The War in Ukraine and Indo-Pacific Strategy: What is ROK’s Role?
Captain(N) Sukjoon Yoon, ROKN retired
The Korea Institute for Military Affairs
Emerging interconnection between European theater and Indo-Pacific theater has been announced at the Biden-Yoon Summit hold in May 21, 2022 and a new initiative called Republic of Korea in participation in NATO Leaders’ Summit will be hold on June 29, 2022 in Spain will be a case of how to clarify it.
South Korean President Yoon announced his participation in NATO summit with other major powers in Indo-Pacific region; Japan, Australia, New Zealand and NATO-led Australia-South Korea-Japan-New Zealand security cooperation will be hold to support NATO-led war in Ukraine in Europe operational theater.
Key concerns for ROK are:
Q1: How impacts of the War in Ukraine are ROK’s strategic alliance partnership with US and NATO in general and in the Indo-Pacific region in particular?
Answer: Not too much. It appears to be wishful hope of US and NATO for ROK to demonstrate its robust role and contribution to support the war in Ukraine. In fact, ROK hasn’t possessed sufficient capabilities to support US and NATO for the War in Ukraine.
In balance, ROK must prioritized the missions and roles of its military strength in either side. For ROK’s national security, North Korea and China, in part Japan, have morphed into a long-term potential adversary with US commitment to be overseen.
The War in Ukraine is land-oriented war, but implementation of the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy seems to be maritime-oriented alliance. ROK wants US, NATO and EU do more responsible roles for European peace and stability not insisting its sideline stances. It is ROK’s view that Ukraine appears to be a scapegoat in US by misleading management of the world politics. ROK should not be go-between the era of great power competition in neither operational theater.
Q2: What is the relationship between ROK-US alliance codenamed comprehensive global strategic alliance, and NATO’s opening its partnership with others? And how does ROK’s pivotal role for global security and Indo-Pacific region contribute to this relationship?
Answer: US president Joe Biden wishes ROK do more active role of interconnecting between ROK-US alliance and jettison NATO’s heavy burdens of dealing with the war in Ukraine. For ROK, unfortunately, expanding its role of dealing with the Ukraine operational theater would be just lip-service for US, not substantial efforts to be able to provide for substantial weapons and systems to Ukraine of which inter-operability of weapons and systems between Ukraine and ROK does not existed.
ROK president Yoon will make his first appearance on June 29, 2022 in NATO-Indo-Pacific Friendship Summit in Spain, but ROK will not make any certain strategic position of balancing between US and Russia. While US retains reliable allies and partners in Europe militarily and diplomatically, such as NATO, NATO-partners and European Union, ROK’s role of it is to strengthen network-based multilateral and comprehensive strategic alliance between ROK-US alliance and NATO and European Union. ROK’s diplomatic mission to NATO just has been established on focusing on information sharing for integrated supply chain cooperation, maritime security, cyber and space security and climate changes, etc.
As ROK-US should be aiming at North Korean nuclear and missile threats, its declaration of exercising a global pivotal role for the world politics is not for its active involvement of the war in Ukraine, but for ROK’s willingness of be back to new normal alliance with US and others as US wants.
With regard to the Indo-Pacific Strategy, ROK policies towards North Korea and China led by previous administration was raising alarm with its one-side tilting of templates to weaken ROK-US alliance. ROK’s pivotal role of the renewal ROK-US alliance, by contrast, will lead ROK to grapple with how to improve ruined ROK-US alliance and manage US and China rivalry at the same time. This can be defined as ROK’s global pivotal role of ROK-US alliance while US is losing its edge in Asia.
Q3: How significant is ROK’s expanding of its global pivotal role for deterring North Korean nuclear and missile threats and supporting US-led sidelining supporting to Ukraine’s fighting against battlefield against Russia?
Answer: As US wishes, ROK as one of the NATO’s so-called Asia-Pacific partners, should talks with NATO and EU of how to mitigate current hard-clash confrontation between US, ROK and North Korea as well as how to manage current crisis in Europe.
While North Korea will not express it willingness to re-engage with Yoon’s administration because most policy-makers of Yoon’s policy toward North Korea are former members of Lee Myongbak’s era of which failure of its policies have been proved, to play a ‘non-Asian card’ would be good for ROK to draw North Korea back to the table for talks and figure out for adopting a new network-centric global and comprehensive strategic concept of ROK-US alliance.
In the meantime, US is still sideliner of dealing with the War in Ukraine and asks NATO and others neutral states to do more role to be against Russia. As Washington wants to mobilize its allies and strategic partners and like-minded nations to make unit front line to implement of the Indo-Pacific Strategy and Economic Framework, it is a possible for Yoon’s first oversea visit to proclaim Korean-version vision of NATO-Indo-Pacific Interconnection or networking.
However, it appears to be too late for ROK to select major a target in choosing either Russia or China. ROK, unlike Germany, has enough for military logistic supporting and operational and tactical capabilities because of its long-time preparations for the second Korean War in the Korean Peninsula. Unless interoperability of weapons and systems between ROK and Ukraine would not be matter, to provide them to Ukraine in terms of MBT, self-propelled artillery gun, ammo, even warrior equipment, such as medical supports, and helmets, etc.
However, unlike Germany, North Korea threatens Seoul imminent and urgent, ROK should not be all the eggs in the same basket. Why does ROK input more than what European Union did during the nuclear and missile crises of the Korean Peninsula?
Q4: How can ROK utilize its unique strategic disposition to better protect its national interests and values from US-led global order of which appears to be against China’s interests and strategies?
Answer: It is common that ROK Yoon’s administration stands pro-US stance of which functions are different from former one led by Moon. Whatever ROK administration has changed its strategies toward North Korea and China, ROK’s national interest per se would not be changed yet.
And ROK should not be scapegoat in the great power rivalry again that has experienced during the 19th century. ROK’s unique strategic and geographic dispositions and values have always demonstrated not precative policy, but only proactive action-for-reaction cycle when great powers engage to compete each other by denouncing its overreaching tilting toward one side and defining it as anti-one side stance or approach towards others interest. .
Geographically China is still exercising its political and economic influences to ROK albeit its strong and linchpin alliance with US. In this regard, ROK should not draw its toe to line on the risk of setting a line one side and it has been proved as too much risky and dangerous for ROK itself.
As the war in Ukraine, it is a good lesson for ROK that Russia is a far greater security threat than China, now and the long term. For ROK, Indo-Pacific is a first priority of exercising its capabilities and should be web-based grand alliance strategy of comprehensive, strategic alliance between ROK and US and others.
Q5: How common is it that ROK shares its national interest and strategic value like the way it’s set out Korea-first interest policy that has implemented by previous Moon administration?
Answer: US and NATO should leave ROK to exercise its Korea-oriented policy or Korea-central diplomacy toward North Korea, China, and Russia, in part Japan. If ROK leaves North Korea alone, who is caring North Korea for survival and help Kim Jung-un regime for retaining his power against KPA?
US, including China and NATO, can only play their limited role of exercising its testbed of whether North Korea can be survived by itself as observed in some cases in the Indo-Pacific region as well as Europe.
For US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy, North Korean nuclear and missile threats appear to be far-reaching and less dangerous scenarios against USCON and NATO in part Japan. However, its tactical nuclear threat threatens towards ROK is directly aiming and none of them expresses their concerns and sit in the fence as sitting ducks.
It is a right time for ROK and US to create new and innovative and robust comprehensive and complementary alliance formula to balance between ROK’s and US interests, not slogans: “America First” or “Great America Again with allies and partners”, but ‘ROK first policy’ and strategic autonomous approach.
Things have been changed a lot: two great powers are declining for together and none wants to replace them. Whereas ROK-US alliance is still lingering to legacies of the Cold War, Biden and Yoon should agree to establishment of new concept of binational and futuristic ROK-US alliance based on US-led and role-based regional order and security framework.
But question is whose rule should be and whom is led by who? The truism to answer these questions is that ROK interests should be first, and US strategic interests would be next one to reserve its comprehensive and whole-of-governmental powers for rehabilitating them before observing Chinese greatness of Middle-Kingdom mentality or Chinese-version of Monroe Doctrine in the Indo-Pacific region.
In sum, it is common that while US is focusing on the Europe where is not very much favor compare with Indo-Pacific, China tries to rehabilitate its historical prestige of greatness with military might and economic leverages and ROK faces a strategic dilemma of balance between them.
This paper has been presented for Annual Security Seminar between GIGA-SLOC Studies Korea on June 25, 2022 held in Seoul, Korea.
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