by Austin Bay
April 25, 2023
A lesson in so-called forever war is deep background for this week’s celebration of the seven decade-long U.S.-South Korea bilateral alliance.
As U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol meet in Washington their nations have cause to celebrate. Ranking economies by GDP, the U.S. (population 330 million) is number 1 and South Korea (52 million) is number 12 (possibly 10).
But behind the photo-ops aides are discussing North Korea’s nuclear threats and communist China’s regional and global threats.
Difficult fact: the Korean War remains unfinished business. When media claim Afghanistan was America’s longest war, they ignore the frozen war on the Korean peninsula and the American troops still there, pulling guard duty.
The July 27, 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement established a ceasefire. 70 years later there is no peace treaty.
Around 2.6 million human beings died during the war’s most intense combat (June 1950-July 1953). One million South Korean civilians died (estimated). North Korea lost a million soldiers and civilians. The U.S. military lost 37,000 killed in action.
In November 1950, the Chinese Communist Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) invaded North Korea and attacked American units. By July 1953 the PLA had suffered an estimated 600,000 dead.
So here’s a fact relevant to 2023 and the Biden-Yoon meeting: At its height the Korean War was a war between the U.S. and communist China.
The PLA withdrew after the armistice. The U.S., however, didn’t cut and run The war didn’t end. North Korea, backed by communist China and Russia, waged “gray zone war” -- terror, firefights, and infiltration In the 1990s Pyongyang added threats of nuclear war.
We’ve a relic Cold War stand-off. Behind North Korea is an imperialist and expansionist communist China. The U.S. still stands with South Korea.
Celebration aside, is the U.S.-South Korea alliance secure?
Media report Biden wants to emphasize America’s commitment to deterring North Korean nuclear attack.
That’s good, but belated and, to my mind, another example of Biden attempting to avoid responsibility for making the world a more dangerous place than it was in January 2021. The Biden Administration’s Afghanistan withdrawal disaster damaged America’s reputation for reliability, strength and leadership in crisis. Globally deterrence took a hit.
In February I wrote a column discussing the possibility of South Korea and Japan acquiring nukes. They have the technology.
When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 it violated an agreement guaranteeing Ukraine's territorial integrity, the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. In 1994 Ukraine had the world's third largest nuclear arsenal. Ukraine traded its nuclear weapons for mutual security guarantees.
In January of this year, after North Korean drones penetrated South Korean territory, President Yoon Suk-yeol said South Korea may deploy tactical nuclear weapons "or possess its own nuclear capabilities" if North Korean threats intensify.
I am certain the Afghanistan debacle told Russia’s Vladimir Putin that Biden’s weak, feckless leadership meant he could launch an all-out invasion of Ukraine and suffer no serious consequences.
Remember, Biden urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to flee. That’s a fact. Zelenskyy didn’t cut and run. Ukrainians fought and are still fighting.
Deterrence in eastern Europe definitely failed on Biden’s watch.
South Korea needs U.S. support. The U.S. needs allies and South Korea is a first class ally with a world class economy, superb military forces and rock stars (K-pop rules Asia). South Korea is also a nation in arms. Its citizens are prepared to fight. Invaders will face organized, well-trained and supplied popular resistance forces. (I rate Finland, Israel and now Ukraine as other proven nations-in-arms.)
South Korea offers a lot to a larger coalition or alliance. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is an unofficial coalition of Japan, Australia, America and India. All four regard China as a “disruptive actor” (Japan’s phrase) in the Indo-Pacific.
In March 2020, South Korea attended the first “Quad Plus” meeting, as did diplomats from New Zealand and Vietnam.
Very promising, but no matter the diplomatic arrangement, South Korea’s first defense priority is eliminating North Korea’s nukes.