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This article is co-authored with Chaesung Chun, Patrick Cronin and Sang-hyun Lee.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance has survived for almost seven decades, and has sustained peace on the Korean peninsula since the Korean War. To thrive going forward, however, the alliance must not only hold open the door to the establishment of peace and denuclearization with North Korea, but expand even further.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance should refashion itself to meet urgent global challenges and enhance regional and global prosperity. Although the list of global challenges has rarely been more daunting than it is now—from the pandemic to North Korea’s nuclear program to China’s growing assertiveness—common pursuit of a partnership built on shared values has never been more essential to overcoming nationalist-driven impulses, domestic divisions and defend against economic and political coercion.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance should work bilaterally and in concert multilaterally with like-minded partners for peaceful solutions to disputes based on agreed-upon rules and to expand space for cooperation and peace-building in Korea, Asia and beyond.
Toward that aim, the U.S. and South Korea should quickly resolve issues like burden-sharing costs, the transition of operational control and impediments to the maintenance of military readiness. To do so, both “America first” and “Korea first” impulses will have to be set aside in favor of continued force integration and the establishment of institutions strong enough to protect alliance cooperation from the threat of rising nationalist challenges.
Resolution of these issues will enable Presidents Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in to more effectively coordinate policies toward North Korea and expand the focus of the alliance to larger contextual issues, such as how to better handle Chinese economic and political coercion while leveraging new technological forms of cooperation to address challenges to a peaceful and prosperous democratic global order.
Early consultations between Biden and Moon to fashion a joint strategy toward North Korea are critical, and will be closely watched. North Korea and others will be looking for early signs of a combined approach that enhances stability on the Korean peninsula, affirms a commitment to the peaceful coexistence of the two Koreas, establishes a pathway and benchmarks for economic cooperation, and strives to overcome mistrust and removes the nuclear issue as an obstacle to improved political relations.
The two allies should expand the breadth of their alliance to hold in-depth consultations that also include blunting the effectiveness of Chinese policies that resort to economic and political coercion rather than accepting the peaceful rules-based settlement of disputes. The establishment of a whole-of-alliance approach to policy toward China will require in-depth dialogue to understand and close gaps between Washington and Seoul on how to effectively respond to China’s growing assertiveness.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance approach must be developed alongside multilaterally coordinated efforts both with regional and global U.S. alliance partners to clearly establish the conditions necessary to push back on “might makes right” efforts to establish a Sinocentric order. Large-state bullying needs to be dissuaded in favor of a global system that encourages disputes to be resolved through peaceful diplomatic negotiations.
There are even more significant opportunities to expand the alliance functionally, both to develop new frontiers for alliance cooperation and to enhance joint responses to common threats that endanger humankind. As leaders in development and practical application of technologies, the U.S.-South Korea alliance has the potential to address emerging global challenges in the areas of health, climate change, AI, energy security, supply chains and space cooperation.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance stands as an antidote that can be readily used to manage not only the ongoing challenge posed by North Korea, but also to address the shared threats of heightened nationalism, major power rivalry and global health challenges facing the two nations.
The authors have completed a year-long study for the East Asia Institute analyzing the U.S.-ROK alliance and recommending a course for the future, the full text of which is available here.