main enemy.” “Main enemy” is used for a country engaged in actual hostilities, while an armistice is currently in place on the Korean Peninsula.

The sentence “the North Korean regime and the North Korean military are our enemies” was maintained through the 2016 defense white paper, the final one released under former President Park Geun-hye.

But that language was replaced in the 2018 defense white paper, which was published after Moon Jae-in came into office. “The South Korean military regards as our enemy entities that threaten and violate the Republic of Korea’s sovereignty, territory, public and property,” the 2018 paper said.

For South Korea, the North plays two contradictory roles: it is at once a serious security threat, and also a potential partner in reconciliation and cooperation. For a defense white paper or responsible political leader to describe North Korea as the “main enemy” would interfere with the South’s efforts to prepare for an unstable threat.

Reading Yoon’s remarks about a “preemptive strike” or North Korea being the “main enemy” calls to mind the writing of George Orwell. The following passage appears in “Homage to Catalonia,” which Orwell wrote following his experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

“One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.”

This also brings to mind John Bolton, the ultra-hardliner on North Korea who served as White House national security advisor under former US President Donald Trump. During the Vietnam War, Bolton signed up for the National Guard before he could be drafted, knowing he wouldn’t have to join the fighting in the guard. Americans refer to people like Bolton as “chickenhawks” — punning on the cowardice implied by “chicken,” and the bellicosity implied by “hawk.”

The term “chickenhawk” has been traced back to the host of a satirical comedy program that aired on American television in the 1970s. “On the Vietnam issue, I have a friend who says he’s a chickenhawk. He wants us to fight on to victory, but to do it without him,” the host of the program said.

“Chickenhawks” were responsible for South Korea’s hard-line responses during the presidencies of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. Aside from the defense minister, most of the people who attended national security meetings after the sinking of the Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island had never served in the military.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula is too serious for Yoon to dust off antiquated language about North Korea being South Korea’s “main enemy.”

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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