As soon as North Korea fired its intercontinental ballistic missile for the second time, the leaders of America and Japan were quick to have phone call discussions. Yet, it seemed, there was no hurry for a discussion between the leaders of South Korea and America to occur. The U.S. took utmost care in U.N. Security Resolution 2371, and North Korea responded by threatening to attack the U.S. territory of Guam. Calling Kim Jong Un’s bluff, President Trump countered the threat by mentioning the possibility of a preventative strike.
As the tension between the U.S. and North Korea becomes greater, the possibility of Trump’s show of force becomes more pronounced. The situation around the Korean Peninsula is becoming more dire every day, but is our voice being heard in the grand strategies of the superpowers? The Korea Passing* cannot be abided by.
In Washington, a secondary boycott is also being discussed as a viable option to a preventative strike. However, what stands out as most notable is Henry Kissinger’s suggestion of promising China that the U.S. would “pull back the American forces out of Korea.”**
The Korean Peninsula is a strategic location for America where it can keep checking China’s rise and defend America’s interest in Asia. However, with the emergence of the North Korean threats to the U.S. mainland, the pulling of American forces from the Korean Peninsula, it seems, is a valid card to use. It appears that, if not to entice China to cooperate, the U.S. is still willing to set the Korean Peninsula as the buffer zone between it and China to avoid falling into Thucydides’ Trap.*** It is very clear to see that pulling U.S. forces from South Korea or Korea Passing are very real possibilities if America deems it to be in its interest.
To America, the removal of its bases from South Korea is but a strategic choice in its national interest, but to us, it means the loss of the most important way of guaranteeing the survival of the nation. We have already experienced how serious repercussions can be when American makes one simple strategic choice. In January 1950, America finalized its Acheson Line, excluding South Korea from its Asian defense line without consulting us. The result was the Korean War.
There are more than a few experts who propose the strategy of “pulling out” in Washington. professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and professor Steven Walt of Harvard University suggest the U.S. government should play the role of “offshore balancer.” According to them, the local conflict needs to be handled by the local powers, and America needs to pull out of most of the regions. America would need to reduce the number of its forces stationed in Europe, and the hegemony within NATO needs to be handed over to Germany, France and other European countries.
Should the U.S. military need to intervene in certain locations, the actual deployment of the land force needs to be delayed as much as possible. The rise of China has made the Asian theater more important ever, but the U.S. forces in Japan still can handle it. What Kissinger and Mearsheimer are implying is that even with its forces withdrawn from Korea, America still has cards to play in Asia to protect its interests.
Be it the current crisis or the post-crisis, we cannot give them the room to even consider the Korea Passing. As the need for U.S. forces in Korea becomes more desperate, the U.S.-South Korea alliance needs to be handled with more care so that even the mere suggestion of pulling out can be undone. Our allies need to be reminded that resolving the North Korean nuclear issue still involves the U.S.-South Korea alliance. That notion must never be questioned.
Late as it may be, it is fortunate that President Moon Jae-in said in his phone call to President Trump that now is not the time for dialogue, but for sanctions and pressure, and that should North Korea continue to provoke, the U.S.-South Korea alliance will retaliate. Still, we will have to take precautions so Trump can’t use the strategy of Korea Passing and move ahead with his preventative strike idea.
Kim Woo-sang is a professor at Yonsei University and former South Korea ambassador to Australia
*Translator’s note: Korea Passing is neologism first used during the last presidential election. It describes the situation where Korea’s interest and security concerns are being ignored by its neighbors in their own designs. One could say (in the making of decisions) “Korea has been passed over.” The root for this neologism can be traced back to Japan in the 90s when its economic standing was diminished. There were some concerns in Tokyo that Japan’s interest and global standing would be overlooked by America due to the economic hardship it was facing at the time.
**Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.
***Translator’s note: Thucydides’ Trap is an unending conflict between a newly rising power and the established power that consumes an overwhelming amount of resources that leads to the downfall of both powers.