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Letter to President Yoon: Peace and security hopes for new ROK administration

Published in The Korea Times, 13 May 2022

Dear Mr. President,

Congratulations on your taking office. The Korean Peninsula has for centuries been exposed to a great power rivalry and its geography will always make it more vulnerable than Australia's. Given this reality, it is clearly presumptuous for any Australian to offer any suggestions to any incoming ROK administration on how it should be addressing defense and foreign policy issues.

However, perhaps not too cheeky, given how much we have in common as vibrant middle powers allied geopolitically to the United States but very much economically dependent on China. So in that spirit, I respectfully offer five major suggestions as to how you might think about approaching the most obvious security challenges you will face during your presidency.

Maintain some distance from both the giants. In the present volatile global and regional environment, all of your instincts, and those of the governing party, will be to double down on the U.S. alliance. The U.S. is and must remain a crucial regional security counterweight to a potentially over-reaching China and I would not suggest for a moment ― any more than I would for my own country ― that you walk away from that alliance. But that does not mean buying the argument that our security depends on the U.S. remaining not just a balancing power but undisputed top dog in our region and everywhere else.

Nor does it mean following Washington down every trail it might want to lead us ― too many of which have in the past been misguided, including not only misconceived military adventures but opting out of the CPTPP trans-Pacific trade deal. Being seen as "deputy sheriff," lacking any real capacity for independent judgment ― as Australia has been under some of our governments ― helps neither national pride, nor one's wider reputation, nor one's influence in Washington.

China's economic might ― and the dependence on it of so many in our region ― is here to stay, and its military capability is growing dramatically. But it is equally important that our countries not be sucked uncritically into Beijing's orbit. We should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values and continue to be prepared to push back strongly when China overreaches externally, as it has in the South China Sea.

The Quad ― embracing the U.S., Japan, Australia and India ― is not a formal military alliance but has become an important element in that push-back messaging, and there are clear attractions in the ROK making it a "Quint." The task for Seoul, as it is for Canberra, is to both get along with China ― because we have to ― but also stand up to its excesses. Not an easy balance to strike, but as a U.K. politician once famously put it, "If you can't ride two horses at once, you've no right to be in the circus!"

Don't be seduced by the lure of nuclear weapons. Despite the siren-song you will hear from many on your own side of politics and in the wider Korean community, please recognize that for the ROK to become a nuclear-armed state would be catastrophic for the global non-proliferation regime, and with it your country's international reputation, while doing little or nothing to actually enhance your security.

The taboo against the use of their nuclear arsenals by China, Russia, North Korea, or anyone else remains very strong ― as it has for the last 77 years ― and there is a much greater risk of use through human or system error or miscalculation than deliberate aggression. Potentially vulnerable countries still need effective deterrent capability, but conventional weaponry can supply that.

Both our countries benefit from U.S. military support and have a reasonable expectation of being able to rely on that support so long as our alliances exist. What matters here is extended deterrence, not extended nuclear deterrence. Should North Korea ever be stupid enough to launch a nuclear assault on the South, Washington, with ROK support, would not need nukes to turn it into a car park.

Don't abandon the effort to reconcile with North Korea. In that context, and despite, again, the likely instinctive distaste of some of your colleagues for anything looking like a "sunshine" policy, please do make an effort to get the normalization of North-South relations back on track. For all Kim Jong-un's chest-beating and provocations, it is still a reasonable analysis that his basic intentions are above all defensive rather than aggressive; that he is focused on regime survival, knows that to be homicidal is to be suicidal; and that he is not immune to negotiating a deal.

It is unrealistic in the short to medium term to hope for anything more than a freeze on fissile material production and the development and testing of both weapons and delivery systems. But that would be eminently worth having.

And ― if accompanied by moves toward conclusion of the long-sought Korean War peace treaty, and normalization of diplomatic relations ― this might actually build some of the trust that will be required for the ultimate goal of denuclearization to be achieved and the dream of peaceful and stable unification to be advanced.

Find strength in middle power cooperation. "Middle powers" are best described as those states which may not economically or militarily be big or strong enough to impose their policy preferences on anyone else, but which are nonetheless sufficiently capable, credible and motivated to be able, through their own efforts and above all effective coalition building, to make an impact on international relations.

That description certainly includes both the ROK and Australia, and ― whatever the state of our relationships with the two giants ― we should be making a concerted effort together to harness the collective middle-power energy and capacity of a number of regional states of real regional substance, including in particular not only India and Japan but Indonesia and Vietnam.

Recognize the importance of soft power and both being and being seen to be a good international citizen. With the extraordinary global success of its popular music, television series and films in recent years, South Korea certainly now understands what soft power can mean: the power that comes not with economic and military might, but an attractive example. But there is much more that you can do in this space, in the conduct of your foreign policy, to be and be seen to be a good international citizen.

It is a matter of being seen to genuinely care about poverty, conflicts, human rights atrocities, health epidemics, environmental catastrophes, weapons proliferation and other problems affecting people often in faraway places, and where supportive action produces little or no direct national security or economic return. To act in this way is not just a moral imperative, but generates measurable reputational returns.

Building and sustaining a country that is not only secure and prosperous but is one with a reputation that others respect, trust and want to emulate is perhaps the greatest of all contributions a national leader can make. May you have every success in meeting that challenge.


Gareth Evans

Gareth Evans was Australian foreign minister from 1988 to 1996, President of the International Crisis Group from 2000-09, Chancellor of the Australian National University 2010-19, and Founding Convener of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN). His most recent book is "Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency" (Monash Publishing, 2022).

This article was originally published in The Korea Times on 13 May 2022.