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This post is authored by Tara O, fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies. It is part of a project conducted by the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation and Korea Foundation. This series of posts will address the transition of operational control (OPCON) on the Korean Peninsula. To further stimulate an open discussion of these issues, we would like to invite reader responses. Please contact Ellen Swicord at firstname.lastname@example.org for submission guidelines if you are interested in contributing a response.
The Republic of Korea (ROK)-U.S. alliance faces both external and internal challenges. Externally, the alliance faces a complex threat environment; internally, emerging trends are shaking South Korea’s identity as a liberal democracy and market economy, raising questions about the shared values between the two allies.
External Factor: North Korea
Externally, it is important to examine the threat emanating from North Korea, both in terms of the nation’s capabilities and intentions. The Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea has not dismantled its nuclear weapons and continues to conduct offensive military exercises, such as its annual winter training exercises. It maintains over one million soldiers in its military, with 70% forward deployed near the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas. It recently built military facilities on the unmanned islands Hambakdo, Galdo, and Arido in the West Sea. North Korea has the world’s largest special forces, whose mission includes infiltrating South Korea and creating a second battlefront in the rear area. It has stepped up its cyber capabilities, using them to attack South Korea, the United States, and others. North Korea actively conducts influence operations abroad, including in South Korea, through its United Front Department. By a variety of measures, it continues to build offensive capabilities against South Korea.
North Korea has not changed its ultimate goal of unifying the Korean Peninsula under the Kim regime. Kim Jong-un spoke of “the final victory of the revolution” in the Workers’ Party of Korea Plenary Sessions in the final days of December 2019, as well as during past New Year’s Speeches. The “revolution” refers to the communist revolution, which began prior to the Korean War. The Korean War itself, for the Kim regime, was a continuation of this revolution to communize the entire peninsula. The Workers’ Party of Korea also adopted a doctrine to “impose KimIlSungism and KimJongIlism” over the entire peninsula.
North Korea’s capabilities and intentions show that it remains a threat to South Korea and its way of life.
External Factor: China
China has also behaved in a hostile manner toward South Korea. China punished South Korea harshly for the Theater High Altitude Air Defense deployment. China’s economic retaliation included pressuring South Korean companies such as Lotte, which faced serious harassment from the Chinese government and closed 112 Lotte Mart locations as well as its confectionary and beverage factories in China after investing $9.6 billion in the country.
When South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited China in 2017, Chinese guards severely beat Korean journalists covering the event, and there was no apology from China. China has violated South Korea’s Korea Air Defense and Identification Zone at least two dozen times in 2019 alone. Chinese fishermen routinely fish illegally in South Korean territorial waters and have attacked the South Korean Coastguard with weapons such as hatchets, shovels, and knives, even killing two coast guard members.
The Internal Environment
Internally, South Korea has undergone dramatic changes, especially over the last few years.
The Republic of Korea was created in 1948. In May of that year, citizens voted for their representatives through UN supervised elections to create the National Assembly. The Assembly created the Constitution and voted for a president, Syngman Rhee. The official birth of the Republic of Korea was declared on August 15, 1948. South Korea was born as an anti-communist state, set on a course toward a political and economic system similar to that of the United States and drastically different from the USSR model created in North Korea.
The ROK and United States have common interests stemming from their shared system of liberal democracy and market economy. This system is based on the rule of law, various freedoms (including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, etc.), separation of power with checks and balances, free and fair elections, and private property rights – all guaranteed by the constitution. This system has brought freedom and prosperity to both countries and serves as a firm foundation for a strong alliance.
However, disturbing trends in South Korea are calling into question the very foundation of South Korea’s democracy—a liberal democracy, not a “people’s democracy” like Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Increasingly, there are denials that South Korea was born in 1948 – an affront to its very identity. In school textbooks, 1948 is marked as the year the “government” of the ROK was created, rather than the year the ROK itself was created as a sovereign, independent state. Textbooks give greater legitimacy to North Korea, however, by identifying 1948 as the year the DPRK was created, rather than the year the “government” of the DPRK was established. Additionally, some textbooks have even deleted the word “free” in “free democracy” (자유 from 자유민주주의). As mentioned earlier, North Korea claims it is a democracy, a “people’s democracy,” which is quite different from a free or liberal democracy.
Textbook revisions also make North Korea seem more benign. Many textbooks no longer describe the ROK Navy ship Cheonan sinking as caused by a North Korean attack, and merely note that it sank. Some textbooks have removed any mention of the Cheonan altogether. References to the 1983 North Korean terrorist attack in Burma and blowing up of the KAL 858 in 1987 have also been removed from some textbooks. Some students do not even know that the Korean War began when North Korea attacked South Korea. It is clearly problematic that South Korean students do not learn what North Korea is or the real history of Korea.
Furthermore, there have been numerous cases of suppression of freedom of speech and the press, including the jailing of two journalists for libel, one of them even before a trial. The suppression continues for those operating YouTube channels. There is also increasing discussion of converting privately-owned land, housing, and schools into state-ownership in South Korea. What does the move away from private ownership, essential for capitalism and freedom, mean for South Korea’s identity as a liberal democracy and market economy, or the values it shares with the United States?
The alliance should be reinvigorated through efforts to strengthen the pillars of liberal democracy—freedom of speech and the press (among other freedoms), the rule of law, separation of powers, free and fair elections, the right to private property—all enshrined in the constitution. Strengthening South Korea’s alliance with the United States begins with a return to strong shared values and principles based on the common systems of liberal democracy and market economy.