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How South Korea knows that extended deterrence doesn’t work?

There has been a gradual shift over the years in the South Korean domestic political discourse over pursuing an aggressive military posture to maintain deterrence stability on the Korean peninsula. Yoon Suk-yeol, the incumbent president of South Korea, has advocated and aims to pursue a ‘peace through strength’ policy, unlike previous administrations which were more inclined toward a tread with caution approach.

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In a milestone event for the country’s independent space program, South Korea successfully launched its satellite into orbit using an indigenously built rocket. The three-stage rocket ‘Nuri’ carried several satellites to orbit, South Korea’s Space Minister Lee Jong-ho confirmed. It was the rocket’s second attempt to launch satellites into space as the first test, carrying a dummy satellite, failed due to the malfunction in the third stage of the rocket eight months earlier. Nevertheless, the success of the mission, on one hand, marks South Korea’s entry into the elite club of spacefaring countries; while on the other hand,it implies the gradual strategic shift toward self-reliance in key defense technologies.

The Republic of Korea, or South Korea as it is commonly known, has been in alliance with the United States of America for nearly seven decades now. The U.S guarantees extended deterrence for its Asian ally against a hostile North Korea which has harnessed nuclear power for military purposes and possesses credible delivery systems as well. The alliance has worked so far as there has not been a major confrontation on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953. However, geopolitical realities have undergone large-scale changes in the past seven decades. The countries that have been under the security guarantees of the United States are beginning to question or at least reconsider the reliability of these commitments.

Read more: North Korea launches eight ballistic missiles, says South Korean military

Understanding the matter better

The war in Ukraine has been a catalyst to spur the doubts in the minds of policymakers in countries like Japan and South Korea. Ukraine, which possessed the third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons at the end of the cold war, has been at war with Russia for the past 4 months now. The country gave up nuclear weapons on the guarantee of major global powers, especially the United States, that its territorial integrity would be protected. As the Russian forces marched into its borders, Ukrainians have been left wondering about the pledged support which was supposed to keep them safe. Other than caches of weapons being supplied to fend off Russians themselves and regularly hearing verbatim accounts of European and American officials pledging to shun Russian imports, Ukraine is essentially on its own to fight the war for its survival.

There has been a gradual shift over the years in the South Korean domestic political discourse over pursuing an aggressive military posture to maintain deterrence stability on the Korean peninsula. Yoon Suk-yeol, the incumbent president of South Korea, has advocated and aims to pursue a ‘peace through strength’ policy, unlike previous administrations which were more inclined toward tread with caution approach.

His election to the presidential office at a time when the United States is being called out for failing to protect Ukraine could be the beginning of an overhaul in South Korea’s approach toward its defense. Technically South Korea cannot build nuclear weapons of its own as it is the signatory of the Non-proliferation treaty. However, there have been calls from U.S scholars that it would be better for the security of both the United States and South Korea if the latter is allowed to possess nuclear weapons of its own.

Read more: Biden reaches Samsung factory in South Korea

With the ability to strike the United States with its ICBMs, North Korea has changed the calculus of the extended deterrence that the United States has historically provided to South Korea. There is a broad understanding that in case of an escalation between Korean neighbors, the United States would not risk losing a few of its cities to the North’s nuclear strikes for defending the South. It has led to the straining of relations between both the allies even before the Ukraine war or the elections of Yoon Suk-yeol.

Although South Korea has stated that the launched satellites are not for military purposes yet it has achieved the ability to send domestically fabricated military satellites into space to keep an eye on its nuclear neighbor. In the broader sense, the launch hints at the gradual shift on part of South Korea towards self-dependency in military technology, and, considering the fate of Ukraine, it certainly is the right call.

 

The writer works as a Research Officer at Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad. His work focuses on ‘Developments and Militarization in Outer Space’. The views expressed by the writers do not necessarily represent Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

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