Tuesday, January 24, 2017

South Korea is Marginalized and that is South Korea's Fault

In my latest column for NK News, I talked about how the ROK-US alliance could be severely strained due to the toxic mix of the Trump administration and any progressive-led future government in Seoul.

President Trump’s cabinet, while not yet fully formed, is being filled by hawks - particularly embodied by Mattis and Tillerson - and considering how sanctions were the go-to weapon of choice for the hawkish doves in the Obama administration, the hawkish hawks in the Trump administration may prefer to seek stronger means of persuading North Korea to change course.

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Meanwhile, across the Pacific, when the progressives take over the Blue House after the next presidential election in South Korea (whenever that takes place!), and the next president WILL be a progressive, they will most likely have drastically different ideas about how to deal with North Korea.

Being the kind of man who is obsessed with appearing strong and respected, perhaps even feared, Trump is exactly the kind of person whom Sean Connery’s Captain Marko Ramius would have called “a buckaroo.” We are already seeing this with the kind of rhetoric that the Trump administration has employed toward China - that it would prevent China from taking over territory in the contested South China Sea as well as deny it access to the islands it has built there.

It remains to be seen if the heated political rhetoric between Washington and Beijing (for its part, Beijing has said that the United States would need to “declare war” to block China access to its islands) will develop into something more serious. Both are militarily powerful nations and the two largest economies of the world. But if that is the kind of rhetoric that the new government in Washington has chosen to use against China, then it would be safe to conclude that Kim Jong Un should not be sleeping well.

This will compel South Korea to rethink its threat perception. Should President Trump’s rhetoric and policies lead to a conflict on the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean people would pay the ultimate price. How South Korea chooses to act now that the powers-that-be in Washington has changed is anyone’s guess.

The first approach is to better accommodate Washington. For example, Moon Jae-in, perhaps being able to tell how the wind’s direction has changed, has reversed his stance toward THAAD deployment and has said that it would “go ahead under his administration.”

That being said, one of Moon Jae-in’s criticisms against Ban Ki-moon, his most serious challenger to South Korea’s presidency, is that he’s too pro-U.S.

Opposing the decision to deploy THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea could have devastating consequences for the alliance. Trump has said repeatedly that South Korea has been a free rider in its national defense. It is a false claim, but every passing day is showing that facts do not matter nearly as much as what Trump feels. As it is, South Korea should be walking on eggshells.

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Reversing the decision to deploy THAAD would only exacerbate things. Another theme that Trump has harped on is that the United States 
practically gets nothing” by helping to defend South Korea.

It is yet another factually bereft statement but the fact remains that the ROK-US alliance is, indeed, a mutual defense treaty. Whether or not THAAD anti-missile batteries can actually help to defend South Korea, at this point, is a secondary matter. As far as Washington is concerned, it is convinced that THAAD anti-missile batteries can and will defend the United States from North Korean long-range missiles. If Seoul is unwilling to aid Washington defend itself from North Korea, then Trump would have been proven right - that the United States really does get nothing from defending South Korea.

It is unclear how the Trump administration would react if the next South Korean government decided to pursue détente with North Korea. Whether or not it is a horrible idea (it most certainly is), Seoul will need to better gauge the new government to better understand how Trump would react. But unilaterally deciding to cancel the joint plan to deploy THAAD in Korea would guarantee to elicit a less than cordial response from Washington.

As of this writing, Moon Jae-in is the only progressive presidential contender who has reversed his previous opposition to THAAD.

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There is a second, and possibly tempting, alternative. Instead of better accommodating the United States, South Korea could choose to return to hedging its alliance with the United States and its economic partnership with China. China is South Korea’s largest trade partner. And China’s bullying and economic sanctions (in all but name) against South Korea for its decision to deploy THAAD anti-missile batteries has been bruising South Korea’s businesses.

By hurting everyone from K-pop stars to duty free shops to bidet manufacturers and air purifier manufacturers, Beijing is hoping that South Korean voters and businesses will apply pressure on their government and force them to change their position on THAAD. It is a solid plan. Hitting people in their wallets where it hurts most is one of the best ways to convince anyone to change.

However, canceling the decision to deploy THAAD, as mentioned earlier, has serious costs associated with it. At the very least, it would create a severe frost in the ROK-US alliance. At most, South Korea would allow itself to be bullied by China to have its sovereignty chipped away by North Korea.

It is important to point out, however, that that is not the same thing as saying that the alliance itself would be ended. The alliance is almost 70 years old. There are far too many entrenched interests in the civilian and military sectors that depend on the alliance for their livelihoods. Something incredibly dramatic needs to take place for an alliance to be terminated. And it is not clear if deciding to reverse course on THAAD is dramatic enough for the alliance to be terminated.

In order to compensate South Korea for its rift with the United States, China would need to offer South Korea certain guarantees. At the very least, China would need to guarantee a resumption of unimpeded trade and improved diplomatic relations. However, South Korea should not get its hopes up and imagine that Beijing would also offer to lean more heavily on North Korea, much less pave the way for reunification. China is satisfied with the status quo vis-à-vis the division of the Korean Peninsula. It will do nothing of the sort to destabilize the North Korean regime.

If South Korea manages to restore diplomatic and trade relations with China and manages to remain a US ally - albeit a marginalized one - the South Korean government, in its most optimistic moments, might be able to imagine itself as the go-to diplomatic broker between the United States and China as both countries appear to be headed toward some level of conflict.

However, this middle-of-the-road approach is probably the worst thing that South Korea could do. South Korea is already paying for it now. To one degree or another, South Korea has taken this approach whenever it could. It resisted being roped into the US missile defense shield program since George W. Bush was the US president. It refused to condemn North Korea for its human rights abuses during its two progressive administrations. It still continues to malign Japan whenever it can and refuses to participate in military exercises that involves Japan.

That is why South Korea is not high on President Trump’s list of priorities in Asia. While ambassadors to Japan and China have been appointed, America
’s embassy in South Korea remains without an ambassador, which is made all the more pointed considering how much Koreans respected Ambassador Mark Lippert. If Korea attempts to be a coy or difficult ally whenever it fits its interests, then there is no reason to believe that other countries will not treat Korea in the same way.

The same goes for China. Much noise was made when President Park Geun-hye was seated so close to Premier Xi Jinping during China’s military parade in 2015 to commemorate the end of the Second World War. Everyone in both Beijing and Seoul sang each others’ praises and it was assumed that both countries were about to grow closer. Chinese netizens loved the fact that Park Geun-hye could speak Mandarin!

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But at the end of the day, no one in Beijing forgot that South Korea is a US ally. When the North Koreans tested a nuclear weapon only a few months after the parade, Xi Jinping refused to answer the phone when Park Geun-hye decided to call in that favor to put North Korea in its place. When South Korea decided to finally agree to Washington’s calls to install THAAD anti-missile batteries when it became clear that Chinese help was not coming, China showed its true colors and revealed that it sees South Korea as nothing more than another small country that should simply do as it commands.

There is an old saying about how a hunter who chases two rabbits will eventually catch neither. South Korea will need to either fully commit itself to the alliance with the United States or it will need to borrow a page from Rodrigo Duterte and spurn Washington and fully embrace China as its diplomatic, military, and trade partner. It cannot do both. Neither Washington nor Beijing will ever allow South Korea to have its cake and eat it, too.

There are costs and benefits associated with each. But it will need to choose. Failure to choose will guarantee that South Korea forever remains marginalized and will only be able to nostalgically recall its eight years under the sun during the Obama administration as “the good ol


  1. SK always stuck in the middle...

    Great read, thanks for the info

  2. After living 5 months in South Korea, I would rather say: "South Korea is Marginalized and South Korea has no clue it is".

    The percentage of time that the average news medium covers international (that is non-Korean) news is around 5% based on my own observations of 4 major Korean news channels. Which is in stark contrast with the figures in Holland (around 25%) where I come from. Dutch people are taught from an early age that Holland needs the rest of the world but the rest of the world does not need Holland per se. Therefore understanding international developments and diplomacy is key.

    How can Korea maneuver effectively if its people are hardly informed on, or even interested in what is going on outside the metropolitan area of Seoul?