Security and Defense: Learning from Korea

What lessons can Israel take from Seoul as Tehran strives for its own atomic bomb?

South Korean military drill 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
South Korean military drill 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
SEOUL – The last tunnel was discovered in 1990. It is about one-and-a-half kilometers long, two meters in height and two meters in width. Its exit point is located about 50 km. north of Seoul and is large enough to facilitate the transfer of approximately 30,000 armed troops accompanied by heavy guns and equipment in a single hour.
According to South Korean intelligence, a couple of dozen more tunnels, yet to be uncovered, are still located along the border. Their exact locations are unknown.
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Walking through one of the tunnels, one is struck by its size and meticulous construction. The tunnel was dug using dynamite sticks hammered into the rock and blowing away a few feet of it at a time. Workers then had to chip away at the granite to smooth out the edges.
Israel is no stranger to tunnels, hundreds of which are believed to line the Philadelphi Corridor where they are used to smuggle arms from Egypt into the Gaza Strip.
Additional tunnels are believed to exist under Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip as part of Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s plans to infiltrate Israel to either carry out an attack against a nearby IDF outpost or Israeli town or to try to abduct a soldier. One such tunnel was used by the terrorists who abducted Gilad Schalit in 2006.
The comparisons and similarities between Israel and South Korea, though, neither begin nor end with the challenge the countries face from tunnels. A greater comparison might be made today with how both countries deal with nuclear threats.
While Israel is embroiled in a debate about whether or not it should attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, claiming that a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat, South Korea already lives under a constant nuclear threat from the North.
One senior Korean general told The Jerusalem Post during a visit to South Korea last week that the Republic of Korea Air Force has drawn up operational plans to bomb North Korea’s nuclear reactor but that such an operation would require political approval. “We are always ready for war,” the general said.
Such a strike today would be unlikely after Pyongyang has already tested two nuclear weapons and is believed to have several more in its arsenal. The fear of a nuclear attack exists in South Korea but does not overshadow the country, which has refused to allow the threat to stop its impressive economic rise in recent years.
At the same time, the similar challenges faced by South Korea and Israel – both countries still in active conflicts – has led to a new alliance with important opportunities for Israel’s economy and particularly for its defense industry.
“We are both countries that are in a constant state of war and therefore have similar security requirements,” Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i recently told the Post. “They already live under a nuclear threat and we are facing a similar challenge as well.”
Both countries’ strong partnership with the United States and reliance on American military assistance and platforms have contributed to the bolstering of the Israeli-Korean alliance, but its real test has yet to come. In the next few months, the Defense Ministry will determine the identity of the winner of a tender it has issued for new advanced combat training aircraft.
While Defense Ministry tenders are not a new concept, this one is the first time since the 1970s in which Israel is looking outside of the US to purchase fighter jets. In previous tenders – like when the F-15 competed against the F-16 – it didn’t really matter whether Israel signed the deal with Boeing or with Lockheed Martin since either way the jets were purchased from the US.
This time, though, politics are playing a major role, especially since both aircraft the Israel Air Force is considering – the Italian M-346 and the Korean T-50 – are similar in their capabilities.
The Italians for example have offered Israel to do the deal in barter – Israel would get 30 trainers in exchange for special Airborne Warning and Control Systems aircraft. Korea, in contrast, has offered Israeli defense contractors lucrative multi-billion dollar contracts, which are particularly attractive at a time when defense exports are expected to drop due to the global economic downturn.
Last week, Korean Aerospace Industries – manufacturer of the T-50 fighter jet – invited a group of Israeli military reporters to see the plane from up close and to learn more about the potential economic benefits Israel has to gain from purchasing its aircraft.
One point the Koreans made extremely clear was that future industrial cooperation with Israel will depend on Israel’s decision in the tender. This has the executives of Israel’s leading defense companies like Elbit Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries – who stand to gain the most from future deals with Korea – extremely concerned.
On the other hand, business with Italy could also prove beneficial for Israel. As it faces growing diplomatic isolation, Israel could use a friend in Europe, even one that might be bankrupt. A deal with Italy could also be used as a way to get the European country to cut its economic ties with Iran and to institute independent sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
“There are many different factors that come into play in this deal – some economic, some operational and some diplomatic,” a senior defense official explained.
While South Korea’s economic boom is impressive, the country has yet to shake the sense of conflict that hangs perpetually in the air. Schools hold frequent drills to prepare children for the event of a nuclear attack from the North and newspapers regularly carry pictures of Korean fighter jets taking off in exercises simulating war on the peninsula.
That is why South Korea can be looked at differently depending on how you view the Iranian nuclear challenge.
Opponents of an Israeli strike against Iran turn to South Korea as an example of how a country can not only exist but also thrive despite living under a nuclear threat. Proponents of military action use the Korean model as an example of how the world failed to stop Pyongyang from obtaining the bomb and how ultimately Israel will be left to care for itself.
For the time being, though, it seems that Israel has moved the military option to the back burner – at least until springtime when clouds disperse over the Middle East and the effectiveness of the international sanctions on Iran becomes clear.
While the war drums are not being beaten anymore in Jerusalem, the cacophony on Iran is far from over.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who at least once a week issues another declaration on Iran, tried to explain this week that he has no choice. “Once it is in the public discourse, the defense minister needs to speak as well,” he claimed.
Not everyone agrees with Barak. Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon would both like Barak to tone down the rhetoric. Barak, however, believes that his provocative statements – such as “Israel won’t act right now” or “it will be impossible to attack Iran in a year” – are aimed at encouraging the international community to take action against Iran and that if it doesn’t, Israel will.
Even though Israel might not have bombed Iran yet, a shadow war is waging behind the scenes as made clear by the series of mysterious explosions that have rocked Iran in recent weeks. First there was the blast in the missile base and then on Monday an explosion reportedly in the Isfahan uranium conversion facility, a key component of the republic’s nuclear program.
It is unclear whether these were accidents or the result of sabotage but either way, for Israel, any delay in Iran’s success of obtaining a nuclear weapon is welcome. The thinking within the defense establishment is that a combination of effective diplomacy and tough sanctions with covert action could significantly delay the program.
This week, former Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin decided to throw his hat into the ring and to speak publicly for the first time about Iran since he retired last year. Like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Yadlin is of the opinion that Israel still has time before it will need to take military action.
While the threat is urgent, Iran is not yet building a bomb and is not even enriching uranium to military-grade levels, Yadlin said. Once that happens – and Israel will know when it does – it will need to consider taking action, he stressed, using slightly different words from Dagan’s claim that a military option should only be considered once a sword is up against Israel’s neck.
The reason Yadlin chose to speak this week was out of concern that Barak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have already made up their minds to attack Iran, a concern shared by Dagan who also gave a revealing interview in which he warned against attacking Iran.
When Iran goes to the breakout stage and begins enriching uranium to military levels, Israel will have to make a choice: either come to terms with a nuclear Iran and try to duplicate South Korea or to attack and potentially set the Middle East on fire.