With both South Korea and the United States focused on domestic matters – 2022 presidential race and 2022 midterm elections respectively, it will be extremely difficult for both to offer exit strategies to North Korea’s imposing threats in the foreseeable future. Further compounding the situation, China is by no means a reluctant stakeholder, but rather self-interested, unwilling leader.
Seoul cannot depend on Beijing and should not expect President Xi Jinping to alter course on Pyongyang. China is shaping its international relations path while abdicating its role as a true regional leader responding to a geopolitical crisis such as North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship. China’s actions reveal its insecurity in internal politics and its role on the international stage. Xi has become increasingly proactive in defending its interests, but ambiguous about what its actual interests are in delaying open conflict with other leaders for as long as possible.
History teaches us that Xi’s passive course of action regarding Kim Jong-un may be intentional. It has worked since the Kim Jong-il era from 1994-2011, but it also reminds us that totalitarian regimes close to demise are bound to behave rashly and little Kim would be no exception to this history lesson. It is certainly feasible that without Beijing’s foreign aid, Pyongyang would face a regime collapse, which alludes to every leader’s worst nightmare. Simply, the weaker North Korea becomes, the more dangerous it becomes to China, the Indo-Pacific region, and by extension, the rest of the world. Thus, if Beijing hopes to uphold armistice and stability on their borders, its policymakers have no choice but to maintain its status quo with Pyongyang and Kim Jong-un, even when facing more severe criticism from the international community.
I have often mentioned over the last several years that North Korea is not Iran, but it is at an impasse. The P5+1 will not be able to negotiate a deal with Kim Jong-un, and no country, not even the U.S. will be able to stop North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship. Therefore, South Korean policymakers must focus on what they can control. Seoul needs to continue to rely on strengthening the alliance with Washington and work on defense modernization geared towards its Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD). A robust and integrated layered defense system is critical to counter the increased North Korean ballistic missile threat to the Korean Peninsula.
For the past few years, the U.S. has deployed its third-generation Patriot missile batteries (PAC-3s) and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense to South Korea, which increases the shoot down capability of enemy ballistic missiles due to enhanced performance in range, height, maneuverability, and detection. Upgraded software enables tailored searches for Theater Ballistic Missiles and a “keep-out altitude” to destroy missiles with chemical warheads or early release sub munitions at specified altitudes, minimizing ground fallout.
South Korea has vast varieties of armor, aviation, air defense, aviation, and missiles in their armed forces. To enhance footprint coverage for BMD, the South Korean government upgraded its PAC-2s to PAC-3s last year, when combined with current U.S. PAC-3s, will create an effective missile defense system across the Korean Peninsula. These upgraded PAC-3s are ballistic missile “hit-to-kill” intercept capable like the U.S. PAC-3s.
While the South Korea-U.S. Alliance’s ability to adapt and modernize to meet the North Korean threat has enhanced regional and global security, success is not limited to equipment such as the Patriot upgrade. Washington and Seoul must continue to improve interoperability and institutional combined operations. The alliance’s ironclad strength is made manifest through its signature ability to seamlessly integrate personnel and systems capabilities. By working together, the alliance can win the “fight tonight” and defeat the enemy threat.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to overstate the threat North Korea poses to the Korean Peninsula and the Indo-Pacific region. With the world’s fourth-largest conventional military located merely 35 miles away, the South Korea-U.S. Alliance confronts and deters a potentially devastating conflict daily. Nonetheless, after Pyongyang’s sixth nuclear test, now more than ever, it is critical that the alliance make every effort to maintain readiness to defend South Korea at a moment’s notice.
Bolstered by the frequent modernization of capabilities and ongoing efforts to strengthen interoperability, the U.S.-South Korea Alliance may conceivably develop into a resilient and adaptable partnership to best respond to a changing security environment. In short, by upgrading and modernizing its military, South Korea will continue to grow as a middle-power country as they fulfill their role as a buffer and rapid deployment force in the Indo-Pacific Theater, constraining North Korea.