Imagine an agreement whereby, should a war break out, operational control of your country’s military would be assumed by another nation.
That’s the deal that South Korea has with the United States in the event of a conflict with North Korea. The arrangement, which traces back to the Korean War in the early 1950s, was dubbed the “most remarkable concession of sovereignty in the entire world” by the late general Richard Stilwell, who commanded US forces in South Korea.
Today, US forces have Donald Trump as their commander-in-chief. The politically inexperienced president has hurled bombastic threats at the regime of Kim Jong-un—known for its own over-the-top warnings—and sees being unpredictable as a virtue. On Nov. 7 and 8, South Korea will host Trump, who is on a larger tour of Asia.
Trump’s visit will be a chance for Seoul to make its voice heard in a North Korea crisis in which it often seems to be overlooked. But it will also serve as a reminder of how little, for a sovereign nation, South Korea controls its own fate.
North Korea, with its increasingly sophisticated missiles and nuclear bombs, is a growing concern for the region and the world—but South Korea has the most reason to worry about the belligerent nation. The capital Seoul is well within range of North Korea’s artillery. In one Pentagon war scenario, the country would suffer 20,000 deaths a day at the beginning of a conventional war. That’s assuming North Korea didn’t use its nuclear or chemical weapons.
Yet when it comes to pressuring North Korea economically with UN sanctions, which could conceivably prompt Pyongyang to lash out militarily, South Korea doesn’t have as much say as one might assume given its stakes in the matter. It is not one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, which has been passing ever-tougher sanctions against North Korea in recent years, the latest in September involving a cap on crude oil exports to North Korea following its sixth nuclear test. France and the UK, who along with Russia, China, and the US have veto powers as permanent members, have more say in the matter than does South Korea.
Also troubling from Seoul’s point of view: Trump has still not appointed an ambassador to South Korea. For months, Victor Cha, a veteran of George W. Bush’s administration and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, has been widely expected to take the role. The vacancy is part of a broader pattern of Trump leaving key roles in the state department unfilled. In an interview last week with Fox News, Trump said of the lack of department nominees, “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me. I’m the only one that matters.” Such statements from a man lacking expertise about the Korean Peninsula are not likely reassuring to Seoul.
Many South Koreans, meanwhile, question how much Trump cares about potential Korean casualties should a war erupt. Comments made by Republican senator Lindsey Graham in August were widely reported in South Korea, and thought to be a reflection of Trump’s own thinking. Graham said on NBC’s Today Show, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there—they’re not going to die here.”
The New York Times last month published a translated essay (paywall) by South Korean novelist Han Kang, who won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction last year. She wrote:
Now, nearly 70 years on, I am listening as hard as I can each day to what is being said on the news from America, and it sounds perilously familiar. “We have several scenarios.” “We will win.” “If war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, 20,000 South Koreans will be killed every day.” “Don’t worry, war won’t happen in America. Only on the Korean Peninsula.”
Also not helping matters is the flimsy rapport between Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in, a former human rights lawyer who isn’t as hawkish on North Korea as Trump would like. Moon, whose parents fled North Korea, favors reaching out more to Pyongyang, and has said his nation should learn to “say no to the Americans.” By contrast Trump has developed a strong relationship with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who falls more in line with Trump’s tough stance on North Korea.
Among South Koreans there is a growing feeling—dubbed “Korean passing” by local media—that they’ve been sidelined during the North Korea crisis. Some in Seoul fear Trump could respond to future North Korean provocations with unilateral military operations. After Trump threatened Pyongyang with “fire and fury” in August, Moon said in a nationally televised speech (paywall) that “no one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement.” He reiterated this last week, telling lawmakers that “there cannot be any military action on the Korean Peninsula without a prior consent of the Republic of Korea.”
Amid fears it could be dragged into a conflict by the Trump administration, South Korea has recently been pushing harder to gain operational control of its own forces in the event of battle, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall).
Moon said in his national address that he’s against the redeployment of US nuclear weapons in South Korea, something political opponents have been calling for as a way to counter the threat of North Korea. But he emphasized the need to “secure overwhelming power” to bring Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. He also drove home the point that for South Korea, not having control over its own affairs is a sad constant of its modern history, citing Japanese colonial rule and the peninsula’s division into two Koreas as examples of “the unfortunate history of having our fate decided regardless of our wishes.”