Why Korea is going (back) to Afghanistan, or how Middle Powers get Muscled by their Patrons


So Korea will head back to Afghanistan this summer. I spoke on this today in my radio slot on Busan’s English language station. The transcript is below.

The obvious question is why. The provincial reconstruction team Korea will send is pretty small. They won’t be able to do much. They won’t be in a particularly dangerous part of the country. And the Korean public is awfully skeptical.

So why go? The short answer is because the US wants Korea to go; they are part of the ally round-up of the Obama administration to reach McChrystal’s 40,000 soldier figure for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Korea’s geopolitics are awful. It is surrounded by 3 larger powers with whom it has terrible relations, plus bizarro North Korea. So SK is terribly dependent on the US to help it maintain its autonomy in such a bad neighborhood. And the US has repeatedly (ab)used this asymmetric dependence to push Korea into things it doesn’t want to do.

It’s also a nice way for Korea to strut its stuff as an emerging global player – something Koreans desperately want to be.

But I don’t think Koreans are ready for the blowback that comes with participation in the GWoT. As Greenwald and Walt have both noted repeatedly, it is ridiculous to assume that if you kill Muslims in the ‘war,’ they won’t hit back – e.g., in the Christmas bombing attempt. Koreans have already been targeted in the GWoT. The more Korea gets sucked into this thing, the more they will be targeted.

Further, Korea is an increasingly Christian society. Islamic radicals have traditionally avoided Asian religions. They worry about ‘backward’ monotheisms (Christians and Jews haven’t ‘updated’ to Mohammed, the last and definitive prophet of the God of Abraham) and polytheistic irreligion (i.e., Hinduism). But the more metaphysical/non-theistic faiths of East Asia don’t really activate them. Look at Malaysia, whose large minority of Buddhists have never been targeted. But as Korea christianizes (due to heavy proselytization here), expect the al Qaeda types to start eyeing it, especially if its soldiers use force in Muslim countries.





January 11, 2010


So in the last few weeks, the government has agreed to redeploy Korean forces to Afghanistan, but not very many. So why is this important?


You’re right that the numbers are small – less than 500 people – in what we call a provincial reconstruction team. But it is important for Korea for at least three big reasons – beyond the obvious costs and risks to personnel.


And those reasons are what?


First, Korea has almost no record of overseas force deployments. The Republic did send a few peacekeepers to East Timor and Iraq, but these were very controversial. Under the left-leaning Kim and Roh administrations, the Korean government disagreed badly with the US over Middle East policy, and one way to show that displeasure was avoid overseas deployments


So why is Korea going to Afghanistan now then?


The conservative Lee administration wants a more mature, or ‘global,’ profile for Korea. President Lee wants Koreans to become accustomed to thinking of themselves globally, and peacekeeping is a part of that role. If Korea is to cut a larger role on the global stage – a deeply held Korean political goal – then it must also carry more of the burden. For the same reason, Korea is expanding its foreign aid programming.


Ok. So what are the other reasons Korea is going?


Sure. The second big reason is because the US is asking Korea to go. Before President Lee, the Korean government was distancing itself from the US. President Roh particularly liked to use his flirtation with China to tweak the Bush administration. President Bush was deeply unpopular in Korea, as was the Iraq war.


So President Lee is trying to mend fences with America by sending us to Afghanistan?


Basically, yes. President Lee is staunchly pro-American in a way his predecessors were not. Unlike South Korea’s drift toward China earlier in the decade, President Lee is strongly committed to returning the US alliance to centrality in Korean foreign policy…


And going to Afghanistan is way to show that.




You said there was a third big issue stemming from this deployment.


Yes, as Korea’s global profile and global intervention accelerate, it will eventually become a target of those forces that resent globalization, global governance, and the United States.


I don’t understand.


Sorry. If Korea joins world politics more explicitly, if it moves beyond simply East Asia – its regional home for decades – then eventually it will encounter the turbulence of big international relations issues, such as terrorism or piracy.


That’s right. I have heard before about Korean aid workers killed in the Middle East.


And Koreans have been increasingly pulled into the problem of Somali piracy.


So what does this mean for Korean foreign policy?


Well, on the one hand, it means that Korean is increasingly becoming a mature global player. Its foreign policy is no longer dominated solely by North Korea. This is a deep desire of the current Lee administration – to pull South Korea out of the local ‘ghetto’ of peninsular politics, where everything in Korean foreign policy is dominated by erratic Pyongyang. President Lee and most Koreans want Korea accepted globally – as a wealthy, prestigious, functional, responsible democracy.


And going to Afghanistan shows that. I get it. But you sound like you see a downside.


Yes, there is. The more Korea gets pulled into the US-led war on terror, the more likely Koreans are to become targets too.


That’s unfortunate. Why?


Well, for two reasons. One, Korea is a US ally. And al Qaeda and similar groups target not only Americans but close allies, like Great Britain, too. Second, Korea has a growing Christian population.


Why is that important?


Because for al Qaeda, the war on terror is really a clash of civilizations or a religious conflict. Islamic radicals are, in their mind, defending the faith against aggressive, imperialistic Christians, Jews, and to a lesser extent Hindus.


But Korea’s heritage is mostly Buddhist and Confucian.


That’s right. Which is why East Asia has generally been spared the effects of 9/11. Islamic radicalism is just not as worried about Asian religions. But as Korea’s Christian population expands, and as its role in the war on terror expands also, al Qaeda attacks on Koreans are more likely.


Those are the costs of global profile for Korea?




Do you think it’s worth it?


I don’t know, and I worry sometimes that Koreans don’t know either. Koreans are so concerned to achieve global status, that they haven’t really thought too much about its costs. You know, it’s not so bad to be the Austrias or the Canadas of the world.


Is that what Korea is in East Aisa?


Kind of. And it could be if you wanted it that way. I even wrote a paper once saying that Korea might consider trying to be like Finland, instead of Japan – small, rich, and neutral – with lots of good skiing.


But that’s not really what Koreans want right now, is it? So off we go to Afghanistan.


Basically, yes. You have decided to be an American ally, and so you get pulled into stuff like this.

12 thoughts on “Why Korea is going (back) to Afghanistan, or how Middle Powers get Muscled by their Patrons

  1. Well… first off it never hurts to help out the oppressed. Second, maybe there are still a few S Koreans still alive who remember when 8 non-asian countries, led by the U.S. came to their rescue when invaded by the North!

    • They do feel a bit of obligation, but it was 60 years ago, so this is fading. France feels no more obligation for Normandy, as we don’t for Yorktown. These sorts of moral obligations fade with time.

      More interesting I think is the larger IR theory question of whether or not middle powers should strive for great powerdom. Sweden was once a great power, but they gave up and have enjoyed a pretty good run since Gustavus Adolphus. They weren’t decimated by the world wars or the Cold War. Now they have clean streets, health care, and Ikea. That’s not so bad if you think about it. One possible future Koreans rarely contemplate is being the Switzerland of Asia. Instead, they want to be like Japan and compete to be a leading power in Asia. But its a lot more expensive than I think they realize…

      • Dr. Bob:

        I agree with you that the Swedes weren’t decimated by the the wars and the cold war, but the Swedes were very active participants during the cold war. In fact the Russians were constantly sending their subs into Swedish waters to probe. Quite a few Russian subs ran aground in Swede waters. This was not that long ago. We are talking 1980s. Plus Swedish terrain and their winters make war there very foolish. Their land makes them Barbarosa proof. The Soviets knew this and they adjusted their strategy to one of containment vis a vis Sweden. I.e., to deny NATO access to Sweden in case of war.

        The Swedes also have mandatory conscription, not in response to Western Europe. Finally, Swedish soldiers played a very active and important role in Liberia immediately after Charles Taylor was removed from power. Sweden sent combat troops to Liberia to regulate the rebels. And they proformed VERY well.

        Also, Switzerland enjoys the position that it has because they were a very warlike people and defeated everyone who dared to invade their Alps. They beat the French, etc., etc. The one thing that the Germany knew well was to not get bogged down in the Swiss Alps. The Swiss also have mandatory conscription and their soldiers keep their weapons in their homes. Just about every home in Switzerland is armed with pistol, and assault rifles.

        The Swiss Airforce is like a mini US Airforce. Same war-planes, etc. The Swiss even sent military observers to the first Gulf War. They didn’t fight, but were there with the Allied forces just watching.

        You might be right, Korea should be like Switzerland. Very good read, thank you.

        • “The Swiss also have mandatory conscription and their soldiers keep their weapons in their homes.”

          I should have said their “citizen soldiers”, sorry.

  2. Under the naional military system, Korean men have to perform the military service about 2yrs. When I was served military service, many Korean soldiers want to go Afghan. If they go to Afghan, they can get the lots of money, and promote. I do not know exatly, but, maybe…korean soldiers’ wages are about $70 a month now. It’s very ridiculous. They know aboout it, ” we are not going to dangerous zone.” In korea, there are lots of dispute whether troops is right or not. I think it is small things.
    It is not important “Korea is going to Afghan”. Korea is small country.

    • Well if Koreans sign up for the Afghanistan mission for the pay and promotion, that only bolsters my point that Koreans haven’t thought through the costs of great powerdom. A Korean intevention in Afghanistan, and more generally in the GWoT, will bring jihadist blowback. I am not Koreans really see that.

      More generally, striving for great power-dom is d— expensive. It costs mountains of money to build and maintain a first rate military. Right now Korea spends about 2% of GDP on defense. The US spends 4-5%. The USSR in the 80s was spending something like 20%. North Korea spends even more. If I were a Korean, I would seriously debate whether the pursuit of great power status is worth such costs. Europe’s social democracies are nice places to live. Korea could be that in Asia.

      Thanks for posting. I think you may be the first Asian to comment on my blog. 🙂

      • Dr. Bob is it feasible that Korea could be like Europe’s social democracy given their neighborhood? Europe got to where it is because they fought their way to it through, Napoleon, The One Hundred Years Wars, etc., etc., and WWI, WWII, and then the Cold War solidified their Europeanness.

        Also, Korea is very homogeneous, how would Moslem extremists infiltrate? Do many Africans or Arab frequent South Korean Airlines? Unless you are implying that North Korean would be a willing conduit, but still. And then again, why would NK want that kind of hassle, but then again it is NK. I don’t doubt that Koreans living/working in the war zones would be targeted.

        But then again, this blow-back. Why hasn’t Europe been blown all over (except for attacks in Britain and Spain years ago)? The French, Germans and Dutch and Norwegians and Italians are active in Afghanistan and we have not seen any blow-back on their soil. Then again, if you say that Korea should be like Europe’s social democracies, then they should send troops to Afghanistan just as the Europeans have done, right?

  3. After my last response I realized that the Philippines and Indonesia have both received more blow-back than the US or Europe since the US joined the WoT. Neither countries participated in Iraq or Afghanistan. Even more interesting is that ultra Catholic Poland has suffered no blow-back despite their very active involvement in Iraq. Nor has El Salvador or Japan (both participated in Iraq and Japan has participated in Afghanistan). Maybe Hoonmyoung Lee has a very valid point.

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