Ripples from Afghanistan
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
As Afghanistan is turning into a living hell in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, related news stories are pouring out. In Korea, there is the heroic saving of Afghans who had helped the embassy in Kabul and their families. In contrast, there are rumors about the relationship between North Korea and the Taliban. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense said on August 25 that North Korea had communicated with the Taliban and conducted special exercises together. There was also a report that North Korea may purchase the high-tech weapons the U.S. military left behind in Afghanistan.
However, there is another part that we should pay attention to. The Afghan situation will affect America’s global strategy and North Korea policy. First of all, it is more likely that the Biden administration, which had been reluctant to deal with North Korea issues, will neglect the country. The global strategy of the United States since the Donald Trump administration has evolved from a “war on terrorism” to “rivalry between new superpowers.” The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was a major symbol of that change. Biden has been caught by the suicide bombing attack that killed 13 U.S. soldiers. In order to recover his popularity, he is compelled to show some achievement in Afghanistan.
Due to the urgency, the U.S. has no choice but to reduce its attention to North Korea. North Korea wants to improve its relationship with the U.S. to have sanctions lifted at least partially as it is struggling with a serious food shortage. So, it must be quite frustrated now that the possibility of talks with the U.S. has evaporated. The National Interest, an American foreign policy magazine, published an article titled “North Korea: The Real Loser in the Afghanistan Crisis?” Of course, it is not good to abandon North Korea like this. By 2026, North Korea is expected to have more than 200 nuclear weapons. On August 30, it was reported that North Korea reactivated the Yongbyon nuclear facilities. Time is hardly on our side.
Moreover, change may come to the United States Forces Korea (USFK) due to the Afghan issue. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan was decided in a negotiation between the U.S. and Taliban. The Afghan government was excluded in the discussion. That is like the United States and North Korea deciding to withdraw the USFK without any input from South Korea in the discussion. Of course, as Biden emphasized, South Korea and Afghanistan are different. But perhaps he protests too much.
Also, the argument to change the operations of the USFK is noteworthy. Among 160,000 U.S. troops stationed abroad, 26,000 are in South Korea, the third largest after 53,000 in Japan and 35,000 in Germany. But Japan and Germany, which were defeated in World War II, do not have military forces befitting their international stature.
For this reason, there is a growing suspicion over whether to use the military assets of the USFK only to protect South Korea. The Biden administration is drawing up a strategy to relocate U.S. troops abroad after considering the rise of China. The problem is that the passive attitude of the Moon Jae-in administration towards the South Korea-U.S. alliance could lead to a loss of strength for the USFK in the process. In fact, the U.S. is reportedly considering a plan to send a combat helicopter unit within the USFK to Japan. Unlike Japan, which is positive about joint drills with the U.S., the Korean government wants to reduce or postpone them, and as a result, U.S. chopper pilots haven’t had a single proper practice.
It is a good idea to propose to the U.S. president the “love letter diplomacy” used by Trump and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. Experts were surprised by the 27 personal letters exchanged between the two. Kim’s letters were more specific and substantial than expected. So, if Biden sends a personal letter to Kim, there is a good chance that he would respond.
In any case, North Korea is in danger of being forgotten because of Afghanistan. In such times, North Korea tried to attract attention with provocations. Now is no time to care about appeasement measures such as a family reunions or the Pope’s visit to Pyongyang.