The “Myth” of the Kill, Kill, Kill Chain

By | October 27, 2013 | 2 Comments

The politics of the Kill Chain: Hankyoreh asks some searching questions about the latest national security conservative buzzphrase. | Image: Hankyoreh

The politics of the Kill Chain: Hankyoreh asks some searching questions about the latest national security conservative buzzphrase. | Image: Hankyoreh

During the Sunshine Policy era (1998-2007), Chosun Ilbo and Hankyoreh took very different, but very consistent, lines. The former would quote more critical voices, thus supporting the conservative position of the Grand National (now New Frontier, or Saenuri) Party, whereas the latter focused on citing supportive personnel, thus defending the progressive Millennium Democratic Party (MDP).

Thus, while Hankyoreh framed the government’s energetic pursuit of delayed reciprocity in a positive light, emphasizing its potential to mend a tattered North-South relationship, Chosun Ilbo portrayed it as foolhardy and unrealistic, and its political advocates in government as naïve.

This was not a simple rhetorical battle between hardnosed militant conservatism and wishy-washy liberal acts of brotherly affection. In reality, and despite conservative characterizations to the contrary, then-President Kim Dae-jung genuinely believed that North Korea’s system of governance would not be capable of withstanding his “kill ‘em with kindness” approach. Therefore, ROK state-sponsored Sunshine would ultimately bring about the DPRK’s demise.

One of the other major strands of the political thought process concerned national defense. Theory had it that engagement ought to be prioritized for the simple reason that no matter how tough the Ministry of National Defense might talk, many of South Korea’s existing defenses, and any it might opt to procure, were sure to provide inadequate defense against an enemy stationed so close that it could, as it were, hit the center of Seoul with a well-timed slingshot.

The pro-engagement cohort maintains a similar position in the contemporary era. This was brought home once again last weekend by an extended analysis published in the “Military” section of Hankyoreh. Written by Professor Choi Jong-kun, an IR man from Yonsei University, the target of opprobrium was a favored buzzphrase of national security conservatives: “Kill Chain.”

The piece was mainly inspired by Adm. Choi Yun-hee, President Park Geun-hye’s nominee to head up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told a confirmation hearing at the National Assembly on October 11, “South Korea and US forces should deter North Korea from using its nuclear weapons using a joint deterrence strategy. If there is a possibility of the North using (nuclear weapons) and imminent danger, we have to launch a preemptive strike using the Kill Chain.”

In theory, the “Kill Chain” is a strike system designed to hit the source of impending missile attacks before they are launched. It is meant as a deterrent, one that forces an enemy to remain permanently cognizant of the fact that the opposing military is willing to take preventive action against the source of any anticipated nuclear and/or missile launch if it is thought to be imminent.

Adm. Choi was by no means the first official to place the concept at the center of South Korea’s military deterrence policy. In her October 1 Armed Forces Day speech, for example, President Park Geun-hye similarly asserted, “The government will maintain a strong ROK-US combined defense system and secure the ability to respond to nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction by establishing the Kill Chain and the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system.”

However, to (mostly but not exclusively progressive) adherents of the “slingshot thesis,” talk of preemptive strikes and being able to “take things out on the launchpad” is worse than useless; its only measurable output is the extent to which it annoys the North Koreans. They are sure that “Kill Chain,” in spite of its fiery rhetorical accompaniment, cannot and will not work in the Korean peninsula theater.

“It must be objectively verified whether ‘Kill Chain’ is a realistic strategy, whether it actually can preemptively deter North Korea’s provocations, and whether this strategy will strengthen South Korean security over the long run,” Professor Choi notes, adding, “No matter what [our] national security strategy may be, its effectiveness must be verifiable. First and foremost, this is because it involves the use of taxpayers’ money.”

With evident doubt, Choi then proceeds to list the major temporal goals that must be attained if “Kill Chain” is to work effectively:

1. Within one minute, South Korean intelligence must pick up signals that North Korea intends to attack preemptively; and

2. Within one minute, South Korea must establish what and where North Korea intends to attack preemptively; and

3. Within three minutes, the supreme commander of the ROK military must be able to hand down an order to strike preemptively against North Korean targets; and

4. South Korea must attack the relevant sites in North Korea before North Korea has time to launch its own attack; and

5. South Korea must be able to establish whether its initial strikes were sufficient to eliminate the source of the intended North Korean strike; and

6. South Korea must be capable of responding to immediate North Korean counterstrikes from elsewhere.

He is entirely unconvinced that all or any of this is possible. South Korea, he asserts, “Lacks far too many things,” including satellites for military purposes and unmanned reconnaissance drones. These absences make it “obvious” that South Korea would not be able to pick up signs of North Korean military movement without assistance.

One might respond, he acknowledges, that South Korea can call upon the reconnaissance capabilities of the US military to overcome these limitations. However, to him this is a blatant case of overreliance on an ally; and even if it were possible in principle to obtain all the necessary information from the US, it is unlikely to be possible within the specified timeframe. With more than a hint of sarcasm, he points out that when North Korea launched a long-range projectile from its launch site at Dongchang-ri in North Pyongan Province on December 12, 2012, South Korea was unable to pick up on the launch in spite of the fact that the projectile was a 30m-long tube of metal saying “Unha-3” on it that the entire world had pinpointed days prior. It was not, he says, a comforting precedent.

The problems with Kill Chain don’t begin and end with practical technical concerns, either. The issue of authority also rears its ugly head in the analysis. Choi proposes that the only time Kill Chain would have any hope of attaining genuine functionality would be in the moment before a war, when the president of South Korea would need to be able to hand down orders to attack at a moment’s notice. However, the president does not currently have that right; rather, attacks must first go through Combined Forces Command.

Here, then, is the crux: the Kill Chain concept won’t work precisely because South Korean conservatives keep delaying the transfer of wartime operational control to the South Korean military! The delicious irony of the contradiction is not lost on the author.

Thus, the only way to force North Korea to factor in the idea that South Korea has a viable capacity to preemptively strike is to ensure that wartime operational control is transferred to Seoul on time, Choi concludes. At the same time, he postulates the vital importance of having dialogue with North Korea, both to ensure that Pyongyang is actually aware of Seoul’s determination to pay back future transgressions in full, but also to ensure that good behaviour won’t go unnoticed. Only then, he declares, will all this talk of “Kill Chain” be imbued with any meaning whatsoever.

Source: Choi Jong-kun, “Attacking the North Korean source? While having no operational authority or capability…”[대북원점 타격? 작전권과 능력도 없으면서…], Hankyoreh, October 18, 2013.

2 Comments

  1. A good synopsis. Thanks very much.
    Would love to talk about this in more detail sometime later.

  2. Great! Thanks for leaving a comment. I very much look forward to discussing it with you in the near future.