For the past four years, the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear arsenal has been greater than ever, despite the bragging rights of outgoing President Donald Trump. However, Biden's future government should not be blinded by a unique focus on the weapons of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, as the most important change in the peninsula has occurred on the south side of the DMZ. In a world where China is the United States' greatest foreign policy challenge today, South Korea has emerged as an indispensable ally for the United States, with the potential to play the role that West Germany played at the height of the Cold War. It is time for the United States to rearrange its priorities on the Korean Peninsula: instead of treating South Korea as part of the solution for the North, Washington must treat the U.S.-South Korean alliance as a standalone concern and seek leverage achieve the alliance to create a rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.
Of course, North Korea's nuclear arsenal is serious business. But take the guns off, and North Korea is the same country it has been since 1973 when President-elect Joe Biden became a Senator: an isolated and impoverished country whose only significance in the world comes from the damage it causes to its own people and the potential harm it can do to its neighbors.
Let us now look at South Korea, which is certainly not the same country as it was in 1973, when it was an economically difficult right-wing dictatorship. Today South Korea is one of the top 10 economies in the world and is even bigger than Russia or Brazil. It is a global leader in technology and a vital link in the global supply chain of high-tech materials such as memory chips and 5G devices. Few can compete with South Korea's soft power, which produces Oscar-winning films and Billboard charts. (The fandom of K-pop group BTS was so strong that even Chinese state media withdrew from criticism.) Seoul's vibrant democracy inspires others in Asia. Protesters in Hong Kong and Thailand adopted Korea's protest music and K-pop as their own anthem.
In addition, South Korea is an underrated military power. Born out of an apocalyptic civil war, South Korea has the seventh largest standing army in the world for almost its entire existence with nearly 600,000 soldiers, the fifth largest air force in the world by number of aircraft, and its own very large arsenal of ballistic missiles. Seoul's defense plan goes beyond just defending against North Korea. Under President Moon Jae-in – citing its reputation as a liberal dove – South Korea has actively built a blue water navy with aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines to protect the remote sea lanes critical to trade. Seoul's foreign policy circles are tacitly debating whether South Korea should pursue its own nuclear weapons program, particularly given the uncertainty of US engagement with its East Asian allies shown during the Trump administration.
The latter point poses a major challenge for the Biden administration. After Trump's four years, South Korea's opinion of the United States is at an all-time low. This is different from yesterday's anti-Americanism, which stems from fear and resentment against the overwhelming power and influence of the United States in Korea. Under Trump, the United States became small, unreliable, and petty in the eyes of Koreans. Doubts about the US commitment to South Korea began immediately after Trump took office, when Washington did not support or even recognize South Korea as it was subject to China's massive economic retaliation for the use of the US THAAD missile defense system. The temporary euphoria caused by Trump's diplomacy with North Korea did not last as the flashy photo ops produced no tangible result. Then the extortionate demand for a five-fold increase in South Korea's contribution to the deployment of US troops on its territory has once and for all tainted public opinion. An overwhelming 96 percent of the public once opposed the hike; US Ambassador Harry Harris was so rude about this demand – reportedly saying the word "five billion dollars" at least 20 times in a 30-minute conversation with a South Korean lawmaker – that even South Korea's pro-US conservative politicians got away with offense.
On the other hand, South Koreans have high self-confidence. The defeatist self-conceptualization as "shrimp among whales" plagued by the cross winds of Korea's more powerful neighbors has faded considerably. In particular, South Korea's successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic as opposed to the nasty incompetence of the Trump administration has made Koreans feel like they have arrived. A recent study found that the national pride of the Korean public rose sharply from 2019 to 2020. Senior officials freely express that they have the power to shape their own destiny, even in the face of global superpowers. Speaking at a recent symposium, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said: “Korea is certainly in a geopolitical position that looks like we have been caught in a crossfire. But I think you can change that and say it's leverage. "Lee Soo-hyuk, Korea's ambassador to the United States, was blunt:" I am proud that we are now a country that can choose (between the United States and China) and is not forced to choose. " KBS, South Korea's public broadcaster, carried a two-part article entitled: "No More America Number One" – a tough title with an even harsher appraisal of the decline of the United States under the Trump administration, because of the usual stiff decency of the transmitter.
All of this brings the US-South Korea relationship to a turning point. Repairing the alliance doesn't simply mean going back to pre-Trump times, when South Korea was viewed more as a U.S. customer state whose international significance was limited to how much it helped advance U.S. goals with North Korea. Indeed, such a scruffy view of the alliance put undue strain on the relationship, as the alliance's success was measured solely by how closely the two countries were related to Pyongyang. As the slogan for Biden's transition team is, the alliance between the US and South Korea needs to be rebuilt better. Of course, if China is the greatest challenge to US foreign policy, the United States must give a very high priority to its democratic ally, who is closest to China. For the United States, the health of its alliance with South Korea may determine the outcome of its strategic competition with China as well as the establishment of a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.
Fortunately, the United States is still in a good position with respect to South Korea. In some corners of Washington, DC there are concerns that South Korea might abandon the US alliance and join the sinosphere, evidenced by a vague idea of Samuel Huntington's thesis "Clash of Civilizations" (which they summarize as "Confucian" powers) and the idea that South Korea's liberals (currently in power) are secret communists who are allied with the Chinese Communist Party. Such views are ignorant and exaggerated. South Koreans still like the United States a lot more than China. (Koreans gave the United States a score of 49.9 and China a score of 29.6 in a recent poll calling for an austerity rating between 0 and 100.) Koreans are extremely proud of their hard-won democracy and are by no means fans of the illiberal China or North Korea. Additionally, as an exporting economy, South Korea recognizes that free trade and the liberal world order – which the United States has drawn – are essential to its success.
However, there are inevitably minor but significant points where U.S. and South Korean interests will diverge. The United States may wish its two main democratic allies in East Asia got along better, but South Korea will not stop demanding that Japan face the crimes of its imperialist past. South Korea may tacitly support US initiatives to control the rise of China, but will not adopt overtly hostile rhetoric or join a group whose express purpose is to oppose China. Most importantly, South Korea is absolutely not going to start a war with North Korea, which can very easily escalate into a nuclear war that kills millions of lives. Taking South Korea seriously as an ally means that in these situations, the United States is not getting 100 percent of what it wants. Instead, Washington must convince Seoul by pointing out the larger ideals of the liberal international order that they share and bringing its partner closer to its own position – as any ally could.
This requires the patience and persistence of the United States. Restoring confidence in the alliance may take longer than the four or eight years of the Biden administration, during which South Koreans can clearly see that only one choice and one trump card – or similar number – is keeping the United States from falling behind. The joint fact sheet recently published by the State Department and the South Korean State Department on Harmonizing the United States' Indo-Pacific Strategy and Korea's New South Policy, which focuses on South Korea's role in Southeast Asia, is a laudable effort to align the two countries to adhere to the line set by the United States. The Biden administration should do much more of this in various areas such as fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change or free trade and free movement of people to ensure that South Korea is a major one Partner is.
It will also require mental adjustment. Washington has long approached the Korean Peninsula with North Korea as the main problem and South Korea as perhaps part of the overall solution. This order of priority now needs to be reversed: maintaining the alliance with South Korea is the main problem that needs to be addressed. One of the components is North Korea. Fortunately, this is the view taken by some in DC's foreign policy circles. For US foreign policy in Asia to be successful over the next few decades, so must the Biden administration.