South Korea in a Post-Trump World

Looking back at the 65 years of the South Korea-US alliance, strong pro-Americanists have dominated political power in South Korea, with the core foundation of power being the pro-America and anti-North Korea line.

However, with the launch of the Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump administrations, the South Korea-US alliance seems to have entered a new phase. To achieve US interests, President Trump does not consider the dignity or legitimacy of America’s allies, and is one-sidedly increasing the level of pressure on them. Here, paradoxical hope comes from the fact that the US is breaking the myth of the alliance and is objectifying and secularizing it.

The Moon administration should realize that excessive pro-US sentiment and a reckless commitment to the alliance for the alliance’s sake in the unstable dynamics of Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula, heralded as the return of geopolitics, may actually tie the hands of South Korean diplomacy.

With a firm perception that no matter how important the South Korea-US alliance is, it is only a means to an end, which cannot come ahead of South Korea’s national interests, and cannot be deified. Peace on the Korean Peninsula should be the top priority, and efforts should be made to ensure it does not collapse into the vortex of major power realignment through amelioration of inter-Korean relations.

Pro-Americanism in South Korea has its foundation in the military alliance and has been structuralized with the expansion of capitalism. Security through the South Korea-US alliance has become an absolute value, and Seoul willingly accepts its dependent position regardless of whether it enhances its capacity and prestige. In this context, it was unprecedented that the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations sought autonomy from the US for 10 years. However, such efforts did not last long due to major developments such as the advent of the neocon administration of George W. Bush and the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, a return to a kind of Cold War. Domestically, even with partial success, it was not enough to break away from the stalled structure, and the foundation of the administration was swayed, caught in the counterattack of the anti-America, pro-North Korea framework.

As conservative administrations took power consecutively, they argued that their policy was to repair South Korea’s relationship with the US, which the progressive administrations had damaged. They exaggerated the conflicts that the alliance went through perhaps inevitably during a period of adjustment into crises of an alliance breakdown. They resurrected the anti-US and pro-North Korea framework under the guise of the need to recover from it.

The Secularization of the Myth

With the start of the Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump administrations, it should be noted that Trumpism may be a sign of the coming collapse of the South Korea-US alliance myth. Trump’s speech and behavior going back as far as the presidential campaign have involved picking quarrels and creating opposing groups both domestically and internationally. He collides with the Republican ruling party and mocks his own Secretary of State. At the United Nations, a hall of peace, he called for the destruction of North Korea.

Trump has taken advantage of the fearful atmosphere created by spontaneous comments and tensions with Kim Jong Un, and is attempting to pursue US interests through a renegotiation of the KORUS FTA. He has also raised the issue of the cost of US forces in South Korea, missile defense, and military cooperation among South Korea, the US, and Japan. Respect for the dignity and legitimacy of US allies has disappeared, and US impatience towards China’s rise has increased the level of pressure on its allies.

In addition to the geopolitical challenge of the new Cold War caused by US-China competition, South Korea’s position is shrinking as Trump and Kim Jong Un confront each other. The threat of war, which has been dominated by North Korea, has increased because of the US.

In the past, the US was a sacred and inviolable fort of survival and a model to take after, but under Trump it is straying from that path. If South Korea were to demythologize the US, it would fail and the myth would be restored right away due to criticism and resistance.

But as the US is leading, there is a high chance that this will continue in a completely different aspect. America First, which Trumpism aims for, is fundamentally different from an ordinary country pursuing its national interests in foreign policy. This means that the US will pursue its national interests with any and all means regardless of the opponent being a friend or a foe.

Furthermore, Trump pursues short-term and business-like interests and not values such as human rights, democracy, and peace. The US is revealing itself as it is increasing its emphasis on massive alliance costs.

If the demands to meet these concerns are accommodated, the pressure of entrapment will arise, a typical alliance dilemma, and if such demands are refused, the solidity of the alliance will weaken.

No matter how asymmetrical the South Korea-US alliance is, the problem will become serious if reciprocity is completely lost. It is clearly an asset to have the US as an ally living on the Korean Peninsula, called the geopolitical curse, along with the Balkan Peninsula. Even so, if Trump aggravates the burdens of its partners while pursuing its own national interests without any brakes, the alliance will sway with a sense of fatigue.

In such a situation, what meaning does and should the Moon Jae-in administration, which was born out of the candlelight revolution of weekly candlelight rallies in Gwanghwamun Square against President Park Guen-hye, hold to the US? The complicated and unstable dynamics of Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula, heralded as the return of geopolitics, hold the fate of the country. Meanwhile, a pro-US and reckless commitment to the alliance for the alliance’s sake could instead tie the hands and feet of South Korean diplomacy. Although not easy, it is a reason to put efforts into strengthening South Korean autonomy.

If the weakening of the divided structure through the improvement of inter-Korean relations is not preconditioned, it will collapse into the vortex of major power realignment. Perhaps the reason for this paradoxical hope is that the US is breaking the myth of the alliance and is objectifying and secularizing it.

This solution is in alignment with the candlelight revolution. The impeached powers were anti-peace groups as much as they were damaging democracy and personalizing state affairs. They used the divided Korean Peninsula as a tool to maintain their power. It was a “hostile symbiosis” where both South and North Korea expanded and reproduced mutual hostility and strengthened their political position. Because of this, the birth of the new administration has to be combined with efforts to overcome the divided system on the Korean Peninsula.

For the past 65 years, the South Korea-US alliance has gone beyond military and security areas and made South Korean social norms and identity resemble those of the US. It has not been dealt with on a practical level, and has instead become a myth or an ideology.

The structure of competition between South and North Korea has strengthened as the alliance has become sacred, being addicted to the South Korea-US alliance. However, this alliance is only a means that cannot come ahead of South Korea’s national interests, and cannot be deified. It should be put to practical use and secularized as soon as possible. Only then can a genuine, mature partnership emerge.

Joonhyung Kim is a professor at the Handong Global University Department of International and Area Studies. This is adapted from a study of South Korea-US relations published by the Seoul-based East Asia Foundation. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of the foundation.