June 15, 2023
SEOUL – In this series, The Korea Herald sits down with members of the 21st National Assembly to discuss top political events and issues affecting Seoul and beyond from South Korea’s heart of power in Yeouido. — Ed.
The time is ripe for South Korea to join its allies in sending defense aid to Ukraine, according to Army general-turned-lawmaker Rep. Shin Won-sik.
In an interview with The Korea Herald, the first-time lawmaker of the ruling People Power Party and the National Assembly national defense committee’s executive secretary said South Korea needs to rethink its policy of not providing lethal weapons to war-torn Ukraine.
“The days of strategic ambiguity are over,” he said, making the case for a fuller commitment to supporting Ukraine. “Now is the time to take a stand.”
South Korea has so far limited its assistance to Ukraine to humanitarian and nonlethal aid.
“As a member of the ruling party, I respect our government’s stance. As an individual lawmaker and a lawmaking institution, I am for full-fledged support to Ukraine,” he said.
On sticking to “nonlethal” forms of support, he said the distinction was “rather absurd.” “When you say lethal, it sounds very sensational. But all weapons are made to kill.”
The war in Ukraine was an assault on the post-World War II international norm of not using military force or intimidation to change the peacefully established order, he said. The kind of shifts in the international system that are being reinforced by the Kremlin would be especially threatening to South Korea.
“There are three nations that are trying to subvert the rule-based order of peace and stability, and they are Russia, China and North Korea. We sit right on the front lines.”
He said the same countries that came to South Korea’s help during the Korean War — mostly the West plus the British Commonwealth, supported by the United Nations — were now supplying Ukraine with weapons.
“It’s not like siding with Ukraine isn’t costing these countries economically. Some of them are dependent on Russia for their energy needs, and have trade relations,” he said. “Think about the message we’d be sending if we were to not take part in the move to condemn and hold Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine.”
Shin said if defending the rule-based order were not reason enough to sway opponents at home, mainly the Democratic Party of Korea and the rest of the liberal establishment, South Korea should see Ukraine aid as an investment for possible future contingencies.
What is happening in Ukraine could be South Korea’s problem as much as it is Ukraine’s problem now, “for us more so than any other nation in the world,” he said. South Korea, along with Taiwan, is one of the countries at highest risk of finding itself in Ukraine’s shoes.
“South Korea not fully committing to the collective defense mission may erode willingness of the free world to support us, which would in turn hurt deterrence against North Korea.”
He said it is not South Korea and its allies’ capability to strike back that North Korea is skeptical about, but their willingness to do so.
“Soon, like how the events leading up to the Korean War unfolded, the choice may not be ours to make,” he said.
The post-Cold War period that lasted for about three decades after the Soviet Union’s fall in the early 1990s did not call for siding explicitly with one bloc. Neutrality was a diplomatic virtue, he said. The growing demand to be clear on where one aligns in the past 10 years has peaked with the war in Ukraine, opening up a new phase that Shin calls the “new cold war.”
In that sense, US President Joe Biden making a U-turn from his predecessor Donald Trump’s “America first” diplomacy and restoring the focus on alliances was “no doubt the wiser approach” and “the right thing to do,” he said.
Trump “lost sight of the bigger picture” in undermining NATO and jeopardizing ties with other allies when, for the US too, the costs of one-on-one competition with China far outweigh the cost of having allies, he said.
“Personally, I think Mr. Trump was a politician who put his personal political objectives ahead of the US strategic relationship,” he said. South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s focus on trilateral security cooperation with the US and Japan was forming a “synergy” with Biden bringing back focus on alliances, he added.
When Yoon and Biden agreed to the Washington Declaration over their summit meeting in April, it signaled to North Korea that its strategic calculus on nuclear weapons would have to change completely, he said. The declaration amounted to a bilateral nuclear cooperation that elevated the US extended deterrence to an “unprecedented level.”
“For the last 30 years, the price North Korea had to pay for taking up nuclear arms was meager compared to what it could gain from doing so,” he said. And China and Russia, he added, have done “nothing to mitigate North Korea’s military adventurism.”
“For the three generations of the Kim dynasty North Korea was occupied with how to create nuclear weapons. The question facing them now is how to handle the nuclear weapons in their hands,” he said.
“North Korea has long used its nuclear program as a negotiating chip — but now it’s beginning to learn that its risky dabbling is backfiring with a stronger South Korea-US alliance, more powerful extended deterrence commitments from the US.”
He said North Korea, if it were being strategic, “wouldn’t risk carrying out a seventh nuclear test” with security arrangements of the status quo.
“There is nothing North Korea could gain from conducting a nuclear weapons test, strategically speaking. From a technical standpoint, there’s a debate over whether it needs another test after the last one.”
He said that it was also in the allies’ interest to maintain the security of South Korea, which is at the forefront of the tumult. “As much as we need cooperation from our allies, we are a key security pillar and should not be let to falter.”