April 26, 2023
SEOUL – This year marks the 70th anniversary of the South Korea-US alliance. To commemorate the invaluable friendship of these two countries, US President Joe Biden will host a state visit of South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol on Wednesday. As international crises have loomed here and there and disrupted world peace lately, this upcoming summit in Washington is certainly very timely.
In the past, when South Korea was underdeveloped and weak, it was almost the sole beneficiary of the Mutual Defense Treaty signed on Oct. 1, 1953. Today, however, the alliance has become mutually beneficial, as South Korea is currently a fully developed, affluent country. Indeed, South Korea has now become a valuable ally of the US, as it is capable of helping America whenever necessary.
Among other things, South Korea is presently contributing to the American economy by building electric automobile and semiconductor factories in the US, thereby creating numerous jobs for Americans. In addition, as the sixth-largest military power in the world, South Korea is also an indispensable military partner of the US in East Asia, which America can trust in times of international conflicts and crises in that area.
The problem is that when and if South Korea takes the side of the US in international conflicts, it has to immediately confront and deal with grave economic and military risks. For example, countries hostile to America will definitely retaliate by imposing sanctions on imports from South Korea, which will seriously damage the Korean economy. Another problem is that South Korea remains vulnerable to a possible nuclear strike by North Korea during the chaos of international conflict unless it, too, has nuclear weapons of its own, or if this is not possible, an unconditional guarantee of protection under the nuclear umbrella of the US.
It is therefore imperative to the Korean people that President Yoon discuss these two urgent matters in depth with President Biden during the summit meeting. Indeed, it would be great for Koreans if the summit talk would focus on securing suitable compensation from the US in case of hostile countries’ economic retaliation, and reassurance of America’s unswerving commitment to the protection of South Korea from a possible nuclear attack from North Korea.
Recently, a Korean expert on the military wrote an intriguing article in a major Korean newspaper. According to him, the East Sea is no longer safe these days, due to Russia’s deployment of its nuclear-powered submarine, Poseidon, to the Vladivostok Pacific Fleet, as well as North Korea’s nuclear submarine called Tsunami.
The military specialist also warned that Korea’s West Sea, too, was vulnerable to the Chinese Navy’s SLBM, that is, Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles. He sincerely hoped that Presidents Biden and Yoon would discuss the possibility of South Korea obtaining nuclear-powered submarines, even if we are not allowed to have nuclear weapons, because these armaments are crucial to protect our country from mutual adversaries.
This would be beneficial for the US as well because the South Korean Navy could efficiently assist the US military in anything it needs to do in East Asia, if any such action might seem necessary. Such a request is not so implausible because Washington has already decided to help Australia build nuclear-powered submarines for the same reason.
Some opinion leaders have also advised President Yoon to ask President Biden to share with South Korea advanced technologies such as AI and Quantum computing. They have argued that doing so would only seem natural and reciprocal, since South Korea, too, is sharing its cutting-edge technologies with the US, such as semiconductors and electric car batteries.
Other experts argue that President Biden would be an ideal mediator between Korea and Japan and would help them heal their respective psychological wounds and restore friendship. It is undeniable that a strong alliance between Korea, Japan, and the US is vital to protecting liberal democracy and maintaining peace in Asia. Under the circumstances, America’s mediation will surely be able to expedite the restoration of friendship between South Korea and Japan by buffering unnecessary frictions and misunderstandings.
Recently, Korean newspapers reported that during the summit meeting, President Yoon would consult with President Biden about sharing comprehensive intelligence not only on North Korea, but also on Asia and Europe, so that the two countries could effectively cooperate in the future. Surely, such trust would be helpful for strengthening the 70-year-old alliance between the two countries. Besides, it is about time that as a world leader, South Korea’s concern extends beyond the Korean Peninsula.
If President Biden strongly supports President Yoon during and after these negotiations, the alliance between the two countries will be stronger than ever. America will then continue to have an important ally in Asia. We strongly hope that the summit meeting between the two leaders turns out to be a huge success and rewarding for both countries in this critical moment.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. — Ed.