As relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continue to deteriorate, the Republic of Korea (ROK) is in danger of becoming a prominent casualty. The increasingly perilous situation underscores a new problem with Seoul’s continuing, excessive reliance on the United States for South Korea’s security. Washington is pressing the ROK (along with Japan and Australia) to join a de facto, U.S.-led alliance to contain and weaken China’s power. However, it is not in South Korea’s best interest to become a U.S. pawn for such a mission. Indeed, if Seoul does not move toward a position of strict neutrality before any fighting erupts, it could find itself in a fatal crossfire between Beijing and Washington.
The ROK’s security relationship with the United States has always been a mixed blessing. Following the Korean War, South Korea was a very weak country, both economically and militarily, and Seoul had little choice but to be Washington’s compliant dependent. Otherwise, a conquest by communist North Korea, backed by both the PRC and the Soviet Union, was a near certainty. From the standpoint of South Korea’s security, the 1953 “mutual” defense treaty with the United States was a godsend. The ongoing presence of U.S. “tripwire” forces in the ROK further ensured that Washington would come to Seoul’s rescue if attacked.
Even when South Korea’s economic capabilities soared and Washington’s relations with Beijing and Moscow improved dramatically, reducing tensions worldwide, ROK leaders were generally content with their country being a glorified U.S protectorate. Among other benefits, relying on the United States for major components of South Korea’s defense, enabled Seoul to spend scarce funds on further economic development and other domestic needs. At a Seoul conference featuring a colleague of mine in the late 1980s, another speaker, a former ROK diplomat, candidly acknowledged that motive.
To be sure, there was a price that had to be paid for the U.S.-provided security insurance policy. Until now, the principal price has been that the South Korean government has no control over—and little influence on—Washington’s decisions that can drastically affect the ROK’s security and well-being. The perils of such dependency have surfaced several times throughout the decades, especially when U.S. leaders contemplate using military force against North Korea.
Two episodes highlight the risk. The first occurred during President Bill Clinton’s first administration, when U.S. leaders confronted evidence of Pyongyang’s embryonic nuclear weapons program. In 1994, administration officials seriously considered launching air strikes to eliminate even the handful of such installations that existed. Fortunately, administration officials backed away from the abyss, but South Koreans realized that they could do nothing if Washington decided to use military force—despite the potentially catastrophic consequences to their country.
Uneasiness in the ROK surged again in 2017 when Donald Trump’s administration engaged in a saber-rattling confrontation with North Korea. Once again the crisis passed, as Trump reversed course and pursued a less confrontational policy, even flirting with a rapprochement. Nevertheless, a tense, hostile atmosphere between Washington and Pyongyang persists, and given the obsession of U.S. leaders with ending North Korea’s growing nuclear capability, the possibility of a U.S. preemptive strike continues.
A new source of worry for South Koreans is the surging prospect of being caught in the middle of a dangerous cold war, or even worse a hot war, between the United States and China. Seoul continues to value the bilateral alliance primarily as cost-effective protection against North Korean aggression. Washington’s primary objective, though, now seems to be to enlist Seoul in a regional containment policy against China. The Biden administration regards the current ROK president, Yoon Suk-yeol, as more cooperative than his left-wing predecessor, Moon Jae-in, regarding overall U.S. foreign policy objectives.
That perspective is generally valid. Nevertheless, Seoul still wants to avoid antagonizing Beijing regarding either economic decoupling or Taiwan—both top priorities for Washington. China has become the ROK’s largest trade partner, and Seoul also relies on the PRC to discourage North Korea from engaging in rash actions. Yoon and other South Korean leaders know that supporting a U.S. crusade (especially a military crusade) against China would jeopardize all of those objectives. The frigid stance that Yoon took toward House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during her August 2022 stop in Seoul to gain greater support for Taiwan was just one example of the pervasive wariness among Korea’s political establishment.
As Cato Institute senior fellow Doug Bandow points out, it is an especially vital interest for the ROK not to antagonize Beijing militarily. “South Korean military facilities would be targeted by Chinese missile attacks to prevent their use by U.S. forces.” Moreover, if Seoul “committed to go to war on Washington’s command, Beijing would have an incentive to strike preemptively if conflict loomed.” To avoid becoming entangled in a war that would devastate the valuable infrastructure the ROK has built up over the past 50 years, Seoul would have to prohibit Washington from using its bases in South Korea for military strikes against PRC targets. However, it is not certain that U.S. leaders would show the slightest respect for such a prohibition.
Such a fundamental disagreement also would jeopardize Washington’s treaty commitment to defend the ROK from aggression. But if North Korea decided to seize the opportunity of a PRC- U.S. war to launch its own war against the South, it’s not clear that Washington would have sufficient remaining forces available to repel such an attack. The bulk of U.S. air and naval units in the Indo-Pacific region would be deployed 1,500 kilometers to the south to defend Taiwan. Indeed, some would be operating even further south to counter PRC military operations in the South China Sea. U.S. forces would be stretched very thin in the north Pacific, and that logistical reality highlights the ROK’s vulnerability.
South Korean leaders need to ask themselves if retaining the defense alliance with the United States is worth risking war with China. A serious, dispassionate cost-benefit calculation should lead them to conclude that the answer is “no.” The bilateral alliance has outlived its usefulness and now creates needless dangers for the ROK. Seoul needs to move toward a neutral stance toward the burgeoning set of quarrels between Washington and Beijing. The ROK also needs to pursue a crash program to build up its own, independent military capabilities to deter aggression from North Korea or any other source. South Korean leaders should have taken these steps years ago, but it is urgent for them to do so now.