My Essay for Newsweek Korea on the Current Korean Strategy Debate in the Media: K Caught b/t the US and China

newsweek-1028_페이지_1 (3)This is a lengthy piece I just wrote for this week’s edition of Newsweek Korea. Here is the link for the Korean version; below is the English translation. The Korean version is unfortunately gated after page 1, so if you want the whole thing in Korean, email for the PDF. That is the edition’s cover to the left.

The short, IR theory version is that: a) S  Korea is a middle power that risks ‘overplaying its hand’ against Japan, as a think-tanker friend put it, because of the ‘moral hazard’ facilitated by the American alliance (as Katzenstein noted, Japan is the US anchor state in Asia, and Koreans can’t change that no matter how much they resent that special relationship); b) the Americans believe in the democratic peace and simply don’t accept that Japan is some kind of proto-fascist state (this is a real breakpoint with the Americans); and c) Korean geography basically traps it in a Waltian ‘balance of threat’ quandary: even though it is small, its proximity means it will get pulled into the Sino-US/Japan stand-off whether it likes it or not. The only possible way out I can think of for Korea is unilateral nuclearization (yikes). Also, my continuing skepticism of the pivot pops up. I still don’t think Americans actually care enough about Asia to really get pulled into a major competition with China. Here’s that essay:

“Since the recent visit of US Secretary of Defense Charles Hagel to Japan, a rising discussion in South Korea (SK) turns on the country’s tight position between China and Japan. The looming possibility of a cold war in Asia between the US and China clearly puts Japan in the American camp and strands SK between Asia’s two largest economies. Newspaper editorials are calling for creative SK diplomacy to escape this tightening bind, but it is hard to see how even the finest SK statesmanship could pull this off. The constraints of geography – Korea cannot move itself somewhere else – limit its ability to avoid a Sino-US or Sino-US/Japanese face-off. And despite Korea’s rapid growth and modern military, it is still significantly outpaced by its neighbors. The US, China, and Japan are the world’s three largest economies, with Russia and North Korea (NK) lurking in the neighborhood as well. It would be very hard for SK to stand alone in such a dense environment (unless it unilaterally nuclearized). Once again, Korea is a ‘shrimp among whales.’

The Context of Sino-American Competition

As China grows economically – it surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy a few years ago – its perception of its interests is growing too. In the Pacific Rim, this translates into expansive Chinese claims on the South China Sea and increasingly loud insistence on Chinese sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. While China regularly claims its rise will be peaceful – and it generally has been – it is difficult to avoid substantial friction. Challengers who rise as quickly as China almost inevitably collide with status quo leaders like the United States. This is why China is often compared to Wilhelmine Germany. 19th century Germany also rose quickly and collided with status quo powers, most importantly Britain. In 1914, that rivalry turned to war, and WWI was the most horrific conflict the world had seen to date.

There is a widespread fear that something similar might happen in East Asia. China is rising fast, and it is very large. Its sheer bulk means that its rise unnerves everyone around it. America particularly worries that China intends to slowly displace it from East Asia, culminating in something like a Chinese ‘Monroe Doctrine’ in Asia. In 1823, US President James Monroe introduced the idea that no further European colonization or major intervention in the Western Hemisphere would be permitted without American consent. In effect, the US would wield a veto over the foreign policy behavior of Latin America, which became informally known as ‘America’s backyard.’ Although uncomfortably neocolonial, the Monroe Doctrine still remains informal US policy in the Western Hemisphere and is the root of American hegemony in that area. In US international relations thinking, there is a widespread fear that China may be pursuing something similar – regional East Asian dominance with the US pushed back to Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, and local states like Japan and the ASEAN countries agreeing to broadly follow China’s lead on foreign policy. This is sometime likened to a re-establishment of the old Confucian Chinese ‘tribute system’ of the ‘Middle Kingdom.’

The result of these growing American concerns is the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ – a shift in US diplomatic attention and military resources to Asia, pushed hard by President Obama. So the US Defense Department claims that 60% of the US navy will be in the Pacific by 2020, and the US recently began stationing Marines in Australia. The Chinese fear this is ‘neo-containment,’ akin to the US response to the USSR, and it may well become that. But it is also a prudent shift in US attention. Europe absorbed much US commitment during the Cold War, and since 9/11, the Middle East too pulled the US in deeply. But now there is a growing recognition that Asia is probably a more important area for the US in the future than those regions. Asia’s economies are growing more rapidly. The European Union is peaceful and economically stagnant. The Middle East has become a terrible sink-hole of US power, and it takes little imagination to see that China is more important to the US than Israel or Iran.

In short, as Korean analysts have begun to perceive, the US and China are slowly sliding toward a cold war-style stand-off over the course of the western Pacific. The Chinese claim the Americans are interlopers in Asia; the Americans say they have been a Pacific power for more than a century. The Chinese are building aircraft carriers; the US is moving toward an integrated strategy to fight a maritime war against China called ‘AirSea Battle.’ China increasingly supports NK as a ‘buffer’ against the robust democracies of the US, South Korea and Japan; the Americans in response encourage Japan and South Korea to adopt missile defense systems. This spiral of tit-for-tat, move-and-countermove need not result in war. China and the US are not ‘fated’ to conflict. But a competition in the western Pacific seems likely in the coming decades, and countries caught in the middle, including SK, the ASEAN states, and Australia, will increasingly feel pressure to choose sides.

Japan, long China’s primary contestant for regional supremacy in Asia, has clearly done so already. No Asian state supports the US pivot as much as Japan, and the pivot and AirSea Battle are simply impossible for the US to conduct without Japan. Japan is the lynchpin of the US position in East Asia. Middle power US allies like SK, Taiwan, and Australia can help hold the line against possible Chinese expansion, but only Japan has the ability to genuinely challenge Chinese dominance. (Russia might, but it is far too weak in East Asia, as is India.) Hence the recent Hagel trip, and the American tolerance for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s tough rhetoric. The budding Sino-US competition is in fact, a Sino-US/Japan competition. And this places SK right in the middle of the tension.

America and the Lack of a Korea-Japan Alliance

US strategic thinking on East Asia is dominated by China, and its semi-client, NK. America’s primary geopolitical concern is to hold back Chinese regional dominance long enough for China to accustom itself to good international behavior and, ideally, democratize. Until then the US will tend gloss over the distinctions and differences among its scattered Asian allies. That means that most Americans will assume that Korea and Japan are allies and will cooperate on US goals regarding China and NK.

While the Korean public is deeply suspicious of Japanese motives, most Americans are not. The notion, widespread in Asia, that Japan is frequently on the cusp of re-militarization and renewed aggression in Asia, is not shared in the US. Indeed, American officials and commentators tend to find such suggestions fantastical. Similarly, the Japanese-Korean maritime disputes are simply not seen as the existential crises the Korean public and media insist they are. That Korea would use force against Japan over Dokdo, for example – which President Roh is now known to have endorsed if necessary – would strike most Americans as exceptionally myopic. That is, most Americans would be shocked to know US allies right next to China and NK were fighting among themselves. Americans are broadly unaware of the Dokdo dispute and would assume it pales next to the looming rise of China and the North Korean menace.

Koreans find this endlessly frustrating in my experience here. In my classes and at conferences, I take regular questions and complaints from Koreans about why the US does not discipline Japan, why the US does not discourage Japanese visits to the Yasukuni shrine, why the US does not side with Korea on Dokdo, and so on. There are several answers:

First, as noted above, Americans do not see Japan as some kind of incipient fascist state, but as an ally, in fact, the US ally in Asia. Koreans dislike to hear to this, but it is simply undeniable that Japan is America’s ‘anchor ally’ in Asia. Korea cannot be that, no matter how many Koreans tell me so. Perhaps after unification, but until then, the Americans simply will not take up Korean claims against Japan.

Second, Korean-Japanese differences seem minor to Americans given China’s rise and the NK nuclear and missile programs. Indeed, a common American response to Japanese-Korean tension is also frustration: why aren’t they cooperating on the big regional issues?

Third, as an ally to both Korea and Japan, the US cannot wade into their disputes, much less impose a settlement. Ultimately, a Korean-Japanese deal must have domestic support in both countries. An American imposed agreement would be about as useful as US forced diplomacy between the Israelis and Palestinians has been. Indeed, the great irony of this may be that the US alliance with Korea and Japan reduces the incentives of both sides to find solutions. In the May 20, 2013 issue of Newsweek Korea, I argued that the mutual US alliance allows nationalists and maximalists on both sides to make outrageous claims and statements but face little punishment. There is little pushing Korea and Japan to genuinely make concessions.

Koreans may wish for a more nuanced American picture of East Asia. And certainly the many Americans working in this area professionally do know of these differences. The US has done a reasonable job of tempering Korean-Japanese tensions over the years. And this effort is matched by the many Korean and Japanese foreign policy intellectuals who do see that Dokdo and memories of WWII divide Korea and Japan to the benefit of NK and China. But until China changes, until it is no longer a fast-growing, but human rights-violating, one-party state without elections, US attention will remain focused on it. It is worth recalling how much Korea and Japan do in fact have in common compared to China – democracy, capitalism, liberal freedoms, human rights, open societies. To Americans, Korea and Japan have far more in common than Koreans and Japanese themselves may see.

Despite the American interest in a Korean-Japanese rapprochement, it is generally unwanted, especially in Korea. Distrust runs too deep. At minimum, some kind of negotiated solution to Dokdo would be required. Ironically Japan would likely accept Korean sovereignty over the islets but for the precedent it would set. Japan is tied up in two similar disputes with Russia and China. As such, ceding Dokdo unilaterally to Korea, which the Japanese public would probably accept on its own terms, would spark Russian and Chinese pressure for the same. Given that both are authoritarian great powers with poor relations with Japan, Japan cannot be seen as knuckling under to their pressure. As such, Japan remains insistent on ‘Takeshima.’

Similarly, there would need to be some kind of final deal on wartime issues. This too is unlikely, as these are as much moral as legal issues. Korean demands for compensation turn less on monetary awards than recognition. Koreans seek a German-style acceptance of guilt by Japan, which Japanese conservatives are simply unwilling to give. Indeed heavy American pressure on Japan regarding this point, an idea I often hear in conversation here, would likely lead to a US-Japan rupture rather than Japanese acceptance of war-guilt. The Japanese right simply does not accept the Korean and Chinese interpretation of the war, and no amount of American arm-twisting will change that.

Keeping America in Asia

In lieu of a Korean-Japanese settlement, the American pivot then becomes central to both. Both are reliant on the US for security. Both have a love-hate relationship with the Americans. Korean anti-Americanism comes in waves but always seems to fall apart on the realities of Korean security: without the US alliance, Korea would probably need to spend triple what it does on defense and double the length of military service terms. Japan too would spend heavily on defense and likely go nuclear.

But the American pivot is not a foregone conclusion, because America’s Asian allies need American power a lot more than the US needs them. At least four factors threaten to derail the pivot and force Japan and SK back toward each other:

First, domestic support in the US for the pivot is restricted to elites. US public opinion on Asia is poorly formed, and there is no obvious constituency in the US for the pivot. Neither American political party’s coalition is calling for it. American business, burned repeatedly by mercantilism and trade friction in Asia, is not a loud voice. The business coalition that supported regular trade relations with China in the 1990s has since fallen apart. Nor is there a vocal ethnic bloc of Asian-American voters calling for the pivot either. This is a Washington, not popular, project.

Second, Americans are more ignorant of Asia than other part of the world bar sub-Saharan Africa. Europe, Latin America, and Russia all approximate Western civilization. Even Islam is a monotheistic religion Americans can somewhat understand, and Middle Eastern issues activate deeply held Christian religious beliefs in the US. By contrast Asian religions, social traditions, and customs are far more foreign. Confucianism, Buddhism, Asian writing scripts, food preparation, traditional clothing and music, bowing, ancestor veneration, and so on are so cultural alien to most Americans, that I am highly doubtful Americans will culturally empathize enough with Asia to sustain the pivot.

Third, a heavy American commitment to Asia is less necessary for US goals than in the Middle East. In Asia, the US has many strong, functional democratic allies; the US can ‘buck-pass’ China and NK to local allies such as Japan or India. In the Middle East, the US has only Israel. Deep religious commitments tie the US to the Middle East and will inhibit the pivot to Asia, as the Syrian conflict is doing right now.

Fourth, US budget constraints and military over-extension limit the pivot. American finances are a mess, and more than a decade of war in the Middle East since 9/11 has exhausted the US public and its military. The American people are unlikely to support a major US military build-up that provokes an arms race with China.

The outcome of this crippled pivot for Korea is to then push it back, however unsought, toward Japan. The US is likely to continue to seek a Korea-Japanese rapprochement if only to relieve the burden on the US of confronting China.

Korea’s Choices

This is likely a frustrating analysis for Koreans. It places Korea in the second tier of US allies in the region, a position that deeply rankles Korean pride but will not change soon. It suggests an American indifference to the details of the Korean-Japanese dispute and a blunt American insistence that Korea ‘get over it,’ whereas many Koreans hold deep-seated grudges about Japan, Dokdo, the war, and so on. President Park has made it clear she will not meet with Abe because of his nationalist coalition, but it is also clear from Secretary Hagel’s visit to Japan that America does not mind some nationalism if it encourages Japan to carry more of the load in responding to China. Finally, this analysis effectively paints SK into the American-Japanese camp in what many suspect is a zero-sum competition between China and the US.

Korea’s geographic position, right between Japan and China, makes this almost impossible to avoid unfortunately. In past Sino-Japanese competitions, Korea was a central prize. A 19th century Prussian advisor to Meiji Japan once referred to Korea as ‘a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan.’ This has not changed. China openly refers to NK as a ‘buffer’ and tacitly supports NK’s continued existence. While China would prefer a divided Korea in any case, the heart of its opposition to Korean unity is the possible stationing of US forces in Korea near the Chinese border. Whether Korea likes it or not, China, the US, and Japan are all already treating Korea as if it were a part of the larger Sino-US competition. Hence China’s warning to Korea recently not to join a US-led missile defense program, even though its aimed at NK, for fear of severing crucial economic ties with China.

Is there a way out for Korea? I doubt it. SK is an encircled middle power. Indeed, it may be the only middle power on the planet bordered by three great powers, or four if one includes the US. This means that it almost inevitably gets pulled into the geopolitics of the larger states around it. Worse, Korea is divided, and the US provides substantial security assistance – ‘extended deterrence’ – to SK against NK. Hence, it would be politically untenable for the SK-US alliance if SK simultaneously asked for US help with NK but then refused to side with it against China in a conflict. Should that occur, the US would almost certainly exit Korea permanently.

I see three possible Korean options, all with strong downsides:

First, SK simply accepts that it is in the American-Japanese camp in a brewing East Asian cold war. Given Korea’s location, it will be nearly impossible to finesse US-Chinese differences indefinitely. Unlike countries like Indonesia or Australia, who are far enough away to draw some distance from the Sino-US competition, Korea and its demilitarized zone are ground-zero for the US-China split. The upside is the retention of the US security guarantee and a continuing association with liberal democracies like the US, Japan, and Australia. China may be SK’s biggest trading partner, but it clearly does not share Korea’s liberal, democratic values. Do Koreans really want to choose a repressive one-party state over the liberal camp? The downside though would be Chinese alienation and continued support for NK, plus Korean acceptance of Japan as ally, an infuriating ‘concession’ for the Korean public.

Second, Korea can continue to duck and weave between the US and China to forestall becoming a front-line anti-Chinese state for the US. This has the obvious upside of allaying China, a huge, potentially militarily threatening neighbor. It may also help China feel confident enough to one day let NK go and facilitate, rather than obstruct, unification. The downside of course is regular tension with the Americans and Japanese. Korea was frequently bullied by its larger neighbors in the past. The American alliance inhibits this and reinforces Korean sovereignty against local challengers. But conveniently, the alliance also costs SK little political control, because the Americans are too geographically and culturally distant to really dominate Korea. A powerful ally who is very far away is a great arrangement for Korea, and every Korean president since Syngman Rhee has defended the American alliance. It is not clear if authoritarian China will respect Korean sovereignty the same way.

Third, Korea could try to go it alone. This harkens to the idea occasionally discussed on the Korean left that Korea could be bridge or mediator between the US and China. That was always a somewhat self-congratulatory fantasy. Great powers do not let middle powers arbitrate their disputes, and both China and the US ignored that initiative. But SK is now wealthy enough that it could engage in sustained drive for heavily armed neutralism, akin to Switzerland’s centuries-old grand strategy. Surrounded by much larger states who might easily swallow it, Switzerland has adopted a rigorous neutralism over many centuries. And it has armed itself heavily to defend that. Korea might pursue the same choice. Korea spends only 2.7% of GDP on defense. It could spend vastly more, expand conscription to include females and longer service terms, and develop nuclear weapons – all options pursued by Israel which is also a small, surrounded sate. The upside would be the exclusion of Korea from the brewing Sino-US competition, a possible decline in tension with NK as US forces left the peninsula, and freedom to pursue a more explicitly anti-Japanese foreign policy. The downside would be the massive expense and social cost, and the risk of geopolitical isolation.

None of these options are ideal. They reflect the central, centuries-old Korean grand strategy quandary: how to vouchsafe Korean sovereignty in a dense neighborhood of much larger countries? There is no obvious answer, but I would guess that Korea will drift in the coming decades between choice one and two, before being eventually pushed into choice one.

36 thoughts on “My Essay for Newsweek Korea on the Current Korean Strategy Debate in the Media: K Caught b/t the US and China

  1. Thanks for an good insight, I value your information. Being back in SE Asia since 2002 and living here permanently since 2010 has brought a bit (little bit) of understanding to me. I don’t have your knowledge but I do see an inevitable collision with China and the US, South China Sea comes to mind. I have to agree most Americans don’t even know where SE Asia is. They might still teach WWII in school, I doubt it, so maybe a clue as to where Japan is. The younger generation doesn’t even have a clue as to what occured in Vietnam. I used to laugh, guys at work thought I was going to Taiwan, not Thailand and didn’t have a clue where either one was, ah somewhere over there followed by a few derogatory racist remarks, duh. We have to have one of most un-educated population of any ‘developed’ nation, and that includes our so called ‘leaders’. I think you might find the link, if it came through, and the article from FP’s Situation Report interesting, another example of friction between the US and SK.

    Exclusive: Is trusted ally South Korea stealing American military secrets? Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel watched a live-fire exercise in South Korea last month in which American and Korean tanks operated side-by-side in a display of military might between two trusted partners fond of describing their relationship as a “blood alliance.” But just beneath that relationship’s surface is a growing unease. South Korea, one of America’s strongest partners in East Asia, is aggressively targeting U.S. advanced technology for its own use in a variety of Korean weapons programs, Situation Report has learned. From anti-ship missiles, electronic warfare equipment, torpedoes, a multiple-launch rocket system, and even components on a Korean-made Aegis destroyer, the United States is concerned about the uncanny resemblance those systems bear to American weaponry. Even the tanks Hagel watched on the range that day may be partial knock-offs: The Korean models have fire control systems that appear to be all-but-identical to the American versions.

    Though the United States long has had systems in place to monitor technology-sharing with allies, the case with South Korea has become particularly acute in the last few years. As the United States pivots East and Asia’s once sleepy defense industries begin to awaken, it has quietly begun to scrutinize its technology-sharing relationships with such allies, conducting secret but robust “dialogues” to ensure that American secrets stay that way.

    “We need people to have good capabilities,” said Beth McCormick, the head of the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration, or DTSA, in an interview in her office a few miles from the Pentagon. “But at the same time, when we provide that technology, the United States has the perspective that we want to make sure that it is used for the purpose for which we provide it.” McCormick would not discuss any specific platforms on which DTSA is applying additional scrutiny, saying only that the United States is in a robust “dialogue” with Korea and must ensure that the technologies it shares, even with trusted allies, are properly safeguarded. “We really want to have an advanced dialogue with Korea because we saw the fact that Korea has definitely made it very clear that they want to have a bigger, indigenous defense industry,” McCormick said. Read the rest of our story here.


  2. Great article! I think you nail their security situation very precisely. Articles like this are why I keep reading this blog despite the anti-Republican rants.


    • Thank you.

      Got it on the rants, but please note:
      1. I interned for John Boehner in college (true story)
      2. I worked for the Gingrich ‘revolution’ Congress (’95-97) (also true)
      3. I donated to GOP candidates in Ohio as late as 2004.
      4. I have been and continue to be registered Republican. I always vote the GOP primary.

      The Tea Party, Protestant fundamentalists, conservative media hucksters like Beck or Hannity, and neocon war-mongers are not the only elements of GOP coalition, just the loudest and ugliest. There is also this:

      Before you cast me out as a RINO, remember that the GOP will never capture the White House without moderates like me.


      • My, a bit touchy. I myself am an avowed libertarian. Anyways, great article! It’s making the rounds at PACOM.


      • Sorry, wasn’t intended that way. I’m just exhausted with being told, for more than a decade now, that I am a RINO, not a real Republican or conservative and so on. Fox is killing me… Moderates can be Republicans too, and I do in fact have a record in conservative politics which I think a lot of my readers don’t know. Anyway, that’s a conversation for another time…

        When you say it is being read in PACOM, can you elaborate please? That is very intriguing, and quite flattering, to hear. How nice to hear someone relevant actually reads my stuff. Thank you.

        I would enjoy talking to you if you would be comfortable with that. Can you identify yourself and what you represent, please? If not here, please email me: I do not post or otherwise share email chains with colleagues, so I can guarantee confidentiality if that is an issue. I hope to hear from you.

        Thank you. Robert Kelly


    • Ahh… Good catch.

      Still I love the fact that Koreans think the ‘drug war’ means English teachers smoking dope, not meth labs exploding in the middle of rural Ohio and crack destroying Cleveland. They’re so lucky, they’ve no idea.


  3. Interesting article, and thank you for sharing your insight. Among your options for Korea though you are very dismissive of China achieving some degree of “finlandization” of South Korea, if not an outright “pulling it into its orbit”. I have followed your blog for a while now but I don’t think I have ever seen you spell out or elaborate on your reasons for thinking the Koreans would not “choose a repressive one-party state over the liberal camp”.? The physical proximity, historical relationship, cultural familiarity has always made me inclined to think that if sides ever did have to be picked for a “brewing east asian cold war”, why would the Koreans not be more inclined to associate with K-drama loving China? Do the Chinese really represent as great a threat to South Korean sovereignty that South Korean nationalism makes the remote (in more ways than just geographically) US the preferred partner in any potential cold war scenario?

    And I have never seen your criticism of the Republicans as hostile. We need a big tent again in the Republican party or Republicans are going to find that many of us “RINOs” will be effectively forced to become “DINOs”.

    Anywho, thanks for blogging,


    • I’ve actually written a lot about Korean finlandizing on this blog. (Just type that into the search engine.)

      The Koreans don’t want to do it, because it’s too expensive, and they’d rather free-ride on US power. They’d have to triple defense spending, double the length of conscription terms, put women in the military, possibly go nuclear. They don’t want to do that; just go look at how bad, embarrassing even the OPCON transfer has gone. Or how the Korean military buys all this flashy hardware without the ability or ammunition to use it properly. The current system, where they dump national defense on the Americans and then pick fights with Japan over Dokdo is preferred.


  4. I would also like to know more on where you think China will be in 20-30 years. Your arguments make sense to me but they assume that the direction these powers are moving in will continue along the same lines. What if China very abruptly liberalized, or if in opening its rivers project it drained so much water from the Indians that relations between the two countries deteriorated very badly? In other words, it might make sense for Korea to choose your number two strategy of trying to stay under the radar until US-Chinese tensions cool, just as in the early 90s the Americans were frightened that the Japanese would overtake them until a prolonged Japanese recession hit and new distractions arose.

    I suppose I have little data to base this on, and maybe it seems more like a movie script, but if we extrapolate China’s progress out along the same lines you do with its politics and economy, what if its environment also became so polluted that it became a serious existential issue? I don’t see the match with Wilhelmine Germany to be so close, in several such respects.


    • Yes, that is right. I am assuming China will continue to grow and still be a nationalist, aggrieved, one-party state.

      Should that change, well, then the competition with the US will fade and most of this analysis will be irrelevant. Korea will then focus mostly on NK and Japan – which is really what they want to do anyway. They don’t really want to join the pivot. They want to hive-off US troops in Asia into a uniquely Korean commitment about NK with no other regional implications. Roh actually tried to push Rumsfeld into that and that is why Hagel is so upset.


  5. Caught between the US & China? That’s nothing, wait until their in between the missiles and warplanes tossing back and forth between Russia & China. I have to hand Beijing one thing, they have run the greatest military deception since the Allies ‘First US Army Group’ leading up to the Normandy invasion in 1944. Articles like this one, are proof of Beijing’s successful head fake.


  6. Your insight helps me build a balanced view of US diplomatic policy. I was wondering why US tolerates Abe’ touch rhetoric hurting its neighbors. As a Korean it is a bit uncomfortable that Japan comes first than SK for US diplomacy,though. This article reads me reality.


    • Yes, well these are the sorts of problems that really distort the Korean media’s presentation of Korean foreign policy:

      1. Korea needs the US a lot more than the US needs Korea. 2. Japan is significantly more important for the US than Korea. 3. The Korean media should stop reading the US relationship with Japan and Korea in zero-sum terms. 4. The US increasingly expects Korea to participate in its regional architecture in exchange for help with NK. SK can’t ask the US for help with NK but then reject US concerns on China. 5. No one in American cares about Dokdo. 6. Most American foreign policy officials think Korea spends far too little on its own defense. 7. The US will not take sides with Korea against Japan. 8. Most Americans would be shocked to learn that Japan is considered a greater threat to SK than NK. 9. LMB was vastly better at managing these realities than PGH.

      So if you want to improve Korea’s public discourse on foreign policy, start by introducing these hard truths.


      • I agree without the physical presence of the US it will require much more money to approach a similar level of deterrence even if Korea were to go nuclear which nobody is enthusiastic about. The fact that Japan is more important to the US is something that irks Koreans to no end especially because of the history within the last 100 years. The other stuff is being overly touchy in the dealings with japan. On Dokdo it is Korean territory so overreacting when Japanese mouth off on it doesn’t help. Another aspect that would bother Koreans is that the country is viewed as being in Japan’s shadow.

        The Korean military is operating on a shoestring budget with number of people in uniform in relation to the general population being second only to North Korea. China is also operating on a shoestring budget given the size of its military and what it is trying to do which goes beyond what South Korea is trying to do with its military within the next decade or two.


  7. Very interesting article.

    I appreciate that you shared your insightful analysis with us. As a Korean I have no other way but admit that most of your geopolitical analysis is true and relevant. However, there is one thing I would like to stress regarding our current position.

    Should ever hostilities break out between the US and China, the Korean peninsula would be the most likely theater(of war). Unlike Japan or the US which are hundreds to thousands of miles away from the flashpoint, Korea is located at the center of it. This renders Korea in a very vulnerable situation and this implies huge costs (of human lives). This is the situation that Koreans want to avoid. That is the main reason why Koreans are deeply against any coalition explicitly surrounding China This is based on strategic calculus than nationalistic sentiments.

    So the ‘with us or against us’ approach would only be perceived by Korea as something very dangerous resembling that of the neocons. Under no circumstances should we be engaged ourselves in a rigid alliance which may endanger our very survival. Japan and the US cannot understand this because they have never shared (land) borders with an actual or potential enemy. We have to be careful.


    • Sure, I see that. But then, why is the US in South Korea at all?

      South Korea does not need the use to defend itself against North Korea. Instead, it just chooses not to spend more. So why is the US subsidizing Korean defense, when Korea won’t help the US with the regional issue the US really cares about – China? Ie: Korea can’t ask for US help on what it cares about (NK), but then not give the US help on something the US wants (China and the pivot). The Cold War is over and America is broke, so the US won’t tolerate that kind of blatant asymmetry for too much longer.

      The days when the US needed to prop-up SK, because it was weak and because Korea was ground-zero for the Leninist threat to the Free World (ie, the Cold War), are over. There is no obvious US national security need for the US to be in Korea. So if Korea won’t help us on stuff we care about (China), why should we help them? That is why I think Korea will ultimately fall in line with the US and Japan on China: SK would rather free-ride on the US, even at the risk of alienating China, then undertake the massive expense and social dislocation of defending itself on its own (which it could do, which is why I talk about that more and more on this blog).

      For what it’s worth, I don’t actually think China is a huge threat:, but that is the US threat assessment. So I think it is likely that Korea will be forced to choose between alignment against China or an end to the US alliance at some point. And I think the choice is pretty obvious: everyone loves a free-ride.


      • While I think your arguments are sound, the categorization of Korea as a free rider is a little glib. I can see Peter’s point. It is not an easy choice for a small country bordering hostile states to support either the U.S. or China. While Korea could possibly finance its own defense, it could not replace having the physical and symbolic presence of American force as a deterrent to North Korea. It also cannot antagonize China; Korea has acted as a ‘little brother’ or some degree of client state to China for centuries. Expecting Korea to side with a country on the other side of the planet which may or may not be interested in them in fifty years is asking a great deal. Thus I can understand if Korea basically wants to lay low and avoid choosing until such time as it may not be necessary to.

        In term of free riding, you know more about this than I do–but need it be so binary? What if the Koreans became more willing to support and remunerate American involvement–say, if the U.S. privately or publicly made noises about shrinking their forces here and the Koreans offered heavier subsidization? I guess this smacks a little of mercenary soldiers. But we might see this as quite normal in fifty years.


      • I certainly agree that it is a hard choice. It’s just not a US one, and US alliances shouldn’t be charity. America is too broke for that; global hegemony and endless war are corroding American domestic liberalism far too much for freebies; and unburdened allies who don’t feel a sense of limits in dealing with the US can easily pull us into unwanted trouble (see: Israel or the endless infantile scrapping between Korea and Japan).

        So I have no compunction about the US playing hard to get with most of its allies, almost all of whom free-ride – including Korea. It would be good for them too actually, insofar as it would force a level of seriousness on allied defense establishments that have atrophied and infantilized under US protection. Everyone saw those stories about Korean generals going golfing during the spring war crisis.

        If we have to have a $13 trillion dollar debt and the NSA listening to all our phone calls, then we can push allies to do a lot more. Hegemony is not healthy for the US at home, and I see no reason for America to become a prussianized semi-imperial state for foreigners’ defense: Are the Koreans doing that for us? Of course not. So at the very least let’s get something out of it. In fact, let’s get all we can, as concessions to the mi-guks is still a better deal for US allies than to stand alone or with global creeps like China or Russia.

        Nor do I think it is unfair to call Korea a free-rider. Korea spends just 2.7% of GDP on defense. Without the US, that number would triple or quadruple, conscription terms would double, women would be conscripted too, Korea would probably build nuclear weapons, and so on. That Korea’s own defense chiefs recently said that Korea still can’t defend itself without the US, now, in 2013, is just scandalous. Do Koreans want all the tax increases and huge social disruption this would bring? No way. And what is the US getting for this defense guarantee? Zippo. Korea is not even obliged to declare war if the US is attacked.

        If Korea wants a US deterrent guarantee, then that’s a pretty big concession for which to receive almost nothing as far as I can see. So, why shouldn’t we get something back? China containment, if that is what we really want (although I think that is a mistake actually, but that is a different question). I am routinely amazed, eg, that the ROKG fights with the USG so much over the funding of USFK. If I were the ROKG, I’d be bending over backward to accommodate the Americans and keep them happy, as LMB did. If the Koreans don’t like it, fine. We’re outta here. Retrenchment would be healthy for the US anyway. If their pride gets in the way of their national security intelligence, then well, there are lots of Americans who would have no problem if we withdrew from a nuclear war scenario no one in America wants to fight expect DC elites who love global hegemony.

        This doesn’t mean we should bully Korea, but it does mean that Korea should more willingly accept that the alliance right now is very asymmetric, one-sided, and serves no obvious US national security goal. If Korea were smart, it would adjust to that.


      • Historically speaking, I have a pretty hard time thinking of vasall/client relationships in which the client did not freeride. That kinda is part of the deal after all.
        There is also the issue with the Dollar being the reserve currency, America printing a lot of them and in the end greatly inflating costs on the joint defence market with its clients (imho, America does not have, and does not want to have, allies. The last “US-ally” they had that wasnt a client was Communist China during the Sino Soviet Split) .

        Any South Korean move to stay out of a brewing US/China conflict would propably consist of actively choosing Russia (it makes a lot of sense to choose an overlord that is not only distant but also pretty weak compared to the competition, and who has strengths completely different from your own).
        After all, Russia will also want to stay out of a possible world war between the USA and China, and will have a nuclear arsenal that makes picking a fight with them a very iffy proposition.

        A Russian guarantee is not as good as a US guarantee vis a vis North Korea (Vietnams Soviet alliance did not quite work as expected during the Sino-Vietnamese war, although the Soviets still were usefull), but its better than nothing. I would guesstimate that South korea would only have o double, not triple, the defence spending. Compared to finlandisation.
        How China would react to a unified Korea that is a Russian client is a very interesting quesion. Propably better than to a unified Korea that is a US client.
        Russia would of course likely unabashedly take the side of South Korea against Japan in such a situation, which would make such a move more attractive for some circles.
        The other issue is that leaning on Russia can get very iffy if Russia decides to ally with either China or the USA (Sino-Russian relations have a fondness for 180 degree turns) , this would of course make trying to choose the third option pointless.


      • Thank you, A.I.Schmelzer, for your excellent comments.
        If I could, I would like to share your vision in writing ” How China would react to a unified Korea that is a Russian client is a very interesting question. Probably better than to a unified Korea that is a US client.”
        If you think you can say more on this,
        please let me get your email address.


  8. Great points you have in your essay, professor. Readig your essay and seeing the pattern of apparent reestablishment of the ‘middle kingdom’ of china, it seems like our ancient history from before 900s seems to recur. Back then Japan wasn’t organized or civilized enough to be a respectable existence in the east asian politics. The similarity to what option korea can make in this current situation lies in how different korean kingdoms that came and went either utilized the chinese power for strategic goals or fought it off for survival. For example shilla allied with China to conquer Goguryeo and finally unify Korea in the mid 6 or 7th century after which Korea lost its vitality as in ability to sometimes put up a good fight against the chinese and practically became their servant state. With hated Park regime, everlasting and unappeasable tensions with japan starting from the 1500s, growing trade relations with china, and, most importantly, china’s iron grip over north korea, wouldn’t it also be wise to consider the possibility that south korea might take a radical turn internally and seek a way to cooperate with a nearer power center of china, who will readily recognize that north korea is not capable of unifying korea on its own terms, to facilitate more expedient reunification in order to ultimately aim for turning the entire peninsula, from the new cold war between the americans and the chinese? There is a saying in korea “one’s neighbors are closer than one’s own relatives”… What do you think about that, sir?


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