South Korea Tips the Regional Scale: Perceptive Changes and Militarized Diplomacy

On May 21 in Seoul, US President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart, Yoon Suk-yeol, issued a joint statement reaffirming their “combined defense posture.” Two days later in Tokyo, Biden announced the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), which combined a dozen other US-friendly maritime stakeholders, including South Korea, to enshrine common economic principles.

Then, on the morning of the 24th, China and Russia dispatched their bombers and fighter jets into the air defense identification zones (ADIZ) of South Korea and Japan. On the same day, the QUAD, a security forum for the US, Australia, India, and Japan, pledged to endow Indo-Pacific neighbors with infrastructure investment, and most notably, “maritime domain awareness” training, or enhanced oceanic surveillance. The next day, North Korea fired three missiles into the eastern coast of the Korean peninsula, in protest of the UN Security Council’s foiled attempt on the following day to ratchet up sanctions on oil exports to North Korea.

The world is used to outright military reaction, such as deploying missiles and aircraft as emissaries to express discontent and diplomatic rigidity: China’s fortification of the South China Sea, its jets streaking into other countries’ ADIZ, North Korea’s showering of its coastlines with new-fangled missiles, and Russia’s tanks rolling cross-border undaunted.

Yet, underneath the end-of-May flurry of diplomatic and military flexing lurks a subterranean, yet increasingly visible, tendency towards militarized diplomacy. Diplomacy means coordination, reconciliation, and compromise of interests, but it has inadvertently assumed a militaristic undertone lately. Bear in mind that this new militarized diplomacy is quite different from military diplomacy that seeks more political leverage and integration through enhanced, tighter military exercises and mutual security interests.

From the vantage point of China, Russia, and North Korea, South Korea can be considered to be mounting militarized diplomacy: diplomacy not meant for fine-tuning of interests, but for ganging up and brow-beating. In their perception, this constitutes provocation. Perceived threat in the slightest sense feeds into perceived security breach. In other words, insofar as their perception goes, this sort of diplomacy inches ever closer to their red line.

The result of the Biden-Yoon summit and South Korea’s incorporation into the IPEF signals the dawn of this militarized diplomacy in East Asia. Although these two allies are not committing military provocation, their diplomatic cooperation, the way America’s strategic foes see, verges on one by means of their language and its implication. Their backdoor discussions and the explicit tone adopted in their declarations give China, Russia, and North Korea all the more reason to think they are being hemmed in. After all, what matters in military tension and escalation is not one’s intention and genuine security concerns, but the adversaries’ perception.

Prior to the Seoul summit, the US delegates cajoled the Yoon administration to participate in military exercises with Japan and to ship munitions to Ukraine. South Korea has historically shied from extended military engagement and weapons export to controversial regions for fear of upsetting the regional security balance. Still, the summit declared an agreement to hold “discussions to expand the scope and scale of combined military exercises … on and around the Korean Peninsula.” It also recognized the US commitment to deploy more of its military assets in the country as it sees fit. To China, Russia, and North Korea, all these constitute a security threat on their doorstep.

They regard the US attempt to incorporate South Korea more fully into Western-led alliances and military exercises as posing a security menace. South Korea has always straddled – its version of “strategic ambiguity” – between the US, its security partner, and China, its economic partner. Despite America’s “strong request” that Korea join the QUAD last year, former President Moon Jae-in declined in order to avoid enraging China.

Yoon, however, ushered in a new chapter in South Korea’s strategic and diplomatic posture. Yoon aspires for Korea to become a “global pivotal state” and to form a “comprehensive strategic alliance” with America. The mention of “people-to-people” alliance in the statements of both the Seoul summit and the Quad indicates Korea’s gradual abandoning of its historic balancing between the US and China. Before the summit Biden visited Samsung’s semiconductor manufacturing complex, presaging enhanced US investment into critical technologies, and shortly after, Korea became a major signatory to the IPEF, which strives to safeguard strategically important supply chains among the US allies. During the joint press conference, Yoon enthused that “my thoughts concur with Biden’s on almost all fronts.”

Therefore, the latest bout of military provocations are derived as much from the closer US-Korea strategic alignment as from the US-China vying for Indo-Pacific hegemony. Economic and strategic consequences will abound. An apt example comes from 2017, when the US finally deployed its THAAD missile defense system to the Korean peninsula after years of persuading the latter. Though installed for purely defensive purposes, the system came under intense Chinese opprobrium for its accompanying radar system, which can detect missile activities from mainland China, and which China accused of conducting surveillance of its interests. The ensuing Chinese boycott of Korean products and cyber hacking cost the Korean economy 0.5% of its GDP.

The paling of diplomacy in its traditional sense also leads to more regional tension. It is hard to find an off-ramp from tit-for-tat military reaction and escalation. Provocation in all forms, be it military or diplomatic, makes the involved parties assume the worst for one another. As Russian and Chinese jets streaked into South Korean and Japanese ADIZ, the latter two immediately dispatched their own air forces to the scene of provocation.

In response to the North Korean missiles in the East Sea, the US-ROK combined forces fired ground-to-ground missiles. The North flashed its perhaps largest intercontinental ballistic missile as a warning to the US mainland, whereas two other short-range ones were meant to spook the South. The North has always bristled at regular combined exercises around the peninsula and always interpreted the South’s submarine-launched and tactical missiles as offensive capability to destroy it. Although the US and South Korea have refrained from initiating military provocation, the North constantly believes it faces an existential crisis. Consequently, it resorts to more ballistic missiles and blustering. Then, the South develops more strategic weapons, while the US deploys more military resources to the region. Not surprisingly, Kim Jong Un, the North’s dictator, becomes more convinced that he needs more missiles. All these feed into a never-ending loop, diminishing openings for formal diplomatic channels. The UN Security Council’s latest sanctions on North Korea flopped miserably afterwards, reminding the world of incompetent dead-ends of diplomacy.

The more South Korea becomes deeply rooted into one bloc, the less scope there is for it to juggle and mediate in pursuit of maximized interests. China is Korea’s largest trading partner and the US nuclear deterrence on behalf of Korea is valuable. It should be a  persnickety scale to tip. Security whims and militarizing its diplomacy shouldn’t come that easily. This is by no means to say that Korea should condone China’s other rogue behaviors but that its diplomacy should not stay militarized in favor of one side and contribute to regional bipolarity. The region can certainly benefit from a third voice.

The core ideology of Yoon’s predecessors, that Korea grants US forces stationed in the peninsula “strategic flexibility” for world peace but that operational decisions implicating conflicts should be consulted in advance, is crumbling. China and Russia regard this as crossing their red line. They will hardly budge from this stance. Meanwhile, Biden faces midterm elections in November, fully aware that displaying weakness abroad is fuel for domestic firebrands. The Indo-Pacific, especially the South China Sea and inter-Korean relations, could become the next powder keg.

[Photo by Office of the President of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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