South Korea’s Security Moves in the Shadow of North Korea

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Since the first nuclear crisis with North Korea in the 1990s, South Korea has sought diplomatic solutions to the problem together with Japan and the United States of America (USA). Despite these efforts, North Korea continued to develop its nuclear capabilities. The Pyongyang administration, which made commitments regarding the liquidation of the nuclear weapons program within the scope of the US-North Korean Agreed Framework in 1994, has repeatedly given up on these promises.[1]

Looking at the 21st century, it is seen that there is no change in the attitude of North Korea. Kim Jong-un, who was the First Secretary of the North Korean Workers’ Party in 2015, said, “We must manufacture powerful and state-of-the-art military hardware in our own style in greater numbers and continually strengthen our nuclear deterrence”[2]. He pointed out that the Pyongyang administration should develop nuclear weapons.

Then in 2016, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test.[3] To stop these attempts, it was tried to sit at the table with the Pyongyang administration again. In 2018, three summits were held between North Korea and South Korea. Subsequently, South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited Pyongyang in September of the same year. Compared to the threats and increasing security problems in 2017, diplomacy started to come to the fore in the North Korean issue after 2018. Therefore, there are signs of improvement in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang.[4]

Despite all this, as of 2021, North Korea has started missile tests again. Finally, in November 2022, North Korea conducted ballistic missile tests. Based on calculations based on the flight trajectory of this latest missile test, Japan stated that the estimated range of the missile could exceed 15,000 kilometers. In other words, North Korea can hit the entire continent of Asia, Europe, North America, and part of South America with its missiles.[5]

In addition to missile tests, North Korea fired approximately 130 artillery shells at the South Korean maritime buffer zone in December 2022, according to the statement of the South’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.[6] South Korea, which seeks a solution against the threats of North Korea by coming together with both regional and non-regional states, can’t go a long way in solving the problem. On the contrary, Pyongyang displays a much more aggressive foreign policy. North Korean President Kim’s statement that his country plans to become “the world’s most powerful nuclear force” also reveals Pyongyang’s aggressive stance.[7]

Even if an agreement is reached with North Korea, the Seoul administration will never be sure of Pyongyang’s sincerity due to past experiences. Therefore, the ultimate step for South Korea is to increase security measures. As the Realist theory emphasizes, in an environment where there is a security dilemma, the parties will tend to strengthen themselves militarily.

First, South Korea began work to develop a domestic ballistic missile defense after North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006.[8] South Korea, which is largely dependent on the security services of the USA, developed its own missile defense system by not participating in the global missile defense system led by the Washington administration. Seoul launched its first guided missile destroyer, Sejong the Great, in 2007, followed by Yulgok Yi I in 2008 and Seoae Ryu Seong-ryong in 2011.[9] In 2022, South Korea has successfully tested a new anti-ballistic missile system, the L-SAM vehicle.[10] South Korea’s ballistic missile defense has become an increasingly important component of the country’s defense capabilities since 2006.

Secondly, the US and South Korean armies have been conducting exercises together for years. The last one was in November 2022, after North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile test, and the joint air exercise involving strategic bombers was carried out by US Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber and F-16 warplanes and South Korean F-35A jets.[11] Regarding the issue, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol stated that the joint exercises with the United States strengthened South Korea’s defense.[12]

Thirdly, South Korea is increasing the budget allocated to defense expenditures in order to modernize its army. As seen in Table 1, the defense budget of the Seoul administration has increased gradually in recent years and this trend continues.[13] According to the statement made by the Ministry of National Defense of South Korea, it is foreseen that the Seoul government will allocate a defense budget of KRW 57,1 trillion (US$ 42,1 billion) for 2023. This budget is 4.6% more than the 2022 defense budget.[14]

Table 1: Percentage of South Korea’s Defense Spending in Recent Years[15]

As a result, Seoul’s security concerns include not only the threat of North Korea, but also the economic rise of China, the tension around Taiwan, and the dependence on the global supply chain for energy.[16] But the problem that has the potential to cause the greatest damage to South Korea’s national security and territorial integrity is the North Korean issue. As stated by the Institute for National Security Strategy, North Korea considers itself superior to Seoul due to nuclear weapons and therefore continues its military attacks actively.[17] Due to this perception of Pyongyang, Seoul has placed it among its priorities to overcome this problem by improving its military capabilities.

[1] Hirofumi Tosaki, “The North Korean Nuclear Issue and Japan’s Deterrence Posture”, Japan and the World, Japan Digital Library, 2017, p. 1.

[2] “The Cause of the Great Party of Comrades Kim II Sung and Kim Jong II is Ever-Victorious,” KCNA,, (Date of Accession:12.12.2022).

[3] Tosaki, op. cit., p. 1.

[4] Jojin V. John, “South Korea’s Approach to North Korea under President Moon Jae-in”, Major Powers and the Korean Peninsula: Politics, Policies and Perspectives, Titli Basu, (Ed.), KW Publishers, New Delhi 2019, p. 207.

[5] “US Seeks International Condemnation of North Korean Missile Launch at UN”, VOA,, (Date of Accession: 12.12.2022).

[6] “North Korea Fires Artillery Barrage in ‘Warning’ to South Korea”, Aljazeera,, (Date of Accession: 12.12.2022).

[7] “North Korea Plans ‘World’s Most Powerful’ Nuclear Force, Kim Jong Un Says”, CNN,, (Date of Accession:12.12.2022).

[8] Mark E. Manyin et al., “U.S.-South Korea Relations”, CRS Report, 2022, p. 23.

[9] “Republic of Korea”, Missile Defense Advocacy,, (Date of Accession: 12.12.2022).

[10] “South Korea Anti-Ballistic Missile System Destroys Target in Test- Reports”, Reuters,, (Date of Accession: 12.12.2022).

[11] “US, South Korea Conduct Joint Air Drill İnvolving Strategic Bombers After N. Korea’s ICBM Launch”, Defence Blog,, (Date of Accession: 12.12.2022).

[12] “South Korea Says It Has the Ability to Intercept Missiles from the North”, PBS,, Date of Accession: 12.12.2022).

[13] “Military Expenditure (% of GDP)- Korea, Rep.”, The World Bank,, (Date of Accession: 12.12.2022).

[14] “South Korea Proposes 4.6% Increase in 2023 Defence Budget”, Janes,’s%20Ministry%20of%20National,over%20the%20allocation%20in%202022, (Date of Accession: 12.12.2022).

[15] “Military Expenditure…”, op. cit.

[16] “Korea Net Assessment 2022: Shoring Up South Korea’s National Security”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,, (Date of Accession: 12.12.2022).

[17] Yonghwan Choi, “North Korea’s Continuous Military Provocations: Causes and Prospects”, INSS Issue Brief, 85(58), 2022, p. 2.

Neslihan TOPCU
Neslihan TOPCU
Neslihan Topcu, 2017 yılında Adnan Menderes Üniversitesi Siyaset Bilimi ve Kamu Yönetimi bölümünden mezun olmuş ve ardından aynı üniversitenin Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda yüksek lisans eğitimine başlamıştır. Yüksek lisans derecesini elde ettiği “Çin’in Enerji Güvenliği Politikaları” başlıklı tezi, 2020 yılında kitap olarak da yayınlanmıştır. 2016 senesinde Litvanya’daki Kazimieras Simonavičius Üniversitesi’nde ve 2019 yılında da Portekiz’deki Minho Üniversitesi’nde eğitim alan Topçu, halihazırda Selçuk Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı’nda doktora eğitimine devam etmektedir. Asya Pasifik, enerji güvenliği ve devletlerin uzay politikalarıyla ilgili çalışmaları çeşitli dergilerde ve kitaplarda yayınlanmış olan Topçu, iyi derecede İngilizce ve orta seviyede İspanyolca bilmektedir.