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Peter Ward is a writer and researcher focusing on the North Korean economy.
Moon Jae-in may soon be South Korea’s President. A former aide to the deceased former President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon is known to share his former boss’s views on the North Korean issue and a more critical attitude to the ROK-U.S. alliance. Indeed, a recent article published in the New York Times highlighted his desire to say ‘no’ to America, at least when South Korea wants to.
This speaks to a wider fact: the ROK-U.S. alliance is not popular with liberal voters in the South due to a number of historical and contemporary reasons. But the question is, what does it all mean for South Korea’s security? And what are South Korea’s options with regard to the alliance?
Broadly speaking, South Korea has several options. The first and most obvious is trying to maintain the status quo. The second is asking the Americans to leave: by all accounts the preferred option for many on South Korea’s liberal left. The third option is a compromise. All these options are fraught with potential difficulty, and whichever Moon decides upon, he is liable to face significant problems.
NO EASY OPTIONS
First let’s talk about the status quo, which has worked surprisingly well for South Koreans and the United States in the 60 years since the Korean War ended. Not without issues of course, but another war hasn’t happened – a big plus. The presence of U.S. troops, at an annual cost of around $1.2 billion, is very cheap if it allows the South Korean economy to flourish, and flourish it has: South Korea has a total GDP of almost $2 trillion. So what’s the problem?
The ROK-U.S. alliance is not popular with liberal voters in the South
Since the 1970s, from Nixon to Bush, almost every Republican administration (as well as Jimmy Carter) – with the exception of Reagan – has talked about or actually withdrawn some troops. South Korea’s wealth was an issue highlighted by Donald Trump in the last Presidential election campaign, and the new administration is more skeptical of the U.S.-backed alliance system in Asia.
What’s more, issues on the South Korean side like the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which stops South Korean police from entering U.S. bases on the peninsula, are a source of continued tension. Skepticism and tension between Washington and Seoul may create momentum for change. But the deployment of THAAD and the consequent frost overhanging Sino-ROK relations may further complicate matters. That said, it is clear that many on South Korea’s liberal left perceive the U.S. presence to be part of the problem in relations with both North Korea and China.
This leads us to the second option: a decisive ‘recalibration’ of the alliance. The case is clear, Moon’s party would love South Korea to have control over its national defenses. This is an idea with a long pedigree. Since the 1950s, South Korea’s liberal opposition has periodically talked about ‘autonomous national defense’ (자주국방) – as did the then-dictator Park Chung-hee in the 1970s.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Roh Tae-woo, one of Park’s de facto democratically-elected successors, talked of ‘Koreanizing the National Defence’ (방위의 한국화). However, the South Korean right has proved itself to be far more pro-American than the liberal left.
The liberal left has often objected to what it sees as the undue influence the United States has exercised over South Korea’s North Korea policy, as well as its trade and defense policies. The U.S.-ROK free trade agreement has been unpopular with South Korea’s liberals and more radical leftists, and the need to rely on U.S. support in the defense of their own country has been a sticking point since the 1950s. Challengers to Moon in the Democratic Party primary have talked about getting U.S. Forces to leave, and/or the need for ‘autonomous national defence’.
Moon’s party would love South Korea to have control over its national defenses
Here’s the issue, though: North Korea is now a nuclear state and the threat of North Korea having a nuclear first-strike capability will (hopefully) give Moon pause before he thinks about endangering the ROK-U.S. alliance. His former boss, the late former President Roh, did not face such a situation, and had the luxury of thinking about an ‘autonomous national self-defence’.
Moon, on the other hand, has the results of North Korean nuclear and missile development over the last ten years to contend with. Hence, sending U.S. Forces packing would probably necessitate a dramatic arms build-up on the peninsula. And the tripwire defense of U.S. troops south of the DMZ is worth significantly more than the $1.2 billion annual cost, it effectively constitutes a categorical guarantee that the might of the Pentagon’s $600 billion + defense budget can buy will respond to any North Korean aggression thrown at South Korea.
Without the U.S. tripwire, South Korea will have to spend a lot either importing weapons from first-rate manufacturers abroad, or rely on second/third-rate domestic suppliers. Given the plucky young conscripts that form the backbone of the ROK Armed Forces have little or no battle experience, the dreams of an ‘autonomous’ (self-reliant?) national defense all starts to look like posturing.
Make no mistake: Moon’s party is the party that wants to expand South Korea’s tiny welfare state, it is the party of higher taxes and the party that cares about South Korea’s widening inequality problem. It is also the party of peaceful, gradual unification through sunshine-style engagement. How much would they be prepared to spend on the military? The country already spends $40 billion, how much more would they need to spend to be ready to face the North Korean nuclear and chemical weapons threat?
Maybe double, maybe more, and maybe they will have to consider what Park Chung-hee did in the 1970s: going nuclear. Then what? The world’s fifth largest exporter could get itself into serious economic trouble with other nations if it left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Or perhaps they believe that they can persuade the North Korean side to voluntarily denuclearize with enough carrots and the removal of the potential U.S. stick?
Sending U.S. Forces packing would probably necessitate a dramatic arms build-up on the peninsula
This leads us to a potential third option: somewhere between the liberal campaign rhetoric and the status quo. A golden mean, a deal, a sweet-spot between Donald Trump’s mercantile attitude to alliances and Moon Jae-in’s instinctive distrust of U.S. power. How would this look? Maybe South Korea could pay the full bill for U.S. forces on the peninsula and invest in long-term solutions to the chemical weapon and nuclear threat posed by North Korea – a mixture of defense research and funding for the U.S. military and the nuclear umbrella.
Unlikely to be popular with Moon’s base, but if accompanied by a drawdown in U.S. forces and South Korea taking over complete operational control of their national defenses, perhaps sellable to liberal voters and to the Trump administration. But this is starting to sound like a slightly watered down version of the status quo isn’t it?
And that’s the point: the status quo seems to be here to stay. The THAAD deployment may already have become a fait accompli, and existing UN sanctions may preclude the reopening of Kaesong and other policies that Moon would like to implement toward the North. Serious talk of sending U.S. forces packing would probably spark massive controversy and when the potential costs become apparent, Moon would likely face opposition from inside his own party. Expect friction with old allies, but do not expect any radical change of direction.