MACK WILLIAMS. The South Koreans are a critical part of the equation

Aug 21, 2017

As the shouting match becomes more heated between Kim Jong Un and President Trump the role of the popular new President Moon has become more difficult. The most likely casualties in any outbreak of military exchanges would be the population of Seoul and would be very large. These must be considered properly in advance of military action.

Watching the opening film of the Korean Film Festival in Sydney last night reminded one of just how far the South Korea of the 1950’s has emerged into the first world from a country then on a par with the likes of Somalia. This most engaging film ( “The World of Us”) set in modern day Seoul suburbia centred around the relationship of two ten year old girls at home, school and  play exploring a similar canvas of friendship, envy, tutoring, texting, bullying etc. to those which could be expected in Sydney suburbia today. But what the film provoked was the realisation that it was these young Korean kids in their neighbourhoods who would be most likely to be sacrificed if war were to break out again .

For some years a prevailing line of comment about the still unresolved Korean War has been that it was exactly for this reason that war had become “unimaginable”. President Kim Dae Jung’s often maligned Sunshine Policy of dialogue with the North had been founded on the same conclusion – namely that the human cost of war to resolve the Korean problem was such that it could never be contemplated. But this often did not sit well with a Washington which (not without reason) held serious doubts about trying to settle the problem through dialogue and reconciliation. A few of the slightest potential glimmers at the end of the tunnel were either aborted or missed. In following years the scene inevitably became more clouded by the DPRK’s determination to move along the nuclear and missile development route.

The relationship between Seoul and Washington continues to be very complex and naturally has been dominated by the ROK’s dependency on the US for its defence. There are some powerful strands of latent anti-Americanism not too far below the surface with which the new President – himself a prominent supporter of Sunshine –  has long been associated. Coming on to the scene when the situation with the North has heated up he has been quickly confronted with some very uncomfortable policy challenges. So far he has notched up very impressive popular support.

In a major speech to celebrate his first 100 days in office a few days ago President Moon has displayed that (unlike his predecessor) he came to office well experienced from his earlier days in the Roh Moo Hyun Government and with the political agility to adjust some previously strong policy views. Foremost among these was his decision to accept the deployment and rapid installation of the THAAD anti-missile despite continuing strong Chinese pressure not to do so. He also renewed his offer for dialogue with the North. But at the same time he has asserted in terms which presumably may not have been so welcome in Washington that there will be no war on the Korean peninsula and that he has Trump’s word that the US will consult the ROK before taking any military action against the DPRK

This all came just after the US had made a determined push to stiffen up allies and regional partners against Kim Jong Un’s Guam response to Trump’s “war and fury” outburst. This included pressure for a strong statement from the ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Manila, reported heavying of the ROK Foreign Minister to quieten talk about dialogue with the North, the joint Op-ed by Secretaries Tillerson and Mattis to the Wall Street Journal and Vice President Pence’s talk (or call ?) with Prime Minister Turnbull. At stake was Trump’s perceived need to up the ante with Kim Jong Un essentially by declaring that what had long been thought unimaginable had to become “imaginable”.

This led to the poorly considered comment by Turnbull that Australia would be “joined at the hip” with the US through ANZUS if US soil were to be attacked. Leave aside for others to explain that the automaticity of our ANZUS commitment was much more nuanced than Turnbull’s blunt comment afforded – or that on the only occasion Australia sought a US commitment under ANZUS it was not forthcoming.  But it must be realised that Turnbull’s commitment not only leapfrogged any proper consideration in Australia it also displayed no sensitivity to what  the ROK might think about any unilateral decision by Trump to take military action against the DPRK in retaliation for a Kim Jong Un attack on Guam or its surrounds. The ROK knows full well that this would almost certainly unleash the most unthinkable havoc on Seoul and maybe even Japan. There was not even a flicker of  recognition of any of that in Turnbull’s comments about a country where the Australian military played such an important role in allowing for the development of modern South Korea, with which we have such a large economic bond and the large Korean community in Australia which has made such a valuable contribution to our own development.

At the risk of oversimplification, any who have had experience in South Korea or with Koreans realise just how stoic a nation they are. Daily life in the South gives little sign of the pressures under which they have come to accept – from the outright military threat sitting so close to the incredible resources human and material the ROK has committed to defence. All the while as the democratisation of the ROK has been steady and real. Just think, the ousting of the previous president would have been prevented by vested interests even 5 to 10  years ago! The ROK is far from being a third world country and we must not consider them so.


Mack Williams is a former Australian Ambassador to the Philippines and Republic of Korea. He is a graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies College in London.

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