On Monday, June 28, 2021, South Korea announced the development of a missile defense system to help protect itself against the recent aggression of North Korea. The technology is to be modeled after the Iron Dome, which is used by Israel to counter Hamas. The Iron Dome is designed to shoot incoming missiles out of the air before they can strike their targets. While this system is not one hundred percent effective, it has been useful to Israel in its ongoing war against Hamas. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has yet to comment on this recent development, but he is unlikely to be deterred. While many reasons could explain why South Korea is developing this new $2.6 billion missile defense system, it may be due to the recent foreign policy actions of the United States.
The conflict on the Korean Peninsula goes back to the end of World War II. Korea had been a Japanese colony until 1945, after which it was split along the 38th parallel first into two occupied zones and eventually into sovereign states. The North, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was supported by the Soviet Union, who fostered a communist government. The South, the First Republic of Korea, was backed by the United States with an anti-communist model. In 1950, North Korea invaded the South, in an attempt to unite the peninsula under communist rule, however, the United Nations, backed in large part by the United States, intervened. Three years later, the fighting ended with the two territories still divided along lines near the original 38th parallel, with both countries locked in stalemate to this day.
For nearly sixty years, U.S. foreign policy followed an approach of consistent military, economic, and political support of South Korea. The South largely flourished and became a powerhouse in the region. While tensions with the North remained high, South Korea could count on strong U.S. backing to help drive stability and peace in the region.
However, Donald Trump’s election in 2016 disrupted the balance. Trump led with a strongly nationalist and an “America First” agenda. His isolationist approach and political rhetoric not only shook traditional alliances, but also confidence in America as a stabilizing global leader. With regard to the Korean peninsula, Trump’s policies were uncoordinated and inconsistent. Once, Trump issued threats of nuclear war with North Korea on Twitter. In an interview with the New York Times, Former Prime Minister Moon Jae-in said he believes Trump “failed” at bringing peace to the Korean peninsula, and that “he beat around the bush and failed to pull it through.”
Joe Biden’s election brought a shift in American foreign policy away from nationalism and with the promise of re-establishing American leadership in foreign policy. Biden’s administration quickly made clear its support of South Korea with a joint statement with the South Korean nation: “the shared values of the ROK-US Alliance undergird the two countries’ commitment to opposing all activities that undermine and destabilize the rules-based international order.”
Despite the recent U.S. foreign policy shift, South Korea’s development of the Iron Dome may be a sign that its long-standing faith in America’s alliance and support has been shaken. Given the shifting and unpredictable American foreign policy agenda, South Korea’s desire to develop this new technology could be entirely justified as self defense, since it may not be able to rely on the U.S. for constant protection anymore. The development of the Iron Dome could be a stepping stone towards better protecting South Korea against the North, but sends another message; America has become too unreliable of an ally. It has become clear that with America’s democratic process, there can be a switch between nationalism and globalism in just a few years, which could have drastic repercussions on the state of international affairs.