Biden administration, burden sharing, deterrence, Donald Trump, Following Up, North Korea, nuclear weapons, semiconductors, South Korea, tripwire, Yoon Suk Yeol
Yesterday’s post described how the mounting policy challenges that framed last week’s U.S.-South Korea summit drove one major globalist pundit to write a column that was nothing less than bananas policy-wise. With major tensions almost inevitably appearing between major goals sought by the two countries, he insisted both that these frictions exist only because of American selfishness and, as is globalists’ wont, that all good objectives actually are easily attainable simultaneously in this instance.
Today’s subject is thinking that in its own way is just as off-kilter. Worse, it’s positively dangerous because it’s official thinking from both of the above capitals, and its only conceivable effect can be to turn the already tinderbox-y Korean peninsula even more potentially explosive.
The reasons? It’s resulted in President Biden and his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk Yeol just having sent – unwittingly to be sure – a twin message to scarily belligerent and nuclear-armed North Korea that (1) they have no faith in the strategy followed by their alliance for decades to deter aggression from the North; and (2) they haven’t yet come up with anything besides transparently symbolic moves to address the problem.
What other conclusions can legitimately be drawn from the official description of the summit’s accomplishments? According to the White House, among other decisions, the two governments agreed to give South Korea a role (but not the final say) in the process of deciding whether Washington would use nuclear weapons in a new Korean War; to deploy American nuclear weapons delivery systems “more visibly” in the peninsula’s vicinity; and to give South Korea’s military more training in preparing for and coping with “nuclear threat scenarios.”
Viewed in isolation, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with any of these measures. But no one should forget the context – because North Korea certainly hasn’t. The United States, as I’ve explained repeatedly, has already for decades not only vowed to use nuclear weapons to defend the South if necessary. To strengthen the credibility of this promise, it’s also stationed tens of thousands of American troops right up against the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas – that is, right in the invaders’ paths. The idea is that a U.S. President would face no real political choice but to use nukes to save them from total destruction by the North’s vastly superior conventional forces – and probably go on to vaporize the North – and that these prospects would prevent any attack in the first place.
Again, that’s been the U.S. plan for decades. It may as well be written in stone. (Although former President Trump expressed major reservations during his first campaign for the White House.) But last week, Mr. Biden and Yoon made clear their belief that it’s no longer deterring North Korea effectively enough. Why else would the new steps have been announced at such a high profile meeting?
At the same time, why would any thinking person believe that consulting more systematically with the South and sailing nuclear submarines in Korean waters more often will put the needed extra fear of God into North Korea? Similarly, how could these measures resolve the doubts about U.S. reliability that even staunch backers of the alliance in its longstanding form fear are developing in the South. Such qualms could either lead it to conduct foreign policies more independent of America’s (especially concerning curbing China’s technology development), or to create its own nuclear forces, or both.
The problem with the first two potential outcomes is that, as explained in a post last week, South Korea’s semiconductor manufacturing prowess has turned its security into a genuinely vital interest of the United States’; and that North Korea’s own steadily improving nuclear capabilities mean that fulfilling the defense commitment could soon expose the U.S. homeland to nuclear-armed missile strikes.
A South Korea deterrent would greatly reduce this danger, particularly if it led Washington to remove from the South the “tripwire” ground units whose mission is to boost the odds that a Korean military conflict becomes nuclear, and thus probably suicidal for the North . But the consequent shrinkage of U.S. leverage over the North could leave a gaping hole in Washington’s efforts to contain China technologically.
Couldn’t Washington push wealthy South Korea to create a strong enough military to deter much poorer North Korea without going nuclear? In principle, yes, but the South’s very importance to American well-being have created the conditions for continued free-riding, because by definition, Washington couldn’t afford to impose consequences for its refusal. And a South Korea capable of defending itself without nuclear weapons would be just as capable of defying U.S. wishes on China and other foreign policy fronts as one armed with nukes.
Perhaps most disturbing of all, the new tweaks to U.S. Korea strategy amount to a tacit but obvious admission of weakness – which countries of course should never telegraph, especially when faced with a seemingly volatile adversary like North Korea, and especially when their leaders clearly have no clue how to escape or resolve in any satisfactory way the dilemmas confronting them.
Which is why I’m now worried that, for all the justified fears that before too long the United States and China could go to war – which could escalate to the nuclear level – the situation on the Korean peninsula is becoming a bona fide national security nightmare, too.