By Stephen Gowans
July 30, 2020
A Choe Sang-Hun report in the New York Times of July 28 indirectly revealed three points of significance, neither of which Choe mentioned, but which, in an ideological environment less subservient to US foreign policy goals, might be brought to the fore.
The report concerned the go-ahead the United States recently gave South Korea to loft five surveillance satellites into space in 2023. The satellites would be used to spy on North Korea and to add to the enormous military advantage South Korea already has vis-à-vis the DPRK. Since 1979, Washington has imposed limits on the range and payload of the ballistic missiles Seoul is permitted to deploy. In March, South Korea test-launched a ballistic missile with a range of 800 kilometers, with US approval.
What Choe’s report indirectly reveals is:
#1. That the United States severely limits South Korean sovereignty. While an authentically sovereign country would make its own decisions about its missile capabilities, decisions about South Korean missile deployments, range, and payloads are made in Washington.
This is only one aspect of South Korea’s truncated sovereignty. In times of war, command of South Korean forces falls to a US general. Richard Stilwell, a former commander of US forces in Korea, remarked that this is the “most remarkable concession of sovereignty in the entire world.”
#2. South Korea continues to flout the commitments it made at the April 2018 Panmunjom Summit to “completely cease all hostile acts … in every domain, including land, air and sea, that are the source of military tension and conflict.”
Plans to loft spy satellites into orbit are clearly provocative. Additionally, South Korea is buying advanced F-35A jet fighters from the United States, providing its military with fighting capabilities well beyond those of North Korea. These developments contradict South Korea’s professed desire for peace.
South Korea wants ballistic missiles to enhance its military intelligence capabilities in order to undermine North Korea’s security. North Korea wants ballistic missiles as delivery systems for nuclear warheads in order to deter US aggression. With the military balance titled decisively in South Korea’s favor, ballistic missiles are unnecessary to South Korea’s defense, but redound to its project of bringing about North Korea’s collapse.
#3. South Korea’s US-approved ballistic missile program has not been condemned by the UN Security Council, unlike North Korea’s independent ballistic missile program, which has been. In an effort to pressure Pyongyang to relinquish its ballistic missiles—a campaign which, if successful, would denude the country of a vital means of self-defense—the Security Council, at Washington’s instigation, has imposed a near-total blockade on the North Korean economy.
Choe’s report makes no comment on the obvious dissonance between international norms of national sovereignty, on the one hand, and Washington’s dictatorship over South Korean missile policy, on the other. At best, Pyongyang’s charge that South Korea is a puppet state controlled by Washington is dismissed as hyperbole in Western media and scholarship, but the charge cannot be dismissed so readily. To be sure, South Korea’s sovereignty is not so severely restricted that the country can be legitimately characterized as a US-puppet state, tout court, but it does submit to US direction in many important ways, to a degree most other allies of the United States do not.
Neither does Choe comment on the provocative nature of the South Korean plan to loft spy satellites above its northern neighbor. The obvious hypocrisy of the Security Council invoking ballistic missiles as a rationale for sanctioning North Korea, while South Korea is allowed to develop its own missile program unmolested (except by the United States), is also passed over without comment.
These omissions are predictable. They fit with the fundamental narrative that informs all Western discourse on Korea. That narrative rests on the assumptions that the state in the south seeks peace, contra the state in the north, which is bent on war. The south, according to this narrative, has entered voluntarily and gratefully into an alliance with the United States, which seeks no end but the defense of its ally.
The narrative is a fairy-tale. Militarily, North Korea is no match for its much larger and much richer neighbor. South Korea, moreover, is equipped with US-supplied weapons systems far superior to anything in North Korea’s conventional armamentarium. The DPRK poses no significant threat to South Korea; its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons are purely defensive, and its conventional capabilities are meager compared to those of its peninsular neighbor.
The United States exploits its South Korean satellite as a military outpost and source of manpower for a vast East Asian reserve army, fully interoperable with the US military, and under the de facto, and in times of war, de jure, control of US flag officers. From the US point of view, South Korea is geopolitically significant owing to its proximity to the two countries Washington designates as its peer competitors, China and Russia.
The US military presence in Korea, and the informal US dictatorship over Seoul, is only weakly related to the United States protecting its militarily robust satellite from any effort by the militarily weak DPRK to unify and revolutionize the peninsula, a project North Korea was unable to bring to fruition 70 years ago when the balance of forces was much more favorable to its cause; the DPRK is completely incapable of mounting any such effort today.
The informal US dictatorship over South Korea serves the same purpose as US military occupations serve in other US allied states, including Germany, Italy, Japan, and Britain (formerly imperial rivals of the United States.) The purpose is to ensure these countries remain within the US economic sphere, and outside of the Chinese and Russian orbits; and in the case of Japan and Germany, to prevent them from nurturing latent drives to contest US hegemony. With regard to Germany, the Wall Street Journal’s Walter Russell Mead described the U.S. troop presence in the country as reassuring “Germany’s neighbors east and west that Berlin will never again disturb the peace of Europe or threaten their security,” another way of saying that the US occupation ensures that the United States, not Germany, dominates Europe.
What South Korea’s ballistic missiles reveal, then, is that South Korea is a tool of US foreign policy; the United States has a dictatorial relationship with Seoul; and the UN Security Council acts, at times, as South Korea does, as an instrument of US policy.