Commentary / Japan

Dangers of a strategically expendable South Korea

by Yoichi Funabashi

The Hanoi summit between the United States and North Korea on denuclearization in late February was dubbed a failure in many quarters, with U.S. President Donald Trump walking away from negotiations without an agreement. Yet an even bigger failure would have resulted if the U.S. and North Korea had hastily come to strike an “easy deal” that left North Korea only partially denuclearized. Such a deal would have undermined the U.S. alliance system in East Asia and struck the foundations of this system to the core. While these fears have been allayed for now, the outcome of the talks cannot hide continuing concerns over stability in the Korean Peninsula and East Asia.

At the summit, the Trump administration appeared ready to accept a reduction in the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Trump has hinted at the need to withdraw U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula ever since the 2016 presidential campaign, while in June 2018, Trump even promised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that the U.S. would suspend joint military drills with South Korea. He reportedly did so without consulting Jim Mattis, then the U.S. secretary of defense.

In South Korea, the possibility of the U.S. and North Korea moving closer to each other has provided a welcome and unexpected boost to the Moon Jae-in administration’s initiative to achieve inter-Korean rapprochement and unification of the Korean Peninsula. Although the failure of the summit has made such a development unlikely in the immediate future, the Trump administration continues to make its relations with North Korea a priority in its foreign policy goals.

If the U.S. and North Korea agree to declare a cessation of hostilities, or even conclude a peace agreement, it will become increasingly difficult to justify the continued U.S. military presence in South Korea. Moreover, a pro-North faction within the Blue House quietly favors a weakening of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Members of this faction see Trump as a kind of Santa Claus who has come to clean the house and sweep away the “deep-rooted evils” of the Cold War-era.

There is anxiety within the Trump administration — particularly within the National Security Council and the Pentagon — regarding the direction of the Moon administration, and there are growing calls to pivot the U.S. system of alliances in East Asia toward Japan. However, the more South Korea senses that the U.S. is siding with Japan, the closer it will move to China. This increases the likelihood that South Korea will break away from the U.S.-Japan-South Korea cooperative security framework. While many in South Korea refuse to acknowledge the indivisibility of the trilateral U.S.-Japan-South Korean alliance, the reality is that the U.S. military bases in Japan and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty have together continued to operate as a foundation for the three countries’ combined deterrence against North Korea.

In Japan, there are growing calls within the Liberal Democratic Party to enact retaliatory measures against South Korea or even the severing of diplomatic ties if its Supreme Court rulings ordering Japanese firms to pay compensation for Korean workers requisitioned to provide wartime labor while Korea was under Japanese rule, are enforced.

Many Japanese lawmakers appear to have given up hope of making progress with South Korea under the Moon administration. A widely held sentiment is that “there’s no use talking with the Moon regime. All we can do is wait for the next administration.” However, even if Moon is succeeded by a more conservative administration, the situation is unlikely to change as demonstrated by South Korea’s foreign policy under its former conservative leader, President Lee Myung-bak. In August 2012, a visit to the disputed islets of Takeshima (called Dokdo in South Korea) by Lee caused an immediate deterioration in relations between the two countries. Lee also shocked Japan by remarking that if Japan’s Emperor wishes to visit South Korea, he must prove that “he is willing to apologize from his heart to those who died fighting for independence.”

This followed a controversial claim by Lee on the day before, when he said that “Japan’s influence in the international community is not what it used to be.” Perhaps no other statement better expresses the fundamental change in postwar Korean attitudes toward Japan. Lee’s assertion marked the arrival of a new discourse — the idea that Japan was now “expendable” to South Korea. This change occurred under a conservative administration.

However, just as South Korea moved toward the idea of an expendable Japan, the U.S. was developing a different one — that of “an expendable South Korea,” and under the Trump administration, South Korea appears more “expendable” than ever.

This is fomenting anxiety in South Korea, particularly in conservative circles. According to Vincent Brooks, who commanded United States Forces Korea until his recent retirement, South Korean dignitaries frequently asked him, “Is the U.S. once again strategically recognizing the Acheson Line?”

In January 1950, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson announced the American line of defense against the spread of communism in East Asia — the so-called Acheson Line. Japan, Okinawa (then under U.S. rule), and the Philippines were included in the U.S. line of defense, but South Korea and Taiwan were not. The implications of this decision were not lost on North Korea, with the Korean War beginning just six months later.

No one clarified the strategic justification of the Acheson Line more than the American diplomat, historian and academic, George Kennan, who was the father of the theory of containment and once served as director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department. Kennan was wary of U.S. involvement in Asia, and in East Asia, he advocated a reconstruction of Japan, and a framework of geopolitical stability centered on maritime states including Japan.

On the other hand, Kennan viewed the Korean Peninsula as “strategically expendable,” and South Korea as strategic “dead weight.” Kennan urged the U.S. to withdraw its troops from South Korea and place greater importance to its bases in Japan, and particularly those in Okinawa.

It is difficult to conceive that the U.S. would return, some 70 years after the Acheson Line was first mooted, to defining South Korea as “strategically expendable.” However, the U.S.-South Korean alliance could be weakened, especially if Trump and Kim strike a deal in the future. If the Moon administration accepts such a deal without complaint, the U.S.-South Korea alliance could be rendered meaningless, and the “indivisibility” of the defense of the U.S., Japan and South Korea could be threatened. In such a case, there is real danger of the emergence of an “expendable Korea” doctrine.

It is terrifying to think of the continued risk of a deal between Trump and Kim that could leave North Korea’s denuclearization incomplete. Even if such fears have diminished for now, the risk of North Korea being allowed to transform into a nuclear power remains. This would not only represent an indelible failure of U.S. deterrence, but it would also call into serious question the credibility of the U.S. as a nuclear deterrent force to a nuclear North Korea.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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