November 11, 2019 13:50
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper visits Seoul on Thursday, presumably to pressure the government to cough up US$5 billion per year in upkeep for the U.S. Forces Korea. Already a U.S. assistant secretary of state and other high-level officials have come through the revolving doors to push for the extortionate increase, which is five times what Seoul pays this year. The amount could be whittled down in negotiations. But with the U.S. setting the opening bid so high and throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the negotiations, a significant increase appears inevitable. U.S. President Donald Trump wants to use South Korea as a linchpin for negotiations with other allies and trumpet the rise as a major achievement in next year's presidential election. But the Seoul-Washington alliance is not a unilateral agreement. If the U.S. wants something that goes way beyond past practice and rational limits, South Korea has to seek a better deal in return.
Demands could include lifting the cap on the 800-km range South Korean missiles are allowed to have, and scrapping a ban on solid fuel even for civilian rockets built to send satellites into orbit. The ban has prevented South Korea from developing solid fuel-powered rockets that surpass 1 million pounds of thrust per second, just 1/10 of the thrust of rockets developed by advanced countries, which are allowed to use both liquid and solid fuel. Even Japan, which invaded its Asian neighbors in World War II, is free to develop and use solid-fuel rockets. Seoul needs to use this chance to abolish the restrictions.
North Korea has almost finished developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile. South Korea will be completely exposed to a North Korean nuclear attack if the North fires SLBMs from beneath the East Sea. To thwart such attacks, South Korea needs to be able to monitor North Korean submarines as they leave their coastal bases, which requires nuclear-powered submarines that can operate under the ocean for months at a time. But again South Korea is prohibited from producing them due to restrictions on military-use nuclear fuel. They must be abolished. Opinion here is divided over nuclear-powered subs, but South Korea at least needs the theoretical right to develop them if it decides to do so.
Trump claims he wants to hike Seoul's share of the defense costs because Washington is losing so much money. But there is a way for the U.S. to significantly decrease the costs. The U.S. National Defense University proposed back in July to have the U.S., South Korea and Japan sign a nuclear weapon-sharing pact. Just like NATO countries, South Korea and Japan should be allowed to participate in the U.S.' nuclear weapons policy discussions. Nuclear weapons deployed in NATO countries are delivered by NATO fighter bombers in the event of an emergency. If Seoul and Washington forge a nuclear weapons-sharing pact and South Korean submarines or bombers deliver nuclear weapons subject to final approval from the U.S. president, America's costs will drop considerably.
The continuing imbalance in the U.S.-South Korea agreement on the civil use of atomic energy also needs to be fixed. It was only in 2015 that South Korea was finally allowed to produce low-enriched uranium and start research into nuclear reprocessing technology in a revised agreement. South Korea is a world leader in nuclear power plant technology, but it is still prohibited from producing highly enriched uranium and reprocessing even a single fuel rod. Instead, it is storing 16,000 spent fuel rods per year in temporary facilities. Japan, of course, has the right to reprocess spent fuel rods despite its history of aggression.
No matter who becomes the next president of the U.S., once the floodgates are open they will only ask for more and more money to keep American troops stationed here. That means South Korea needs to demand a greater role and more rights in defense, which will eventually ease the U.S. burden. Trump is not opposed to South Korea and Japan having their own nuclear weapons. If Seoul uses this crisis to its advantage, it could end up with a considerable deal for its money. The government needs to do its job and make this happen.
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