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Israel and South Korea Have More in Common Than You Realize

North Korea is a common adversary to both Israel and South Korea. Both countries need forceful but smart deterrent strategies

Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich
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The South Korean SWAT team during a simulated chemical terrorism crisis, August 21, 2017.
The South Korean SWAT team during a simulated chemical terrorism crisis, August 21, 2017. Credit: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg
Chuck Freilich
Chuck Freilich

The volatile situations on the Korean Peninsula and in Israel have much in common, despite the geographical distance. Israel and South Korea are vibrant and prosperous democracies – the only democracies in the world that live under what they perceive to be existential threats. South Korea is afraid of the North’s existing nuclear capabilities; Israel fears Iran will go nuclear. Both countries face adversaries with radical regimes whose degree of rationality is unclear and which pose severe threats to their home fronts. The conflict in Korea may draw in China; a conflict with Hezbollah would draw in the Iranian militias in Syria and Iran itself, and complicate Israel’s relations with Russia.

Both Israel and South Korea face a similar dilemma: Their adversaries have developed asymmetric capabilities that have largely neutralized their military superiority and created a situation in which the military capabilities they have built in response are not cost-effective. A South Korean (and American) attack on the North would likely lead to a nuclear holocaust and, in any event, the damage to the South would be intolerable. In the Israeli case, even if we succeed in hitting Hezbollah hard next time, the damage to the home front will exceed the benefits stemming from the time gained.

Surprisingly, perhaps, North Korea is a common adversary. The North provided Iran with extensive missile and nuclear assistance in the past, and it is likely that at least the former is continuing. The critical question today is whether North Korea is helping Iran circumvent the nuclear agreement by providing it with technologies, components and more.

South Korea is a close American ally. It enjoys the security provided by an American defense treaty and tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers are deployed in its territory. Israel has an informal American security assurance and no U.S. troops are deployed in its territory. Nevertheless, its dependence on the United States is not that much less. Both countries look at what is happening today in Washington – which is led by a president who has difficulty differentiating between reality shows and reality, governs via Twitter and spouts injudicious threats – with a sense of astonishment and concern.

No international analogy is ever perfect, but in this case even some of the solutions are similar. Both Israel and South Korea are called upon today to demonstrate maximal forbearance and restraint in the face of severe provocations, and to rely even more than in the past on diplomacy and defense. Neither country has anything to gain from a military conflict. There are no quick and easy military solutions to the threats they face, and, thus, prudence lies in long-term conflict management rather than illusory attempts to achieve decisive military victories.

The diplomatic effort to manage the conflict with North Korea has been ongoing for decades, with recurrent crises and agreements. Israel, too, has been attaching greater importance to diplomacy in its conduct of the conflict with Hezbollah, as manifested in the role it granted the United Nations in the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and in ending the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

Both countries have deployed missile and rocket defense systems, but have achieved only partial protection and their home fronts remain vulnerable. In South Korea, this reality has led to a strong aversion to any military conflict. Israel, meanwhile, has yet to fully internalize the severity of the expected damage to the home front in the next round – both physical and, no less importantly, psychological – and the resulting need for a crash program to complete a national missile and rocket shield.

As with South Korea, managing the conflicts with Iran and Hezbollah requires close coordination with the United States, including understandings regarding common responses to a renewed escalation on the Lebanese border, possible Iranian violations of the nuclear agreement and the need for a follow-on agreement once it expires.

Both Israel and South Korea need forceful, though calculated, deterrent postures. South Korean deterrence is based mostly on the United States, and President Donald Trump has threatened the North with “fire and fury.” Israel, for its part, has warned that the devastation Lebanon will suffer in the next war will set it back by decades. Deterrent statements such as these do not always reflect coherent strategic thinking, but can still be important. North Korea has begun showing signs of caution, while the ongoing calm on the Lebanese border stems, at least partially, from Israeli deterrence.

There is also an important difference between the two cases. Whereas South Korea shares a common border with the North, Iran is far away from Israel. Nevertheless, in recent decades Iran has succeeded in building a capability to strike Israel severely, right by its border, by means of Hezbollah and now its growing presence in Syria. Israel lacks a parallel capability and so Iran has been immune from attack.

In limited conflicts with Hezbollah in the future, Israel should continue to contain hostilities to the Lebanese arena. In a major conflict, however, when thousands of rockets hit our territory, Iran may have to pay a price as well. It might also be possible to adopt an escalatory scale – starting, for example, with attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, even the Syrian regime, and only later, if necessary, Iran itself.

The escalatory dangers imminent in a deterrent policy such as this are severe, and it is not clear it should be adopted in practice. Iran, however, must begin to fear the consequences of its actions, and it is incumbent upon Israel that it find effective ways of deterring it.

Chuck Freilich is a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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