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How Will President-Elect Yoon Manage the South Korea – U.S. Alliance and North Korea?

North Korean Special-Operations Forces. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
North Korean Special-Operations Forces. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

What to Expect from the Yoon Administration on the ROK/U.S. Alliance and National Security – President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol will have a positive impact on the ROK/U.S. alliance and on the security of the Republic of Korea.

However, we must be aware of the propaganda and rhetoric that will likely emerge from both North Korea and the political opposition that will argue that he is too close to and too aligned with the U.S. We must keep in mind that the national security interests of both the ROK and the U.S. benefit from the alliance and it is the interests of both nations to ensure we have a strong alliance.

South Korea Must Step Up

President-elect Yoon has laid out his vision for national security in his February Foreign Affairs article and in a recent Washington Post interview. In short, his vision is that it is time for South Korea to step up – in the ROK/U.S. alliance, in the region, and around the world because the ROK is an important player on the global stage.

We will see a defense of democratic values, the rules-based international order, cooperation with other like-minded countries, and alignment with entities such as the Quad.  Korea is the only country in the world to go from a major aid recipient following the Korean War armistice to a major donor nation after the Miracle on the Han. It stands as an example for the developing nations around the world. We should expect to see strong solidarity with Ukraine as it experiences similar attacks as Korea did in 1950.

Hostile Policy

What we are going to see between the ROK and the U.S. is sufficient alignment of assumptions about the nature, objectives, and strategy of the Kim family regime. I believe the president-elect has a realistic understanding of North Korea and its goals and these are more in synch with the U.S. than the previous administration.

The alliance will focus on the security of the ROK through readiness and deterrence. The president-elect will remind Korea, the region, and the world that the alliance exists to defend South Korea and the the Asia Pacific region.

In his recent Washington Post interview, he called North Korea the main enemy. This recognizes that Kim Jong-un seeks to dominate the Korean peninsula under the rule of the Guerrilla Dynasty and the Gulag State to ensure the survival of the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim family regime. The regime uses subversion, coercion, extortion (blackmail diplomacy), and ultimately will use force to try to achieve unification on Kim’s terms.

This is a two-track approach – political warfare to subvert the South and manipulate the U.S. and international community, and the development of advanced warfighting capabilities to be able to attack the South. These two tracks guide all actions from the north. He is correctly calling out Kim for his hostile policy toward the ROK and the U.S. No longer will Kim be able to get away with saying the U.S. and the ROK have a hostile policy. The ROK/U.S. alliance seeks security and stability, economic growth, and ultimately peaceful unification in Korea. Kim seeks hostile domination.

Human Rights Upfront Approach

It is necessary for the president-elect to take a human rights upfront with North Korea. Not only is it a moral imperative, but it is also a national security issue because Kim Jong-un must deny the human rights of the Korean people living in the north to remain in power.

The president-elect must also be concerned with the rights of the escapees/defectors in the South who are working hard to get information into the north to change the conditions. He must convince the National Assembly to repeal the so-called anti-leaflet law and allow the escapees to continue their good work with the full support of the ROK government and the Korean people.

Strategic Influence Campaign and a Superior Political Warfare Strategy

The president-elect must go beyond the work of the escapees and embark on a combined strategic influence campaign in the north. The ROK/U.S. alliance must bring all ROK and U.S. influence capabilities to bear on the north. It is important to understand that Kim Jong-un fears the Korean people in the north more than he fears the U.S. military. And his biggest fear is when the people have information and knowledge about life in the South and understand their unalienable rights and long to have the same rights as their brothers and sisters in the South.

Most importantly, the essence of a superior political warfare strategy is to recognize the north’s strategy, understand it, expose it, and then attack that strategy.

Unification as the Challenge and the Solution

The president-elect must take a long-term approach to solve the “Korea question” which comes from paragraph 60 of the armistice and recognizes the unnatural division of the peninsula.  He must change the focus of the Ministry of Unification from competition with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the National Intelligence Service to an organization that is singularly focused on the necessary deep and detailed planning for the unification of Korea. The ministry must plan for unification through the four possible paths – from peaceful unification, regime collapse, and war, to the possibility of emerging new leadership in the north who will seek unification on peaceful terms. The ministry must focus on every aspect of unification from political, economic, health services, and security integration to culture and language divergence to such basic rights as land ownership and freedom of movement.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol must recognize that the only way to achieve denuclearization, the elimination of the existential threat from the north, and bring an end to the human rights abuses and crimes against humanity is through unification. The only acceptable durable political arrangement that will serve the Korean people and ROK and U.S. interests is the establishment of a United Republic of Korea that is secure and stable, non-nuclear, economically vibrant, and unified under a liberal constitutional form of government based on individual liberty, rule of law, free market economics and human rights as determined by the Korean people.

In short, a United Republic of Korea (UROK).

David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 20 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the editor of Small Wars Journal and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Written By

David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy and the editor of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea).