North Korea missile test: US can't afford to abandon South Korea alliance, East Asia partners are watching

The US has many reasons to continue its alliance with South Korea and must get into damage control mode to save it.

FP Staff September 04, 2017 14:14:00 IST
North Korea missile test: US can't afford to abandon South Korea alliance, East Asia partners are watching

After North Korea conducted its most powerful nuclear test till date, alarm bells sounded all across the world.

The United Nations Security Council decided to hold an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss the international response.

Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin agreed to “appropriately deal” with the North Korean nuclear test. Japan called the test "extremely unforgivable" and "absolutely unacceptable". India too put out a statement "deploring" the nuclear test.

The common theme in all these statements was that they all condemned North Korea, the country which conducted the nuclear test.

And then there was Donald Trump.

While Trump declared that North Korea's words and actions were hostile and dangerous to the United States and followed that up with a barb at South Korea. He attacked its "talk of appeasement" and stated it wouldn't work.

North Korea missile test US cant afford to abandon South Korea alliance East Asia partners are watching

File image of US president Donald Trump and South Korea president Moon Jae-in. AP

This line of attack from the US president surprised many: After all, should North Korea decide to test its military might, South Korea is the first line of defence.

Further, the US and South Korea are allies. US-South Korea relations are governed by the Mutual Defence Treaty. The United States keeps 28,000 military personnel in South Korea.

The reason for the sudden Trump's sudden rhetoric towards could well be his inability to delink trade and security relations with Seoul.

Trump has tried to fulfill a campaign promise on trade while simultaneously trying to use the issue as leverage on security matters.

However, there are many reasons for the US and South Korea to remain allies. Breaking up the alliance would cost Washington dearly in several ways.

Deterring a belligerent North Korea

North Korea spews venom against South Korea of a very regular basis. And it follows them up with military action. As recently as 2015 North Korean soldiers sneaked across the heavily guarded border with South Korea and planted landmines near one of the South’s military guard posts, maiming two South Korean soldiers who stepped on them.

In 2010, a North Korean “midget submarine” fired a torpedo and sunk the South Korean Naval corvette Cheonan, killing 46 sailors and wounding 56 more. However, the despite having a larger army and being a nuclear power, the North has yet to launch a full-fledged attack.

The reason for that may be: Once a major attack takes place, the self-defence clause of the US-South Korea treaty kicks in and the US will be forced to come to its ally's aid. And despite its bluster, North Korea remains seemingly wary of taking on the might of the United States.

Should the US scale down or break the alliance, Kim Jong-Un would be emboldened to continue his blackmail tactics, this time with the added and very real threat of military action, according to The Atlantic

The rise of China

If the US decides to give up the mantle of pre-eminent superpower in this region, the position won't remain empty for long.

China is primed to take over that position and would almost certainly offer Seoul an alliance of its own and would lead to Philippines and Malaysia being welcomed into the Chinese camp, according to The Atlantic report.

Even as things stand, as long as US keeps its eyes on North Korea, China can continue to do what it wants in the region, like build military facilities on artificial islands it constructed in the South China Sea, according to Vox.

The world is watching

The US has alliances and navy bases all across world.

These are built on the assurance that the US will honour its military alliances.

Should the US show weakness in the face of North Korean aggression, it would encourage others countries to develop nuclear weapons to get US to back down, says The Diplomat.

Further, the US would lose the trust of other allies who would be forced to look to other regional powers for protection.

'America's involvement in Korea a success'

American involvement in the Korean War led to the transformation of South Korea into a vibrant, democratic and economic power according to the The Brookings Institution.

It has shown that US alliance system works and is an example that allying with the US leads to prosperity and stability and the failure of the alliance will be a major blow to American prestige and will severely damage the US' ability to project itself as a force in the critically important region, according to The Brookings Institution.

Finally, the economic repercussions of breaking up the alliance are nothing to sneeze at as it would lose economic dealings with a country which is the 14th-largest economy in the world and is the US' sixth-largest trading partner.

With inputs from agencies

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