A Perspective from South Korea: Robert E. Kelly is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University and a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat consulting. He writes frequently on his website, Asian Security Blog.
Given the long-standing alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States, one might think that South Koreans would be paying a great deal of attention to the U.S. Presidential race. They’re not. Perhaps this is because the two candidates have had little to say about South Korea, except for the typical refrains about “defending freedom,” “resisting tyranny,” and “not abandoning America’s closest allies.” Denouncements of North Korea, although welcome, are equally expected.
Nonetheless, I can see four basic interests that South Korea has in the election, even if they are not articulated frequently.
1. At the elite level, the ROKG (Republic of Korea government) wants a standard reaffirmation of the U.S.-Korea alliance from whoever wins.
In this sense the lack of attention Korea has received in the election is reassuring to leaders in Seoul. The current president, Lee Myung-bak, has put the alliance on a good footing over the past few years after the tension that characterized the relationship during the leftist presidents before him. In this sense, no news is likely good news. Additionally, contrary to the Japanese and Chinese, Koreans haven’t been following the whole “pivot” discussion either. The ROKG is pretty happy with the current hub-and-spoke alliance system, so the pivot isn’t really exciting. In any case, whoever wins in the U.S. election is nearly certain to reaffirm the importance of U.S.-ROK relations. At the strategic level, then, there is not much to be concerned about.
2. Also at the elite level, the ROKG would like to see a continued U.S. military presence.
Korea spends only 2.7% of GDP on defense, which, as I’ve argued before, is woefully inadequate given that it is an encircled middle power bordering the most dangerous country on the planet. Despite some recent improvements, the Korean military is primarily a land and infantry force, and therefore remains highly dependent on the U.S. for other capabilities like air, naval, and C4ISR assets (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance).
Broadly speaking, then, Korea still needs the U.S. to capture the benefits of the “networked battlefield.” Seoul still has lots of soldiers (around 650,000), and it could fight a grinding, manpower-intensive, defense-in-depth conflict with North Korea modeled on WWI or the first Korean War. But more asymmetric, nonconventional actions – like last year’s Libya operation with its intensive coordination of airstrikes, drones, and logistical, satellite, and intelligence demands – is beyond the capabilities of the ROK military. So, for contingencies lighter than an all-out North-South slug-match, South Korea still needs American technology and logistics.
This becomes particularly crucial if the North implodes and the South has to enter the country to reestablish law and order. In that sort of chaotic environment, the intelligence and direction that U.S. networks (especially satellites) can bring to bear will be critical to hunt down WMD’s, locate high-level officials, and, most importantly, quickly disarm the North Korean People’s Army to prevent an insurgency from taking root.
My own sense is that South Korea should perform more of these operations independently from the Americans. Fixing North Korea is going to be hugely expensive and difficult, and it is unnerving how indifferent South Koreans can be about this. “Full spectrum dominance” is asking too much, but a thicker, fuller capability to win the war – conventional or asymmetric – and properly occupy North Korea (i.e., not like the American occupation of Iraq) is a national asset worth having and paying for. I’ve actually made this argument a few times at conferences, but (unsurprisingly) no one seems particularly eager to embrace an argument that advocates doubling defense spending. To be fair, it is not wholly unreasonable that a country that was a military dictatorship just 25 years ago is unenthusiastic about initiating a huge defense build-up.
In any case, this means that South Koreans, especially the elite who would be unlikely to convince the National Assembly to support a sizeable defense buildup,will need to keep U.S. forces here in some strength indefinitely. Whoever wins the U.S. presidency will therefore encounter resistance from his Korean counterparts if he attempts to reduce the U.S. troop strength on the Peninsula.
3. At the popular level, though not well articulated, is the desire to hold onto the Americans to help integrate North Korea when it finally collapses.
Admittedly, this point requires greater speculation than the first two points, which are generally accepted. As noted above, it is both surprising and unnerving how unprepared South Korea seems to be for unification. This is not to say the ministries don’t have formal plans for the task. These exist, and there are countless Powerpoints to prove it. (Although a common joke in Korean political circles is that the least capable person in the cabinet is given the unification ministry, because it doesn’t require them to do anything.)
The same is not true of the average Korean. I get almost no sense from students, family, friends, colleagues, and others that South Koreans are ready for the huge project this will be. Instead there seems to be a vague sense that somehow the UN, the World Bank or the Americans are going to do the heavy lifting, with the Japanese possibly bankrolling it, or else an unfounded hope that North Korea can be compartmentalized indefinitely as some kind of massive export processing zone. What is rarely seen is a realization that this will be an occupation and reconstruction on par with, or more than difficult than those the Americans have undertaken in Iraq or Afghanistan in the last decade. Unification is going to hit South Korea like a ton of bricks when Pyongyang finally implodes. In fact, I have argued elsewhere that this project may be so expensive, so socially disruptive in the South, and so unwanted, that it might overwhelm South Korean society and institutional capacity.
To the extent that this catastrophe-in-waiting is floating around in the median voter’s head, the general hope/desire is for the Americans to hang around through unification so that a certain amount of the burden can be buck-passed to them. It’s unlikely that the Americans are really conscious of this or will actually do it, but Korean public opinion has not been made aware of this.
4. At the popular and elite level there remains the strong desire for the U.S. to keep on importing South Korean products.
Korea is still a classic developmental state – industrial policy is common (you’ve never seen so many 5-year plans outside of communist states); “strategy” ministries and agencies are ubiquitous; the media obsessively reports the trade surplus each month, and a political crisis would likely ensue if Korea ever ran a deficit. Additionally, the won’s appreciation is regularly manipulated, with Korea most definitely contributing to global trade imbalances. It requires an immense amount of effort to try and persuade Koreans to see the benefits of floating currencies which prevent massive imbalances. Even many Korean economists staunchly defend currency undervaluation and other mercantilist policies. The obsession with a current account surplus is almost theological.
This means the U.S. has to continue to be Korea’s “importer of last resort,” as Obama once said. Korea is not ready, at either the public or elite level, to move away from the export promotion model. Liberalization is coming slowly– President Lee won approval for two big free trade deals with the U.S. and EU. But the export instinct runs deep, and the Americans are the big market Koreans fixation. (Particularly when it comes to cultural exports; it is a national obsession that K-pop break out in the U.S.)
This interest is not consciously articulated on a frequent basis. But I have little doubt that most Koreans desperately want the U.S. to go on absorbing Korean exports at past rates and don’t know or care much about the deleveraging most American households are trying to pull off.
In short, while Koreans may not be as captivated by the U.S. Presidential Election process as their counterparts in countries like Australia and China, they continue to be heavily invested in the U.S.-ROK alliance, whether they are conscious of this fact or not.