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South Korea and America Must Look Beyond Pyongyang
South Korea's President Moon Jae-in speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 at SECC on November 1, 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Photo by Yves Herman - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
South Korea's President Moon Jae-in on November 1, 2021. (Photo by Yves Herman - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

South Korea and America Must Look Beyond Pyongyang

Patrick M. Cronin

The announcement that South Korean technology giant Samsung will build a $17 billion semiconductor manufacturing facility in Texas is a bellwether for the future. The move is a win-win for Texas and Samsung. Even more important, it plants a milestone in U.S.-South Korean attempts to transition the bilateral alliance away from a near-exclusive focus on North Korea and towards a market democracy bulwark in the long-term competition with China.

As South Koreans prepare for another presidential election, the two leading contenders once again represent political opposites. Yet, no matter who wins, South Korea and the United States are likely to remain united over North Korea but often at loggerheads in managing China. That’s what has happened after past elections. As Beijing continues to push its preferences on the international order, it is time for South Korea and the United States to look beyond Pyongyang and assert more significant influence throughout the Indo-Pacific region.

The disparity between Seoul and Washington’s relations with Pyongyang and Beijing may seem an artifact of contrasting national security and economic interests. While South Koreans see inter-Korean ties through a domestic lens, the United States “guarantees “extended deterrence using its full range of capabilities” to keep the peace. In contrast, although China is a top foreign policy issue, South Koreans are protective of their largest trading partner. South Korea is also China’s fifth-largest provider of imports, and despite disruptions from Covid-19, trade has been resilient in recent months.

Still, the South Korean presidential election in March affects how Seoul and Washington deal with North Korea and China. Governor Lee Jae-myung, the progressive standard-bearer for the ruling Democratic Party, has noted North Korea’s “inhumane” regime. Despite this, he would follow a variation of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, including President Moon Jae-in’s effort to establish a peace regime on the peninsula. He is also apt to tread lightly over relations with China.

Meanwhile, populist former prosecutor Yoon Seok-youl, the rival People’s Power Party candidate, would seek a firmer posture toward North Korea, which he has dubbed a “failed” state with an “obsolete” system. Less clear is to what extent Yoon Seok-youl might align more closely with the United States in standing up to China’s sometimes brazen behavior.

A Turning Point

North Korea’s arms buildup and China’s assertiveness make the March 2022 South Korean presidential election a turning point. These deleterious trends are likely to force the next occupant of the Blue House to make more explicit choices about how far to work with the United States in shoring up deterrence on and off the peninsula and preserving an international rules-based order.

Moon is finishing his single five-year term in office without securing a durable North-South rapprochement. Even if he could agree on a statement about peace (aka “an end-of-war declaration”), North Korea continues to modernize and expand its nuclear and missile forces. Kim Jong-un’s desire to possess a nuclear-armed missile threat to the U.S. homeland poses an insuperable obstacle to meaningful peace. Similarly, America’s need to counter North Korea’s weapons with even greater offensive and defensive capabilities ensures a dynamic that will impede the best intentions of South Korean peacemakers.

It is a tribute to Moon that he remained in strategic lockstep with leaders as distinct as Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Of course, Seoul and Washington’s harmony is a product of many factors. The shared sacrifices of the two sides’ defense establishments keep them bound together. The unwillingness of Kim Jong-un to sacrifice his nuclear ambitions also keeps them close. Kim’s demands at the Hanoi summit in early 2019 fell far short of the grand-bargain reciprocity envisaged by the Trump administration. Now the Biden administration’s willingness to pursue pragmatic, calibrated baby steps hold little interest for the Kim regime.

A major impediment to arms control with North Korea appears to be a structural problem. Whatever modest concessions the United States might make in exchange for North Korea constraining its weapons programs can be more than compensated by America’s main competitor, China, without relinquishing any nuclear capability. Of course, Kim Jong-un wants a robust nuclear arsenal to protect his regime and project power. However, South Korea’s fixation on North Korea comes at the expense of South Korea’s deeper impact in the world.

South Korea’s next president should preserve a tight-knit alliance for ensuring peace with North Korea. But he should also seek to deepen cooperation with the United States to mold a rules-based order congruent with their interests and values.

Three Domains for Cooperation

Moon’s successor might focus on three key areas in its relationship with the Biden administration. Closer alignment on these issues would avoid decoupling South Korea from America’s regional policy without forcing Seoul to jeopardize relations with its major trading partner and most prominent neighbor.

First is strengthening the rules-based order, including in the highly contested maritime, air, and cyber domains. Second would be promoting innovation in crucial high-technology sectors and securing vital supply chains. Finally, they could advocate for democracy and human rights at a time when oppression and authoritarianism appear on the rise.

If even the existing level of U.S.-South Korean cooperation gives China “heartburn,” then tighter alignment in these three realms will undoubtedly give Beijing some indigestion. After all, Xi Jinping was recently pronounced a “living historical figure” by the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, and the region is suffering from his growing overconfidence. But China would have little choice but to court South Korea to prevent an even sharper hard power alignment with a U.S.-led coalition. A South Korea working more vigorously with the United States and others to uphold a rules-based order would only further enhance Seoul’s status as a major middle power.

Indeed, a deeper U.S.-South Korean alliance and cooperation on issues beyond Pyongyang would include South Korea aligning more closely with other U.S. allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific, including Australia, India, Taiwan, and others. Among these countries, a better working relationship among the United States, South Korea, and Japan will provide the clearest indication that Seoul is ready to enhance its support for a democratic rules-based order.

The first and broadest new direction for U.S.-South Korean cooperation is over rules of the road governing key dimensions of regional and international order. Deputy Assistant to the President and Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell refers to order as an international operating system. However, whatever one label one applies, Seoul and Washington hold a common vision over international law, trading rules for an open but fair system, and norms of behavior that militate against unilateral changes to the status quo through force and coercion.

Korea has a clear interest in defending the freedom of navigation and overflight permitted under international law, as well as ensuring its ability to defend against unwanted intrusions into the Korea Air Defense Identification Zone (KADIZ) and territorial waters. Even if South Korea is reluctant to join international shows of force in the South China Sea, it should muster the political will to affirm the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and support regional norms such as the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Another dimension in the national interest of both South Korea and the United States and speaks to the need for transparent and equitable rules concerns trade and development. Seoul and Washington should work with others on forging a broader accord on high-standard digital trade and rules of governance. Similar transparency is needed in official development assistance, including telecommunications. Presidents Biden and Moon have already announced their intention to deepen cooperation, for example, over 5G and 6G telecommunications. But much more can and should be done.

The second area where Seoul and Washington should be to ensure that these and other like-minded countries retain a competitive edge in critical technologies at the heart of commercial and military power in the twenty-first century. Presidents Biden and Moon have stepped up efforts to cooperate on supply chain security in critical areas, including semiconductors, telecommunications, and rare earth minerals.

For some, a technology alliance will sound like Seoul and Washington have blurred the distinction between security and economics. But the nature of most emerging technologies is that they are inherently multi-use, a fact hardly lost on China as it pursues military-civil fusion. Although massive decoupling of economies would be detrimental to all concerned, South Korea and the United States need to collaborate more systematically in specific critical sectors of technology and supply chain security, from artificial intelligence to semiconductor chips.

Indeed, semiconductor chips make it difficult for Seoul to ignore that it has a growing stake in Taiwan’s security. South Korea and Taiwan account for 43 percent of all semiconductor chips vital to the contemporary digital age. One can quickly surmise why President Moon and President Biden agreed on the importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. These democracies already lag behind China’s level of effort in semiconductor research and development. Coupled with the fact that open societies remain more susceptible to intellectual property theft, and it is clear that South Korea and the United States can ill afford to be complacent about leading-edge technological innovation and production.

The third area where the U.S.-South Korean relationship needs additional cooperation concerns promoting democratic norms and human rights. As various studies have documented, democracy is under duress and some leaders promote authoritarian models of governance that undermine democratic values.

Surprisingly, South Korean governments have been reticent to speak out for democracy and human rights and against China’s political oppression. Beijing has been repressive at home and over those it considers to be Chinese regardless of where they live. Of particular concern has been Beijing’s draconian crackdown on Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang and the dramatic reversal of its commitment to greater political autonomy in Hong Kong. If any country in East Asia seems an obvious champion for democracy that understands the downside of authoritarian governance and has proven its resilience in the face of democratic turmoil—surely it is South Korea. As Moon and Biden have stated, the two governments “share a vision for a region governed by democratic norms, human rights, and the rule of law at home and abroad.”

Biden’s summit for democracy shows he feels an obligation to defend, fight, strengthen, and renew democracy. Hopefully, the results and the process that flow from the gathering will afford closer South Korean-U.S. cooperation and provide an enduring venue for these two democracies to positively impact the globe.

A Deteriorating Environment

Today’s deteriorating security environment demands further adaptation of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and relationship.

The foundation for a more muscular and closely aligned China policy is set, thanks to the behavior of neighboring states. For instance, public opinion in South Korea and the United States has hardened toward China in recent years. Further, both current presidents have already committed to similar policy priorities. Presidents Biden and Moon said in their May joint statement : “The significance of the U.S.-ROK relationship extends far beyond the Korean Peninsula,” and the two countries “oppose all activities that undermine, destabilize, or threaten the rules-based international order.”

The divergence between popular sentiment in South Korea and the reluctance of occupants in the Blue House to resist Chinese pressure requires attention. If South Korea remains quiet in the face of rising Chinese activity in the Yellow or West Sea, it will only further encourage Beijing’s assertiveness.

Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung has suggested dismantling the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system deployed in 2017 in response to North Korea’s mounting missile threat. Yet, such an act might embolden North Korean provocations while convincing China that economic coercion works. Dismantling THAAD would also be a poor precedent for South Korea as it seeks to upgrade its defense capabilities in preparation for a transition in wartime operational control (OPCON). South Korean governments should not allow Beijing to veto what self-defense systems they may deploy, whether those systems are missile defenses or more offensive systems such as advanced missiles or nuclear-powered submarines.

The virtual summit between President Biden and Chairman Xi underscored the reality that U.S.-China relations have entered a new phase of more competitive ties. Cooperation will be sought in areas such as climate change and public health. But a new type of major power relationship is needed, and it’s not the one-dimensionally rosy narrative scripted in Beijing. Instead, the current trajectory for U.S.-China relations amounts to what National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan likens to peaceful coexistence. Professor Joseph Nye calls the relationship a “cooperative rivalry”—a great power relationship in which there is at times intense competition over rules, critical technology, and political ideology, but which does not break into outright conflict.

South Korea need not align further with the United States against China but rather for fair international rules. The real choice facing both countries is whether to allow the prevailing order to be unilaterally altered to suit Beijing’s preferences, or to take additional measures to promote rules congruent with democratic interests and values. This is why improved relations among South Korea, Japan, and the United States, are in the mutual interest of all three countries.

When South Korean culture is making a global statement, it’s time for Seoul to enhance its influence in other ways, too. U.S.-South Korean relations need to move beyond a dominant focus on North Korea. While ensuring sufficient attention to both deterrence and diplomacy—to preempt miscalculation and avert an unbridled arms race—the United States and South Korea should look forward to the spring of 2022 as an opportunity to forge deeper ties aimed at guiding the wider region. By building durable rules, advancing technological innovation and secure supply chains, and protecting human rights, the U.S.-South Korea alliance can move from managing Pyongyang to shaping the emerging security environment for decades to come.

Read in National Interest

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