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Michael Finnegan: Korea’s Return to Afghanistan

by Guest Blogger for Scott A. Snyder
January 1, 2010

Members of a South Korean contingent leaving for Afghanistan salute during a send-off ceremony (Kim Kyung Hoon/Courtesy Reuters).

Michael Finnegan is a senior research associate at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

The Republic of Korea (ROK)’s pledge to return to Afghanistan, after more than two years of absence, can be viewed in several ways—as a domestic political breakthrough, recognition of Korea’s interests in the world, or reflection of an evolving alliance with the United States. Perhaps it is all of these and more. The full motivation for the decision and specific plans to implement the mission will not be clear until the Lee Myung-bak administration explains its rationale and plans for deployment to the South Korean people. As he does so, President Lee Myung-bak should avoid the mistakes of past administrations by clearly articulating South Korea’s national interests and strategic rationale for the deployment.

The Republic of Korea was one of the first countries to step up to the plate after the attacks of 9/11, invoking the “spirit” of the Mutual Defense Treaty in support of the United States. This was an important and brave declaration. The forces that eventually deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002 brought needed capacity to the struggling coalition and remained an important part of that mission until 2007. The Roh Moo-hyun administration’s unfortunate decision to withdraw ROK forces in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of South Korean citizens in Afghanistan, in direct acquiescence to the demands of the Taliban murderers and kidnappers themselves, has been difficult to overcome. And the ROK military has been missed as a U.S. partner.

The fact remains that the ROK military is one of the most capable and professional military forces in the world. Its participation in almost any capacity will bring much needed capability and expertise to the multinational coalition attempting to build stability in Afghanistan and the region. The proposed deployment of some five hundred civilians, police and military as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is a significant contribution, second only to the German PRT in size and capacity. The Afghan mission will offer the ROK forces an opportunity to hone their skills even further and develop still greater capacity for stability and reconstruction operations. As I argue in an upcoming paper for the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy, such a deployment also offers the ROK and the United States the opportunity to hone their combined skill set related to stability operations—something with real applicability should instability arise in North Korea. It is unclear at this point if the allies will grasp this important if ancillary opportunity, but it is still early in the planning for the deployment and subsequent operations.

The Lee administration has well understood the need for ROK capabilities in Afghanistan and has attempted to work its way out of the Roh decision since coming into office in 2008. Discussions with officials and those close to the Presidential Office and the Ministry of Defense, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, reveal that the Lee administration has clearly grasped the negative implications of sitting on the sidelines in Afghanistan while simultaneously seeking constant but necessary reassurance from the United States that the defense of South Korea remains a priority. They also clearly understand that South Korea’s own interests in global stability and security demand South Korean contributions.

However, Lee’s uphill domestic political battles since coming to office did not allow the administration to act on its conviction. Lee Myung-bak’s decision to advance the proposal for the deployment in Afghanistan suggests that he has greater confidence in the political strength of his administration. This is significant and welcome news, given that it has taken time for the Lee administration to regain its footing after a succession of challenges regarding U.S. beef and the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) Free Trade Agreement, the North Korean nuclear issue, and the economic crisis.

The most significant aspect of the decision to redeploy is that the Lee administration appears to have determined that stability in Afghanistan has a bearing on South Korea’s own security. Arguably, one reason the Roh administration decided to cut and run from Afghanistan in 2007 was that there was no sense of South Korea’s interest tied to the deployment. Instead, the deployed troops were perceived as simply being in Afghanistan to “do something” for the alliance, i.e., for the United States. There was no significant risk to South Korea of pulling the plug on the deployment.

If South Korea’s decision to deploy forces to Afghanistan is perceived as in its own interest, versus “for the alliance” with the United States, this important shift in the rationale for the deployment will make South Korea’s pledge to maintain the upcoming thirty month deployment all the more credible and significant. This shift in rationale will be complete if Lee is able to effectively convince the National Assembly and the South Korean people that the deployment’s root purpose derives from South Korea’s own national interest.

Such a rationale in fact strengthens the alliance. The applicability of the U.S.-ROK security partnership to mutual security concerns off the peninsula is something that both governments have sought to build in recent years. But the ROK should not go to Afghanistan for the alliance. One might think that if the ROK ultimately makes its case—as it did in 2002—that its deployment is an important way of “doing something for the alliance,” it is a sign of commitment and the strength of the partnership. However, it would be much better for the alliance if South Korea pursues the deployment as an opportunity to do something for South Korea and implements it through the alliance. This articulation would represent a mature approach to South Korea’s own security and to the U.S.-ROK alliance.

The ROK is poised to turn a corner on Afghanistan and to put behind it the embarrassing decision to cut and run in 2007. The Lee administration still must make a persuasive case with the National Assembly and the South Korean people for the ROK’s return to Afghanistan. Framing the decision in the strategic context of the ROK’s own national interests likely will aid this effort, further solidify South Korea’s ”brand” in the world, and ultimately strengthen the U.S.-ROK Alliance.

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