Next week, South Korea’s president Yoon Suk-yeol will visit. This trip shows how liberal Americans prefer to work with conservative Koreans. Joe Biden was less fond of Yoon’s predecessor Moon Jae In, who had a leftist bent. Yoon is an ardent foreign policy hardliner who takes a strong line against North Korea and publicly criticizes China. He also pushes for rapprochement between Japan and Japan.
The Biden-Yoon love fest highlights the fundamental failure of the alliance. Why is the ROK dependent on the U.S. even seven decades after the armistice ending the Korean War ended? Why is America’s blind inertia a threat to nuclear war as its security guarantee?
Two serious challenges face the alliance. South Korea does not need to delegate their defense to America. An armistice in 1953 halted fighting but no peace treaty followed. China had a strong military presence in North Korea during the early years, and the Soviet Union was hostile to the North Koreans even after Stalin’s death. The South was economically poor, politically insecure, and militarily vulnerable. The survival of the Seoul government was dependent on America’s presence in the region.
But this world has long since passed. The ROK has a strong democracy today and an economic advantage of more than 50 to 1, allowing South Koreans the freedom to take whatever action they deem necessary to protect themselves. The DPRK, on the other hand, is economically backwards as a result of communist planning and international sanctions. Kim Jong Un once said that the “central task” of his government was to “improve the standard of living for people.” Today, however, he is preparing them for even greater hardship.
North Korea’s political future, if it is not already unstable, is uncertain. The Kim Dynasty is still in power, but its survival remains uncertain. Kim Jong Un once embraced American culture and sports, while welcoming South Korean artists to Pyongyang. He is now waging an aggressive campaign to stop his people from learning about how other Koreans live. Children are even arrested for dancing to music that he once praised.
North Korea’s conventional capabilities are limited, despite its frequent and splenetic threat. North Korea’s quantitative advantage pales in comparison to the South’s sophisticated militaries. Seoul could spend more if needed to maintain deterrence.
Washington’s massive conventional presence is not justified by the fact that only nuclear weapons distinguish the North. The South is not safe from Pyongyang bombs because American troops are in the same position as hostages. In response to DPRK nuclear weapon use, the U.S. can limit its nuclear liability. Washington could also withdraw completely, allowing South Korea to start its own nuclear program. Although there would be some downsides, a ROK deterrent would still be a more effective alternative for both the U.S. and the South.
There are other reasons for keeping America’s guarantee of security. Washington’s supposed power over the South is one reason, but it seems to be more fiction than reality. The U.S. ROK free trade agreement and not the U.S. presence in Korea, for example, has overcome Seoul’s protective instincts. South Korean progressives have long opposed the hawkish U.S. security policies.
A second objective would be to contain the People’s Republic of China. The ROK is right to not treat China as a permanent foe, because China will always be around. Seoul would not support the U.S. in a conflict over Taiwan because a continued American presence was less certain. Even Yoon, who took power in the South, has softened his tone.
The argument was made that America’s continued protection of the ROK will reduce non-proliferation fears. As long as the ROK can rely on Washington, it will feel less of a need to develop its own nuclear weapons. This would mean challenging Washington’s policies against non-proliferation and possibly losing U.S. protection.
But non-proliferation shouldn’t be regarded as a sacred symbol. The Pandora’s Box has been opened. Washington is also willing to overlook nuclear proliferation out of political considerations. The U.S. accepted Israel, India and Pakistan joining their nuclear club with varying levels of enthusiasm. Biden’s administration should continue to discourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons. However, America’s interests in doing so are less important than avoiding U.S. participation in war, particularly a serious conventional battle that could turn nuclear.
Also, there is a lot of talk about expanding the Alliance and giving it a more global focus. This makes no sense if it is believed that the North’s threat is too big for the South. Seoul should then focus on protecting its own vital interests, rather than promoting Washington’s global priorities. There is no reason to have an American commitment to defense or to tie bilateral security, economic, and political cooperation to it if there isn’t a threat. The current “Mutual” Defense Treaty is designed to protect South Korea. Even extensive cooperation between Seoul, Washington and other areas is not dependent on America’s defense of the South.
Only half of the equation is true. Second, the threat posed by America’s guarantee of defense as the North develops its nuclear program is increasing. Kim’s military, despite the DPRK’s economic difficulties, has pursued a long list innovations and improvements. Pyongyang, although it cannot compete in a conventional war, is becoming a nuclear power.
For the first 50 years of the alliance, Washington’s policy of “extended deterrence,” which included the promise of using nuclear weapons to protect the South in the event of a conflict, appeared relatively inexpensive. The American homeland was safe from Pyongyang, even though conventional warfare in any conflict, such as the Korean War, would be fierce. This relative immunity is rapidly disappearing. The DPRK is making progress militarily in many fields, including the development of missiles and nukes.
In fact, the North is expanding its arsenal dramatically, experimenting on tactical nuclear weapons, sub-launched missiles and cruise missiles. DPRK is also working on MIRVs, which are multiple independent reentry vehicles. North Korea’s development of intercontinental ballistics missiles is the most ominous thing for America. Pyongyang began with liquid fuel models, but recently tested one using solid fuel. North Korean news service stated that, “the development and testing of the new type ICBM Hwasongpho-18” will reform the strategic deterrence component of the DPRK and radically improve the effectiveness of their nuclear counterattack posture.
At the current rate of production, Pyongyang will likely have enough nukes for its missiles. The regime likely possesses enough fissile materials to make up to forty-five or fifty-five nuclear weapons. however, the number may be even higher. Rand Corporation and Asan Institute say that North Korea could accumulate as many as 240 nuclear weapons in the next few decades, placing it firmly among secondary nuclear powers. Even if Pyongyang has fewer nukes than it thinks, the DPRK still has the capability to destroy the American homeland. This will force the U.S. reconsider its commitment to enter another war in the Korean Peninsula.
Kim Jong Un is likely to be seeking leverage, rather than a conflict. He wants to possess a sufficient number nuclear weapons to force some sanctions to be lifted if not all while remaining a nuclear nation. If the U.S. could incinerate American cities, it would be a real question whether they are willing to sacrifice Los Angeles to Seoul. In a few short years, the United States may also be putting Chicago, Houston, New York City, Washington, D.C., and other cities at risk.
Imagine a conflict erupting on the peninsula with the U.S. sending massive reinforcements. As in 1950, allies defeat North Korean invasion forces, driving them north. But unlike the last time, China stays out of this conflict. The victory and destruction of Kim’s regime seem imminent. At this point, the North’s god-king declares that, unless Washington withdraws, he will strike American cities. The Kim dynasty is at risk, and regime members face exile or arrest, imprisonment, and possibly even death. What should the American President do?
Washington’s current plan is to become even more involved in the Korean crisis. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby stated that despite the North’s continued military buildup: “We will continue to ensure we have the necessary military capabilities, and we are ready to use them if needed, to protect our interests in national security and those of our allied countries.”
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But defending your allies is different from defending America. The first should only be a means towards the second. The responsibility of the president is towards the American people and not South Koreans. In theory and in practice, American policy should reflect this. extended deterrence has become controversial due to the fear that Washington may adopt such a strategy. Support for a nuclear deterrent is growing in Seoul.
It is for this reason that the U.S. should also be equally polarized about the policy, leading to an urgent rethinking. The ROK does not have to be helpless if a nuclear attack from North Korea occurs if “extended deterrence”, is ended. Seoul could instead choose to match the northern neighbor. It is obvious that this would not be the best option. Even friendly proliferation could create difficulties. The strategy is popular with the South, and it could be used to restrain both China and the DPRK. In the end, American interests will be best served by relying on allies such as ROK to provide their own defense whenever possible. Washington and Seoul would then be able to reshape a more comprehensive agreement on military and other matters.
Seven decades ago, America may have been South Korea’s essential nation. American policymakers continue to imagine themselves as the ROK’s protectors. The necessity of American involvement on the Korean Peninsula is no longer necessary. South Korea was supposed to have been released from U.S. Defense Dole long ago. The two countries will discuss this at the summit. This would allow the United States to take over the defense of the peninsula from South Korea.