Stephen M. Walt

Seoul searching

I’m back from a short trip to Korea, and I thought I’d pass along some of the lessons I gleaned from the trip. I should start by saying that my Korean hosts were extremely gracious and welcoming and the conference itself was exceptionally well-organized. Given that I’m something of a newcomer to many Asian security ...

Stephen Walt
Stephen Walt

I’m back from a short trip to Korea, and I thought I’d pass along some of the lessons I gleaned from the trip. I should start by saying that my Korean hosts were extremely gracious and welcoming and the conference itself was exceptionally well-organized. Given that I’m something of a newcomer to many Asian security issues, I learned a lot from the exchanges and am grateful for the opportunity to add a country to my list. My one regret is that I didn’t have much time to tour Seoul (let alone the rest of the country), and I only hope I have a chance to go back for longer.

The participants at the conference included a number of prominent Korean scholars and policymakers (the two categories overlap), along with several former or current U.S. officials (Jim Steinberg, Kurt Campbell, and Jeffrey Bader), and prominent academics (John Ikenberry, John Mearsheimer, Victor Cha, and yours truly). Interestingly, the conference also included two well-connected scholars from China, and the whole proceeding was "on-the-record" (and covered by the Korean media). The audience included an impressive number of Korean graduate students, by the way, who asked some excellent questions at the end of each session.

Not surprisingly, much of the discussion focused on the implications of China’s rise and North Korea’s continued status as a regional trouble-maker. As my last post indicated, South Korea would like to maintain both its extensive economic ties with China and its close security ties with the United States. In other words, they lean economically in one direction and militarily in the other. South Koreans are under no illusions about the implications of China’s increasing power, however, and they are eager to preserve the alliance with the United States as a result. Given their strategic location and long history of foreign occupation, this attitude is hardly surprising.

In this regard, the Obama administration’s decision to invite South Korean President Lee Myung Bak for a state visit this week was a very smart move, and the Free Trade Agreement that is now being considered by Congress is important as a signal of the U.S. commitment (its direct economic benefits is probably modest). We also had the opportunity to meet with President Lee for about an hour after the conference concluded, and I found him to be extremely impressive. We asked him a whole set of challenging questions, and his answers were clear, assured, and for the most part convincing. If he were American, he’d probably mop the floor with the whole set of GOP presidential hopefuls, and I suspect President Obama will enjoy their discussions.

There was of course broad consensus on the challenges posed by North Korea, and a general sense that the United States and South Korea have to take a harder line against provocations like the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan, and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong island. The participants were divided on the issue of reunification, however: some speakers saw reunification as wholly desirable, because they saw North Korea as a dangerous source of regional instability. In this view, reunification under South Korean auspices would be in everyone’s interest, including Beijing. Others — including myself — were more skeptical about China’s willingness to allow the two Koreas to unify. Unification under South Korean auspices would place a key U.S. ally on the Yalu River, and probably encourage an even more lively competition for influence there between Beijing and Washington. The United States could promise not to deploy forces north of the 38th parallel, of course, but why would Beijing take such assurances at face value? And if Beijing insisted that the northern areas of a reunified Korea remain demilitarized, wouldn’t Koreans feel that this left have of their newly united country vulnerable to Chinese pressure? All this tells me that reunification is not in the cards anytime soon.

There is obviously an element of tragedy in that conclusion, insofar as it condemns the North Korean population to life in the world’s last surviving Stalinist regime. But unless and until there is some sort of internal upheaval that removes the Kim dynasty, or perhaps a Gorbachev-style reformer emerges within the North Korean elite, I don’t see much hope of reunification.

I’m also skeptical of efforts to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. I don’t oppose trying, if only as a way of managing relations among the other "Six Party" participants; I just don’t think it is going to work. Given its obsession with regime survival, North Korea’s rulers undoubtedly view the Bomb as the ultimate deterrent, even if their actual nuclear capability probably doesn’t amount to a very effective one. And my guess is that the lesson they’ve drawn from Iraq and Libya is that states that lack a serious WMD capability are potentially vulnerable, which would make them even more reluctant to give up the Bomb. Needless to say, I’d love to be wrong about this. For a somewhat different view from one of the other participants in Seoul, check out Victor Cha’s op-ed from the Washington Post here.

Three other themes struck me with particular force. A number of participants emphasized how America’s continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan impairs our ability to respond to growing strategic pressures in Asia. Indeed, one Chinese participant explicitly argued that the US would not be able to get out of either commitment quickly and that this would limit America’s ability to protect its allies in Asia. My impression was that he said this with a certain degree of satisfaction, and I have no doubts that the Chinese participants would love to see the US bogged down there forever. So the next time someone tells you that our "credibility" is on the line in Afghanistan, you should tell them that they have it exactly backwards. Our ability to focus on other theatres and to respond there if necessary is reduced by the bleeding sore of the Afghan War, and getting out of there would go a long way toward reassuring allies in more important theatres.

Second, one of the Chinese participants offered a remarkably candid portrait of disarray in China’s own foreign policy community. In particular, he emphasized that China’s top leaders are relatively weak, that they operate with strict five year "term limits" (and thus become "lame ducks" fairly quickly), and that the top jobs are increasingly held by technocrats without political vision. Moreover, he portrayed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as competing for power with other "special interest groups" (the very term he used), and is often dominated by them. For example, he suggested that energy companies drive China’s policy toward Iran more than the President or the MFA does. He also suggested that public opinion was playing a growing role in shaping foreign policy, and not always in a good way. Overall, it was a picture of an increasingly unequal and diverse Chinese society with far less centralized control over foreign policy than is often believed. Given the tendency for Americans to view a rising China as highly strategic in outlook, disciplined, and focused on the long-term, I found his views both striking and worth pondering further.

Finally, the conference also underscored the continuing tension between realist and liberal visions of international politics and foreign policy. The official U.S. view continues to emphasize the positive side of Sino-American relations, including the various benefits to be derived from cooperation and the losses that greater rivalry would produce. U.S. officials are not naïve, and they recognize the potential for trouble that a rising China creates. Yet my sense was that they believe that all of these problems can be managed by adroit diplomacy, and that the common interests outweigh the potential for trouble. By contrast, the realists are a lot more pessimistic about each side’s ability to manage the competition over the long haul, and therefore see the potential for trouble-in the form of intensifying security competition and especially a competition for allies-to be much greater. Nobody thinks war is inevitable, but these two contrasting world-views do lead to different expectations about the future and different policy prescriptions in the near-term.

In short, competing prescriptions for U.S. policy in Asia at least partly reflect competing theoretical visions, with liberals being more optimistic about the potential for cooperation and inclusion and realists being more pessimistic. I have some additional thoughts on this issue, and will try to offer some broader reflections on it later this week.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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