[Reporter’s notebook] Threats of “hitting back” no way to conduct Korea’s foreign affairs

Posted on : 2023-01-23 09:33 KST Modified on : 2023-01-23 09:33 KST
Expressions like “hitting back 100 or 1,000 times harder” are the same kind of coarse, belligerent rhetoric that North Korea has deployed against the South and the US
President Yoon Suk-yeol pledges allegiance to the South Korean flag ahead of a briefing on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Defense at the Blue House on Jan. 11. (courtesy of presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol pledges allegiance to the South Korean flag ahead of a briefing on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Defense at the Blue House on Jan. 11. (courtesy of presidential office)

In his closing remarks at an operational report by the Ministries of National Defense and Foreign Affairs held at the Blue House’s State Guest House last Wednesday, President Yoon Suk-yeol said, “The most crucial way of preventing an attack is by firmly establishing massive punishment and retaliation capabilities, where if we are attacked, we can hit back 100 or 1,000 times harder.”

“Our exercise of self-defense rights against provocations must be firm,” he went on. “The only effective exercise of self-defense rights is when we can respond at a level that is several times or dozens of times higher.”

This sort of forceful expression of commitment to national security by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces may be seen by some as refreshing and frank. But as remarks coming from a South Korean president, they are rash and dangerous.

Expressions like “hitting back 100 or 1,000 times harder” are the same kind of coarse, belligerent rhetoric that North Korea has deployed against the South and the US. Given that Yoon has stated the goal of his administration to be establishing South Korea as a “global pivotal state,” these remarks are unbecoming.

When battalion and company leaders are commanding troops in the spearhead units actually tasked with combat activities, they will sometimes call on them to respond to North Korean provocations by “hitting back 100 or 1,000 times harder” as part of their psychological training. But this is just a case of front-line commanders emphasizing a message to boost the soldiers’ morale.

The notion of “hitting back 100 or 1,000 times harder” is also not in line with international law or the reality of how the military exercises self-defense rights. The exercise of those rights by the military is strictly limited by the UN Charter and the UN Command’s armistice rules of engagement.

By international law, the acceptable conditions for the exercise of self-defense rights are the imminence of an enemy attack, the necessity of such measures — i.e., the use of armed force is the only recourse — and proportionality.

In particular, the condition of proportionality holds that the use of armed force must not be excessive and has to be limited to the aim of eliminating threats. On the front lines, some units explain the proportionality concept in terms of “responding in the same way and the same quantity.” In other words, they might respond to one bullet with one bullet.

The UN Command’s rules of engagement are based on the principles of exercising self-defense according to international law. Military authorities have various operational rules and guidelines in place based on the UNC rules of engagement.

After the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, the South Korean military added the “principle of sufficiency” to the exercise of self-defense rights: the idea that the South should “sufficiently punish” provocations by the North.

Those authorities explain that principle as calling for a counterattack that is “three times heavier than the attack from North Korea.” The UN Command, which is responsible for managing the armistice agreement in the event of an armed clash between South and North, has also indicated that it finds the “threefold response” acceptable.

But if South Korea were to “hit back 100 or 1,000 times harder” as Yoon called for, the UN Command is very likely to view that as a violation of the armistice agreement. There is a precedent for this.

On May 3, 2020, four shots were fired toward a South Korean guard post from one of its North Korean counterparts in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The South Korean military responded by firing 30 machine gun rounds.

After investigating the incident, the UN Command announced that both South and North had violated the armistice agreement. It reportedly concluded that the South Korean military had overreacted and violated the principle of proportionality in the rules of engagement by firing 30 rounds in response to four shots from the North.

The same UN Command that took issue with a sevenfold response is unlikely to recognize “hitting back 100 or 1,000 times harder” as a legitimate exercise of self-defense rights.

In remarks on Dec. 28, Minister of Foreign Affairs Park Jin stressed that conflict should be “resolved through dialogue based on international norms and rules.” It’s time for Yoon Suk-yeol to attune his rhetoric and logic to a legitimate response based on international law.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, staff reporter

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

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories