It is time for South Korea to prepare for the US President-elect Donald Trump to become the US commander in chief.
Due to his campaign rhetoric, Trump has been called a racist, a xenophobe, a nationalist, a protectionist and a liar.
In terms of foreign policy, Trump has called for the shrinking of US commitments overseas; for allies to shoulder more of their security burden; and for South Korea and Japan to consider the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. This means South Korea must prepare for an alliance partner that may be less credible and less committed.
Recently, Trump spoke encouraging words to President Park Geun-hye telling her, “We are with you all the way.” Nevertheless, Mr. Trump appears to be a realist when it comes to foreign policy.
Realists focus on the capabilities of their allies and enemies, as rhetoric and intentions are unreliable indicators of commitment and action. South Korea should assess Trump in these same terms.
As commander in chief, Trump will have operational control of South Korean armed forces in times of war. In addition, Trump will be the only person with authorized launch control of the US nuclear umbrella that protects South Korea.
If North Korea successfully perfects an intercontinental ballistic missile, it is questionable whether Mr. Trump would be willing to put the US mainland in jeopardy of a nuclear exchange, on behalf of South Korea.
To mitigate the impact of a potentially less committed alliance partner, South Korea could enhance its security capabilities in two ways. Firstly, the transfer of military operational control to South Korean forces should take place as soon as possible. This would help lessen some of the operational confusion that may arise if conflict with North Korea occurs.
Secondly, South Korea should begin uranium enrichment to develop weapons grade plutonium, by first abrogating the agreement for cooperation between the government of the Republic of Korea and the government of the United States of America concerning peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
South Korea could mirror Japan by stockpiling enriched nuclear material to be used in a crash program for nuclear weapons development in a time of crisis. This is prudence not proliferation. South Korea could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while being one more state that has nuclear weapons potential but chooses not to weaponize.
South Korean forces deserve a unified strategic command operating in their own national interests and it also deserves a credible nuclear deterrent. It is prudent to question whether the realist Trump, who wishes to put America first, will authorize a US military response on behalf of an ally. Hoping that Donald Trump will be a credible and reliable alliance partner is not a security strategy. While hoping for the best, South Korea must prepare for the worst.
Sean O’Malley is a director and associate professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan. His email is email@example.com. -- Ed.