U.S. President Joe Biden this week was asked what the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan means for Washington’s other global military commitments. In response, Biden stressed the “fundamental difference” between Afghanistan and places like South Korea, where the U.S. also has a major troop presence.
It would be hard, if not impossible, to find a South Korean who disagrees with that assessment. There are obvious differences between Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest and least-developed countries, and South Korea, a stable democracy and U.S. treaty ally that has the world’s 10th largest economy and sixth most powerful military.
Yet, the messy U.S. retreat from Afghanistan, and the ensuing Taliban takeover, has intensified questions here about how much South Korea should depend on long-term U.S. military protection and whether Seoul should do more to look after its own defense. Specifically, it may amplify voices who want South Korea to pursue its own nuclear deterrent.
The U.S. has nearly 30,000 troops in South Korea, a remnant of the 1950s Korean War that ended in an armistice rather than a peace treaty. Although it has been decades since major hostilities, U.S. troops remain as a deterrent to the nuclear-armed and often belligerent North Korea.
Few think the U.S. military will withdraw from South Korea anytime soon. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said this week the U.S. has “no intention of drawing down forces” from South Korea.
What explains the concerns?
Doubts about long-term U.S. military commitment are rooted partly in South Korea’s experience with former U.S. President Donald Trump, whose “America First” foreign policy consistently strained the seven-decade-old alliance.
Trump not only demanded South Korea pay a bigger share of the cost of U.S. troops, he at times questioned whether the troops were necessary at all.
As a candidate, Trump even suggested South Korea and Japan get their own nuclear weapons, and threatened to withdraw troops from both countries, if they did not pay more for protection.
Those kinds of statements are hard to forget, said Park Won-gon, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“South Korea has experienced the past four years under the Trump administration, and we are not 100% sure the U.S. won’t go back to this,” Park said.
Larger US trends at play
Trump isn't the only factor for South Korea to consider. Growing segments on both sides of the U.S. electorate are skeptical of U.S. military involvement overseas.
Many Trump-allied Republicans now oppose what they call U.S. “forever wars.” On the left, high-profile politicians, such as Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, call for drastically reducing the Pentagon budget, along with a more restrained global agenda.
Those views are concerning to Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean lieutenant general, who worries many Americans don’t see the value in having troops in South Korea.
“They don’t realize the stability that comes with it. They don’t realize the security that comes with that stability. They don’t realize the economic benefits that come from that stability and security. And that really concerns me,” Chun said.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance already faced significant challenges, mostly from North Korea.
Although South Korea’s conventional forces are vastly superior to the North’s, Pyongyang has one thing that Seoul doesn’t, nuclear weapons. Instead, South Korea relies on the so-called U.S. nuclear umbrella of protection.
In recent years, though, there have been more calls for South Korea to pursue nuclear weapons in some form, either through domestic development or the restationing of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons that were removed in the early 1990s.
Since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, there have already been renewed calls for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons.
In a Facebook post this week, conservative South Korean lawmaker Thae Yong-ho proposed Seoul pursue either a NATO-style nuclear sharing arrangement or that it restore U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.
If North Korea does not denuclearize by 2027, Thae said, the South "should present a strategic timetable to the United States and China and announce that we will inevitably pursue nuclear development."
“The lesson for us from the Afghan crisis is that there are no permanent enemies or permanent allies in this world. There is only national interest,” said Thae, who defected to South Korea after working as a North Korean diplomat.
South Korea briefly pursued an illicit nuclear program in the 1970s, when there were also concerns about U.S. military commitment. It abandoned that effort several years later.
In recent years, some opinion polls suggest the South Korean public would support domestic nuclear weapons development.
“The very serious and fundamental problem is that we, South Korea, do not have any capability of nuclear deterrence. We have to rely 100% on the United States,” Park said.
Another point of alliance tension is whether and at what speed South Korea should regain more control of its forces during a hypothetical war.
In 1950, South Korea handed command authority of its troops to the U.S. in order to fend off a North Korean attack during the early stages of the Korean War. The U.S. retained that authority until 1994, when South Korea assumed peacetime "operational control" of its forces.
Under the current arrangement, the U.S. would still control certain aspects of South Korea's military if war broke out. Some left-leaning South Korean politicians object to that prospect and want the arrangement to be changed as soon as possible.
Song Young-gil, who heads South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party, said the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is the latest evidence Seoul should speed up the so-called “OPCON transition.”
“If you have no experience in planning and executing your own operations, you do not know what kind of trouble you will face as a nation,” Song said in a Facebook post.
Chun, the former lieutenant-general, disagreed. Such a transition, he said, could jeopardize the U.S.-South Korea alliance, ultimately making South Korea less safe.
“South Koreans need to realize that if we have OPCON transition there’ll be a possibility of a disconnect between the two allied forces who are right now attached at the hip,” Chun said.
The issue already causes friction in the U.S.-South Korea relationship, though mostly beneath the surface.
The U.S. and South Korea agreed in 2018 to begin a three-stage process for assessing whether Seoul is ready to regain wartime control.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in says he would like to complete the transfer by the end of his term in May 2022. U.S. officials, however, warn against imposing a time limit, saying the transition should instead be conditions-based.
Any attempt to rush the issue will “do damage to the relationship we have right now,” Chun said. “And the relationship we have right now is pretty good,” he added.
In fact, the U.S.-South Korea alliance has recently expanded to focus on other regional and global issues, such as the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and China’s growing assertiveness.
Many South Korean analysts believe the Korean peninsula is a core national interest for the United States. Opinion polls suggest broad public support in both countries for the U.S. troop presence. There are no signs that will change, especially as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies.
“It’s pretty clear that the U.S. has tried to move from the Middle East to focus on the so-called Indo-Pacific area,” Park said, adding that “South Korea is one of the, if not the most, important allies in this region.”