Can S. Korea and the US Talk as Friends?
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Can S. Korea and the US Talk as Friends?


APLN member Cheong Wook-Sik argues that if South Korea truly is a friend to the US, it should communicate that a long war is not in the US’ interests. Read the original article here.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s remarks in an April 19 interview with Reuters on the possibility of lethal weapon aid to Ukraine are generating major waves.

The most immediate reaction has been from Russia. Moscow has warned that it will respond sternly to any South Korean weapons aid to Ukraine, which it would regard as a hostile act against Russia.

The situation has already left South Korea-Russian diplomatic relations in their worst state in history, with South Korea taking part in US-led sanctions against Russia, which has responded by designating South Korea as “unfriendly.” Under the circumstances, that relationship could become overtly hostile if the Yoon administration goes ahead with weapon aid to Ukraine — with all the economic, diplomatic, and security losses and risks that entails.

Yoon’s shift on the principle barring weapon aid to countries at war appears to be due to his focus on this week’s South Korea-US summit. It is widely known that the US government has been pressuring Seoul directly and indirectly to provide Ukraine with weapon support. So curious was it about the Yoon administration’s position that it even allegedly listened in on conversations among senior officials in the National Security Office.

Yoon’s backward steps on the war in Ukraine

The furor over US eavesdropping was an opportunity to turn the situation to our advantage and assert Seoul’s positions more strongly with Washington.

Given that the US had committed an illegal breach of etiquette against an ally, our response should have been to demand an apology and a promise that this would not happen again, while making it clear that any South Korean assistance to Ukraine would be limited to humanitarian and financial aid.

But the Yoon administration ended up going the opposite direction. It fell over itself letting the US off the hook diplomatically, while reaching an agreement to find the “silver lining” in the eavesdropping incident as an opportunity to strengthen the bilateral alliance.

When it comes to the situation in Ukraine, there are much broader and more fundamental areas where South Korea needs to reflect. To begin with, we should focus on the content included in the recently leaked confidential US documents.

They included an assessment from the Joe Biden administration that not only saw little possibility of success for the Ukrainian military’s spring counteroffensive but also predicted Ukraine’s air defense network could collapse sometime around May.

In a recent contribution to Foreign Affairs, US Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass and Georgetown University professor Charles Kupchan concluded that in spite of Russia’s battling and Ukraine’s resistance, the “most likely outcome of the conflict is not a complete Ukrainian victory but a bloody stalemate.”

This should have been the topic of dialogue between Seoul and Washington. With not just the international community but even the American public and other politicians taking such a pessimistic view on the prospects for the Russia-Ukraine war, there should have been a heart-to-heart on what the best possible outcome would look like.

They should have discussed whether increased weapon aid to Ukraine might not have the effect of dragging the war out longer, or whether it might be a better option for NATO and the South Korea-US alliance to join in the international community’s efforts to broker a peace agreement.

Instead, the Yoon administration found itself all too easily caught in the American framing of the conflict where there is no alternative to a Ukrainian victory.

If the administration were to communicate to Washington that it cannot provide lethal weapon aid, the US might be upset for the immediate term. But it would also recognize that South Korea’s contributions extend to taking part in sanctions against Russia and providing humanitarian and financial assistance to Ukraine. Indeed, the same choice has been made by the US’ various other allies that are not NATO members.

But when South Korea gets caught in the US framing, it ends up forced to make a choice between whether to provide Ukraine with weapons or not. If Seoul gives Washington an inch on the weapon provisions issue, the US will keep pestering it, and the Yoon administration will keep coming up with ploys. This was the context behind the reports last March about how the administration and a defense company had signed an agreement to provide the US with half a million rounds of South Korean made 155mm shells — not as a sale but as a loan.

It’s not too late for the Yoon administration to change the direction of its discussions on the agenda for the Russia-Ukraine war at the upcoming South Korea-US summit. It needs to reaffirm its principle of keeping weapon aid off the table, while focusing the dialogue on fundamental issues of war and peace.

As the war drags on, the biggest victims are the people of Ukraine. The damages of uncertain energy and food supplies end up visited on impoverished people across national borders and in developing countries.

As the attention of the US and other Western countries remains wholly focused on the Russia-Ukraine war, this ends up delaying the response to the climate crisis, which is fast becoming a real threat to humankind.

The growing “American Korea”

If South Korea truly is a friend to the US, it should communicate that a long war is not in the US’ interests either. As the Russia-Ukraine war has stretched on, the number of countries continuing to denounce and sanction Russia has dwindled.

At the time of a UN General Assembly vote in March 2022 shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there were 52 countries that declined to back a condemnation of Russia. By the time of another vote last November, that number was all the way up to 99.

Meanwhile, more and more countries are raising questions about the US’ hypocrisy and its true intentions. Twenty years after its illegal invasion of Iraq, the US has yet to say a word of apology. When the International Criminal Court said it planned to investigate allegations of US war crimes in Afghanistan, the US responded by imposing sanctions on the court.

That same US is now talking about how Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to be brought to justice. Most crucially, it has shown little to no interest in an end to the conflict.

There are many countries that take issue with the US’ attitude and hypocrisy, including the developing countries of the “Global South” (Asia, Africa, and South America). Is that really in Washington’s interest? The apathy of the US and other Western countries toward issues in developing countries has led to China rushing to fill the void. What sort of sway will that have on the US-China rivalry?

Even the US is not free from the negative effects of economic uncertainties that have arisen as the Russia-Ukraine war has dragged on. Will this lead to a renewed emergence of isolationism? Is it sustainable for the US to attempt to rebuild its own economy by squeezing its allies through means like the Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act?

These are reasonable enough questions for a friend to ask.

The first question we should be asking is what the US represents to us. The world is not limited to the US and to countries that coordinate with it.

But the “US in South Korea’s midst” continues to grow. The Yoon administration has been advocating for a “global Korea” — but in practice, this means going all-in on the US to such an extent that you might confuse it with an “American Korea.”

I’m not saying we should be anti-American. I simply mean that with the new muscle we possess as one of the world’s top ten economies and top six military powers, we should stop and think about where our intellectual capabilities stand.

Image: President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea sees off President Joe Biden of the US during the American leader’s visit to the Osan Air Base in Korea on May 22, 2022. (presidential office pool photo)

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