The 70-Year Old US-South Korea Alliance in Danger

Trump romance with north, China disputes, Seoul-Tokyo tensions

By Ju-seok Seo

Some argue that the South Korea-US alliance is deteriorating. They cite the North Korean nuclear situation, disputes over the deployment of the THAAD antimissile system, the end of the intelligence-sharing agreement GSOMIA between South Korea and Japan, and negotiations over the Special Measures Agreement. 

A precise assessment is necessary considering that analysts and the public view this issue through partisan lenses. The alliance has faced numerous challenges from both within and without. It has adapted well and managed these challenges, contributing not only to deterring wars but also to South Korea’s economic growth. New challenges can also be handled with elastic and comprehensive responses. 

This experience will contribute to the continuing long-term development of the alliance. Seoul can contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula and in the region through the development of the South Korea-US alliance and by simultaneously pursuing multilevel bilateral and multilateral security cooperation. Sincere strategic talks are necessary.

From the perspective of the US, the Northeast Asian strategy was the foundation that preserved the South Korea-US alliance for a long period. However, in recent years, President Trump’s unique international values and foreign policy have had a major impact.

Trump has emphasized his policy of “America First,” and rejected existing multilateralism and free trade policy. He has not hesitated to pressure foreign allies to increase national defense expenditures or to contribute more to shared defense costs using defense pledges and the stationing of US armed forces as leverage. 

South Korea is not an exception. Trump’s demands can be understood as part of a structural change in the international order that is in line with the tendency of each-country-for-itself, such as the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, or Brexit. However, to accept such demands is not inevitable, considering the possible avenues of control in the US, such as the decision by the US Congress to freeze the amount of funds for the US Armed Forces in Korea last December.

In sum, the South Korea-US alliance has continuously developed over its 67-year history. It has faced fierce challenges and demands from within and without. South Korea and the US both responded with a firm stance that maintaining the alliance is essential for their respective national interests. The results have been successful. The Mutual Defense Treaty between South Korea and the US stipulates that the two countries jointly respond to aggression towards US territory in the West Pacific or on South Korea’s territory. 

From this standpoint, it is true that there are restrictions on the direct regional role of the alliance, and on the strategic flexibility of US Armed Forces in Korea. However, we should instead focus on the fact that the alliance can achieve its goal and be maintained in the long term thanks to this point. The two countries can overcome any argument that the alliance has weakened, such as recently, by adjusting the magnitude and aspects of military cooperation.

South Korea’s Choices

South Korea’s choice to ensure the long-term, stable development of the alliance is evident. It is to comprehensively and flexibly respond to a variety of challenges to the alliance and maintain its original objective. The goal should be to adjust the alliance in practical ways to contribute to regional peace, stability, and development by deterring aggression and threats toward South Korea in a security situation where Oceanic and East Asian continental forces could clash on the Korean Peninsula. 

The goal of the alliance may need to be readjusted if a permanent peace regime is established on the Korean Peninsula, or if the two Koreas are reunified. Even in that case, if approached with the assumption that the South Korea-US alliance would be ignored, there could a fresh bout of serious instability.

A flexible rather than drastic response is possible to address recent issues. Although the North Korean nuclear negotiations and inter-Korean relations are at a standstill, unless North Korea engages in serious provocations strategically or towards South Korea, diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue should be supported by adjusting South Korea-US joint military training and suspending hostile activities according to the 9.19 military agreement. South Korea should convince China, which looks at the alliance as a “relic of the Cold War,” of the original objective of the alliance, defending South Korea, and that the alliance is not meant as a means to attack China. 

South Korea should emphasize to the US and Japan that South Korea hopes to pursue the development and strengthening of the alliance and security cooperation among South Korea, the US, and Japan, while security cooperation between South Korea and China can contribute to regional peace and development.

It’s difficult to find a consensus that all South Koreans will agree upon regarding the ongoing fierce pressure from the US regarding its calls for South Korea to increase its contribution to shared defense costs. It’s only possible for South Korea to share costs for elements based on SOFA regulations. The National Assembly will not ratify any agreement, if there is one, that goes beyond the scope of SOFA. 

There cannot be an agreement outside the SOFA regulations, as last year’s SMA negotiations experienced difficulties due to the US demand for South Korea to support deployment costs for strategic assets and maintenance costs for overseas equipment. South Korea should, nonetheless, emphasize its willingness to bear inevitable future costs such as South Korea’s indirect costs for US Armed Forces’ bases in South Korea and the costs of recovering from environmental pollution, while simultaneously pursuing strategic dialogue on issues such as flexible cooperation in the transformation process of wartime operational control of the South Korea military, alliance development after a peace settlement, and role-sharing as part of a strategic alliance.

In addition to maintaining and developing the South Korea-US alliance, promoting multilevel, multilateral and bilateral security cooperation is a task to be further developed in the current security reality of South Korea. In the midst of the alliance’s firm role as a defense alliance on the Korean Peninsula, if bilateral cooperation between South Korea-China, South Korea-Japan, and South Korea-Russia, modest multilateral cooperation between South Korea-US-Japan, and South Korea-China-Japan, and multilateral cooperation such as a full-fledged Northeast Asian multilateral security dialogue were sought together, the South Korea-US alliance could become an important basis for peace on the Korean Peninsula and in the region. 

The cooperative, self-reliant national defense strategy and balanced practical diplomacy pursued by the administration of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun are still relevant today. A strategic dialogue to create a flexible, cooperative network that maintains these essential measures is possible.

This was adapted from a much longer article by Ju-seok Seo, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Defense Analysis, written for the East Asia Foundation, a Seoul-based think tank. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of the East Asia Foundation.