The almost instant defeat of Afghanistan’s ruling regime and the return of the Taliban (banned in Russia) is in itself a landmark event in world politics. However, without venturing into the realm of incompetence, we will talk about how it may affect the affairs of the Korean Peninsula and the context in which it is being discussed in the ROK.
Seoul solved the immediate problems associated with the evacuation of ROK citizens rather quickly. On August 15, the ROK decided to temporarily close its embassy in Afghanistan and evacuate most of its staff to a country in the Middle East. On August 16, Moon Jae-in instructed the government to do everything possible to safely evacuate embassy staff and all South Korean citizens from Afghanistan. By that time, however, there were still several citizens left whose plane was unable to take off due to the runway being full of people, as well as three embassy staff members, including Ambassador Choi Tae-ho. But they, too, departed Kabul the morning of August 17 in an American military transport plane.
Korean diplomats are actively discussing the issue with the US and other countries. Korean Ambassador to the US Lee Soo-hyuk told reporters on August 19 that the parties are engaged in active consultations on the situation in Afghanistan, and that “the evacuation of foreigners and Afghans who cooperated with the former authorities from Afghanistan is one of the most pressing issues for the international community.” Foreign Minister Jeong Eui-young also maintains extensive consultations with his counterparts from interested countries, in particular the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
As for North Korea, the KCNA made no comments for the time being, and Western experts noted that “The North Korean leadership likely views the US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a positive development for its strategic ambitions” and a kind of signal that may “reinvigorate the idea of a red star flag flying over Seoul.”
But let’s not talk about the hypothetical reaction of the North, but instead about something that has been under discussion throughout the week in the South. These discussions focused on the following areas:
- How strong is the US-ROK alliance? Once upon a time, Washington advertised the relationship with Afghanistan as a “strong, long-term, broad partnership” with many common interests. What has become of it? What President Biden said after the fall of Kabul led many people to wonder whether US troops would leave their host country once it lost its strategic value, as was the case with Afghanistan.
- To what extent can the ROK Army resist the North if left without US help? Is it possible that US troops leave the country, exposing it to an attack from the North, much like it was in Kabul?
- How should this event be assessed as a whole? After Operation Enduring Freedom toppled the Taliban regime in November 2001, South Korea took part in the reconstruction of the country by contributing $725 million between 2011 and 2020 to strengthen the Afghan army and police. The ROK military also played a part in helping rebuild the country for over a decade.
As conservative lawmaker Kang Min-kuk put it, the Taliban takeover was “the result of the government’s incompetence, the incapacitated military and the cold-hearted nationalism of the international community“.
According to the conservative Joongang Ilbo, events in Afghanistan are taking place because of the “unfathomable incompetence, corruption and political division“. First, the Afghan troops “only existed in numbers. All the US aid went to Afghan’s bureaucrats and top brass. After the US pullout, they had no will to fight the Taliban. They surrendered to the rebel forces without resistance.” Second, “America had to withdraw its forces after its belated realization that its enormous aid, financial and military, was useless” – just as in South Vietnam, the regime was too corrupt and could not exist without outside help. In this regard, Washington followed the principle of “better a horrible end than a horror with no end”.
The more centrist Korea Times also notes that “the US-backed Afghan government has collapsed because of rampant corruption, incompetence and political discord,” though it adds that “Biden seems to have miscalculated the situation after the withdrawal of troops…” According to published documents and statements by intelligence officials, the Taliban were expected to attack, but no one imagined that the Afghan army would crumble THAT quickly.
Another editorial in this newspaper suggests reflecting not on what happened, but on what will happen after the US has proven incapable of providing security and stability in Afghanistan and of building a nation following the Western model. “America’s reputation as the global superpower was undermined again despite its pledge to defend freedom and democracy around the world.”
The conservative media is sounding the alarm all the more: “South Korea cannot sit on its hands in the face of such horrendous tragedies playing out daily. The international community must find effective ways to address the gruesome situation and possibly prevent a bigger crisis later on.” This refers to “deter[ing] them from taking extreme actions against their own people. Furthermore, the world must mobilize all available resources to pressure the Taliban to keep their pledge to establish an open and inclusive Islamic government.” The most urgent matter, though, is the protection of potential refugees, where “Korea must do its share too.” Since “the safety of Afghan people — and their relatives — who have worked with reconstruction teams dispatched from Korea are being threatened by the Taliban.” “The time has come for Korea to play a role befitting its international stature. If it can meet such expectations from the international community, Korea will be acknowledged as an advanced country.”
And indeed, the process of accepting refugees from Afghanistan has begun, and there are supporters and opponents in both the ruling party and the opposition, but this is a matter for another piece.
The foremost conclusion drawn from the situation by South Korean commentators appears to be that, under certain conditions, Seoul will be abandoned. But what would those conditions be?
Moon Sung-mook, a senior fellow at the Korea National Strategy Research Institute, notes that the Afghan crisis has taught South Korea a lesson that it needs to keep in mind the option for the US to stop stationing its troops in the ROK. For example, if Seoul starts to pursue an anti-American policy, it will demand the withdrawal of troops.
According to Kang Min-kuk, the US could abandon an ally if it “does not have the capabilities or will to fend for itself.” Therefore, the Moon Jae-in government and the military “should do whatever it takes to strengthen the alliance between the ROK and the US and maintain a strong army, using the situation in Afghanistan as a turning point.” Joongang Ilbo also believes that the situation in Afghanistan demonstrates how important it is to maintain a strong army and the long-standing alliance between South Korea and the United States.
Publicist Song Sang-ho sees the situation as a “sobering reminder to South Korea and other US allies that its decades-old security commitments should not be taken for granted”. Moreover, “the ongoing pullout of US troops … reflects the US’ apparent tendency to engage only where vital interests are at stake.” Which means that Washington may “withdraw needless intervention or investment anytime if allies do not have the capabilities or will to fend for themselves.”
Kim Heung-kyu, head of the US-China Policy Institute at Ajou University, digs deeper into the issue – “the development shows the reality that unlike in the past, the US cannot intervene in all issues of world conflicts, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia.” In other words, Washington no longer has the power or ability to spend endless resources on helping anyone.
Of course, South Korea holds a highly important geopolitical value for the United States, especially in the midst of the growing China-US strategic rivalry. But both Song and Kim point out that this is not the first withdrawal: in 2019, Donald Trump withdrew troops from northern Syria, “endangering the security of Kurdish allies,” and it turns out that Biden is de facto continuing his line. Admittedly, on August 19, Joe Biden said that allies like South Korea and Taiwan are fundamentally different from Afghanistan when it comes to US security commitment. The US has maintained a sacred obligation that it will respond should anyone invade or take action against its allies in Europe. “Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.” Although Biden stressed in his August 16 outreach to the nation on the situation in Afghanistan that he did not intend to sacrifice American troops where the US has no national interest, during the August 17 briefing Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to the US President, said that the US President has no intention of reducing the number of US military contingents in the ROK and Europe.
This quote supports experts who believe that by withdrawing troops from the Middle East, the US can move them to the Far East. Nam Chan-hee, a professor of international politics at Inha University, thinks a withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan could accelerate Washington’s efforts to focus on the Asia-Pacific region in order to rally its regional alliances against China and the DPRK. Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo, professor of international relations at King’s College London, also believes that the Biden administration now has more opportunities to focus on North Korea. This notion is contested by Soo Kim, a former CIA analyst now with the Rand Corp: “US’s pullout from Afghanistan doesn’t appear to have resolved the longstanding security and political challenges, so the expectation that this would free up more time and space for Washington to concentrate on other issues seems premature“.
The strength of the South Korean army in the absence of the US
The Washington Post’s foreign policy columnist Marc Thiessen added fuel to the fire, stating on his Twitter account that if the United States withdrew its military forces from the country, South Korea could be affected: “The North Korean military is more advanced than the Taliban. The point is that South Korea could not defend itself without US help. If you disagree then we can save ourselves billions of dollars every year and withdraw our troops.”
On this issue, the political disagreement was quite pronounced. According to the Democrats, however, there is nothing to worry about, and Marc Thiessen was addressed personally by the leader of the ruling Democratic Party, Song Young-gil. “It is defamation to say South Korea will collapse if the US Forces Korea leaves after comparing South Korea, which has the world’s 10th-largest budget and sixth-strongest military, with Afghanistan,” he stressed. Song believes that Seoul’s military power is incomparably stronger than that of Pyongyang, given its national missile program, F-35A stealth fighters, strong navy, etc. “Considering political and social capabilities, we have an upper hand over North Korea extraordinarily. It does not make sense to compare South Korea with Afghanistan with poor leadership and corruption.” Arguments like those of Thiessen underscore former US President Donald Trump’s thesis that Seoul should take a larger share of the defense costs to deploy American troops to the country, Song noted.
Jo Han-bom, a senior fellow at the Korea Institute of National Unification, also recalled that the situation in Afghanistan differs compared to South Korea, which is a country with a strong military capability of 600,000 troops of its own and ranks sixth out of 138 countries in terms of military power in the annual Global Firepower list. In addition, the ROK is of vital strategic importance to the US.
Meanwhile, the conservatives emphasize the current problems with the implication “this is what Moon has reduced the military to”: “the reduced joint exercises of South Korea and the United States and the poor discipline of the South Korean military, as evidenced by persistent cases of sexual harassment in the barracks, are alarming.” As was stated by the aforementioned Kang Min-kuk, “How can the military protect our people in an emergency situation without practical experience?” After all, “under Moon Jae-in’s administration, which has focused on a policy of engagement with North Korea,” combat readiness has been in decline, as joint exercises between the ROK and the US have for several years been conducted solely in computer simulations.
Song Young-gil and others have responded to such laments by calling for an acceleration of the supposed transfer of wartime operational control of South Korea’s troops (OPCON) from the US to the Korean side. They say “Seoul and Washington’s alliance is needed to maintain the balance of power and peace in Northeast Asia and deter North Korea’s provocations,” but the ROK’s ability to defend itself is just as important.
“The lesson we can learn here from the examples of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq is that South Korea cannot be wholly dependent on the US for its security without guaranteeing its own ability to survive,” Professor Kim Tae-hyun echoed him. Similar advice is given by the Korea Times: “The country should modernize its own military and strengthen its defense preparedness to fend for itself as the US military cannot stay here forever. It is also necessary to beef up its alliance with the US, boost its strategic value and contribute more to regional security, stability and peace.”
Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo expects more than that: withdrawal from Afghanistan will bring courage to those officials and experts who believe that Seoul should follow its own policies, including with regard to North Korea.
In the meantime, the Taliban want South Korea to recognize it as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and hope to strengthen economic cooperation between the two countries. On August 23, Abdul Kahar Balkhi, a member of the Taliban Cultural Commission, made these remarks in an exclusive interview with the Yonhap news agency: “We hope not only to be recognized by Korea but the entire world at large as the legitimate representative government of the people of Afghanistan, who have gained their right of self-determination from a foreign occupation.” According to the Taliban official “Afghanistan is replete with untapped mineral resources … Korea as a leading world manufacturer of electronics can work with our country based on mutual interests, where we can also serve as an economic corridor connecting South and Central Asian countries,” a rhetoric very much in line with Moon Jae-in’s “new northern policy”.
In response to a question about whether Taliban leaders want to visit Seoul in the future for talks with politicians and businessmen in Seoul, Balkhi expressed his hope for such participation. “It is a matter of urgency that we look to the future and not live in the past.” As for the human rights issue, the Taliban will respect and protect the rights of all people — within the context of Islamic law.
It appears that while the conclusions from these discussions are not particularly novel, what is more important is that some previously immutable matters have been opened up for discussion.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.