13.02.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Seoul is being sucked into the American vortex

Given that the story about “arms supplies to Russia from the DPRK” has been gaining ground, the author has repeatedly stated that Seoul is the main target of this hysteria that serves as another justification for the ROK’s increased involvement in the plans of the US and its allies against Russia’s national interests. This strategy included two significant visits at the end of January 2023.

ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Seoul on January 30, 2023. They talked about the ROK’s relationship with NATO, South Korea’s strategy for developing relations with Indo-Pacific countries, and Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile issues. Yoon Suk-yeol praised NATO’s level of cooperation and expressed hope that South Korea’s mission to the organization would contribute to the expansion of bilateral ties. He urged Stoltenberg to help the ROK and NATO successfully implement joint projects to expand cooperation in new technologies and defense industries.

Yoon asked Stoltenberg and NATO to play an “active role” in deterring North Korea’s “reckless provocations” during the meeting.

Stoltenberg promised to strengthen South Korea-NATO cooperation and praised the two sides’ expanding defense industry cooperation. The NATO chief invited Yoon to attend the NATO summit in Lithuania in July, and Yoon said he would think about it.

According to the author, the most important aspect of the talks was that the NATO chief urged the South Korean leadership to decide to provide expanded military assistance to Ukraine, citing countries that had changed their positions on the issue (Germany, Sweden, Norway) as examples. However, Seoul reportedly only confirmed its readiness to support the people of Ukraine in collaboration with the international community, withholding direct deliveries of weapons and military equipment.

North Korea criticized Stoltenberg’s visit, calling it a prelude to war and an attempt to create an Asian version of NATO. An article by Kim Dong-myung of the International Policy Research Society notes that in April and June 2022, the chairman of the NATO Military Committee visited South Korea and Japan, where he agreed to further close partnership and military cooperation, and in late June, NATO invited South Korea and Japan to their first-ever joint summit in Madrid. In addition, last May, South Korea was accepted as a full member of the Cyber Defense Cooperation Center, a subordinate body of NATO, and sent a delegation from the NATO Parliamentary Union to South Korea in October to discuss strengthening bilateral cooperation.  The North Korean researcher added that after the US decision to supply tanks to Kyiv, the war in Ukraine is entering a new crisis, and it is clear that, speaking of Chinese threats, the NATO chief will force South Korea and Japan to create an Asian version of NATO, pressuring them to provide weapons to Ukraine.

As we recall, Yoon Suk-yeol began to strengthen ties with this organization during his visit to the NATO summit in Madrid, but there it was mostly about general statements and publicity for South Korean weapons. Meanwhile, Washington is determined to create an Asian NATO, or an Asian branch of NATO, and Stoltenberg was clearly trying to get Yoon to do so.

The next day, Yoon Suk-yeol met with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who had arrived in Seoul the day before for talks “on deterring North Korean nuclear and missile threats and other security issues“.

Yoon Suk-yeol and Lloyd Austin agreed that defense ties between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo must be stronger to deter North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats. The South Korean leader noted the importance of joint military exercises between the ROK and US forces to maintain preparedness for the changing security situation on the Korean Peninsula. The Pentagon chief recalled that “the South Korean-US alliance is the foundation of security in Northeast Asia, and it is stronger than ever.”

During the visit, Lloyd Austin made a special statement to the Yonhap news agency, the main points of which were as follows:

  • I am also here to reiterate that at a time of “heightened tensions and provocations,” the extended US commitment to the ROK is unbreakable. An attack on one of the two countries is an attack on the US alliance and the ROK as a whole. This is the first time a US defense chief has described his security assurances to South Korea in a way similar to NATO Article 5.
  • The absence of war on the Korean Peninsula for the past 70 years has been attributed to “the direct efforts of the South Korean and American peoples, as well as the outstanding armed forces of the two democracies, which have proudly forged an unbreakable bond over decades of shared sacrifice.”
  • However, “as President Biden has stated, our common problems can only be solved when countries that share the universal values of liberal democracy and human rights join forces.” As a result, the United States and the Republic of Korea “are taking concrete steps to modernize and strengthen the alliance. These steps will help to prevent conflict on the peninsula and protect the international order based on rules.”
  • The United States and the Republic of Korea are determined to confront the challenge of the DPRK, which in 2022 “has conducted an unprecedented number of missile launches – dangerous and destabilizing actions that violate international law and defy numerous UN Security Council resolutions. So we are expanding the scope of our joint exercises, including live firing and other readiness measures, and deepening trilateral cooperation with Japan, including trilateral missile defense and anti-submarine warfare exercises.
  • As for the dialogue on extended deterrence, we have completed several high-level discussions in 2022, and we intend to do even more, including increasingly sophisticated exercises.

In terms of the outcome of the ministerial talks, an agreement was reached to strengthen the concept instruments for extended deterrence of North Korea by US forces: the allies will increase the volume of American strategic forces on the Korean Peninsula (advanced F-22 and F-35 fighters, strategic bombers, aircraft carrier strike groups, nuclear submarines, etc.). The United States and the ROK will exchange information about the DPRK in real time, carry out joint planning and exercises involving the use of the above strategic forces (and in general, the scale of joint exercises will be expanded). Finally, in February 2023, there will be a command post exercise, and then the US, the ROK, and Japan will hold a working meeting to discuss the issue and how to establish a mechanism for real-time intelligence sharing on North Korean missiles.

It was stated that Lee Jong-sup and Lloyd Austin “strongly condemned Pyongyang’s repeated violations of UN Security Council resolutions, including missile launches and drone incursions into South Korean airspace.” Nevertheless, Austin refrained from mentioning the possibility of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons or placing US nuclear weapons in the South, an issue that has received a lot of attention lately and about which we will write separately.

Pyongyang’s response to the outcome of the visit was predictable. On February 2, the DPRK Foreign Ministry said that if the United States continued to deploy strategic assets on and around the Korean Peninsula, North Korea would respond according to the principle of “nuclear weapons for nuclear weapons and total confrontation for total confrontation.” It was also stressed that “the DPRK is not interested in any contact or dialogue with the United States as long as they pursue their hostile policy and confrontational line“.

How do these two visits fit into the big picture? It is clear that Seoul is still trying to maneuver, but the space for this maneuvering is constantly shrinking against the background of increasing confrontation between Russia and China on the one hand and the collective West on the other. The possibility of provocations is not excluded either, as Seoul has no possibilities to effectively control that the weapons and military equipment it has sent to Canada or Poland will not end up in Ukraine, causing a natural response from Moscow.

The US is actively playing on Yoon Suk-yeol’s ambitions to raise the ROK’s importance in the world. This is done both by encouraging arms trade (Seoul plans to rise from eighth to fifth place) and by the concept of “Global Korea,” in which Korea begins to intervene in a number of world problems far away from the peninsula and its surroundings. As noted by prominent Russian expert on Korean studies, Alexander Zhebin, this essentially means that issues of real importance to the ROK, such as unification or peace and security on the peninsula, are giving way to issues more in line with the interests of the US and the collective West as a whole.

In Washington’s plans, South Korea is partly pulling chestnuts out of the fire, partly acting as a starter for initiatives that the US wanted to position as an “international community proposal.”  The extent to which these plans will materialize will become clear later. But judging by the way Washington is actively pushing Seoul, there will be a lot of interesting things to come in 2023.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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