Seoul: Seoul’s Defence Minister Song Young-moo announces formation of elite Special Forces brigade in bid to intimidate nuclear neighbour’s rogue leader into ending brinkmanship. The last time South Korea is known to have plotted to assassinate the North Korean leadership, nothing went as planned. In the late 1960s, after North Korean commandos tried to ransack the presidential palace in Seoul, South Korea secretly trained misfits plucked from prison or off the streets to sneak into North Korea and slit the throat of its leader, Kim Il-sung. When the mission was aborted, the men mutinied.
They killed their trainers and fought their way into Seoul before blowing themselves up, an episode the government concealed for decades. Now, as Kim’s grandson, Kim Jong-un, accelerates his nuclear missile programme, South Korea is again targeting the North’s leadership. A day after North Korea conducted its sixth and by far most powerful nuclear test this month, the South Korean defence minister, Song Young-moo, told lawmakers in Seoul that a Special Forces brigade defence officials described as a “decapitation unit” would be established by the end of the year.
The unit has not been assigned to literally decapitate North Korean leaders. But that is clearly the menacing message South Korea is trying to send. Defence officials said the unit could conduct cross-border raids with retooled helicopters and transport planes that could penetrate North Korea at night.
Rarely does a government announce a strategy to assassinate a head of state, but South Korea wants to keep the North on edge and nervous about the consequences of further developing its nuclear arsenal. At the same time, the South’s increasingly aggressive posture is meant to help push North Korea into accepting President Moon Jae-in’s offer of talks.
It is a difficult balancing act, pitting Moon’s preference for a diplomatic solution against his nation’s need to answer an existential question: How can a country without nuclear weapons deter a dictator who has them?
“The best deterrence we can have, next to having our own nukes, is to make Kim Jong-un fear for his life,” said Shin Won-sik, a three-star general who the South Korean military’s top operational strategist was before he retired in 2015. Last week, President Donald Trump agreed to lift payload limits under a decades-old treaty, allowing South Korea to build more powerful ballistic missiles. The United States helped South Korea build its first ballistic missiles in the 1970s, but in return, imposed restrictions to try to prevent a regional arms race.
“We can now build ballistic missiles that can slam through deep underground bunkers where Kim Jong-un would be hiding,” Shin said. “The idea is how we can instil the kind of fear a nuclear weapon would — but do so without a nuke. In the medieval system like North Korea, Kim Jong-un’s life is as valuable as hundreds of thousands of ordinary people whose lives would be threatened in a nuclear attack.”
Although a majority of South Koreans, especially conservative politicians and commentators, call for arming their country with nuclear weapons of its own, Moon has repeatedly vowed to rid the Korean Peninsula of such weapons. In June, Trump reiterated Washington’s nuclear-umbrella doctrine, promising to protect the South with “the full range of United States military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear.”
But after North Korea tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, including one that appeared capable of hitting the United States’ mainland, South Koreans are not so sure the United States would follow through.