The fall of Kabul on Aug. 15 came as a shock for the whole world, but especially for South Korea.
Politicians’ remarks that Incheon International Airport might suffer the same fate as the Kabul airport must have evoked a vivid feeling of déjà vu for those who recall the chaos and tragedy of the bombing of the Han River Bridge during the Korean War or the fall of Saigon on Apr. 30, 1975.
The foreign press played a role in this. After Marc Thiessen, a columnist at the Washington Post, tweeted that “if South Korea were under this kind of sustained assault, they would collapse just as quickly without US support,” his tweet was splashed across the front pages of South Korean newspapers.
Shim Jae-hoon and Donald Kirk, veteran foreign correspondents and long-time observers of Korean Peninsula affairs, wrote that South Korea faces a potential security threat unlike Taiwan and Japan because “the government of President Moon Jae-in mouths empty slogans of peace and detente while undermining the US-Korean alliance [and] cutting down annual military exercises.”
The ink spilled about Korea’s national security since the fall of Afghanistan generally fell into three categories that can be summed up as the “butterfly effect.”
First, there were worries about the South Korean military. To take one good example, Yoon Seok-youl, former prosecutor general and presidential hopeful, said that “the current administration has made an army without an enemy, an army without an objective, an army that is untrained.” Yoon’s remarks were presumably prompted by events in Afghanistan.
Second, there were arguments about the futility of peace agreements. Critics said that the fundamental reason for Kabul’s fall was the peace deal that the US and the Taliban reached in Doha in February 2020 and contended that the Moon administration’s vision for peace on the Korean Peninsula — which would include an end-of-war agreement and peace treaty — would bring about the kind of catastrophe that occurred in Afghanistan.
Finally, there are the questions of South Korea’s alliance with the US and America’s military presence in Korea. Pundits said that Korea can’t actually guarantee its security without the US military, but Washington can pull out American troops at any time if it suits their national interest. Thus, Korea needs to do its part as a loyal ally to ensure the US sticks around.
However, these concerns, criticisms and proposals strike me as absurd. To begin with, it’s almost insulting to compare the South Korean military to the Afghan military. The Afghan army was a phantom force; more than 90% of its troops were illiterate, and 60,000 of a nominal force of 300,000 were nonexistent.
In addition to the fundamental limitations of a motley force whose ranks were filled from various tribes and ethnic groups, the Afghan military had a dismal system of command and control. It was a paper tiger that couldn’t function without American supplies, air power and reconnaissance.
It’s nonsense to compare the Afghan army to the South Korean army, a force with a 70-year history that boasts world-class fighting ability and heavy long-term investment in armaments. Nor does it make sense to resort to wholesale disparagement of the military’s security awareness, fighting ability and discipline because of a few recent incidents of sexual assault in the service.
It’s true that the peace deal reached in Doha was riddled with problems. The same can be said of the Paris Peace Accords the US and North Vietnam signed in 1973.
The Trump administration rashly pursued negotiations with the Taliban while essentially excluding the Afghan government, then agreed to reduce and withdraw American troops before the domestic political situation in Afghanistan was stabilized. That was the biggest failure of the negotiations.
But it’s unreasonable to link that to the Moon administration’s peace initiative. The argument is that an end-of-war declaration will lead to the withdrawal of American troops and the collapse of the US-Korea alliance, but both the South Korean and US governments have made clear that such a declaration would be a symbolic gesture aimed at relieving tension on the Korean Peninsula and creating momentum for North Korea’s denuclearization.
Furthermore, an end-of-war declaration has nothing to do with the status of the South Korea-US alliance or of US troops on the peninsula, and the conversion of the armistice agreement to a peace treaty would go hand in hand with North Korea’s denuclearization.
Another major difference with Afghanistan is that the South Korean government has both the will and the ability to lead peace negotiations.
No one could deny the importance of the South Korea-US alliance or the presence of US troops. They’re critical assets for establishing deterrence against North Korea’s ever-strengthening nuclear capability.
But the lesson we should take away from the tragedy in Afghanistan is to stop complacently regarding the alliance and the American military as an eternal constant. Instead, we should quickly regain wartime operational control so that the Korean military can lead the defense of Korea with the US playing a supporting role.
The US and President Biden sent a clear message through their withdrawal from Kabul: If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one will. Clinging to the outdated argument of maintaining an American military presence as a “tripwire” will make us repeat the error of the Afghan government, which came to rely entirely on the American military.
In this sense, the lesson of Kabul is different from what many assume. Namely, we shouldn’t distort the objective facts for political gain or disparage our own will and ability, causing our counterparts to miscalculate, since neither serves our national interest. In addition, we need to think about how we can strengthen ourselves, if only to protect the alliance.
That’s just common sense. But the problem is that there are some who disregard common sense for short-term gain.
The original post is available on the Hankyoreh website here.
Image: AP/Yonhap News