The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] USS Kentucky and the security dilemma

By Korea Herald

Published : July 27, 2023 - 05:30

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South Korea was hit by torrential rain last week. The flood killed 47 people and left three missing. All the news was focused on flood damage, and other stories were not the matter of attention. However, many headlines significantly impacted the security situation on the Korean Peninsula as much as heavy rain. The inaugural Nuclear Consultative Group meeting, USS Kentucky‘s visit to Busan Port, a US soldier’s defection to North Korea, and North Korea’s missile launches, all took place within a few days.

The NCG is a consultative body in which South Korea and the United States discuss in-depth strategies to respond to North Korea‘s nuclear threats. Expectations were high because North Korean nuclear issue is the biggest threat to South Korea’s security sector. But the results are not very outstanding. South Korea vowed not to arm itself with nuclear weapons, while the United States reiterated that its pledge to protect the South is solid. It is a repetition of the agreement reached between President Yoon Suk Yeol and US President Joe Biden in Washington in April.

It is disappointing that the lack of tangible progress in the talks was forecast. The chief of the South Korean delegation was Kim Tae-hyo, the first deputy national security adviser to the president of the Republic of Korea, and Dr. Kurt Campbell, coordinator for the Indo-Pacific at the US National Security Council, led the US team. Politically appointed officials were the team leaders in discussing on dealing with nuclear weapons. As it is a major military issue, a deputy defense secretary or vice minister of defense would be appropriate. It has been confirmed that the NCG meeting leaned more toward the political arrangement from the beginning.

The most embarrassing part is that the meeting approved a plan to disclose that the USS Kentucky is at the port of Busan. According to the White House, South Korean and US delegations discussed ways to increase the visibility of US strategic assets in Korea. The SSBN, a ballistic missile nuclear-powered submarine such as the USS Kentucky, is able to conduct operations on the premise of secrecy. If the ship is exposed, its strategic value will be significantly reduced. That‘s why it has not mentioned visiting the Korean Peninsula for the past 40 years. Foreign leaders have yet to be invited to observe the inside of the submarine. However, this time, images of President Yoon Suk Yeol and first lady Kim Keon Hee looking at the inside of the submarine, interestingly, were released to the media. USS Kentucky, which gave up its secrecy, is no different from the great Lionel Messi with his legs tied.

What about the consequences of exposure of the USS Kentucky to North Korea or China? North Korea has emphasized that it has developed nuclear weapons because the US threatens North Korea with nuclear weapons. The exposure will be used to support North Korea‘s claim. The North will also strongly demand economic support from China, claiming that China has no reason to maintain economic sanctions against the North. If economic sanctions against North Korea can be lifted while making the weapons a fait accompli, North Korea will be able to catch two birds with a single stone. North Korea will think of South Korea and the United States as helpers.

From the perspective of China, the US is continuously destroying the strategic balance in Northeast Asia. China will likely use the story as a basis for strengthening Chinese military power, supporting North Korea, or criticizing the United States.

The US might think that the USS Kentucky‘s call to Busan could be helpful to quiet the voices in Korea that they need their nuclear bombs. However, it is not a very wise solution. Many forces calling for independent nuclear armament in Seoul think it is a way to get the opposite benefits from the US. The smartest way is to seriously explain the nonproliferation policy of the US. If they understand US foreign policy more accurately, they will likely stop bullying the US. This is because they are not nationalists risking their lives to independent nuclear armament, but are likely to be pro-American vested interests.

The security dilemma in Northeast Asia is worsening due to the misjudgment of South Korea or the United States. If the dilemma continues and grows, the two nations will meet a headwind. North Korea will likely justify its possession of nuclear weapons by utilizing the increased visibility of strategic assets. In that case, South Korea and the US cannot escape the irony of being North Korea‘s helpers. The two countries should adjust their current policy toward North Korea and return to a standard response that adds dialogue and negotiations. Efforts should be made to cool the security situation down first and achieve peaceful coexistence through dialogue and negotiations. To do so, it is necessary to establish a dialogue channel.

Meanwhile, Pvt. Travis King‘s escape to North Korea is drawing attention as it is likely to have a special meaning in the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. The case is sensitive as a US soldier’s life is at stake. However, if the US and North Korea can resume dialogue and negotiations in the wake of the King issue, it could be a blessing in disguise. In that case, it could be an opportunity to change North Korea‘s calculation method. If North Korea and the US resume dialogue, it could create a virtuous cycle of easing the security dilemma on the Korean Peninsula, reducing military spending and easing military tensions. The virtuous cycle of security in Northeast Asia has the advantage of benefiting all related countries. The starting point for all of this is to correct misjudgments such as the SSBN exposure and break the security dilemma link.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.