Korean troops more likely than ever to be drawn into conflicts like possible war in Taiwan

Posted on : 2023-08-22 17:15 KST Modified on : 2023-08-22 17:15 KST
The role of the Korean military will likely be expanded in the mid- to long-term from its current focus on countering the North Korean threat to responding to various threats in the Indo-Pacific region
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, US President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida head into their summit at Camp David in Maryland on Aug. 18 after taking photos together. (Yonhap)
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, US President Joe Biden, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida head into their summit at Camp David in Maryland on Aug. 18 after taking photos together. (Yonhap)

South Korea, the US and Japan announced the beginning of a de facto trilateral military alliance at Camp David on Friday, which is sure to fundamentally change Korean national security attitudes that date back to the Korean War, more than 70 years ago.

The three countries declared that they “will continue to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.” To achieve that, they committed “to consult with each other in an expeditious manner to coordinate our responses to regional challenges, provocations, and threats that affect our collective interests and security.” The “regional challenges” mentioned by the three leaders could only mean the situations on the Korean Peninsula, in the East China Sea (Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands) and in the South China Sea, those being the major security threats they are facing in the region.

To implement this agreement, the role of the Korean military would have to be expanded in the mid- to long-term from its current focus on countering the North Korean threat to responding to various threats in the Indo-Pacific region. To enable not only “consultation” about these threats but also joint action down the road, the three countries also agreed to “hold annual, named, multi-domain trilateral exercises on a regular basis.”

Two changes are expected in the short term. First, Japan would have more input in the event of a war on the Korean Peninsula. Japan’s role in such a scenario would be to provide rear support (including logistics support) for US reinforcements dispatched to defend the Korean Peninsula under Japan’s Act on Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Perilous Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan of 1999 (renamed the Law Concerning Measures to Ensure Peace and Security of Japan in Situations that Will Have an Important Influence on Japan's Peace and Security in 2016). In that eventuality, any military communication between South Korea and the US would have had to go through the US.

But the consultation to which the three countries have now agreed makes it possible for Japan to directly make various demands of Korea. Japan could ask Korea to allow the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to enter Korean territory to rescue Japanese citizens. It could also remain in close communication while using its enemy base strike capability (also called “counterstrike capability”) to launch direct attacks on North Korea.

Furthermore, the US and Japan could ask Korea to allow rear support units in the JSDF to operate in Korean sovereign territory, rather than only in open waters in the East Sea (known to Japan as the Sea of Japan), to enable smoother missions. To be sure, more military involvement by Japan would also enable Korea, the US and Japan to respond more effectively to a crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

The second change is that Korea is now much more likely to be entangled in crises in the East and South China Sea that few would regard as being directly linked to the security of the Korean Peninsula. The focal point here is Taiwan, which has emerged as the primary bone of contention in the strategic competition between the US and China.

While the US is not treaty-bound to defend Taiwan, US President Joe Biden has said on four separate occasions since his inauguration in January 2021 that he would defend against an invasion by mainland China. That’s because allowing China to overrun Taiwan unmolested would spell the end of American hegemony in the Western Pacific, a hegemony the US has maintained since the end of World War II, more than seven decades ago.

There’s also a growing sense inside Japan that a war against Taiwan should be regarded as a war against Japan and that the JSDF should respond aggressively. The late Shinzo Abe, former prime minister of Japan, said as much in several interviews with the press. And current Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida raised eyebrows when he said in the House of Representatives in April that if the US asked Japan to deploy the JSDF to defend Taiwan, Japan would “make a decision based on the specific and individual [situation] in accordance with the Constitution, international law and domestic law.”

Various war simulations run by leading American think tanks have concluded that the US-Japan alliance would be able to prevent a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, if barely, on the assumption that both the US and Japan were fully committed to the war. Given these considerations, Japan has revised three documents related to national security last December and decided to increase its defense budget to 2% of gross domestic product within five years.

If a war were to break out in Taiwan under these grim circumstances, it goes without saying that the US and Japan would use the consultation framework to request a “measured response” from Korea. Along with announcing the redeployment of US Forces Korea, the US could pressure Korea to join Japan in making a direct “military contribution” to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

While Korea would not be obligated under treaty to comply with any such requests, its refusal would surely cause serious harm to its alliance relationship with the US.

Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun reported Monday that Korean government officials are whispering about this amounting to Korea “crossing the Rubicon” in its relationship with China.

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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