AMU Asia Intelligence Original

South Korea: Concerns That North Korea Could Imitate Hamas

Shortly after North Korea successfully launched its first spy satellite into orbit, South Korea suspended some provisions of the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA), according to the Japan Times. This document’s purpose was to reduce tension between the two nations.

In response to South Korea, North Korea began rebuilding guard posts in the DMZ that had been dismantled under the CMA. Pyongyang has also moved heavy military equipment such as artillery and recoilless rifles back into the area, according to Yonhap News Agency.

The BBC notes that the rise in tensions prompted South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol to warn visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that both nations should be aware for the potential for surprise assaults from the North “resembling Hamas-style tactics.”

Related: North Korean Missiles: One of Many Aggressive Military Goals

North Korea Would Require a Political Incentive to Attack South Korea

Though the border that divides the Korean peninsula is the most militarized in the world, the two Koreas have attacked one another via other avenues. In the case of North Korea, that includes irregular or hybrid warfare.

For North Korea to launch an attack on the South, however, Pyongyang would require a political incentive. The Kim regime in North Korea is primarily concerned with its continued survival, and reigniting a conflict would run counter to that concern unless the Kim regime perceived an imminent threat. 

Yoon’s statement comparing potential North Korean tactics to the October 7 Hamas attack is misleading, however. It appears to suggest that North Korea and Hamas are comparable entities, though that may not have been Yoon’s intention.

Instead, Yoon was likely comparing past unconventional actions taken by North Korea and using the recent Hamas attack as a timely reminder of the ongoing threat South Korea faces.

Related: Hamas: The Basics Behind This Middle East Terrorist Group

Hamas and North Korea Only Have Some Similarities

Both Hamas and North Korea are international pariahs, but they have some similarities and stark differences. For instance, Hamas may be the de facto government in Gaza, but Gaza is not a typical nor appropriately functional nation-state.

North Korea is a sovereign nation that has a functional government, military, and economy. Pyongyang is very much geared towards ensuring North Korea can function with limited contact to the outside world. The government is also concerned with maintaining a military and industrial base that can support continued independence and – by extension – continued rule by the Kim regime.

Hamas, on the other hand, is entirely dependent on outside support for its existence. But both Hamas and North Korea are similar because they try to live outside of international norms and try, when able, to make their interests understood using provocative methods.

The atrocities perpetrated by Hamas in the attack on Israel was likely in response to the expansion of the Abraham Accords, which threated Hamas by removing some of its historical patrons. That change was enough of a potential threat that Hamas acted out of desperation, hoping that an overwhelming Israel military response would upend the diplomatic efforts. While it was unlikely to work, it was Hamas’ only play.

For its part, North Korea has faced desperate times, but Pyongyang has a playbook that allows for provocative action that often guarantees international attention without risking a military response. Indeed, sanctions are often the result of Pyongyang’s untoward behavior while all sides aim for a short-term diplomatic solution to the immediate problem at the very least.

South Korea Is Determined to Defend Itself If Necessary

North Korea’s military capabilities are sufficient to threaten its southern neighbor with enough destruction without the use of nuclear weapons so that military escalation by Seoul, though not impossible, is somewhat arrested. South Korea will not be bullied, however. It will take action to protect its citizens, but there is little incentive for Seoul to press for a larger conflict beyond a reciprocal demonstration of force.

Yoon’s comments were likely an unnecessary reminder to its main ally that North Korea is still a threat and will use unconventional means to obtain some of its goals. It also serves as a reminder that the U.S. has a defense treaty obligation to assist South Korea should it ever come under attack by the North.

That assistance from the U.S. may appear unnecessary, but bear in mind that Yoon’s comments were made publicly, suggesting that he wanted the remarks to be available to a wide audience. The current South Korean government is considering scrapping the 2018 deal and focusing on military deterrence instead, because North Korea has breached the agreement on several occasions.

Naturally, tensions have risen on the Korean peninsula as a result. Both Korean governments will reevaluate how they respond to perceived provocations.

If the standoff escalates to the point where Kim feels that his rule in North Korea is truly threatened, then we can expect that North Korea will once again engage in unconventional attacks designed to convey its seriousness. However, it is unlikely that those attacks will be aggressive enough to provoke a larger conventional conflict.

It’s a return to this familiar tit-for-tat between North Korea and South Korea – and the potential for the situation to spiral out of control – that Yoon felt it necessary to issue his warning. 

William Tucker serves as a senior security representative to a major government contractor where he acts as the Counterintelligence Officer, advises on counterterrorism issues, and prepares personnel for overseas travel. His additional duties include advising his superiors in matters concerning emergency management and business continuity planning.

Comments are closed.