An Achilles heel on security

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An Achilles heel on security

Nam Jeong-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In late May, an odd article was published by the New York Times. It said the foreign affairs team of the Joe Biden administration was torn over the issue of tariffs on China. Some were arguing that if the U.S. government sticks with high tariffs, which actually have not been very effective as sanctions, it would only fuel inflation. Others disagreed, saying that China will look down on the United States if tariffs were cut.

A final decision has yet to be made. It is natural that various opinions exist over a government policy. And yet, the disagreement became big news because the foreign affairs team under Biden had rarely shown such discord.

Why was that? U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken has been Biden’s foreign affairs aide for more than two decades. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was an aide of Biden when he was serving as vice president. Both Blinken and Sullivan are close.

Sources in Washington see the trio as not just a president and aides, but longtime friends who share a global perspective. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also has known Biden for a long time. It is not a surprise that Biden’s foreign affairs team is rarely in disagreement.

The U.S. media actually worries that they are overly in sync with one another. The worry comes from a high risk of falling into the trap of groupthink. Groupthink occurs when a group — which shares ideology and thoughts and is highly united — tends to ignore other opinions in order to make a unanimous decision. The Bay of Pigs invasion of the John F. Kennedy administration in 1961 is a textbook case of a failed decision caused by groupthink. At that time, Kennedy’s aides were either his Harvard alumni or hometown friends. Although they did not have military knowledge, they misjudged that a landing operation by Cuban exiles would easily topple the Fidel Castro regime.

Observers say that a series of policy misjudgments by the Biden administration were caused by groupthink. The Biden team had a fatal sense of optimism about a withdrawal from Afghanistan. It also believed that Vladimir Putin’s regime would suffer serious damage from economic sanctions on Russia. They were serious misjudgments.

I cite the Biden cases as I am concerned that the foreign affairs team of President Yoon Suk-yeol may commit similar mistakes. Key members of his foreign affairs team — including Foreign Minister Park Jin, National Security Office (NSO) director Kim Sung-han and Ambassador to the U.S. Cho Tae-yong — are all veterans with expertise. Park, who earned a doctoral degree from Oxford in international politics, is a four-term lawmaker and his networks are deep in not only Washington but also China and Japan.

NSO director Kim, a Korea University professor, once served as a vice foreign minister. With his academic depth and field experience, he is a man of great abilities. Ambassador Cho, a career diplomat, is an undeniable elite. He is very close to Blinken. It could be a dream team.

But the problem is that their top priority is the United States. Furthermore, Ambassador to China Chung Jae-ho studied in the U.S., and Ambassador to Russia Chang Ho-jin is also a renowned U.S. expert who headed the North America bureau of the Foreign Ministry.

Ambassador to Japan Yoon Duk-min obtained his doctoral degree from Keio University, but received his master’s in America. It is not an exaggeration that the entire foreign affairs team of Yoon sees the Korea-U.S. alliance as the only priority.

The Moon Jae-in administration used all resources to improve relations with North Korea, while treating Korea-U.S. relations lightly. Under the current situation, Biden’s foreign policy and Korea’s foreign policy can be 100-percent in sync.

Although it was during the Moon administration that Korea and Japan participated in U.S.-led sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Other allies and friends of the United States — such as India, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and even Israel — did not participate in the sanctions. But the issue was never seriously discussed in the Yoon government.

It is natural to see various opinions appear before any organizations. When sanctions on China are discussed, worries about our exporters should be expressed. The more diversified the genetic makeup, the healthier an organism is.
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