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     Jul 12, 2011

'Mr K' shows Korea's Cold War lingers
By Yong Kwon

The likelihood of mutual destruction does not preclude violent clashes between two armed forces; particularly if the opposing sides believe that the other presents an existential threat. In fact when the threshold and cost for total war remains at an existential level, conventional warfare is the natural default for smaller gains.

This was the case during the Cold War when the superpowers of the bipolar world maintained an enormous conventional force with military statutes dictating their movements in the case of a hot conflict; and it certainly still remains the case on the Korean Peninsula today. [1]

With North Korean artillery and missiles placed well within range of Seoul and South Korea firmly protected within the American

nuclear umbrella, military parity is held on the peninsula; nonetheless, the conflict over the Northern Limitation Line spurs a need for both sides to advance conventional arms to defend non-existential interests.

The double blow to the South Korean military in 2010 with the sinking of the Cheonan naval corvette and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong Island revealed vulnerabilities in the country's capacity to defend its outlying interests. Therefore, Seoul's vast efforts to publicize its advanced military prowess through military deployment and sale of arms could only be expected. The attacks present strong impetuses for the South Korean navy's deployment of its new AEGIS cruisers to the Indian Ocean and its strong drive to export the T-50 training aircraft abroad.

The drive to uphold a conventional force capable of displacing a numerically advantageous Korean People's Army has always been there. The end of the Cold War did not relieve the pressure on the Korean Peninsula, but instead presented new areas and incentives for the South to further overwhelm North Korea.

The bolstering of conventional capabilities appears to have transcended even party lines in the chaotic politics of South Korea. A telling anecdote was recently revealed about Seoul's drive to illegally import intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) from the former Soviet space for research purposes. [2]

According to a South Korean businessman who chose to remain anonymous, the South Korean Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP; today this agency is referred to as the National Intelligence Service) recruited him to utilize his business connections in the Russian Federation to bring back decommissioned missiles that were supposed to be scrapped.

Mr "K" had been spending time in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky since 1996, scrapping decommissioned Soviet vessels and importing the metal for the Pohang Iron and Steel Company. When the Russian authorities authorized his company to scrap Soviet ballistic missiles formerly stationed in Ukraine, South Korean intelligence agents approached him with the highly secretive assignment.

Since building the first ICBMs in 1956, the Soviet Union had been a leader in missile development and the Russian Federation inherited the lethal stockpile in complete political and economic disarray. Weapons like the R-36 and UR-100N with an operational range well over 10,000 kilometers and RT-2PM Topol with a three stage solid fuel propellant capable of carrying a 550 kiloton warhead were weapons that the world looked at with envy; and domestic conditions in Russia provided an opportunity too valuable for the South Korean defense agencies to forgo.

With ANSP agents assisting him from Vladivostok, Mr "K" set about putting into motion plans to smuggle the Cold War's most advanced weapons to South Korea. In order to evade suspicions of Russian military staff and FSB (Federal Security Service) agents, Mr "K" explained that metals used in missiles were highly valued by Korean shipping companies and he paid around $700,000 to commanders of Russian missile bases to ''not ask questions'' about his business ventures. (That was a sweet deal for the commanders as at that time, with Russia in financial crisis and its economy in collapse, the cost of purchasing a three-bedroom apartment in the Russian Far East was about $6,000).

Moving only by night to evade satellite detection from both the Russian and US governments, Mr "K" and his associates hid two propellants and enough components to build a whole ICBM among 5,000 tons of scrap metal that he regularly exported to South Korea. In November of 1998, the first shipment of ballistic missile components arrived in Inchon harbor and was secretly moved to ANSP research facilities.

Mr "K" did two more runs on behalf of ANSP, in December of 2000 and November of 2001, succeeding in bringing back more intricate pieces of the ICBM including three more propulsion engines and parts of the nozzle. He had even received a medal from the then head of the ANSP, Lee Jongchan, "for contributing to national security".

Problems occurred, however, in 2007 when the Russian Federation denied Mr K's re-entry to the Russian Far East on the (well-grounded) suspicion that he was engaged in espionage. With vast amount of his fortune and business in the Russian Far East, he immediately appealed to the South Korean Foreign Ministry; however, perhaps out of concern for blowing a suspicion into a full inquiry in Russia, the South Korean government refused to intervene on his behalf. Finally, after years of frustration and unfruitful appeals, Mr "K" decided to bring into to the open the nature of his job at the turn of the millennium.

It is interesting to note that all this occurred in the heyday of the Kim Dae-jung administration, when peace and reconciliation were much-vaunted objectives in inter-Korean dialogue. In essence, the whole smuggling affairs brings to light the very nature of the struggle between North and South Korea, as an intractable conflict between two states that simply cannot trust the other.

The strangest part about the inter-Korean arms race is how the two states result in directly contributing to one another's weapons acquirement. In the process of selling and jointly producing the S-300 intercept ballistic missile with South Korea's Samsung Group, some of the missile components were leaked to North Korea, allowing Pyongyang to independently develop the KN-06 surface-to-air missile, capable of targeting any aircraft around Seoul from across the border. [3]

Amid the mounting stakes of war between the Koreas, last year's attacks along the Northern Limitation Line was a fresh reminder that military parity still provided room for skirmishes and for small scale hot wars to continue in the Korean Cold War. South Korea had been no less prepared than the North Koreans in preparing for combat, but more restrained from displaying their capabilities through provocations.

Regardless of breakthroughs in diplomacy, it is unforeseeable that either states will abandon their pursuit of advanced weapons technology and intrigue in the near future. The essence of the conflict is the raison d'้tat of both states, thus one should expect the legacies of the Korean War to outlive the Cold War far into the future.

1. Warsaw Pact: Wartime Statutes - Instruments of Soviet Control Cold War International History Project event, April 5, 2011.
2. Kang, Hun. The Confessions of a Business Man: 'I brought ICBMs to Korea'. June 25, 2011. Chosun Ilbo Online.
3. Yu, Yongwon. The appearance of North Korean style Patriot missiles that threaten the F-15K. June 14, 2011. Chosun Ilbo Online.

Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.

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(Jul 8-10, 2011)


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