Military escalation on the Korean Peninsula

Hussein Haridy
Friday 5 May 2023

The recent visit of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol to Washington was a reminder of the escalation on the Korean Peninsula and the growing tensions in the Indo-Pacific region


The South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol paid a state visit to the US last month that lasted six days.

He met US President Joe Biden at the White House on 26 April and addressed a joint session of Congress, during which he brought up the memory of the Korean War (1950-1953) and paid tribute to the US-South Korean alliance in defence of liberty and democracy. The visit also came in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the alliance.

Yoon Suk-yeol’s meeting with Biden was the fifth meeting between the two men since the former’s election last year as South Korea’s president. Their first meeting was in May 2022 during Biden’s first tour of Asia after his election in 2020, during which he also visited Japan. Their summit in Seoul in 2022 and the US-Japanese summit in Tokyo that immediately followed it strengthened the US-South Korean-Japanese Trilateral Alliance.

From a strategic point of view, the state visit of the South Korean president to Washington took place in the framework of the US Indo-Pacific strategy, in which the South Koreans, after the election of Yoon Suk-yeol, have become an active member in a way that is incompatible with their long-term national interests of peaceful relations with China and Russia.

The visit by the South Korean president to Washington reaffirmed the strong security and defence relations between Seoul and Washington in the context of their joint strategy of extended deterrence against what they call North Korea’s “nuclear escalation and threats”. It also reassured South Korea of the protection of the US nuclear umbrella against any potential North Korean nuclear attack. The two Presidents set up a Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) with Washington, promising to give South Korea an important role in the strategic planning of a nuclear response strategy in case of a military conflict between the two Koreas.

The Washington Declaration released on 27 April reaffirmed the commitment of South Korea to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in return for the “regular visibility” of US “strategic assets,” for example, a scheduled visit of a US nuclear submarine to South Korea armed with ballistic nuclear missiles. 

The declaration contained a US promise to increase South Korea’s involvement in carrying out extended deterrence through mutual consultation, information-sharing, and simulations combined with defence exercises and the visibility of US “strategic assets.” In his joint press conference with the South Korean president in Washington, Biden stressed that a “nuclear attack” by North Korea against the US or its allies would “result in the end of whatever regime”.

The Washington Declaration covered the whole spectrum of US-South Korean cooperation in the fields of defence and global security cooperation, economic, commercial, and environmental cooperation, and technological, digital, and space cooperation.

At the same time, and unsurprisingly, the two presidents also declared that they were “joining the international community” in condemning “Russia’s war of aggression” against Ukraine. They emphasised that “we are continuing to support Ukraine through the vital provision of political, security, humanitarian, and economic assistance,” including by increasing the capacities of the Ukrainians in power generation and transmission and rebuilding critical infrastructure. 

There was no reference, however, to the South Koreans exporting ammunition and weapons directly to Ukraine, at least not in the public pronouncements of the two presidents. The idea is to export these to Poland. By law, the South Korean government is prohibited from exporting armaments to countries that are at war.

The US-South Korean summit reiterated a commitment to diplomacy with North Korea as the only viable means of achieving lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and called on the North to resume negotiations, a reference to denuclearisation talks. However, it may be doubted whether Pyongyang, given the doctrine of extended deterrence and the “visibility of US strategic assets” –  meaning nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines as well as joint exercises by the South Korean and US Air Forces like the ones held from 13 to 23 March – will be interested in restarting such negotiations, particularly when the two presidents at their Washington meeting condemned nuclear and ballistic-missile programmes by the North and called for a halt to their development.

They both reiterated their commitment to the complete denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, though how this squares with the “visibility of US strategic assets” in the South is difficult to understand. As a reminder, the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz docked in Busan in South Korea on 27 March as part of a show of US power intended to demonstrate how the “extended deterrence” concept works. The Nimitz and Carrier Strike Group 11 anchored in Busan after it had taken part in naval exercises with the South Korean Navy.

Six months ago, another US nuclear-powered carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, docked in the same port city. The two allies also held a joint amphibious landing exercise from the end of March to the beginning of April. How all these exercises on land, in the air, and at sea will help to convince the North Koreans of the “peaceful intentions” of the US-South Korean security and military alliance towards Pyongyang is difficult to imagine. 

Seen in this light, why on earth would the North ever accept denuclearisation? They consider their nuclear and ballistic missiles capabilities to be an insurance policy against not only the alliance between Washington and Seoul, but also as a potent deterrent against the US-South Korean-Japanese Trilateral Alliance in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US and South Korean presidents “strongly opposed” any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific, they said, including through what they termed unlawful maritime claims, the militarisation of reclaimed natural features, and “coercive activities.” You have probably guessed whom they were talking about without singling the country out by name, though the name of that country is of course China. 

The commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the alliance between South Korea and the US is another reminder of the growing security tensions in the Indo-Pacific region and the increasing polarisation in the Asia-Pacific as a whole.

Within South Korea itself, many will doubt that the deep involvement of their country in the fierce competition between the US and China will serve the national and security interests of their country in the medium and longer term. Nor would it facilitate the resumption of diplomatic talks between Seoul and Pyongyang.

The diplomatic engagement between the two Koreas during the presidency of Moon Jae-in belongs, regrettably, in the past.

Security, stability, and peace on the Korean Peninsula seem as distant as ever.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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