Excerpt: South Korea at the Crossroads

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Chapter 1: South Korea's Strategic Choices

The Korean Peninsula has historically been a victim of the tragedy of great-power politics, given its geographic location at the vortex of great-power rivalry in Northeast Asia. Yet South Korean leaders have historically had little ability to determine their country’s fate. Having had no viable choice but to rely on the United States as an effective protector in the decades since the Korean War, South Korea faces a strategic choice that will determine its future and influence the direction of the regional order in Northeast Asia. In this context, it must reevaluate its strategies in the face of an uncertain strategic environment generated by China’s rise and by questions regarding the durability of its own security alliance with the United States. Should the country continue to rely for its security and prosperity on that alliance or side with a rising China as a new security guarantor, or does the country have sufficient capabilities to protect itself without external help? To avoid renewed victimization as a result of intensifying regional rivalries, South Korea must use its diplomatic capabilities to make smart strategic choices and avoid entrapment in those rivalries, all the while working with great powers to deal with the growing threat from North Korea. Yet South Koreans also face the possibility of American withdrawal or underappreciation of South Korea’s strategic importance to regional stability in Northeast Asia, which could lead to drastic limitations on South Korea’s security options and to increased dependency on China.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Korea was the chief victim of conflict among imperial powers, as a result of which it even lost its sovereignty. With the decline of China’s Qing dynasty at the hands of Western imperial powers, a weakened China became vulnerable to challenges from imperialist Japan. Korea, a country that was in China’s sphere of cultural and political influence but was strategically important to Japan, became an object of contestation, resulting in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Japan then defeated Russia in a war over Korea in 1904–1905. The Taft–Katsura Memorandum (1905) and the Treaty of Portsmouth (1905) soon paved the way for Japan’s formal annexation of Korea in 1910.

Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in August and September 1945 at the end of World War II proved illusory for independence-minded Koreans as the Korean Peninsula again became the focal point for competition, this time between the occupying forces of the Soviet Union and the United States. At the start of the Cold War, rival Korean clients of the United States and the Soviet Union sought supremacy over the entire peninsula, resulting in the hardening of borders, the establishment of the two Koreas, and the tragedy of the Korean War (1950–1953). Following three years of fighting and millions of casualties, the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 hardened political divisions without resulting in a peace treaty. The competition between South Korea and North Korea to claim the entire Korean Peninsula has endured for more than seven decades.

As part of arrangements that brought about the end of the Korean War, a mutual defense treaty was established between the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) to guarantee security and stability in the latter. For decades, the alliance has deterred conflict and protected South Korea from renewed military aggression by the North and provided it with investment and a ready market that enabled the country’s export-led liberalization and opening to the outside world. A poverty-stricken economy with few natural resources following the Korean War, South Korea was among the world’s poorest countries in the 1950s, but its successful economic modernization allowed it to become one of the top-fifteen economies in the world by the year 2000. South Korea’s economic growth also enabled its transition in the late 1980s from authoritarianism to democracy. These accomplishments are remarkable for a country that was invaded and almost wiped out by its neighbor to the north less than two years following its establishment in 1948 and that many had diagnosed as an economic “basket case,” trapped in poverty with little hope of improvement. South Korea has moved from net consumer to net provider of international security goods through contributions to international peacekeeping, international financial architecture in the G20, global health, and international development.

Unlike its successful southern counterpart, North Korea, which has sought self-reliance since its founding, has lost allies and has survived by perpetuating a personality cult around its leader, exerting draconian control over its population, and closing itself off from the rest of the world.

The prospect of renewed inter-Korean conflict continues to hold South Korean security and prosperity at risk. Moreover, South Korea’s foreign policy is a product of factors that shaped the strategic environment and Koreans’ choices before the country’s establishment. First, the establishment and survival of South Korea as an independent state following the end of World War II depended on security guarantees provided by a distant great power, the United States. Second, the evolution of South Korean foreign policy has been accompanied by an ongoing struggle between the impulse toward inward-centered parochial nationalism and the demands of internationalism that have accompanied the country’s economic growth. This struggle has played out against the backdrop of political divisions between conservative and progressive factions that were magnified through South Korea’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Third, South Korean leaders have continuously pursued unification as a national objective.

For the first time in decades, South Korea faces an active debate over alternative strategies to safeguard its security and prosperity. China’s rise has uncovered latent tensions and rivalries that are gradually reshaping the regional context and reopening domestic debates over South Korea’s strategic choices, including the question of the durability of its alliance with the United States. If China successfully challenges U.S. global leadership, or if South Korea comes to regard U.S. security guarantees as unreliable, South Korea will have to pursue alternative strategic pathways to preserve its security and prosperity. It has long feared the possibility of abandonment by the United States, but preparation for possible alternatives to alliance with the United States will generate friction and stress in U.S.–South Korean relations.

This book sets out to examine the major factors that influence South Korean strategic choices. Every South Korean leader has struggled to balance the need to maintain a strong alliance with the United States, on the one hand, with the aspiration for greater national autonomy, on the other. The book shows how a once weak South Korea, focused primarily on the North Korean threat, began to pursue a more internationalist foreign policy as its economy grew. However, the nature of South Korea’s strategic environment has often constrained its room to maneuver and has resulted in heavy dependence on the alliance with the United States, even during the period following South Korea’s democratization. The interplay between South Korea’s domestic politics and its strategic environment highlights the fact that external factors have been the most important influences on its foreign policy, whereas its domestic political divide between conservatives and progressives influences the direction of its foreign policy primarily when the country’s strategic environment is comparatively benign. South Korean foreign-policy makers will face a more challenging environment in which they must navigate between domestic politics and international rivalries, but possibly without assurances that have heretofore been provided by the alliance with the United States.

As South Korea’s domestic debates over its future direction and the competition among great powers grow more intense, South Korea will face greater pressures even as it questions the durability of the U.S. commitment to it and weighs the alternatives of aligning with a rising China or pursuing autonomy rather than relying on an external protector. A review of the evolution of South Korea’s foreign policy and a careful evaluation of its relative power and strategic options indicate that the only viable way forward for the foreseeable future is for South Korea to continue to rely on the United States to meet its security needs and to take further measures to strengthen alliance cooperation with the United States. Despite South Korea’s improved capabilities, the country is unlikely to be able to assure its security absent the credible assurances and commitments of a dependable alliance partner. China’s rise has enabled it to assert growing economic and political influence on Seoul, but China does not yet have sufficient power, influence, or commitment to become an alternative security guarantor for South Korea.

Despite the possibility of American retrenchment, it is unlikely that the United States will abandon its commitment to defend South Korea, and the United States remains the most capable, committed, and strategically aligned alliance partner available to Seoul. To forestall concerns about U.S. commitment and to secure the necessary assurances of the U.S. will to meet those commitments, South Korea will need to continue to invest in the U.S.-ROK alliance. However, to the extent that a rising China emerges as a potential alternative provider of security to South Korea or as a viable security partner for a unified Korea, South Korea may be tempted to hedge and accommodate China. Under these circumstances, Sino-U.S. major-power competition for South Korea’s allegiances is likely to heat up, South Korean domestic debates over the country’s strategic choice are likely to intensify, and South Korea will continue for as long as possible to avoid hard choices and to hedge against both the negative effects of China’s rise and the persisting uncertainties regarding U.S. commitment. However, despite sharper debates and increasing friction over South Korea’s future direction, the U.S.–South Korea alliance will remain an essential instrument for assuring South Korea’s security given its relative weakness compared to its neighbors.

Courtesy of Columbia University Press, copyright 2018.