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[Alliance in Action] At S. Korea-US summit, extended deterrence upgrade should be top priority

Ex-ambassador to US Ahn Ho-young says Seoul must enhance its own defense capabilities, not just rely on the US

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : March 29, 2023 - 19:01

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Ahn Ho-young, former South Korean ambassador to the United States, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Ahn Ho-young, former South Korean ambassador to the United States, speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

This is the first installment of a series of interviews, features and analysis on the South Korea-US alliance -- a 70-year-old partnership that has been instrumental in shaping the Korean Peninsula's contemporary history from the ruins of the 1950-53 Korean War, and which continues to serve as a stalwart pillar of regional security, as well as its challenges ahead. -- Ed.

Former South Korean Ambassador to the US, Ahn Ho-young, has urged leaders of the US and South Korea to hold an in-depth discussion on upgrading US measures to strengthen extended deterrence, its commitment to defending South Korea using the full extent of its military capabilities.

The call comes ahead of a summit in Washington next month, where South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol will meet with US President Joe Biden to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bilateral alliance.

Ahn has stated that there is a "sense of urgency" for stronger extended deterrence, as South Korea faces a significant security threat from North Korea.

"More than 70 percent of Koreans question whether we should just rely on the (current) extended deterrence measures as they face looming threats from Pyongyang every single day, and that we also should develop nuclear weapons on our own," Ahn said in an interview with The Korea Herald, citing multiple surveys conducted in recent months.

"(This is why) the two leaders should discuss whether the current extended deterrence is adequate for the present situation," he said, when asked what priorities the two countries should have on the summit table.

Expectations are high ahead of the summit for the two countries to forge a stronger-than-ever alliance to deter North Korea's provocations and continued threats of nuclear attacks. Ahn said he believes that the alliance is and should continue to be at the center of protecting democratic values and the rule of law.

"At a time when the world order is in a state of flux, what we need is to protect the universal values of free democracy, the rule of law and human rights with countries that share these values," he said.

"As these values are currently under threat from the rise of autocracies, as well as the growing threat posed by North Korea, I believe the alliance between South Korea and the US is crucial in protecting them."

Last year, North Korea fired at least 70 ballistic missiles over 30 rounds, including eight intercontinental ballistic missiles. So far this year, it has fired eight missiles in just three months. The regime is also preparing for its seventh nuclear test which Seoul forecasts could be carried out at some point when all physical preparations are done.

Ahn said he is supportive of a NATO-style nuclear-planning groups to deter growing insecurity on the Korean Peninsula, and emphasized that South Korea must take steps to enhance its own defense capabilities, rather than relying solely on the US.

And there has also been "a positive shift in perception" towards the program in the US in recent years, he said.

“That is the feeling that I receive by meeting people from the US, the one that I received last year and this year. It is evolving. It is getting more positive,” he said.

According to a report released in January 2021, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs recommended the creation of an Asian Nuclear Planning Group that would include Australia, Japan and South Korea in the US nuclear planning processes. Another report released in January of this year by the CSIS suggested that the US should establish a framework for joint nuclear planning, similar to a North Atlantic Treaty Organization planning group.

“It is essential for South Korea to strengthen its response capabilities and the three-axis system, rather than relying solely on the US," Ahn said.

The three-axis system refers to the South Korean military’s response plan to intercept and destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles and destroy key facilities such as its command. This system includes the Kill Chain system, the Korea Air and Missile Defense and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation plan.

The Kill Chain system would launch a preemptive strike against the North's missile facilities and possibly its leadership if an imminent attack is detected; the KAMD would intercept North Korean missiles heading for the South; and the KMPR would be used to take out North Korea's leadership and military facilities if it strikes South Korea.

During former Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations, the term, “three-axis system,” was used, but during the Moon Jae-in government, terms such as "Kill Chain" were virtually abolished out of consideration for inter-Korean relations.

Under the Yoon administration, it seeks to “drastically strengthen” the three-axis system in the face of North Korea's nuclear and missile advancement and provocations.

Bring up IRA, CHIPS Act

On the economic front, the former ambassador to the US suggested that President Yoon address unfair US policies, including the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS and Science Act, during the upcoming summit with President Biden. Ahn believes that these policies have the potential to harm South Korean companies, and that it is appropriate to raise these issues "at the state head level."

Korean chip firms such as Samsung Electronics and SK hynix could potentially expose their sales and technology confidential information during the screening process by US authorities under the CHIPS and Science Act. Additionally, if they receive subsidies from the US, they are prohibited from expanding their chip production capacity in China by more than 5 percent for the next decade.

Korean carmakers have been concerned that they have been experiencing unexpected losses from the enactment of the IRA. Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors say their electric vehicle sales have decreased as the act only entitles EVs assembled in North America to a subsidy.

Related to these unfair measures by the US, Ahn raised concerns that if the US does not comply with international rules and regulations and pursues its own benefits only, it will "lose its moral high ground" and may even be seen as giving up the rule of law. He believes that such measures are particularly worrisome, because they are causing the most trouble for its allies, including South Korea.

Ahn pointed out that during Biden's visit to Korea last year, he met with leaders of Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motors, and SK Chairman Chey Tae-won was called to the White House for a meeting two months later when he announced a significant investment in the US.

“Companies like Samsung, Hyundai Motor and SK are the ones that most positively respond to and cooperate with US policies,” he said. “However, they are also the ones most seriously impacted by US measures.”

Ahn is confident that frank discussions between Yoon and Biden can effectively address concerns regarding these policies. "I believe that a transparent and frank dialogue between the two leaders will lead to solutions that benefit both countries and further strengthen the alliance at such an important time," he said.

Ahn was Seoul's former top envoy to the US in the conservative Park Geun-hye administration from 2013 to 2017. The career diplomat also served as South Korean ambassador to the European Union and Belgium and a Sherpa ambassador to the G20 before being appointed as vice foreign minister in 2012. Following a term as president of the University of North Korean Studies between 2018 and 2022, he is currently Chair Professor of North Korean Studies at Kyungnam University.