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Peter Ward is a writer and researcher focusing on the North Korean economy.
South Korea is one of the world’s top ten trading nations, with a GDP, by some estimates, close to $2 trillion, and a dynamic, rich economy. It is an open, liberal country with a thriving democracy. It hopes to be taken seriously on the world stage, and many at home feel proud at the mention of South Korean culture being consumed by ever more people worldwide.
Yet South Korea continues to maintain its status as a self-styled weakling in the international system, caught between China and the United States in a great power rivalry on the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia.
Unlike its far poorer rival in the North, South Korea is essentially reliant on security guarantees in the form of U.S. forces stationed in the South to ensure that North Korea cannot engage in a causal form of nuclear blackmail.
What’s more, Beijing, sensing the weakness, has done what it would never have dared to do to Tokyo and bully the South in the form of sanctions in response to the deployment of THAAD earlier this year. This situation is unsustainable. It cannot continue, and President Moon is the man to offer a radical, grand bargain for the future.
The United States, China, and South Korea are natural trade partners and allies in the cause of peace in Northeast Asia. At least they were, and will remain so for the next couple of years, so long as North Korea does not acquire the ability to hit the continental United States with a nuclear-tipped ICBM.
If and when it does, all bets are off. The current occupant of the White House is a threat to peace and security in the region and the world. His cabinet and team of advisors are a mix of solipsistic nativists and cold-minded, seasoned realists. The constant mixed signals from Washington on the North Korea situation and THAAD reflect these contradictions at the apex of power.
Unlike its far poorer rival in the North, South Korea is essentially reliant on U.S. security guarantees
But they are probably irrelevant longer term, for the simple reason that Washington will probably not tolerate a nuclear-ICBM armed North Korea, regardless of whether it is Trump, Pence or even Elizabeth Warren, Corey Booker or Joe Biden in the White House. My trip to Washington in February, and discussions I have had with many Americans inside and outside the world of policy lead me to the simple conclusion that America will not be blackmailed or threatened by Pyongyang.
Seoul should not make decisions on the assumption that Washington will listen to a weak ally begging it for protection. It is time for Seoul to learn from Washington, Beijing, and Pyongyang what it should already know: when push comes to shove in the international system, you’re on your own.
There is a reason why some of America’s closest allies, some with U.S. assistance, including the United Kingdom, Israel, and France have nuclear weapons. There is also a reason why North Korea has developed nuclear weapons, and China did so too before them. If you do not have them, you will forever be open to blackmail.
The deployment of THAAD represents a silly half-way house between accepting the potentially long-term future of a nuclear North Korea and pretending nothing has changed in the last decade. The time, however, may soon come, however, when South Korea will have to fully accept this reality.
South Korea already has some of the world’s leading weapons makers, it has the potential to manufacture fissile material, and arm missiles and tactical weapons with nuclear warheads. South Korea should tell the Americans that they are no longer needed, that South Korea will protect and arm itself. South Korea is not a weak state, it can take care of itself. Look at North Korea and tell me otherwise.
With both states on the Korean peninsula gone nuclear, they will at last once again be in a position to talk as military equals
Moon Jae-in should go to Beijing and tell them that THAAD will be withdrawn, the Americans will leave in due course, and that the U.S. nuclear umbrella will be replaced with one made by domestic weapons experts.
Beijing will be offered the dream of the United States leaving continental Northeast Asia, closer relations with Seoul, a closer trading and investment relationship, and the end of the THAAD deployment. In return, they will be asked to accept South Korea protecting and defending itself from the North Korean nuclear threat.
The next step will be in the direction of Pyongyang. Let us not kid ourselves, the North Koreans are not fools and will never give up their nuclear weapons. So with both states on the Korean peninsula gone nuclear, they will at last once again be in a position to talk as military equals.
There would be no need for more tensions, for more North Korean military provocations, or joint military exercises designed to prove to Pyongyang that the United States means business.
A nuclear South Korea will prove to Kim Jong Un that South Korea is worthy of his respect, and Moon is the President to deliver this. Going nuclear will allow him to do the unthinkable right now: credibly argue to the most ardently anti-North Korean rightists that cooperation, investment in the North and a peace treaty will be good for all.
This would fundamentally alter the balance of power in the region and on the peninsula, allowing Seoul, Beijing, and Pyongyang to work together to turn North Korea from a poor, closed, backward society, to a modern and more open one. Such changes will take time, money, compromise and tremendous effort, but with the confidence and self-respect that comes from taking care of one’s own defense, Seoul and Pyongyang can begin the work of creating a shared, prosperous future.
Edited by Oliver Hotham