[Column] Dragged into a quasi-alliance, can Korea count on the US for its security?

Posted on : 2023-04-04 11:09 KST Modified on : 2023-04-04 11:09 KST
The strategy of going “all in” on the ROK-US alliance to an extent that resembles religious faith further exacerbates multiple dilemmas for Korea
Marines from South Korea and the US ride assault amphibious vehicles and wheeled armored vehicles in a simulated landing operation during the commencement ceremony for the 77th graduating class of the Republic of Korea Naval Academy on March 10 in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. (presidential office pool photo)
Marines from South Korea and the US ride assault amphibious vehicles and wheeled armored vehicles in a simulated landing operation during the commencement ceremony for the 77th graduating class of the Republic of Korea Naval Academy on March 10 in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province. (presidential office pool photo)

The word “dilemma” refers to a situation where there are two choices available, both of which lead to undesirable outcomes. A security dilemma is one where policies intended to bolster a country’s security ends up threatening it.

The term is often used to refer to escalating arms races between hostile countries. As security concepts shift into areas such as the economy, the environment, and cyberspace, we may see similar dilemmas unfolding in fields besides arms races.

When a country expands its military and economic ties with an ally, this can lead its competitor to adopt similar policies. This can increase the scale of the crisis or dispute, as it raises the risk of more complex entanglements than a relationship of one-on-one antagonism.

We may refer to this as a “bloc dilemma.” Bloc dilemmas were present in both World Wars and the Cold War era.

Another difficult issue is the asymmetrical alliance dilemma, which is often mentioned in cases of military alliances between stronger and weaker countries.

In exchange for security assistance from the stronger party, the weaker one has to give up some of its own political autonomy. In the process, it may find itself entangled despite itself in the stronger country’s disputes; if it refuses to take part, it risks having its partner abandon the alliance.

Risking a break up with economic partner China

Security dilemmas tie in with dilemmas of national defense. This type of situation can be observed in two regards.

First, there is the situation where a country pays (typically excessive) funds for the necessary bolstering of its defense, resulting in a distorted distribution of limited national resources that creates economic problems. This diminishes the country’s ability to spend more on defense, which ends up weakened.

The second aspect of the defense dilemma is that when the opposing sides possess extremely destructive weaponry, victory in war may still lead to unacceptable destruction on both sides, rendering moot the original purpose of defense — namely, defending the state. This could be called the “dilemma of excessive destruction,” which is clearly illustrated by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that developed during the nuclear weapons race between the US and the Soviet Union.

All the dilemmas discussed above can be seen in Korea’s national security and national defense. Those dilemmas can be attributed to structural factors produced by other countries and their histories, as well as by the strategic environment.

The basic condition that inevitably links together the various dilemmas is South Korea’s alliance with the US, which was established as a result of the division of the peninsula and the armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War (although that never ended, at least legally speaking).

The conventional arms race between South and North Korea has accelerated in a new direction as a result of the North’s development of nuclear weapons. Within the alliance system, the cost of nuclear weapons must be borne by the US. The US has reinforced its commitment to extended deterrence (known as the “nuclear umbrella”) without actually deploying any nukes on the peninsula, while South Korea has upgraded its cutting-edge conventional weaponry to counter Pyongyang’s nukes.

In response, North Korea is seeking more advanced nuclear weapon and missile capabilities. Along the way, the risk of nuclear war continues to grow.

On a related topic, South Korea, being the weaker partner in an asymmetric alliance, forfeits autonomy over policy and is pressed to cooperate in the global strategy of the stronger partner. In other words, Korea has already been sucked deep into the alignment dilemma.

The US is seeking to tie together Japan and South Korea to create what amounts to a trilateral alliance in Northeast Asia so as to curb China. The inevitable response to that is the combination of China and Russia, with North Korea taking part.

Ultimately, South Korea, as the junior partner in a quasi-alliance with the US and Japan, will be forced to confront nuclear weapon states on a military level and to decouple with China, its most important trading partner, on an economic level — all while serving the strategic interests of the US and Japan.

It’s true that the defense spending dilemma has been eased by the phenomenal growth of the Korean economy. Nevertheless, the South Korean military is ranked sixth in the world, and it had a defense budget of 57 trillion won in 2023, representing 2.3% of its GDP.

According to Korea’s 2022 defense white paper, Korea’s 2021 defense budget accounted for 2.55% of its GDP, nearly double that of major economic and technological competitors such as Japan (0.97%), China (1.23%) and Germany (1.33%). That means that Korea is paying a larger opportunity cost than those countries.

North Korea’s defense spending dilemma is thought to be even more serious than South Korea’s. The cost of developing nuclear weapons and various missiles is difficult to express in currency because of differences between the two economic systems. That said, North Korea’s policy of strengthening its military since 2019 (a revamp of the two-track line of nuclear and economic development, which had been temporarily replaced by a total focus on building the economy) is assuredly accompanied by the defense spending dilemma.

Taking for granted America’s predatory economic policy

The dilemma of excessive destruction is a product of the nuclear arms race. The US showcased strategic assets in its joint military exercises with South Korea in March, underscoring its ability to launch a nuclear strike on North Korea at any time. At the same time, North Korea carried out operational drills for offensive weapons including intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic cruise missiles and “nuclear-capable underwater attack drones,” reminding us once again of the fundamental dilemma not only of the Korea-US joint military exercises but also of national defense itself.

I’m referring here not to our fear of North Korea or its regime, but to the fundamental danger of human beings facing an existential threat.

The outlines of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s security policy have grown clear during his first year in office. While he has pursued that policy under the banner of “peace through strength,” it actually amounts to solving all problems of national security and defense through the Korea-US alliance, an approach that might be described as “of the ROK-US alliance, by the ROK-US alliance, and for the ROK-US alliance.” The Yoon administration’s approach can be summarized as follows:

“The arms race dilemma is resolved by strengthening the ROK-US alliance, which will force South Korea’s adversaries to submit. In terms of alignment, Korea can secure the US’ trust and support by categorically siding with the US-led alliance system, which will serve to prevent “attacks’ from the other side. The loss of policy autonomy is compensated for by the security benefits that the US provides. There isn’t a defense spending dilemma, and the benefits of defense spending outweigh the (opportunity) cost. The dilemma of excessive destruction can be avoided through the nuclear deterrent of the US’ extended deterrence.”

This strategy of going “all in” on the ROK-US alliance to an extent that resembles religious faith further exacerbates these dilemmas through the acceleration of the nuclear arms race, the fragmentation caused by alignment, the US’ “predatory” economic policy toward its allies, the decline in state sovereignty and prestige, the reliance on the US for acquiring expensive weaponry, and the growing risk of the mutual destruction of South and North Korea in nuclear war.

And the costs that must be borne by South Korea, and by the Korean community as a whole, are rising by the day.

National security and the economy have a strong psychological component, and few serious observers of the current situation in South or North Korea do not feel anxiety or fear. That could lead to political and economic anxiety in both South and North Korea, potentially robbing the Korean Peninsula of the peace and prosperity that are vital interests for both sides.

By Moon Jang-ryul, former professor at Korea National Defense University

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

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