The South Korean election results are now in and, barring any major change in direction by the new President Moon Jae-in, the US will need to change its policy toward both South Korea and North Korea.
The US has had a Mutual Defense Treaty with South Korea since October 1953, but it is less than a collective security agreement on the order of Nato.
Under it, the Parties are committed to try to solve “any international dispute” by peaceful means and “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations, or obligations assumed by any Party toward the United Nations.”
This part of the treaty is certainly consistent with new President Moon’s known policy position.
But article three of the treaty commits both parties as follows: “Each party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the parties in territories now under their respective administrative control, or hereafter recognized by one of the parties as lawfully brought under the administrative control of the other, would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
Article III is what passes for a security assurance, but it is far below that because it leaves it to either party to act in accordance with its “constitutional processes” and fails to define what “act” might be necessary or useful.
The Trump administration, alarmed by North Korea’s aggressiveness coupled with its nuclear and missile programs, has stepped up military activity around North Korea on land, on sea, and in the air with the strategic B-1 nuclear capable bomber leading the show of force.
The administration also prevailed on the previous Korean administration to install the agreed-upon, but delayed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system on an abandoned golf course 250km south of Seoul.
Moon has made it clear he wants to “reexamine” the THAAD deployment, meaning he is inclined to cancel it. China has vehemently opposed the deployment, as has Russia.
THAAD could help defend the United States and Japan against North Korean missiles, but it might not actually be useful against a short-range missile launch against South Korea.
It is unrealistic to believe, should North Korea resort to a nuclear strike, that missiles potentially with nuclear warheads would not be aimed at South Korea as well as Japan and the United States.
South Korea has the Patriot air defense system, but the Patriot probably cannot stop a heavy missile from hitting the South.
Therefore many Koreans believe they are not only NOT well defended against North Korea’s missiles, but that THAAD on their soil might actually make it more likely that the North Korea would attack them in order to destroy THAAD.
It is not easy to clearly interpret the ideas behind the Trump administration’s moves. In one dimension, deploying aircraft carriers, missile boats, fighter planes, strategic bombers, and THAAD are intended to counter missile launches and nuclear tests by North Korea.
These military steps are apparently coordinated with diplomatic moves by China to get North Korea to back down and cancel all such tests.
While the Chinese-led effort has not worked for missile tests, there is still hope it will convince North Korea not to go ahead with another nuclear test which, Washington believes is aimed at miniaturization of nuclear warheads.
Satellite photos suggest nuclear-test work still going forward and North Korea’s new ambassador to the UK, Choe Il says that Kim Jong-un is planning a sixth nuclear test, but exactly when is the North Korean leader’s decision. (For the record Choe’s predecessor has not been heard from after he was recalled to North Korea in disgrace when his deputy defected and absconded to South Korea.)
In another dimension, it is possible that the North Koreans will sidestep China’s diplomatic pressure, to the extent it is real, and go ahead both with their nuclear tests and their stream of threats aimed at the United States.
At home, these threats appear to have a unifying effect for Kim. And the United States may, with the coming of the new administration in the South, have to begin reducing the military pressure even in the shadow of growing North Korean belligerence.
Underneath all the posturing, there is a serious difference of opinion between Japan and the United States on the one hand and South Korea on the other. It is likely this difference will manifest more and more in the months ahead.
The difference is over the nuclear threat.
The US and Japan are concerned about a reckless North Korean government that can, if provoked or not attack either the US or Japan or both with rockets launched from land and sea.
In addition, the US is concerned that North Korea is also likely the test bed for Iran’s nuclear program, letting Iran continue its program outside its territory without directly violating the nuclear arrangement in place with the United States and its allies.
The spread of workable nuclear weapons and delivery systems to Iran changes the landscape in the Middle East radically and creates problems in the region for which the US presently has no answer.
South Korea’s position on nuclear weapons on the peninsula is more muted and ambiguous. South Korea relies on the US deterrent to North Korea’s nuclear threat, but only so long as the US deterrent a) is viable and b) does not interfere with Seoul’s other interests – including cooperation with Pyongyang leading to reconciliation.
Buried in Seoul’s ambivalence is the unarticulated idea that reconciliation offers the possibility of South Korea as the leading half of a unified country and a significant nuclear power.
If the new South Korean administration revives reconciliation as a priority, current US policy toward North Korea is not sustainable. US policy toward South Korea will need adjustment as well.
Heading off military adventurism by North Korea, stopping its cooperation with Iran, and adjusting the nuclear balance in the region remain America’s security priorities.
Without a coordinated US-South Korean approach, the risk factor from North Korea will continue to grow and the chance for a nuclear exchange will grow with it.