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U.S.-South Korea: Uneasy Allies

Prepared by: Carin Zissis
Updated: September 14, 2006


With South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun’s visiting the White House this week with President Bush, some commentators say the longstanding alliance between the two nations needs mending. The two sides agreed in advance of the meeting not to issue (Korea Times) any joint declarations at the conclusion of summit, but they did concur on the importance of Six-Party Talks with North Korea, transferring control of their combined forces, and forging a trade deal. So far, Washington and Seoul have made little progress in their proposed bilateral free trade agreement (Seattle Times), which would be the most far-reaching trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement. Another thorny issue involves the timing for the United States to hand over wartime control of U.S.-South Korean combined forces (Stars and Stripes).

But the divide between Bush’s and Roh’s approaches to handling North Korea is the most contentious issue for the alliance. During the Asia-Europe meeting in Helsinki last week, Roh cautioned against making too much of the North Korean nuclear threat out of fear of damaging inter-Korean relations, saying Pyongyang’s missile tests in July were not evidence of a military danger (Korea Times). Meanwhile, the State Department’s Christopher Hill, in Shanghai before heading to Seoul, said North Korea would get no further incentives (BBC) to take part in Six-Party Talks regarding its nuclear plan.

This Backgrounder looks at the history of and recent tensions affecting the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Richard C. Bush III of the Brookings Institution offers his roundup of topics and desired outcomes of the summit, including a coordination of U.S.-Korean policy on China and Japan. Blogger Walter Hendler says the two countries are “in the initial stages of a divorce process” caused by generational shifts, changing perspectives on the alliance (OhmyNews), South Korea’s changing attitude toward North Korea, and the emergence of China as the leading power in the region. Stanford University’s Daniel Sneider, writing in the Washington Post, disputes the notion that the U.S.-South Korean alliance went through a golden age, claiming it “is a mythical past that stands in the way of repairing our alliance today.” The Economist says North Korea is the main issue causing the current turbulence in the U.S.-South Korea alliance; some U.S. officials say Seoul is too soft on Pyongyang, while President Roh depicts the handover of combined forces from the United States to South Korea as a matter of national sovereignty (Subscription Only).

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said the United States may cede wartime control of the combined forces as early as 2009 (Reuters). The joint wartime force was established in 1978 to discourage North Korean aggression, and its command lies in the hands of the 30,000-strong U.S. Force Korea (USFK), stationed in South Korea since 1953. Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says it would be a “mistake” for the United States to give up its role as leader of the military alliance because, if a conflict began, having a divided force in a common battle area could result in tactical confusion (Washington Times). Not all South Koreans see it as a good idea, either. An editorial in the conservative Chosun Ilbo warns Roh will go down in history as a traitor if Seoul suffers at the hands of North Korea because of the president’s push for the transfer of military control and withdrawal of USFK troops. The Hankyoreh, a Seoul-based progressive newspaper, says 700 South Korean intellectuals who signed a joint statement against the transfer should instead concern themselves with how to “build a future for a unified Korea.”

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