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South Korea Needs to Consider Its Own National Interests Ahead of the US’

Demonstrators protest US demands for increasing South Korea’s financial contribution to stationing US Forces Korea on Nov. 18, when the third round of negotiations for the 11th Special Measures Agreement on defense cost-sharing were held in Seoul. (Park Jong-shik, Hankyoreh staff photographer)

By Han S. Park | December 1, 2019 | Originally published in Hankyoreh.

The US is strongly pushing for South Korea to pay a bigger share of the cost of keeping US troops on the Korean Peninsula. Washington is reportedly asking for around 6 trillion won (US$5.14 billion), five times the total amount of Seoul’s current contribution. That figure appears to include the cost of deploying American strategic assets from bases outside the Korean Peninsula, such as Guam and Hawaii. That also suggests that the US could ask South Korea to send troops or provide financial support for operations in the South China Sea and the Strait of Hormuz.

The American demands prompt several considerations, the first of which is the issue of the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military. The US is demanding an onerous defense contribution from South Korea, even though it still hasn’t given up OPCON. That’s much the same as a shopkeeper demanding that a customer pay for goods they haven’t even received. It doesn’t make sense for South Korea to pay a cost-sharing contribution without regaining OPCON.

If South Korea is to respond wisely to the US’ unfair demands, it needs to take a big-picture view of this issue. In geopolitics, the most important yardstick in determining a state’s actions is the “national interest.” That’s the source of the US’ excessive demands for more defense funding. One aspect of the US’ national interest appears to be the containment of China through its Indo-Pacific Strategy; another aspect is the maintenance of American hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region.

But the US’ national interest is completely at odds with the national interest that South Korea ought to be pursuing. South Korea is an economic partner of China. But if South Korea is enlisted to pursue the US’ national interest, and in doing so adopts a hostile military stance toward China, China will hardly turn a blind eye to that. Some may think that the US will help South Korea, but did the US provide any help when China was exacting economic retribution on South Korea over the THAAD missile defense system? Furthermore, South Korea’s national interest doesn’t lie in pursuing hegemony in the Indo-Pacific.

Those who view the South Korea and the US as being “blood brothers” will reject this argument. But an alliance can only exist when it conforms to each ally’s national interest. It’s particularly important to bear in mind that the domain of geopolitics is ruled by the laws of the jungle, and that a country that goes against its own interest is headed for destruction.

Getting entangled in US’ military affairs does not benefit S. Korea

South Korea should view American requests for a military presence at the Strait of Hormuz through the lens of its own national interest, not that of the US. The Middle East is a powder keg that not even the US is capable of defusing. Is South Korea prepared to get entangled in the Middle East conflict if it sends ships to the Strait of Hormuz? This past August, Iran gave South Korea official notice that it doesn’t want a South Korean military presence in the Strait of Hormuz. Political leaders who are devoted to South Korea’s national interest shouldn’t take Iran’s position lightly.

If South Korea is to establish a lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula without being swayed by the powerful countries that surround it, it needs to conclude a peace treaty or a nonaggression pact with the North. Since South Korea is allied with the US and North Korea is allied with China, the US and China would also need to take part in such a treaty. That process could be initiated through a meeting between the leaders of South and North Korea.

I think this is the ideal time for that, because there are no political or historical grounds for the US or China to oppose the conclusion of an inter-Korean peace treaty. Even more importantly, an inter-Korean peace treaty could enable North Korea and the US to resolve their chronic hostility and to establish normal diplomatic relations. If the Korean Peninsula, which is the last bastion of the Cold War, is finally turned into a zone of peace, wouldn’t that offer the world a new model for peace?

Han S. Park is professor emeritus at the University of Georgia.  Dr. Park has focused his research on the issues of human rights, sustainable development, and East Asian politics. Included in his extensive list of publications are Human Needs and Political Development (1984), China and North Korea (co-authored, 1990), North Korea : Ideology, Politics, Economy (edited, 1996), North Korea: The Politics of Unconventional Wisdom (2002), and North Korea Demystified (2012)


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