South Korea’s largest trading partner today is actually China, but that is the beauty of the Order. South Korea can trade with whomever is willing to buy their goods. For now. It all relies on American guarantees that seem to be crumbling.
That’s the numbers and dollars argument. In strategic terms things are far more complicated.
South Korea sits among Japan, China and North Korea and has adversarial relationships with all of them. The only reason South Korea even exists is because American troops ward off the most salient threat to the north, while preventing Japanese and Chinese imperialism. That security guarantee is not easy to maintain:
North Korea believes the best way to beat a Grand Master at chess is to never let them make a first move. Infamously, North Korea has aimed an untold number of pieces of artillery at Seoul, just across the border and home to nearly half the country’s population. In a real war, by the time the first shell lands in Seoul, tens of thousands of others would already be airborne. But this is only one of its many preparations. Turns out that if you dedicate a country’s entire attention span for 70 years to a seething hatred of what’s on the other side, you can accomplish some pretty impressive things, up to and including an effective nuclear deterrent.
South Korea decided to focus instead on ships and trains and petrochemicals and white goods and electronics and computers and cellular tech. South Korea may be able to prevail against North Korea in a knock-down, drag-out fight, but there is no way the South Koreans can K-Pop themselves out of hideous infrastructure damage and mass civilian casualties. Only American forces – massed in and near Seoul and the DMZ – can provide the hitting power to at least partially preempt and mitigate such carnage.
That’s just North Korea. The South Koreans, accurately reading their history and geography, view China and Japan as even more significant security threats. Japan outpopulates South Korea by well over 2:1, China by over 20:1. The navies of either country could wipe the Korean navy from the seas in days. To the south, east, and west, South Korea is surrounded by waters that either Japan or China could dominate given the right push. South Korea’s second city, Busan, is in a particularly vulnerable spot separated from mainland Japan via the Korea Strait, barely more than 100 miles across. Inchon, the western extremity of the Seoul metro region, isn’t much further away from China. And of course, Korean trade links to the wider world are impossible to maintain without both Japanese and Chinese quiescence.
For decades this has all been moot. South Korea, Japan and China were all members of the U.S.-led global Order. The U.S. Navy has ensured peaceful seas and ample trade. Oil, LNG and raw materials flow in, finished goods flow out, and Korea is one of the world’s largest transshipment and manufacturing nodes. So long as the Americans remain involved, Korea’s economic and security problems remain purely theoretical.
But the Americans – left, right and center – want to slim down America’s global position. The Korean deployment is America’s third-largest (after Japan and Germany), and the one that is by far in the trickiest and riskiest strategic position. And that is what keeps Moon’s administration up at night. The Americans are losing interest, and there is no version of a post-Order world where South Korea continues to survive at all – much less as a wealthy, trading nation – unless Seoul can obtain a powerful, dedicated ally.
So it was all Moon could to do cave in trade talks with the American administration on everything. And not just in trade negotiations. The Trump administration is insisting that South Korea compensate the United States for ongoing troop commitments to the tune of at least $5 billion annually. That’s a lot for a country Korea’s size, but honestly it’s a bargain considering what 26,000 American troops can do when they are suitably motivated.
Is caving to the U.S. on trade and defense reimbursement enough to keep the American troops in-country in this post-Order world? No clue. But Moon, correctly, concluded that without conceding to American terms there was no chance whatsoever.
That’s hardly the end of the story.