In the middle of April 1975, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung hurried to Beijing to meet with Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese Communist leadership. Phnom Penh had just fallen to the Khmer Rouge, the North Vietnamese were marching toward victory in Saigon and the United States seemed to be in retreat around the globe.
Now was the time, Kim told his Chinese patrons, to liberate South Korea.
America’s allies in Northeast Asia were undoubtedly shaken by the events in Indochina, beginning from the late 1960s. The US had withdrawn the 7th Infantry division from Korea and Nixon told allies to rely more on their own resources to defend themselves.
South Korea’s Park Chung-hee embarked on a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons, as did Taiwan. Japan pondered that choice but opted instead to reach out to China, moving quickly to normalize relations after Nixon’s shocking opening of ties to Beijing.
Comparisons between the fall of Saigon and the stunningly rapid collapse of the American-backed government in Kabul are now the fodder of front pages from Beijing to Washington. In the United States, pundits claim that US allies in Europe and Asia are again questioning American resolve and reliability, while China and Russia rush to fill the strategic vacuum.
European angst is indeed clearly visible – not surprisingly since NATO allies committed their own military forces to the war in Afghanistan and had to rush to remove their troops as well as diplomats and Afghan support staff.
On the other hand, in South Korea and Japan – where US overseas military power is now most concentrated with almost 85,000 American naval, air and ground troops present – there is not yet the same level of anxiety.
In conversations this writer has had in recent days with senior South Korean and Japanese former officials and current advisors, the events in Kabul seem to have actually strengthened the belief in the importance of the alliance with the United States.
Those policymakers in Northeast Asia echo President Joe Biden in pointing to the failure of the Afghan government and military to be willing to fight in their own defense.
“The fall of Kabul may not damage our alliance with the US as much as you may imagine,” Kuni Miyake, a former senior Foreign Ministry official who advises Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, tells me.
“Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his friends did not help the Afghans, and they had to pay the price. For Japan, if we don’t have the will to fight and defend ourselves, we will be like Afghanistan.”
As for the chaotic events in Afghanistan and the decision of the Biden administration to withdraw, Miyake and others do not see a loss of American credibility at stake, but rather the consequence of bad policy decisions made long ago.
“America should have known that Afghanistan has been, and will be, like this forever and it should not have stayed there for 20 years, or even a year,” says Miyake, who was in charge of Afghanistan for the foreign ministry in the late 1990s.
Kazuyoshi Umemoto, who recently retired as the senior Foreign Ministry official directing relations with the United States, offers a similar verdict: “The fall of the Afghan government is seen as the failure of the Afghan government, in spite of 20 years of international help, rather than the loss of credibility of the US commitment.”
So far, Japanese policymakers reject facile comparisons between Afghanistan and potential flashpoints in their own region, particularly Taiwan and the disputed territory in the East China Sea.
The danger in case of US failure to respond to Chinese aggression in either of those places would be far higher than the danger of a possible return to Afghanistan of terrorists, whose presence triggered the US intervention there. “With Taiwan,” a former senior Japanese official says privately, “it would affect the world order immediately if the US did not intervene.”
The view from Seoul
In South Korea, which faces potential escalation from a North Korean regime that is under growing internal pressure, the view is a bit more cautious, though still far from panicked.
Confidence in the US commitment is not yet shaken, South Korean policymakers from across the spectrum agree. “On the contrary, this event evoked for many people the importance of the Korea-US alliance,” former senior Foreign Ministry official Kim Sook, who also served as deputy director of the National Intelligence Service, tells me.
South Koreans were particularly reassured by the statement from US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan that a troop withdrawal from South Korea was not on the Biden agenda. In conservative circles in Seoul, where a presidential election is looming next March, the Afghan events have been used to bolster the criticism of the current progressive government of Moon Jae-In.
“The situation in Afghanistan shows how important it is to maintain a strong military,” argues the conservative daily JoongAng Ilbo. “North Korea continues ratcheting up its nuclear capabilities. Under such circumstances, the decades-old Korea-US alliance cannot be overemphasized.”
Even among progressives, the focus has been on the failed effort to transform Afghanistan rather than on the American retreat. The defeat doesn’t do much to shake confidence in the US security commitment to South Korea, says Paik Hak-soon, the executive director of the Kim Dae-jung Peace Forum.
“We know why the US was defeated and decided to pull out its forces, and also why it keeps its forces in Korea, even though we’re reminded that the US forces cannot stay forever in foreign lands.”
“Many Koreans understand that there are more differences than similarities between the two cases,” agrees a former senior foreign ministry official, Ambassador Wi Sung-lac.
Still, the corrosive impact of the images from Kabul touches nerves in South Korea, where dependence on the United States is still deeply felt.
“The notion that the US may abandon an ally depending on the capabilities of the allied partner will linger in the memory of Koreans,” adds Wi, who was formerly in charge of relations with the US and led the South Korean delegation to the six-party talks with North Korea that were launched in 2003 and proceeded intermittently thereafter.
“In that sense, the messy nature of the retreat in Afghanistan will not be helpful to strengthen the US message on the alliances,” he cautions.
Will Kim Jong Un follow Grandpa?
The view from Pyongyang is far more difficult to discern. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is struggling to cope with a severe economic crisis, triggered by the border closure measures taken to avoid the spread of Covid-19 and compounded by severe weather conditions.
Rather than take up offers of humanitarian aid from the Moon government in South Korea, the North Korean regime has engaged in vague threats to escalate tensions in response to the decision to go ahead with joint US-South Korean military exercises.
Kim Jong Un has long modeled himself on his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. That raises the question of whether he will see the US retreat from Afghanistan as another opportunity to undermine the US-South Korean alliance.
Kim might, for example, test the alliance by carrying out a cross-border attack of the type seen in 2010 when North Korean forces shelled a South Korean-held island off its shores.
“I don’t think Kim Jong Un will do anything particular because of what happened in Afghanistan,” says Paik, who was a long-time Sejong Institute expert on North Korea.
“These days, he’s totally focused on domestic economic survival, and has no reason whatsoever to engage in provocations when the Moon and Biden administrations are not provoking towards North Korea.”
Conservative analysts tend to agree with that assessment. “Pyongyang knows that the situation on the Korean Peninsula is not identical to the one in Afghanistan,” Wi says. “Pyongyang wouldn’t see this as an opportunity to test the United States.”
The South Korean experts on the North are careful not to rule out the possibility of escalation. But they see that, in case it happens, not as a consequence of events in Afghanistan, but as an attempt to restart the stalled negotiations following the breakdown of the Kim-Trump summit in Hanoi in 2019.
The role of China is also a large question mark. When Kim Il Sung pleaded for backing for his revolutionary dreams in 1975, the Chinese Communist leaders, according to the archived accounts of East European diplomats, turned him away. China was not interested at that moment in risking a confrontation with the United States and triggering a potential war on its frontier.
Beijing is now locked in a strategic competition with Washington. Will China now be ready to turn Pyongyang loose?
“On one hand, they know the Americans have gotten their comeuppance in Afghanistan – they look inept and feckless and the Chinese can be heartened by that,” observes Brookings Institution scholar Jonathan Pollack, who has written extensively on the Sino-North Korea relationship.
But, he adds, “at these moments of definitive strategic change, the Chinese have a tendency to think very carefully about where they find themselves.”
China may see more advantage in being ready to insert itself as a mediator between the two Koreas, perhaps in the wake of an exchange of fire across the border, suggests a former senior State Department official who was involved in managing the 2010 crisis.
The Afghan events “open up opportunities for China,” the former official tells me. “I bet they are thinking about it.”
Daniel Sneider is lecturer, international policy, at Stanford University and a former Christian Science Monitor foreign correspondent. This article originally appeared in The Oriental Economist and is reprinted with permission.