Afghanistan’s collapse is a rude awakening for South Korea

BY: Jong Eun Lee*

Awakening for South Korea

PEJOURNAL – After twenty years, the war in Afghanistan has ended with the Taliban’s victory. Multiple U.S. analysts are already writing commentaries on what has gone wrong with the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, but far fewer are assessing what the end of the war signifies for South Korea.

Currently, there is an ongoing historical debate within South Korea on the origin of the Republic of Korea (ROK), with critics challenging its political legitimacy (allegation of pro-Japanese, authoritarian characteristics). However, it should be noted that during the Korean War, most of the South Korean populace and soldiers continued the fight in defense of the ROK state, even when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) forces were initially victorious. Why did the South Korean public now switch allegiance to DPRK, another “Korean” regime?

In fact, the DPRK was surprised when their quick capture of Seoul did not trigger the collapse of the ROK government or popular uprising in favor of communist liberation.

Despite its political controversies, the early ROK government led by President Syngman Rhee achieved an accomplishment in establishing a political state, which its citizens and soldiers perceived as sufficiently legitimate to be worth defending.

Why did the United States decide to withdraw from Afghanistan? Perhaps the simplest answer is, “The United States no longer saw a need to stay in Afghanistan anymore.” To be even blunter, at a certain point, Afghanistan lost its usefulness as a partner for the United States, prompting various U.S. administrations to decide the impact of a withdrawal on U.S. foreign policy interests would be limited, even with the fall of the Afghan government. 

For the past seventy years, South Korea has been a military ally of the United States. How did the bilateral alliance last for so long? Because of the memory of the blood and sacrifice of U.S. soldiers during the Korean War? The binding legal commitment from the U.S.-ROK defense treaty? Certainly, those are two important factors, but the U.S.-ROK alliance lasted this long in large part because most U.S. policymakers saw strategic value in keeping the ROK as an ally.   

For the ROK government, the importance of an alliance with the United States has been clear since its creation. The ROK government, however, faced the task of proving the value of its alliance to the United States. And for the past seventy years, the ROK has achieved this task, and henceforth the alliance continues today.

South Korea’s dilemma, however, from the lesson of the Afghanistan War, is that U.S. foreign policy experiences a cycle of intervention and disengagement. For the past twenty years, U.S. foreign policy advocated intervention into Afghanistan and encouraged participation from U.S. allies. South Korea, too, played a limited role in the peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.

The U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan likely would not seriously affect South Korea, which is distant from the region. What should concern South Korea, however, is the future of U.S. foreign policy toward China.

U.S. administrations are currently engaging in assertive foreign policy moves to restrain the revisionist behaviors of rising China. The United States is also encouraging U.S. allies to participate as well, such as through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue framework. But for how long will the United States engage in confrontation with China? Would future U.S. administrations eventually feel “hegemonic fatigue” and negotiate with China to withdraw from the Asia-Pacific, or at least partition China’s sphere of influence in the region?

The United States might tactically retreat from its rivalry with China, but what about South Korea, China’s geographic neighbor? What price could South Korea pay for being perceived as an active participant of the so-called “China containment” strategy if its main architect suspends this endeavor in the future?

Currently, within South Korea, there is a consequential foreign policy debate between policymakers (and policy experts) in favor of a U.S.-aligned, assertive policy toward China and those in favor of strategic ambiguity or hedging between China and the United States. While there is merit in the argument favoring the strengthening of the U.S.-ROK alliance and collaboration, it is also critical for South Korean policymakers to be certain of the United States’ long-term commitment in the region.

How solid is the U.S. commitment to counter China’s regional expansion? While some analysts warn that South Korea’s risks lagging behind U.S. foreign policy, the lesson from the end of the Afghanistan War might be a warning for South Korea to also avoid prematurely getting ahead of U.S. foreign policy in the areas of geopolitical conflict.

Recently, Dr. Heungkyu Kim from the U.S.-China Policy Institute at Ajou University observed that the prevailing fallacy within South Korea is to assume the immutability of U.S. foreign policy. In fact, U.S. foreign policy has, and will likely continue to, alternate between active and passive approaches. Concerning its policy toward China, Kim warns, “US foreign policy could in the future become more confrontational toward China, or in reverse, become more accommodating of its strategic rival.” South Korea’s future challenge then is to respond well to the “tide and ebb” flow of its major ally’s foreign policy, also flexibly alternating between active and passive diplomacy toward China.

* Jong Eun Lee is a Ph.D. Candidate and is also an adjunct faculty at the American University School of International Service. He holds an M.A. in political science from Fordham University. His research interests include U.S. foreign policy, South Korean politics and foreign policy, alliance management, East Asian regional security.