South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently spoke of his desire for South Korea to have greater foreign policy “autonomy.” He spoke, correctly, of South Korea’s difficult foreign policy position, “stuck between great powers.” This is the perennial challenge of Korean foreign relations.
More specifically, South Korea is a middle power encircled by three great powers – Russia, China, and Japan. At various points in history, these powers have intervened in Korean history to dominate it in their competition with each other. Korea’s unfortunate buffer position was captured by a nineteenth-century German military advisor to Meiji Japan who famously described Korea as ‘dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.’ South Korea also borders North Korea, a frightening Orwellian tyranny whose internal brutality “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” This is, to put it mildly, extraordinarily challenging geopolitics. No other middle-sized state is surrounded by three great powers.
The solution for South Korean foreign policy to this threatening, tightly-packed neighborhood has been an alliance with the United States. America was an ideal choice. It was militarily powerful and could credibly project force into the region. But it was also an outside power with no regional territorial aspirations, so it had no intention to absorb Korea. America’s real interest was, unsurprisingly, anti-communism; the alliance was clinched in the 1950s in the context of North Korea’s invasion. Finally, the US is also a liberal state; it was far less likely to bully or dominate South Korea than its surrounding traditional historical competitors, much less Orwellian North Korea which openly sought to subvert the South for decades.
But the sheer asymmetry between the US and South Korea has long meant a de facto junior partnership for South Korea which nationalist analysts often resent. And while the US was indeed more liberal in its dealings with South Korea than North Korea or China ever would have been, the US nonetheless did exploit its dominance most obviously in its support for South Korean military dictators as a regrettable but unavoidable bulwark against the even worse North.
Still, the US alliance remains popular in South Korea. The basic bargain is that South Korea gets a world-class security guarantee in exchange for South Korea pursuing foreign policy goals broadly consonant with America’s. That is, the tightness of the alliance – the depth of the US commitment – turns on the level of identification between the two partners.
This is core of controversy around Moon’s call for more ‘autonomy.’ Much of the debate on the South Korean military turns on capabilities, and to the extent Moon is calling for South Korea to be able to do more military missions, this is uncontroversial. South Korea is, for example, going to build a light aircraft carrier, which will give it the ability to project force into emerging zones of challenge for the South’s energy imports. South Korean carbon imports come mostly from the Persian Gulf, traversing the South China Sea, where China’s bullying naval presence is expanding. South Korea also needs missile defense against the North’s expanding missile force and a more technologically advanced army to make up for the country’s stagnating population growth and declining conscript cohorts.
Capabilities – the ability for the South Korean military to do more and its consequent budget increases – are not the same as autonomy. Autonomy requires capabilities of course, as Korea’s own history demonstrates, but autonomy itself is about policy choice, specifically greater freedom of action in foreign policy. And the primary crimp-on South Korea’s freedom of action is its alignment with the United States. Loosening that alignment is the implication of Moon’s call for autonomy.
There has long been resentment on the South Korean political left over the basic bargain around the US alliance – a defense guarantee in exchange for reduced foreign policy freedom. South Korean conservatives have made their peace with this because they broadly share the Americans’ threat perception for the region especially regarding China and the North. But the left here takes quite different positions. North Korea is a dictatorship, but also a brother Korean state to be conciliated. Japan, an American ally, is an enduring Korean opponent because of its absorption of Korea in 1910. China is an export market not to be unnecessarily provoked, and Russia is a European problem. The right-left split over foreign policy is deep here, and when a left-wing South Korean president talks about greater ‘autonomy,’ it almost certainly means pursuing a course on North Korea especially which the Americans will reject.
This is South Korea’s sovereign right of course. But Moon would be remiss if he did not admit that the nationalist, psychological desire for ‘autonomy’ comes with the cost of a loosening of American relationship. US President Donald Trump already hinted at this post-alliance future. If South Koreans want that, so be it. But Moon should also admit this trade-off and that it means a huge hike in South Korean defense spending and, possibly, nuclearization as it increasingly stands alone.
More defense spending and greater South Korean capabilities within the alliance are widely welcomed in the US. The US has long sought for its allies spend more and be capable of more. South Korea is one of America’s best partners on this issue. But autonomy is different. It means – assuming Moon is serious – breaking with the Americans to pursue a more dovish course on North Korea and China and a more hawkish one on Japan and America. Are South Koreans ready for costs of strategic autonomy?