With an American green light for a nuclear option, the updated THAAD and now an embrace of the Indo-Pacific concept, Seoul is in a confrontation course with Beijing. Writes Uriel Araujo
A year after Washington released its Indo-Pacific strategy, South Korea disclosed its own “Strategy for a Free, Peaceful and Prosperous Indo-Pacific Region” in December 2022. This new Indo-Pacific strategy, heavily influenced by the American one, emphasizes “human rights”, “peace and stability” in the Taiwan strait as well as “freedom of navigation”, thereby reprimanding China, even without explicitly naming it. It also gives a kind of ideological framework for South Korea’s further alignment with Washington. The document shows that the country’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol, who had already signed the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), has now embraced the American view of the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR). Former South Korean President Moon Jae-in (2017-2022), in contrast, approached the IPR issue in a very cautious manner, maintaining a South Korean version of “strategic ambiguity” in an attempt to balance between China and the US.
Choong Yong Ahn, a Chung-Ang University’s economics professor, and Jagannath Panda (who heads the Stockholm Centre for South Asian and Indo-Pacific Affairs), argue that the South Korean authorities in Seoul have been gradually shifting the country’s foreign policy toward a greater alignment with Washington. This new development brings its own challenges, and must be understood as part of a larger context.
Regarding the former, China, for one thing, remains South Korea’s largest trade partner – this in itself makes the dilemma between favoring Washington and not antagonizing Beijing too much still pertinent. Moreover, Seoul still has its unresolved issues with Japan. As for the latter issue it might be worth going back in time a few years.
In late 2016, in response to North Korean nuclear developments, Seoul and Washington jointly announced the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an American anti-ballistic missile defense system that can intercept and shoot down intermediate-range ballistic missiles with a “kinetic kill” approach. This system’s missile range is able to intercept targets up to 200 km, while its AN-TYP-2 radar can reach much further (around 1,000 km). Beijing believed that such a radar system could penetrate its territory, thus compromising its security, and Moscow also had concerns about this leading to a “stalemate” on the peninsula. Sino-Russian opposition to THAAD was a major topic at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue.
In October 2022, the US forces started updating the THAAD system employed in South Korea, to improve interoperability and allow the American and South Korean forces to merge THAAD and the Patriot System together into a single integrated system. This development marks a new phase in the Korean peninsula arms race between the two formerly unified republics, but it would not really affect neighbor North Korea that much, considering it has been carrying several “counter” measures, including short-range ballistic missile launches towards the Japanese-South Korean sea. Jin Kai, a scholar at the Elliott School of International Affairs, believes that the real target of such an update may in fact not be Pyongyang, but rather Beijing – that has in fact been a Chinese concern since 2016. One of the problems is the fact that rather than enhancing and developing its own defense base, South Korea has followed Washington’s position without conditions, argues Jin Kai.
The THAAD system is deployed in Seongju, South Korea, and there is an approximately 1,130 kilometers straight line from there to Beijing that is within the radar system range. This system alone, according to Jin Kai, can secure over 18,600 jobs for Americans in multiple states, not to mention millions in dollar profits for US company Lockheed Martin. In Asia, however, its impacts are far from positive.
Jin Kai argues that this development short-circuits all the security aspirations of the regional stakeholders, potentially dooming the peninsula to a permanent confrontational situation. Balancing the security concerns of these actors through an “empathy diplomacy” is what the scholar proposes as an acceptable path. Unfortunately, things seem to be quite far from that call, given these latest developments.
To make matters worse, Washington seems to have given Seoul a green light regarding the nuclear option, something which until recently was a taboo topic. In an unprecedented statement, Yoon said on January 11 that, if what he sees as a North Korean nuclear threat grows, his country may either build its own nuclear arsenal or (quite more likely, in fact) ask its American ally to redeploy it there. It is very unlikely he would issue any such statement without consulting with his American protectors; thus one can assume this marks a new development in Washington’s policy too. This seems to be the US own way of pursuing a policy retreat pertaining to the reality of North Korea’s nuclear power.
From a North Korean perspective, its nuclear program is a matter of self-defense, considering the decades of US economic blockade and exercises near its border. Last year, I wrote that the US wanted it both ways: it wanted Pyongyang to give up its nuclear capability while maintaining its military presence in South Korea. I also wrote, in May 2021, that from the point of view of the “international community” and also from that of actors such as Russia and China, promoting good relations between the two Korean countries and keeping the existing North Korean atomic arsenal “under control” would be a way more realistic goal than seeking full denuclearization in the peninsula.
If Washington may have now acknowledged the reality of Pyongyang’s nuclear status, its response to it apparently is nuclearizing Seoul, something which worries not only South Korea’s neighbor, but Beijing too. Add to that the aforementioned THAAD’s upgrade and the new Indo-Pacific policy – the result is not a balancing of the region in any way but is actually something tantamount to adding fuel to the fire.