United States and East Asia: A Nuclear Alliance for a Nuclear War
The introduction of nuclear weapons in the 1940s revolutionized warfare technology and shifted the dynamics of armed conflict. The debut of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima spoke for its immense power and impact; not only was the city’s infrastructure decimated and its people almost entirely wiped out, but the radiation from the bomb caused a dramatic spike in cancer levels for Hiroshima locals that would linger for generations to follow. In response to the dangers posed by the use of nuclear weapons in the Cold War, the United Nations passed the 1967 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) to discourage the use of nuclear weapons, with the exception of five countries that built and tested nuclear devices prior to the treaty becoming effective. In 2017, regulations over nuclear weapons increased with the passage of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which prohibited countries from developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, and using or threatening to use nuclear weapons.
Beyond the United Nations’ regulations, many countries are still hesitant to “pull the trigger” because they understand the threat and implications of nuclear warfare. However, that is not to say that countries have made nuclear weapons obsolete; if anything, most countries have nuclear weapons programs as precautionary measures, fearing that their enemies will inevitably strike first. Since its founding in the 1980s, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has remained an international threat, with ongoing demonstrations of its pre-emptive measures against its enemies, continuous nuclear testing, and weapons development. As the leader of the free world, the United States takes it upon itself to intervene in rogue countries like North Korea, which leads it to be seen as a direct threat or target. In April, United States President Joe Biden emphasized the United States’ commitment to defend South Korea, to which Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, responded that he was being “miscalculating and irresponsibly brave,” and that his remarks simply strengthened their desire to enhance North Korea’s nuclear arms capabilities. (Reed, “North Korea: Kim Jong-Un Sister Says…”) As tensions continue to rise and North Korea’s threats against South Korea and the United States persist, the United States must not rely solely on U.S - South Korean relations when countering North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, the United States cannot become overly confident in its military and resources without risking underestimating the rogue country and its daunting allies.
In order to understand why the United States cannot solely rely on its relationship with South Korea when facing North Korea in armed conflict, one has to understand the relationship between North Korea and South Korea, the United States and South Korea, and North Korea and the United States. The rigid tensions between the three are beyond territorial claims and deeply rooted in the history of both North and South Korea. Prior to its split, Korea was a unified country ruled by generations of dynastic kingdoms. However, in 1905, Japan declared war on Russia to drive out the Russian influence in East Asia, which led to the Russo-Japanese War. While Korea declared neutrality in the conflict, Imperial Japan became victorious in the Russo-Japanese War, leading to the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905 that deprived Korea of its diplomatic sovereignty. In 1910, the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty agreed upon by representatives of both the Empire of Japan and the Korean Empire was passed, making Korea officially a part of Japan. (Caprio, 82).
Korea was ruled by Imperial Japan until the end of World War II, which marked the fall of the East Asian Empire. Post World War II liberation, Korea was divided between the Soviet Union and the United States into two occupation zones on the 38th parallel until 1948. The Soviet Union took control of the northern half of the Korean Peninsula and set up a communist regime, whereas the United States occupied the southern half and formed a military government directly backed by the United States. The Soviet Union’s communist policies were successful and prominent among the northern zone’s blue-collar workers and peasant population. However, most middle-class Koreans fled to the southern zone, where the United States enforced an anti-communist regime. (“Why Are North and South Korea Divided?”). The creation of two drastically different governments forced Korea to be split in half ideologically, with neither the Soviet Union nor the United States willing to give in. Thus, in 1948, the United Nations came together to allow Koreans to decide the future of their country; the Northern zone refused to participate and formed its government headquarters in Pyongyang, and the Southern zone formed its own version in Seoul.
Less than two years following the split, the Korean War broke out to settle which regime was the “real” Korea. However, the United States intervened in the war and heavily bombed many villages, towns, and areas of North Korea, officially making the United States an enemy to North Korea. After the Korean War, both North and South Korea signed the Korean Armistice Agreement, where they pledged to view the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) as a border between the two governments. However, both governments still claim to be the true government of Korea, which has led to decades of conflict and rising tensions.
In 2023, South Korea reported that North Korea had fired over ten missiles off its eastern and western shores in the direction of the Korean peninsula, where South Korea resides. These missile firings occurred only hours after North Korea escalated its hostile tactics by sending even more missiles out as a warning to its enemies, and threatened to deploy nuclear weapons on the United States and South Korea if their joint military drills continued. (Sumu, “What is the Conflict Between North and South Korea?”). If North Korea goes beyond testing and sends missiles across the 38th parallel, the United States is obligated to defend South Korea due to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which President Biden has repeatedly reaffirmed in claims that the United States will indeed defend South Korea in the case of a North Korean attack or invasion, only further aggravating the communist country.
The United States cannot rely just on South Korea in a nuclear war, because not even the South Korean public believes in themselves or their leader. Though relations between the United States and South Korea have been intact and strong, the South Korean public lacks faith in its government, which can heavily impact the strength of joint forces during armed conflict. In a recent poll administered by the Gallup Korea Research Institute, President Yoon Seok Yeol was found to have a 27% approval and an overwhelming 65% disapproval rating (“Yoon’s Approval Rating Falls to 27%”). This level of disapproval or dislike from the public is not an anomaly for President Yoon and is only part of a larger trend of steadily declining approval ratings. Known to the Korean youth and general public as the “Korean Trump,” President Yoon lacks the ability to rally the South Korean public as a collective whole and fails to garner their support.
When the public rallies around the flag (or in simpler terms, to strongly support their leader or government in times of armed conflict), the country itself is able to mobilize as a unified front, making it significantly more difficult for the country to be defeated. Thus, in the potential circumstance of armed conflict with North Korea, the South Korean public would fail to rally around the flag, and their willingness to band together and fight would quickly dissipate in times of strife (Kim, “Why South Korea’s New President…”). Furthermore, the South Korean public’s disapproval of Yoon is well-known throughout the world, which negatively impacts the possibility of other countries providing support. If the United States chooses to only ally with South Korea in a nuclear war, other countries who oppose North Korea would be less willing to join the fight, hesitant of the possibility of success due to Yoon’s failure to lead his people.
The United States cannot solely rely on South Korea because of President Yoon’s lack of experience in foreign relations. Before rising to power, Yoon was a prosecutor under a previous administration, lacking any prior foreign policy experience that would aid him in times of armed conflict. Though Yoon is surrounded by seasoned foreign policy veterans and experts, shifting all of the responsibility to his counsel leaves risk and room for gridlock to occur, with many holding differing opinions. Yoon lacking experience in foreign relations and policy also puts him in a vulnerable position of being manipulated by those around him. As the president, he remains a symbolic figurehead, and other countries—both allies and enemies—will pick up on this and recognize it as a significant weakness in South Korea and the United States' joint efforts.
Though opposers to this argument could indeed argue that Yoon’s lack of experience can be made up for by the United States’ extensive experience in foreign policy, the United States is still at a disadvantage; the distance between it to East Asia prevents it from truly understanding North Korea and its allies to the fullest extent. The US can only see the situation from a third-party lens and lacks an understanding of the intricacies of the players involved and North Korea’s reputation in the region. With the United States being on friendly terms with big players like Japan and Taiwan, it should utilize its current relationships and garner expertise and support from those who are more knowledgeable. It is always more advantageous to have more allies than less, and to have more experience than none.
The United States also cannot rely on South Korea because neither country has the ability to overtake North Korea, even when banded together. Up until now, every United States presidential administration has failed to prevent North Korea from developing ICBMs, which continues to add to its current stockpile. In February, North Korea revealed its itinerary of roughly twelve ballistic missiles in a night parade, which the United States would barely be able to counter according to research done on the current military artillery by the CATO Institute. According to the study, beyond the twelve missiles that were publicly displayed, it is guaranteed that North Korea has more ICBMs and weapons of mass destruction that have yet to be revealed to the world. In the study, political science experts and government officials furthermore predict that North Korea will soon be able to outdo the United States’ current stockpile of interceptors.
In regards to manpower, North Korea’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) is the fourth largest military in the world, and its nuclear missile development is significantly more advanced compared to South Korea. Though the KPA uses older equipment and personnel, their nuclear missiles are far more advanced and can leave severe damage if left unnoticed and unchecked (Bandow, “South Korea vs. North Korea…”). The United States’ current sanctions on nuclear weapons limit South Korea’s missile development capabilities, which is even more reason for the United States to turn towards other countries for backup. With a large chunk of information on North Korea’s military capability unknown, and their nuclear weapons posing a severe threat, the United States cannot be overly confident in its ability to curb North Korea.
Knowing this, the United States should reach out to its East Asian allies for assistance. The United States currently has Mutual Defense Treaties with Japan and Taiwan, who would be more than willing to assist in times of crisis. Japan and Taiwan are also big-time manufacturers of crucial components during wartime, such as semiconductors, steel, iron, and computer chips. Though South Korea can arguably hold its own weight, more assistance should always be welcomed, and even more so with the uncertainty of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program’s full potential. The United States’ ties with other East Asian countries would also benefit South Korea, providing the United States with more support during armed conflict and thus protecting South Korea. For example, the United States and Japan have been allies since the end of World War II and continue to have strong relations, whereas Japan and South Korea are notorious enemies. However, if the United States were to persuade Japan to aid them against North Korea with the Mutual Defense treaty as an ultimatum, Japan would willingly comply to remain in the United States’ good graces.
This article only provides insight into all of the reasons for if and when the United States gets pulled into armed conflict with North Korea, they must rely on more than one ally. Granted, foreign relations are more complicated than waving a wand for other countries to agree to join arms together; however, as the leader of the free world, the United States should utilize its position and current allies to truly aid South Korea. It would be foolish to continue living in bliss and sweep North Korea under the rug when it has demonstrated only an ounce of its current strength and is aggravated by the United States - South Korea joint military operations. With South Korea lacking a leader who the public can rely on and who is experienced in foreign policy and relations, the United States must turn to other East Asian countries for assistance to avoid being blindsided in armed conflict. Furthermore, as it currently stands, the United States and South Korea could be easily overpowered by North Korea, which is why the United States needs to lean on other countries to level the playing field. Walking into conflict overly confident has proven to be disastrous time and time again throughout history, and with the threat and potential of the irreversible damage nuclear weapons bring, it is far better to be safer than sorry.
1. Bandow, Doug. “South Korea vs. North Korea: Who Has the More Powerful Military?” Cato.org, July 29, 2021. https://www.cato.org/commentary/south-korea-vs-north-korea-who-has-more-powerful-military#:~:text=With%20more%20than%20fifty%20times,defeat%20another%20North%20Korean%20invasion.
2. Caprio, Mark E. “Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea, 1910-1945.” Google Books, July 1, 2011. https://books.google.com/books/about/Japanese_Assimilation_Policies_in_Coloni.html?id=oj_IhRConN8C.
3. Kim, Dong Yon. “Why South Korea’s New President Yoon Seok-Yeol Is Not a ‘K-Trump’ but ‘K-Clinton.’” Institute for Security and Development Policy, April 5, 2022. https://isdp.eu/why-south-koreas-new-president-yoon-seok-yeol-is-not-a-k-trump-but-k-clinton/.
4. Reed, Betsy. “North Korea: Kim Jong-Un Sister Says Joe Biden Is ‘in His Dotage’ as She Criticises Nuclear Pact.” The Guardian, April 29, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/apr/29/north-korea-kim-jong-un-sister-says-joe-biden-is-in-his-dotage-as-she-criticises-nuclear-pact.
5. Sumu, Saumya. “What Is the Conflict between North and South Korea? Explained.” Jagranjosh.com, November 2, 2022. https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/what-is-the-conflict-between-north-and-south-korea-explained-1667381670-1.
6. “Why Are North and South Korea Divided?” History.com. Accessed June 18, 2023. https://www.history.com/news/north-south-korea-divided-reasons-facts.
7. “Yoon’s Approval Rating Falls to 27%: Poll.” koreatimes, April 14, 2023. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2023/04/113_349075.html#:~:text=President%20Yoon%20Suk%20Yeol’s%20approval,previous%20week%20to%2027%20percent.