South Korea’s ‘Doves’ Seek Peace Through Strength


In trying to understand why South Korea’s dovish leader is presiding over a dramatic military buildup, analysts have ignored the obvious explanation: President Moon Jae-in is not actually a dove.

To be sure, South Korean progressives have not earned their reputation as doves for nothing. Their eagerness to engage North Korea at all costs — from turning a blind eye to Pyongyang’s atrocious human rights abuses, to desperately calling for an end-of-war declaration even as the North has been engaging in missile tests — is what has, over time, led to the widespread suspicion in both Seoul and Washington that South Korean progressives are weak on defense.

But weakness regarding North Korea should not be conflated with weakness on defense generally. This conflation has made it hard to remember and take seriously how self-sufficient defense and “peace through strength” have been consistent themes in South Korean progressive thought. In the past five years, nearly all of Moon Jae-in’s major speeches on national defense have identified “peace through strength” as his administration’s “unshakeable national security strategy.” Yet this is largely dismissed as mere lip service to deterrence against North Korea — even though this may not actually be the goal. The consequence is that analysts are left puzzling over the oxymoron of a “hawkish dove” who has spent more on defense than his conservative counterparts did.



To understand South Korea’s latest military buildup, and its broader ambitions for projecting power, analysts should look beyond the North Korean threat and take the grand strategy of South Korean progressives seriously. South Korea’s realpolitik strategic culture is based on the conviction that throughout Korean history, weakness has repeatedly brought great-power conflicts to the peninsula. South Korean progressives have embraced self-determination and unilateral military buildup in order to prevent this cycle from repeating itself in the future. With sufficient indigenous strength, progressives believe that South Korea — and eventually a unified Korea — can become a neutral peace broker among its powerful neighbors. Their vision of “peace through strength” is fundamentally a strategy of armed neutrality.

Seoul’s desire to achieve autonomy and peace through self-sufficient defense, however, will prove elusive. South Korea’s political alignment with the United States, its strategic position, and its relative power vis-à-vis China rule out the possibility of achieving strategic autonomy and peace through indigenous strength alone. South Korean progressives should realize that a strong defense integrated with, not autonomous from, the United States is in the interest of both countries.

Toward a Country That No One Can Shake 

South Korean progressives are keenly aware of how Korea’s weakness opened the way for great-power conflicts on the peninsula in the 19th and 20th century, from the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War to the Korean War. Korea’s strategic location as a “great-power borderland” connecting mainland Asia to the Pacific meant that Korea’s weakness posed a threat to neighboring powers. For Beijing and Moscow, Korea was the bridge for Japanese militarism or American “imperialism.” For Tokyo, Korea was long seen as the “dagger pointed at Japan’s heart” — and then, during the Cold War, as a key buffer that allowed the United States to safeguard Japan from communism.

The conclusion Korean leaders drew from this experience was the need for strength. Political scientist Victor Cha has argued that this experience shaped a hard realpolitik strategic culture based on a belief in “‘time’s cycle’ rather than ‘time’s arrow.’” The result is a conviction that “security dynamics around the peninsula after watershed events like the end of the cold war or unification resemble the power struggles of the past.”

Avoiding this cyclical return of the past is what lies at the heart of Moon’s project to build “a country that no one can shake.” Moon articulated this strategic thinking in his speech celebrating the 74th National Liberation Day:

We have yet to become a “country that no one can shake.” For we are still not strong enough and remain a divided country. […] Geopolitically, there is no country in the world that is encompassed by four great powers. When we were shabby and weak, the Korean Peninsula, a great power borderland in both land and sea, became the arena of great power competition. That was the history that we experienced. But if we have power, we can become a country that connects the landmasses and sea-lanes, a country that leads the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia.

According to Moon’s logic, if Korea is unified, strong, and autonomous, the great powers will no longer fear that she will again fall into another power’s sphere of influence. Korea’s strength will thus deter another conflict on the Peninsula, transforming its status from a great power borderland to a geostrategic connector and “balancer.” This strategy of peace through strength, which draws from a long tradition of armed neutrality in both South and North Korea, leads progressives to call for South Korea to play a “balancing” role between China and the United States. And it also leads Washington to wonder why South Korea, a treaty ally, cannot seem to take a clear side.

For Moon, however, this highly idealized transformation constitutes a “paradigm shift” from a “passive Cold-War order” to an “active peace order” — which he calls a New Korean Peninsula Regime. In his speech titled “The Greatness of the Ordinary: Toward a New World Order,” Moon explained how Korea’s geostrategic location and weakness meant suffering for Koreans condemned to passivity. Whereas Japanese imperialism and the Cold War meant Koreans could not decide their own fate, the emerging peace order is marked by activity insofar as “ordinary” Koreans would autonomously create and maintain peace, “a task wherein ordinary people can become the masters of their own fate.”

Seen from this perspective, South Korea’s pursuit of indigenous strength reflects hard realpolitik tendencies rooted in a deep sense of insecurity. South Korean liberals are defensive realists who want to be left alone, but whose painful experience of history has given them no other option but to participate in an arms race. The real difference between liberals and conservatives is not whether they are doves or hawks, but whether they have preferred to pursue power accretion unilaterally or bilaterally through allying with Washington.

Alternative Arguments

There are many factors that influence South Korea’s defense spending, including the North Korean threat, fear of abandonment caused by Donald Trump, and macroeconomic conditions. But these cannot explain the historic consistency with which progressives have pursued self-sufficient defense. Indeed, prior to Moon, the progressive Roh Moo-hyun administration increased defense spending by 79.4 percent over five years from 2003–2008. Even when there was a diminishing threat perception from the North due to the Sunshine Policy, the administration justified these spending increases under the slogan “self-sufficient defense.” While it is true that the 1997 Asian financial crisis forced the progressive Kim Dae-jung administration (1998–2003) to cut defense spending, key projects related to achieving autonomous force projection were protected from cuts, with any postponements being offset by accelerated timetables.

Another novel explanation for South Korea’s hawkish buildup was recently put forward by Lami Kim, who argued that it was aimed at meeting the conditions necessary to reclaim wartime operational control from the United States. But linking operational control transfer and defense spending like this fails to account for the realities of the budget process in South Korea. More importantly, it also fails to situate both operational control transfer and military buildup in the larger context of South Korean progressive strategic thinking.

Kim argues that if South Korean progressives were using military purchases to improve deterrence, “demonstrating rather than hiding these new capabilities would be the more logical strategy.” As evidence of South Korea’s low-key signaling, she cites the case of the former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris receiving pushback for tweeting about Korea’s acquisition of Global Hawks and F-35A fighter jets.

In fact, the South Korean government has been happy to signal its capabilities. In March 2020, a month before the Harris tweet, Moon said during a graduation ceremony for the Korean Air Force Academy that his government had acquired Global Hawks while F-35 jets flew in the background. To get a flavor of how transparent Moon’s government has been with military upgrades, just read his annual Armed Forces Day speeches, in which he explains his country’s military buildup in minute detail. The only way Moon could signal more strongly might be by engaging in North Korea-style military parades.

The operational control transfer argument is also incompatible with the realities of the defense budget process in South Korea. According to a recent conversation with a mid-senior-level official from the Ministry of Defense who served on the Moon National Security Council, the process is “top-down,” rather than “bottom-up.” Political leadership sets a top-line amount, and bureaucrats fill it with projects. Increased defense spending thus reflects the ruling party’s identity and threat perception, as was the case with Roh, rather than being reflective of specific operational control-related acquisition projects.

Operational control transfer and high defense spending are indeed closely related. However, instead of linking these two in a causal relationship, both should be seen as means to the larger end of achieving self-reliant defense.

The Future of the U.S.-South Korean Alliance?

Does the progressives’ desire for autonomy mean that the United States should be worried about their winning the upcoming March presidential elections? No matter who wins, the U.S.-South Korean alliance will prove resilient, but the answer depends, in part, on how clear-eyed progressives are about South Korea’s strategic constraints.

One reason to be hopeful is that there has been a positive shift in the way South Korean progressives view the United States, even if they have not been able to leave behind their suspicions entirely. For instance, the old progressive narrative of the Korean War espoused during the Roh administration emphasized Korea’s unilateral division and victimization by the United States. The new narrative, by contrast, emphasizes America’s sacrifice. Increasingly, the ravages of the Korean War are contrasted against South Korea’s incredible economic growth in a narrative that projects the country’s pride. The Korean War is thus still part of a nationalist narrative, but one that supports an alliance based on common values and a shared understanding of the past.

Still, South Korea’s conspicuous absence from Indo-Pacific groupings is deeply worrying. Even though this hesitancy is understandable given Korea’s historic experience of great-power competition, it should not lead Seoul to eschew cooperation with Washington on crucial regional threats.

The fact is, South Korea’s desire for autonomy and peace through strength will prove hard to realize. Irrespective of its wishes to be neutral, a powerful South Korea — or unified Korea — will constitute either an even greater prize or a source of fear for surrounding powers. And no matter how much strength Korea develops, her strategic location is immutable. Korea’s long-term security challenge is China. From a balance of power perspective, that will make South Korea’s alliance with the United States even more indispensable.

Beyond this, the shared democratic values that unite Seoul and Washington will prevent South Korea from ever choosing China over the United States. Thus, if South Korean progressives continue their military buildup, a strong South Korea is ultimately in America’s interests. However, South Korean progressives should realize that Korea will always be too important geopolitically — but never powerful enough vis-à-vis China — to be neutral. The past five years of South Korea “balancing” between China and the United States has only led to its international isolation. A better approach would be to pursue “peace through strength” not alone but together with the United States.



Jongsuk Jeong studies Asian affairs and international relations at Georgetown University. Previously, he worked at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where he prosecuted violent crimes. He is a graduate of Williams College.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Dr. Lami Kim’s name. It is Lami, not Lamy.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Elizabeth Fraser)