Can South Korea Bridge NATO and the US Indo-Pacific Strategy?

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Can South Korea Bridge NATO and the US Indo-Pacific Strategy?

What is the link between the North Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific regions, and what is South Korea’s role in this reimagined security framework?

Can South Korea Bridge NATO and the US Indo-Pacific Strategy?

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol (left) meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Madrid, Spain, June 30, 2022.

Credit: Office of the President, Republic of Korea

On June 29, the NATO summit in Spain showed indications of an emergent strategic linkage between the European and Indo-Pacific theaters.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, together with the leaders of Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, also attended the top-level meeting of the transatlantic alliance. It was the first time a South Korean president has joined a NATO summit, and Yoon’s first overseas trip since his inauguration in May. There was also a trilateral summit between Japan, South Korea, and the United States. The most important item on the agenda was how NATO can continue to support Ukraine in its war of resistance against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, but the security issues of the Indo-Pacific also played a prominent role.

In his remarks at the summit, Yoon articulated his vision of interconnecting South Korea’s security and foreign policies with NATO’s robust stance against Russia in the European theater. He seeks a global role for South Korea by developing new strategic concepts to create a comprehensive security network with NATO. South Korea, as an established liberal democracy and a rising economic power, will contribute toward managing emerging security issues by networking with like-minded states, and by revitalizing economic interactions on nuclear energy, semiconductors, renewable energy, and defense industries.

Yoon apparently envisages dramatic changes in the way that South Korea engages with the international community, moving beyond a purely local focus on the Korean Peninsula to encompass a global involvement with the peace and stability of the wider world. The prospect of such a profound policy shift invites a number of important questions.

First, what is the impact of the war in Ukraine upon South Korea’s strategic alliance with the U.S., and more generally upon the Indo-Pacific region? So far the impact has been quite limited. Though both the United States and NATO would welcome some contribution from Seoul to support the war in Ukraine, in practice South Korea possesses insufficient resources and military capabilities, though Yoon did commit to providing humanitarian aid.

U.S. President Joe Biden would like Seoul to go beyond its current lip-service to play a more active role in relieving NATO’s burden in dealing with the war in Ukraine. South Korea is unlikely to provide substantial weapons and systems to Ukraine, however, not least because of poor interoperability between Ukraine and South Korea. Moreover, the Ukraine War is primarily land-based, whereas South Korea’s involvement in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy is essentially maritime.

Also, though South Korea is happy for the United States, NATO, and the EU to continue to responsibly uphold European peace and stability, Yoon is concerned that Ukraine may become a sacrificial lamb in a proxy war by the U.S. against Russia. In this era of great power competition, the lesser powers are vulnerable to such exploitation, and South Korea wants to avoid suffering a similar fate in either operational theater.

Next, the South Korea-U.S. alliance is now supposedly a comprehensive global strategic alliance, so how does this fit in with NATO’s outreach to countries beyond its heartland? NATO is explicitly a military alliance, in contrast to the informal security rallying arrangements of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy, which purports to be militarily neutral. What is the linkage between the North Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific regions, and what is South Korea’s role in this reimagined security framework?

Yoon’s participation in the Spain summit was clearly on very different terms from the European countries, who are bound to the U.S. by military and diplomatic ties, within NATO, and/or the EU, or in some cases by the aspiration to join these bodies. For example, Finland and Sweden were formally invited to join NATO at the meeting. The main role that South Korea has at a NATO meeting, by contrast, is to demonstrate a shared investment in liberal democracy and the rule of law, thus helping to build a comprehensive strategic alliance to stand firm against a swelling tide of autocracy. That said, Yoon has cautiously avoided identifying too closely with the most vocal condemnation of Russia, and of China, which is typical of U.S. rhetoric.

Besides this primarily symbolic role, however, some more substantial cooperation was also agreed: A South Korean diplomatic mission to NATO has been established, which will be concerned with information sharing, integrated supply chain cooperation, maritime security, cyber- and space security, and climate change issues.

The South Korea-U.S. alliance, per se, remains focused on North Korean nuclear and missile threats, and the declared intention for it to take on a global role does not imply an active involvement in the Ukraine War. But it does demonstrate South Korea’s willingness to strengthen its alliance with the United States and with other U.S. allies. In recent years the South Korea-U.S. alliance has been eroded somewhat, both by Seoul’s policies toward North Korea and China, which Washington perceived as too accommodating, and by the ruinously transactional stance of the previous U.S. president. After the difficult Trump years ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command is now rewriting its Operations Plan and preparing for wartime OPCON transfer to South Korean forces. With China continuing to expand its military capabilities, and the U.S. perhaps losing its edge in Asia, Seoul must explore every avenue to ensure the continuing effectiveness of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

Another question concerns the significance of an expanded global role for South Korea in the context of the continuing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea. If, as the United States wishes, all the liberal democracies are making common cause against autocracy, so that South Korea is becoming more involved in European security, does this not also imply that NATO and the EU have some role to play in mitigating the long-standing confrontation on the Korean Peninsula?

As things stand, North Korea is unlikely to engage with the Yoon administration, because the most senior of his North Korean advisers were also on former President Lee Myung-bak’s team, proposing policies which failed then and are no more promising now. Perhaps the involvement of some non-Asian parties might entice Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, in recognition that the security of Northeast Asia affects the wider world. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, is known to relish opportunities to pose upon a global stage, and any success would surely validate the comprehensive strategic concept for the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

For the present, however, U.S. foreign policy is still almost entirely taken up with the war in Ukraine. The United States wants NATO members and other states to do more to assist Ukraine in resisting the Russian invasion, and sees the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy and its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as essential components of a global struggle against autocracy. Certainly this focus allowed Yoon to claim that his first overseas visit has made a valuable contribution to global peace and stability.

The situation of South Korea is very different from countries like Germany, which have provided military materiel to support Ukraine. South Korea remains technically at war and needs to retain all available resources in readiness to respond to potential provocations and incursions from North Korea. Ukrainian troops are now being trained to operate U.S.-designed Main Battle Tanks and self-propelled artillery guns, and in theory therefore South Korea could supply such weapons, but in practice South Korea cannot spare them. Other resources, such as ammunition, body armor, helmets, medical supplies, and so on, are also unlikely to be sent to Ukraine.

The fact is that the Ukraine War is on Germany’s doorstep, and South Korea has a local conflict of its own to deal with. It is hard to argue convincingly for South Korea to assist in a European war when Europe has done precious little to help with the nuclear and missile crises on the Korean Peninsula.

There is also a question about how South Korea’s national interests and values are to be protected when the United States is trying, more openly than ever before, to contain China, both militarily and economically, and is refashioning the world order to push other countries in the same direction. For decades South Korea has carefully balanced its military alliance with the United States against its  strategic economic partnership with China.

Yoon’s new administration is keen on doing things differently from the previous one. His election platform emphasized moving closer to the U.S. and taking a tougher line on North Korea and China, but South Korea’s fundamental national interests have not changed: The balance still needs to be preserved.

It is essential that South Korea does not become a victim of great power rivalry, as it was during the 19th century. Korea’s unique geographical position and strategic significance have historically limited its scope for autonomy, but the skillful choice is to maintain good relations with both sides. It is dangerous to tilt too clearly toward one side and then treat the other as a definite adversary.

So far Yoon’s attendance at the NATO summit has drawn only rhetorical repercussions from China, but if Yoon moves too far into the sphere of U.S. influence then there will surely be a return to the kind of economic coercion seen in reaction to South Korea’s deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system a few years back.

If the war in Ukraine has any lessons for South Korea, it has surely revealed Russia as a far greater security threat than China, both now and in the longer term. South Korea can and should participate in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, as part of a comprehensive network of strategic alliances, but South Korea cannot afford to be explicitly against China.

Finally there is a question of whether the Yoon administration plans to pursue the Korea-first policy that was announced by the previous administration of Moon Jae-in.

South Korea is perfectly capable of conducting its own diplomacy, without deferring to the United States or NATO. The interests of the Korean people should be paramount, and it is time for a Korea-centered approach toward North Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. Who is best placed to understand and deal with the North Korean regime? External powers, whether the U.S., NATO or China, can only play a limited role, and in any case will always prioritize their own interests. It is the Korean people who are most directly threatened by North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles, and they should have the final say in dealing with them.

The Ukraine War has prompted a reassessment of security needs, of course in Europe, but also around the world. This is a good moment to review the status of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and the optimal outcome is a robust and comprehensive alliance that is an integral part of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific strategy and also of a wider global security framework, but which also allows South Korea a degree of strategic autonomy that befits its military, economic, and diplomatic standing.

The lingering legacies of the Cold War need to be overcome. Biden and Yoon should agree a new conceptual formula for the South Korea-U.S. alliance, as a binational structure in which South Korea has an equal voice, and as an essential component of a U.S.-led rules-based regional order and security framework. On the Korean Peninsula, the interests of the Korean people must ultimately take precedence over U.S. strategic interests.

To conclude: Yoon’s participation in the NATO summit will have proved much more difficult that his election rhetoric suggested. He faces a formidable strategic challenge in developing a new conceptual security framework that prioritizes Korean interests, also contributes to the stability of the wider Indo-Pacific region, and is networked into global security structures, including NATO. The United States is focused on Europe, and China is still dealing with COVID-19, but will surely soon resume its attempts to rehabilitate its historical prestige, using both military and economic means. South Korea must maintain a balance between its military alliance with the U.S. and its strategic economic partnership with China. Yoon has limited room to maneuver.