To new readers, this is part four in a running debate between me and Van Jackson of Georgetown. Van (we are friends) originally argued that the group of countries pushing back on China in the South China Sea (SCS) could use South Korea’s extra weight. I responded that South Korea, as a middle power, can bring little to bear on the SCS tussle and that such intervention might heal the emerging rift between North Korea and China.

Van then responded that the current Sino-North Korea split is likely exaggerated, and that too much focus on North Korea blinds South Korea to its other regional interests. In this round, I will argue that North Korea must dominate South Korean foreign policy, on both national security and humanitarian grounds, and that Seoul brings so little to the SCS fight that even the modest glimmers of a Chinese-North Korean split is worth its reticence.

South Korean Grand Strategy

In the end, as Van says, the root of our debate may be disagreements over South Korean grand strategy.

Van seems to fit in what one might call the ‘Global Korea’ school. Global Korea was a notion for South Korean strategy first pushed by former President Lee Myung Bak. Lee sought, with strong support from the US and the Washington DC think-tank scene, to re-imagine South Korea as a ‘responsible middle power’ with global interests. Lee was the first Korean president to draft a ‘national security strategy’ (here is the most recent) based on the American model. He got South Korea involved in the struggle against Somali piracy, and Washington think-tanks wrote the expected salutations of Korea’s expanding horizons, which, not surprisingly, dovetailed with American preferences. Korea, for example, would be a more vocal participant in the war on terror.

None of this is really wrong. But much of it changes the subject from the issue which everyone, not just South Koreans, are burned out with but nonetheless will not go away: North Korea. Call this the ‘North Korea first’ school of Korean strategy. When North Korea is gone, then Global Korea makes sense. Until then, it's important that Seoul stay the course.

South Korea needs to take serious ownership of the North Korea problem, and I worry that it does not. South Koreans are increasingly wary of unification given the huge costs. North Korean defectors in the South - heroes to my mind - often face social discrimination. South Koreans get far more animated discussing Japan in their foreign policy than North Korea. Missile defense, which seems strikingly obvious to the analyst community, is nonetheless very contentious in Seoul. Civil defense for nuclear scenarios is not taken seriously. The South Korean military has regular problems with abuse, hazing, corruption, and glitzy, prestige-driven procurement choices. It's not properly structured for post-unification stabilisation or ready for a COIN scenario in the North. Nor was it able to takeover its own defence despite years of lead-time. Most Western analysts of Korean security I know worry about ROK Army readiness, and fear that the US defence guarantee has blunted Korean strategic thinking.

In my own experience in Korea, I routinely find my students, colleagues and friends are simply exhausted with North Korea. This is entirely understandable (most analysts are too). South Korea is a modern, globalised place. Like the rest of us, South Koreans want to watch their HDTVs, travel, gab on their cellphones, find a cool job and otherwise live the sorts of modern, fun lifestyles they see in Western television. No one wants to hunker down for a long, grim, expensive head-to-head contest with grey, gloomy, reactionary North Korea. And Global Korea’s appeal is precisely that. It places South Korea in the company of states Koreans want to be peers with – the US, Japan the EU – not bizarre, backward, fatiguing North Korea.

The problem of course is that this is just not sustainable. North Korea is not going away, and no amount of ‘global Korean’ activity can change that, as we will all be reminded next time North Korea does something outrageous, like pick a fight in the Yellow Sea or send a drone over Seoul. North Korea has not lashed out in awhile, but with the Winter Olympics coming to South Korea in 2018 and their spiraling nuclear program, it's not hard to imagine friction. Indeed it would be unusual if the North were to not misbehave.

In short, South Korea needs to get out front on North Korea. North Korea should not be pushed onto the US, China, the Six Party Framework, the international community and so on. South Korean politicians need to be upfront on the costs and risks, and argue vigorously that they are worth it. South Koreans need to be reminded that, as seductive as Global Korea is, the Cold War is still on in Korea, and that North Korea is their historic burden. Yes, that really sucks, and yes, the rest of us can help at the margins. But firstly and largely, this is a South Korean problem, which means more leadership, more defense spending, more preparation for North Korean occupation and reorganisation and more honesty with the public to groom support for this historic project. And to her credit, President Park's Administration has moved on some of this. She has reiterated the goal of unification, faced down the North in one of its typical ginned-up faux crises in 2013, and has pushed the Chinese hard on the issue.  

Korea, China and the South China Sea

Van makes a few other points worth debating:

  1. I argued that South Korean reticence on SCS helps the widening rift between China and North Korea. Van may be right that this is not due to South Korean diplomacy, but that does not alter my point that if South Korea does step into the SCS flap, that step will push China back toward Pyongyang. So long as North Korea and China are scrapping, we should not rock the boat, and if Park can keep that ball rolling by schmoozing the Standing Committee, so much the better.
  2. Van argues that North Korea could probably find a way to survive without Chinese aid. I am extremely sceptical of this. North Korea’s economy is such a disaster that it almost certainly requires regular, large subsidies, as it did throughout the Cold War from the USSR, and since then from China among others. The only time North Korea stood on its own, a brutal, self-created famine followed. Van suggests maybe Russia could step into the gap. But Putin’s Russia is dwarfed by China and has little regional presence. China is the irreplaceable lifeline, as Kim Jong-Un’s last-minute decision to skip the Moscow WWII festivities suggests.
  3. Van suggests that China only acts on its national interests defined by cold realpolitik. I agree. But interests come from identity and perception, and there is growing evidence that the Chinese are rethinking the value of the North Korean buffer. Specifically, moderates in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Chinese international relations academia have intimated for years now that the North Korean alliance is not balance-positive for Beijing because it fuels the American pivot and pushes Seoul and Tokyo toward the US. Abandonment will not happen soon, but the easiest way to smother this emerging debate is for South Korea to strike an openly anti-Chinese position.
  4. Finally, I still see little evidence that South Korea can make much of a difference in the SCS. It's a medium-sized power and distant from the area. What matters is the response the littorals, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, plus the larger, over-the-horizon states – the US, Japan and India. I see no obvious reason to jeopardise this long-sought, very valuable cooling Sino-North Korean relationship for one more small weight on the regional scale. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Expert Infantry.