Foreign policy is not my favorite subject in the same way I never enjoy reading my insurance bill; I must be a thorough realist when I think of foreign policy or insurance, and facing the reality is not fun. But knowing the reality is not painful; the true pain comes when I happen to read unrealistic, implausible scenarios, which turn out some personal hopes decorated with fancy terms, in a foreign policy-related article. Unfortunately, I find more of such unrealistic stories more frequently.
I can hear many voices that suggest South Korea possess its own nukes. It is understandable since the new sanctions on North Korea do not freeze every asset of Kim Jong-un’s; many South Koreans, including the Chosun Ilbo, are disappointed and begin to doubt the Trump administration’s ability to protect them from the North Korean threat. The fundamental fear of Korean nationalists is that Americans will abandon and reduce Korea to a colony again. The only thing they believe can ensure sovereignty is nothing but nukes. One of South Korea’s best selling novels, The Rose of Sharon Blooms Again by nationalist Kim Jin-myung depicts Korea the Nuclear State; the main plot is Japan invaded Korea, Washington did not respond, the first thing Nuclear Korea did was bombing Japan, and Japan surrendered and regretted in tears – a typical worldview of Korean nationalists. Some non-Koreans, including Doug Bandow, also suggest the possible South Korean nukes. We can see there are two types of the advocates of South Korean nukes: one is a group of nationalists who wish to forge “self-reliant” national defense, and the other is those who do not see a specific strategic value in the Korean Peninsula and urge the United States to halt the costly intervention in North Korea. Kim Jin-myung is the former and Doug Bandow is the latter.
Now let’s face the reality: South Korea’s national defense is dependent on the US Forces Korea and the US-South Korea alliance – to a large degree if not wholly. Although South Korea has spent the world’s 10th largest military expenditures, it is highly questionable if South Korea alone can take on North Korea backed by the People’s Republic of China. Without the “active” military aid from the United States, however formidable the South Korean forces may be, any victory over North Korea will end up a Pyrrhic victory. Can a military victory justify everything afterwards? Perhaps South Koreans need to look back how Pakistan managed to become a nuclear state; its nationalism, religious fervor, and political authoritarianism were powerful enough to overcome the sanctions and the degraded quality of life.
I do not believe South Koreans are not ready to count the cost of nuclear weapons. South Korea is a democratic nation sustained by the free market economy whereas North Korea can sacrifice anything for the sake of its autocrat. Given that South Korea will continue to need the US Forces Korea, it is literally unrealistic to look forward to Washington’s full support to South Korea’s nuclear weapons development. If South Korea possesses nukes at the end of the day, the US-South Korea alliance is over. Then it is a matter of time before the US Forces will leave the Korean Peninsula. Some sanctions on South Korea can be possible. Moreover, how will Japan or Taiwan react if their neighbors possess nukes? It is questionable if the South Korean nuke advocates truly understand the impact of their proposition on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In short, Koreans must make a choice: it is either nukes or the USFK. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has expressed on several occasions, including the interview with CNN, his skepticism of nukes. Although Moon is an anti-American nationalist, he knows his presidency will not last long if he covets the prohibitively expensive nukes. Moon will be toppled in the same way he toppled Park Geun-hye.
There is something Doug Bandow, Michael Auslin, and other advocates of the lesser US influence in the Korean Peninsula should admit. Whenever they argue Washington needs to “re-access” its strategy or foreign policy in Northeast Asia, they should re-access the reality in Northeast Asia to be able to say, “Let’s acknowledge China’s geopolitical hegemony and the US should retreat from Asia.” Although Kim Jong-un seems quite defiant even to Beijing, North Korea will not stand clear of the shadow of the Chinese Communist Party and Beijing will not abandon North Korea, either as a nuclear puppet or a buffer zone. The Sino-North Korean alliance does not only pose a threat to the Korean Peninsula but to other regions, such as Japan, Southeast Asia, and even India. Although South Korea is not a satellite state of the United States, the alliance between them functions as a primary countermeasure against the Sino-North Korean aggression since the Korean War. If Washington gives up on South Korea, Washington will have to either re-establish its defense line or abandon Asia.
Forget South Korean nukes. The USFK should not leave now. The new sanctions are going to work. Watching his fiance decrease will be enough to frustrate the North Korean libertine. The objective is not to collapse the Kim Jong-un regime but to keep pressuring the Sino-North Korean alliance until the North Korean autocrat bursts with anger at Beijing. South Korea’s most practical and effective national defense is the quick, thorough deployment of the THAAD; the increase of the US military presence in South Korean territory is also plausible and desirable. The firmer mutual trust with the United States should be the backbone of South Korea’s foreign policy. In sum, South Korea should not follow the nuclear footsteps of Pakistan and should not cozen Washington as Pakistan did with Osama bin Laden.