The alliance between the United States and South Korea has endured through seven decades of shifting regional and geopolitical security contexts. In The United States–South Korea Alliance: Why It May Fail and Why It Must Not, Scott A. Snyder details the challenges it now faces from domestic political turmoil in both countries, including deepening political polarization and rising nationalism, which has cast doubt on the alliance’s viability—with critical implications for the balance of power in East Asia.
The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows.
LINDSAY: Good afternoon, everyone. I want to thank you all for joining us here at the Council’s Washington office as well as give greetings to all of those who are joining us virtually.
I want to welcome everybody to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting launching Scott Snyder’s new book The United States-South Korea Alliance: Why it May Fail and Why it Must Not.
I am Jim Lindsay, director of studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and it is my pleasure and honor to moderate today’s discussion. I should say that books form the foundation of what we do here at the David Rockefeller Studies Program, the Council’s in-house think tank so book launches are very big occasions for us and I’m delighted that everyone could join us both here, in person, and those joining us virtually.
The man or, should I say, author of the hour is Scott Snyder. Scott is a senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy here at the Council. He has been full time in the studies program since 2011, correct? Over that dozen years he’s written four books, co-edited another, directed a task force on U.S.-Korea policy, contributed countless number of posts to Asia Unbound, the blog on CFR.org, and generally led the Council’s work on the Koreas.
Today we’re not here to celebrate all of that but rather to celebrate the publication of Scott’s new book The United States-South Korea Alliance. I want to borrow the words of former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens who said the book provides a bracing reminder that a U.S.-South Korea alliance cannot be taken for granted.
Congratulations, Scott, on the publication of the book and those very kind words.
SNYDER: Thank you, Jim. I’m glad to be here. Glad to be here at the end of the process.
LINDSAY: Yes, it’s much more fun to be done at the end. So very good.
Let’s begin our conversation with your subtitle and especially the phrase “why it must not.” Now, it’s no secret that a lot of Americans today are skeptical of the value of alliances. So what is your argument to skeptics on why the U.S.-South Korea alliance serves America’s national interest?
SNYDER: Well, the argument about serving America’s national interest is related, first of all, to the fact that we are facing growing threats in East Asia. The North Korea threat is expanding and has become actually more direct to the United States as North Korea improves its missile capabilities and has a nuclear capacity. And so that actually means that the shared threat is converging. And also the rise of China and the focus of the U.S. government on China really means that we need partners in the region to work more closely with us in order to manage that threat.
Also, in terms of Korea as a partner it’s a vibrant democracy and it has kind of grown to be a partner that has shared values so we have the same way of looking at the world, and also I would say that the partnership itself has become more mutual.
It used to be a little bit asymmetric. We pledged to provide security for South Korea. That might lead some people to say that we are going out of our way to take care of others and they may not be doing as much for us. That is an argument that is resonant with recent times.
But I would say that now, especially with the influx of inward foreign direct investment from South Korea, we have a more mutual relationship that stands on the basis of both shared security interests and shared economic interests that are pushing us together.
LINDSAY: So let me flip the question around on you and why is it in South Korea’s interest to be allied with the United States given the security threats that it faces?
SNYDER: Well, South Korea still shares a near and present danger on the Peninsula. It is facing a North Korea that has developed a nuclear capability that it doesn’t have direct capability to respond to and South Korea, aside from North Korea, is smaller than the other neighbors in the region and therefore still needs some help in order to be able to assure its security in a very difficult neighborhood.
LINDSAY: We talked about the second half of your subtitle. I want to sort of look at the first half of the subtitle, about why it might fail. So just marked the seventieth anniversary of the alliance back in the spring. How would you assess the current state of the alliance?
SNYDER: Well, the current state of the relationship is pretty good. It’s pretty strong. The seventieth anniversary actually has been a catalyst for making the relationship even stronger. But I do think that there is a set of vulnerabilities there.
I can describe the scope of the alliance. I mean, it’s really enlarged in terms of what we do together. I already mentioned a little bit about that. We’re doing a lot on security as related to North Korea and increasingly in the region and actually increasingly in the world as South Korea is thinking together with the United States about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and we’re also working on supply chain resiliency and South Korea is an important technological partner of the United States especially as related to semiconductors, electric batteries, a whole range of issues that are really, I think, driving the alliance forward and creating more opportunities for future cooperation.
But the vulnerability lies, I think, in the fact that both the United States and South Korea and their domestic political environments have experienced political polarization over the course of the past few years and that is not necessarily a threat that the alliance has prepared to meet.
The possibility that political polarization plus exclusive nationalism could actually make either the United States or South Korea think of its own immediate needs as more important than the mutual need and so I wanted to write and really explore how do we deal with that particular threat to what otherwise has been a relationship that is increasingly mutual and I think very clearly beneficial to both sides in terms of achieving our national security objectives in the world.
LINDSAY: Let’s talk a bit about how the alliance has improved in recent years. My sense is that has been the result of deliberate choices being made both in Washington and in Seoul. How much of that is personality driven? You have a new president here in the United States, Joe Biden, who comes to office saying that his first priority is to rebuild, reinvigorate America’s alliances.
How much is it a function of South Korea shifting from President Moon to President Yoon?
SNYDER: Well, I do think that leadership matters on both sides but I really think that the broad conditions for cooperation have been generated by the fact that there is a shared sense of threat in the world that actually comes from shared values but it’s really the convergence of threat perception as related to North Korea and China.
The way that I kind of measure that is through public opinion in South Korea and the United States about both each other and about the neighborhood, and I would say that in both the United States and South Korea there is an increasing appreciation among the public for the partnership with each other and there is also an increasing anxiety in South Korea and the United States about China in particular.
And so what I would note in particular is that South Korean views toward China have shifted over the course of the past three or four years in ways that have really opened up a pathway for South Korea to take a more clear stance in alignment with the United States and I think that’s what President Yoon has picked up on and that’s really what President Biden is building on in terms of looking at how we can cooperate on a range of issues that I think China is always present back of mind even if it’s not always mentioned as the driver for cooperation within the relationship.
LINDSAY: I know that public opinion polls show South Koreans among the most or holding the most unfavorable views of China when compared to other countries. What exactly has driven that?
SNYDER: Well, I think the critical moment for South Korea on that front was really back in 2017. The United States wanted to introduce a new midcourse air defense missile system—
SNYDER: —the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system in order to respond to North Korea’s increasing capabilities and South—and China objected to that and they tried to draw a line against South Korea accepting that system but they also pursued massive economic retaliation against South Korea.
They basically forced some South Korean companies out of China. They shut down Chinese tourism to South Korea and they eliminated the ability of the K-pop market to reach into China.
And so I think that left a large psychological impression on South Koreans, and plus the other factor I think that is very important is that South Korean companies were finding China to be a more inhospitable environment for their own efforts.
LINDSAY: Not the only country—
SNYDER: That’s right.
LINDSAY: —or companies finding that to be a problem.
SNYDER: Correct. But I would say that South Korea’s—the South Korean corporate experience in China it’s important to understand that they’ve already sought to integrate with China as part of their prior experience really as a way of understanding what their expectations are and what their hopes are as we see this inward flow of upwards of a hundred billion of investment from South Korea to the U.S. in recent years.
LINDSAY: OK. So it seems like the trends in South Korea are pushing South Korea closer to the United States. But you’re worried that’s not going to last. Partly talk about political polarization. Help me understand why that would sort of work counter to the trends you just identified.
SNYDER: So the issue of political polarization is complicated because it is something that can lead to the polarization of approaches to policy and so, for instance, right now we’re at a very interesting moment in the relationship because things are going well.
In fact, they’re going so well and we’re cooperating so closely between the Biden and Yoon administrations that you could even almost make an argument that the Biden administration has a stake in the political success of the Yoon administration. But President Yoon’s popularity ratings are languishing in the low thirties and we don’t know what will come next in terms of South Korean political leadership.
And likewise on the South Korean side—well, we’ll put it this way. The question of the day in South Korea, especially as they look at American public opinion polls in swing states, is what if there’s a second Trump administration—what does that mean?
And so both sides seem to have kind of been—as they institutionalized they’re also kind of locking into having a stake in the political success of the partner with which they are working and I worry about that because I think that it can I have a risk of deepening politicization and creating a situation where if once—if there’s a political transition it raises questions about whether the alliance itself can maintain the level of robust cooperation that currently exists.
LINDSAY: I want to come back to the U.S. side of the equation in a moment but I want to dig down a little deeper on sort of the state of politics in South Korea on these issues because they tie up, you know, as you’ve written with sort of concerns about entrapment and abandonment. Sort of help me understand both concepts and how it maps onto the political debate in South Korea.
SNYDER: OK. Well, so traditionally for South Korea and the alliance relationship with the United States concerns about entrapment would really show up more in terms of U.S. requests for out of area support, for instance, militarily or other demands that the U.S. might make politically that South Koreans may perceive as not necessarily in South Korea’s direct interests.
And on the abandonment front, you know, the interesting question really arises at least this year as related to, well, how credible is the U.S. pledge to defend South Korea from North Korean nuclear weapons. Could the U.S. be deterred from supporting South Korea by a threat of North Korean nuclear use toward the United States?
It’s a very familiar debate from the Cold War but it definitely has resonance in today’s South Korea and it has been driving a South Korean public perception that, well, maybe we should have a nuclear capability of our own to be able to use in order to match what North Korea has.
LINDSAY: Tell me a bit more about that. Is this merely just sort of loose talk or are we seeing real efforts within South Korea to try to find a way to gain a nuclear capability, given that South Korea operates under some significant constraints because of its nuclear deal with the United States?
SNYDER: That’s right. Well, so I think that in terms of public opinion what that really shows is that South Koreans are unsatisfied with the current state of the relationship with North Korea and they’re doubtful about whether U.S. efforts to be able to counter North Korea’s threat are going to be successful and in particular the environment in which there’s no dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea really, I think, heightens South Korean anxieties.
Plus, there’s a gap I think in terms of the perceptions of the implications of North Korea having a nuclear capability. You know, we tend to look at this as an issue of global deterrence and so we think, well, the U.S. has this capability to respond and so North Korea—and we’ve been sending very strong messages to North Korea about the dangers of nuclear use threatening that it would be the end of their country and we think that that would be enough.
But if you’re in South Korea you’re really looking at it from the perspective of a peninsular balance and you’re very worried about being blackmailed and so you think, well, the obvious solution is if we get the things that they have that are inducing our asymmetrical disadvantage then it will eliminate the disadvantage and in the other areas we’re doing well so if we can just achieve that then we might have a path forward.
But I think that the public debate is not—has not yet fully absorbed some of the things that you mentioned as related to the cost of acquisition of nuclear weapons and so there is an ongoing discussion about that that is being carried out and, of course, the U.S. and South Korea also tried to address that back in April during a state visit where they made a Washington Declaration, they made a Nuclear Consultative Group, and they offered the prospect of a pathway for the South Korean government that would enable more participation in nuclear planning.
LINDSAY: Actually, walk me through that because my sense was after the Washington Declaration was made that President Yoon’s description of what had been accomplished didn’t align that well with what the Biden administration said had been accomplished, which left me sort of wondering exactly how significant the Washington Declaration is and will be.
SNYDER: Well—and, yes, that gap was apparent.
LINDSAY: So I didn’t imagine it? OK.
SNYDER: At the moment, you know, President Yoon made some statements that made it sound like the U.S.—it almost made it sound like it would be possible for South Korea to run a nuclear weapon when it needed it, which is not what the process or the declaration actually says.
There is still a question, I think, as related to how participatory this new consultative process will be for South Korea.
LINDSAY: Do we have any sense? I mean, we’re six months or more on so—
SNYDER: We are six months on and I would say that I still am not able to definitively answer that question. I would say that what we do see is that at the military level between the two militaries they’ve had tabletop exercises.
There’s more overt evidence of planning for nuclear use contingencies in the military relationship and they’ve had some—they’ve had some very visible meetings with senior officials on both sides.
But it’s not yet clear to me whether they have worked out in detail all the issues related to nuclear planning. I’m sure that the South Koreans are going to want to look behind the veil in a little bit more detail than the U.S. side might be ready for in that area.
LINDSAY: Well, I imagine the White House and the State Department have their hands full with lots of other issues as well, which complicates things.
SNYDER: No doubt it complicates things and it probably raises the prospect that the South Koreans aren’t going to be satisfied actually. But, more broadly speaking, I think that there is a process by which to deal with that issue.
But I would also say that South Korean concerns and demands have not gone away. The Washington Declaration has not made that issue go away, and I think that as I look at the debate, you know, there may be—and, you know, plus the U.S. has been very robust in terms of presence of strategic assets in and around the Peninsula.
But whether or not what has happened so far is going to be enough to satisfy that debate, well, I think that to the extent that the North Koreans keep developing there’s going to probably be an increasing demand for assurance on the South Korean side. So I’m not sure that we’re at the end of—you know, the Nuclear Consultative Group is not going to solve all our problems.
LINDSAY: Well, let me draw you out on that because, you know, as you write in the book part of the challenge or stresses on the alliance come from domestic developments, particularly polarization, but there’s also the question sort of the external factors that are putting stress on the alliance.
Do you see either North Korea or China or perhaps even Russia trying to find ways to stress test the alliance?
SNYDER: I would say that that is an active area of security planning that needs to be ongoing. There are a variety of scenarios that I think are relevant to the immediate environment. One is depending on which side of the debate that you’re on with regard to whether or not China exercises restraint on North Korea as related to a seventh nuclear test.
The Putin-Kim summit that occurred in the Russian Far East could be worrisome because if Kim Jong-un now thinks that because he has a strategic relationship with Russia he does not have to worry about Chinese restraint or a Chinese request for restraint then it might open a way for him to actually go forward with a seventh nuclear test.
Or, alternatively, in the context of rising tensions across the straits, you know, North Korea could either be an opportunist actor or it actually could be the actor that is encouraged to move forward in order to make space for some kind of rising tensions or conflicts across the straits.
LINDSAY: Now, you talked a lot about political polarization and the concerns that South Koreans have about who will sit in the White House come January 2025. When South Korean officials, opinion leaders, ask you about it what’s your answer? What do you say?
SNYDER: Well, I say—actually what I say is that we don’t know exactly what the policy of a second administration—a second Trump administration would be if it were to be elected and come into office because the policies that were pursued in the first Trump administration were relatively near term and driven by specific political calculations and returns.
LINDSAY: Host pays support.
SNYDER: Yeah. And so the environment is different now. We don’t know if it is different enough to address that type of issue but as related to North Korea, for instance, the Trump-Kim bromance—will it rekindle?
Well, the Yoon administration is not going to be supporting it whereas the Moon administration was actively encouraging it, and we’re much more focused—we’re much further down the road in terms of our strategic rivalry with China and so that also is a factor that the Trump administration may, you know, be influenced by.
I think the real test would actually be whether or not the trilateral institutional cooperation that has developed with Yoon, Kishida, and Biden would be allowed to continue in a new administration or whether President Trump if he came back would say, well, that is a Biden administration accomplishment and must be reversed.
LINDSAY: You anticipated my final question which was to ask you about sort of where Japan fits in in all this given that the United States has a bilateral alliance with South Korea and has a bilateral relation alliance with Japan but there is no trilateral relationship.
Do you think that the political forces particularly in South Korea will make it possible for that sort of growing rapprochement, if I could use that term, to continue or is this likely to get hung up down the road even if the North Koreans aren’t successful in creating a divide, even if the Chinese don’t sort of change their strategy and approach—it was more of a velvet glove than an iron fist?
SNYDER: Yeah. Well, you know, that’s a really interesting question because I think that the U.S. has sought closer cooperation trilaterally for a long time. I think there were efforts in the Obama administration to pursue a similar path and they were constrained, in part by South Korean hesitation.
And so just the fact that the three leaders got together at Camp David it really reflects, I think, the changing strategic—the perception of the strategic environment and it reflects a much greater willingness, especially on the part of South Koreans, to work closely with the U.S. and Japan as related to China and that is something that I think did not exist ten years ago and, frankly, I did not necessarily think that the South Koreans were going to get to this particular point.
And so the question then is really whether we can envisage the next step, which would be an actual regionalized security alliance relationship. We’re not there yet. I think that the measure of that—
LINDSAY: How close are we to being there? Is this still something that’s maybe years away or—
SNYDER: So what we got in Camp David was a commitment to consult—
SNYDER: —which means that they can get on the phone but it doesn’t necessarily knit together any kind of institutionalized response. When the Chinese media says that there’s an Asian NATO the core of which is U.S., Japan, and South Korea, no, we’re not there yet.
Will we get there? I would argue that it really depends on China’s behavior. To the extent that China has been a passive enabler of the institutionalization of trilateral cooperation among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea thus far if they take further steps that magnify the sense of threat among those three then maybe there is a little bit more room.
LINDSAY: Do you see any signs that Beijing is looking for ways to mollify Seoul and to try to play on those political divisions that you’ve mentioned?
SNYDER: The most immediate recent interactions suggest not.
LINDSAY: What do you have in mind?
SNYDER: Well, when President Xi came to San Francisco for APEC he met with President Biden for four hours and Prime Minister Kishida for one hour, and he talked with President Yoon for three minutes.
So at this point—
LINDSAY: You’re reading meaning into that.
SNYDER: Well, I think that the specific meaning is that the South Korea-China relationship remains fraught and for China to take advantage of any potential fissures among those three trilateral partners. South Korea has historically been the object of opportunity and right now it doesn’t seem like they’re really trying to pursue that.
Likewise, Japan, South Korea, and China are trying to hold a trilateral leaders meeting. South Korea is really on the hook to try to deliver that and, at least recently, no progress. So at this point I would say there is still some work to do.
LINDSAY: OK. That’s a great segue because I also want to say at this point I want to bring everybody else into the conversation. Ann (sp) has reminded me to remind all of you that this is a hybrid meeting and that it is on the record, and we will take our first question here in Washington.
If you could stand, identify yourself, and pose a question.
Q: Thanks. Steve Charnovitz from George Washington University.
You answered some questions about nuclear weapons but I’m just wondering isn’t there a path for deterrence and confidence with conventional weapons? And if there is, is the United States capable these days, given the demand for U.S. weapons in different parts of the world—is the United States capable of helping South Korea get what it needs conventionally to deter North Korea?
SNYDER: I guess that the way I would interpret that is actually—in terms of the material needs I think that there probably is a sufficient conventional capability to respond to North Korea.
But what I’m really pointing to as we talk about the South Korean public debate is a psychological need and there I think it’s clear that the desire for assurance on the part of South Korea and really the desire for autonomy, to be able to have the capacity to defend itself to the extent possible, may be challenging our ability to provide the level of assurance that South Koreans find psychologically meaningful.
LINDSAY: Can I flip that question around on you, Scott? To what extent should Americans be worried that the Yoon government will be too quick to respond to potential North Korean provocations?
When I was in Seoul back in October what I heard from some people was that specific fear that the Yoon government is looking to basically put a marker down, that it’s tough, and that this could grow into a much bigger crisis very quickly.
SNYDER: So that’s really about U.S. entrapment concerns as related to how South Korea might respond. I think the most important moments in the recent history of the relationship as related to that question actually goes back to 2010 which was a time when the North Koreans shelled a South Korean—an island on the South Korean side of the northern limit line that South Korea controls and there was a very active debate in South Korea about how robustly to respond.
Should we just focus on the source of the artillery munitions or should we try to go for the control center? In other words, would South Korea consider responding by escalating possibly by using air response?
And I think that on the USFK side—U.S. Forces Korea—there was a great concern about the risks of escalation in part because they were also concerned about North Korea aiming weaponry at planes including civilian planes that might be trying to land at Incheon International Airport.
And so that generated a pretty active discussion between the U.S. and South Korea about counter provocation measures and it was really, I think, borne of a concern that to the extent that the South Koreans said, well, don’t worry about it—we’ll take care of this—it was not reassuring to the U.S. side because of the entrapment concern.
LINDSAY: But are you worried about that, going forward, with the Yoon administration?
SNYDER: What I worry about right now more than anything else is the risks of an inter-Korean escalatory spiral that is primarily related to the stepping back by both sides from an agreement signed in 2018—the comprehensive military agreement.
And so I do think that there are some risks of escalation that exist and that could lead to a kind of military crisis and that would have implications for the U.S. in particular because there’s so many other commitments and priorities around the world.
So I do think that that is an issue of concern. But I also feel that the level of communication between the U.S. and South Korea, between the Yoon and Biden administrations on the defense side—in my view it is robust enough to be able to manage that sort of tension escalation with North Korea.
LINDSAY: Well, that goes back to your overarching argument that the relationship at least right now is in a very good place.
LINDSAY: In the back, Anya.
Q: Thank you. Anya Schmemann, Council on Foreign Relations.
Congratulations, Scott, on the book. It will make a delightful stocking-stuffer.
It strikes me that you can make the counter argument that the alliance was actually quite resilient and weathered the rise of populism and extremism and, you know, all the other negativisms that you have outlined. So maybe that’s a silver lining.
But I’d actually like to learn more about Taiwan. The relationship between South Korea and Taiwan is frosty, and I wonder, how concerned is South Korea about an escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Strait? And would South Korea support the United States if the United States had to defend Taiwan?
LINDSAY: Well, that gets to the issue of South Korea’s fear of entrapment.
SNYDER: It does. It’s a really interesting question because what I’ve noticed is that South Korean defense officials both publicly and privately really don’t want to talk about that at all with nongovernmental counterparts.
I do believe that there probably has been the beginning of a discussion between U.S. and South Korean defense officials as related to some of that. But it is much less advanced, I think, than the sort of conversation that goes on between the U.S. and Japan.
Overall, I think the outline of a South Korean response as it currently stands is pretty clear, based on presidential statements from President Yoon. He was asked last year by CNN how he would respond in the event of a Taiwan contingency and he basically said, well, we’ll take care of North Korea. I think the question is would the U.S. expect South Korea to do more than that and if so what precisely would that look like.
The other aspect of what President Yoon has said that is interesting is that he did indicate in an April interview that he viewed the prospect of a military confrontation between mainland and Taiwan as an international security issue and the Chinese government responded very strongly to his characterization of it as an international issue.
So and that actually is a deviation from past South Korean official responses on that issue. So I think that President Yoon is someone who would—I think that there is some bandwidth for U.S. and South Korea to be able to work together on that issue.
But whether it would meet the needs of the moment I think is really what would remain to be seen because if I look at the expectations for neighbors to the Ukraine, for instance, and think about South Korea’s preparedness to respond it looks to me like the demands are going to be higher than what South Korea at this moment is willing to bear. Whether that would shift in the event of actual crisis we have to wait and see.
LINDSAY: I believe we have a question from someone who is participating in the meeting by Zoom.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from William Perlstein.
Q: Thanks. Thanks very much. Fascinating discussion.
Scott, you’ve not talked much about Kim Jong-un. When I’ve asked questions at similar programs, what does he want, the answer generally is attention, which isn’t—really doesn’t give us very much about what it is we then do.
Seeing what happened in Ukraine makes it highly unlikely that he would ever consider giving up nuclear weapons. So what are the prospects for any sort of movement in reducing the tension from that end?
SNYDER: My take on what Kim Jong-un wants actually is what he wants is legitimization as a nuclear weapon state, not attention, and I actually think that that helps to explain why he has returned to summitry in recent months with Vladimir Putin.
You know, his earlier round of summitry with South Korean, Chinese, and U.S. leaders I think, you know, in the end really was about trying to gain international legitimization for his nuclear weapons, not actually pursuing complete denuclearization.
And in this new strategic environment I think that he sees just the prospect of having a meeting with Putin as furthering his cause sufficiently to gain a form of legitimization for the—and actually tangible support possibly for the North Korean program.
So, you know, that does mean that my expectations for U.S.-North Korea talks—denuclearization talks is pretty low. I think that explains why the North Koreans haven’t responded to U.S. overtures for talks.
If the U.S. is willing to change the topic of the talks and welcome Kim Jong-un as the leader of a nuclear state then that obviously would change. But I don’t see much of a prospect that that is going to happen at least under this administration.
LINDSAY: I believe we have another question from a member listening on Zoom.
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Dr. Sung Yong Lee (ph).
Looks like we’re experiencing technical difficulties. Back to the room.
LINDSAY: In that case I’m going to go to the back of the room and call on Dr. Stares.
Q: Thanks, Scott, and congratulations to the book. You’re setting a fierce pace for the rest of us here so I’m very envious of where you are.
You mentioned the closer relationship between North Korea and Russia and a big part of that is the apparent transfer of large amounts of North Korean munitions to Russia to support the war in Ukraine.
There’s been a lot of pressure for South Korea to do the same to Ukraine. Could you just give us a sense of where things stand on that and the domestic politics around South Korean support for Ukraine and whether that’s a potential source of tension down the road in the U.S.-South Korea alliance?
SNYDER: South Korea has been a very active supplier of munitions to backfill depleted stockpiles for the United States and Poland and others but it has not been a direct supplier of munitions to Ukraine because of restrictions in South Korea on providing munitions in areas of active conflict.
And so the question then becomes whether or not the urgency of the moment puts pressure on President Yoon to change that approach, and I actually think that the summit between Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin reduces some of that pressure because it’s—one of the side effects of that meeting is that I think that it has created a kind of mutual deterrence relationship between Russia and South Korea as related to how far either side is willing to go in doing things that the other party might perceive as detrimental to their own security.
So what I mean is that if Russia provides too much support to accelerate North Korea’s military modernization they’re running the risk that South Korea might retaliate by deciding that it really needs to change its position in terms of providing direct support for munitions to Ukraine.
And, likewise, if South Korea were to decide to provide direct munitions to Ukraine it would be possible for Russia to retaliate by providing greater support to North Korea.
So I actually think that to some degree that mutual deterrence relationship relieves President Yoon of some external pressure. He would have faced some domestic pressure if he had made that shift. But I think that for the time being the expectation would be that probably South Korea is going to continue with its current policy absent some shift from any of the actors that might be relevant.
LINDSAY: Scott, are we seeing any efforts in South Korea’s national assembly to restrict what it is that Yoon is already doing?
SNYDER: We do. But South Korea has a national election in April of next year. It’s really to elect a new national assembly, and so the opposition-controlled national assembly and the Yoon administration are engaging in a lot of gamesmanship as related to that election.
So the opposition-controlled national assembly did just pass a package of laws that, of course, would be vetoed by President Yoon related to a set of labor and media issues that appeal to the opposition-controlled national assembly’s own constituency and likewise the Yoon administration has been doing a lot to try to expand perceptions that it is reaching out to a broader constituency.
So there’s a lot of politics going on but I think the main point to be taken from that is that for the Yoon administration if they can’t regain control of the national assembly he’s going to remain limited in some of the things that he can do for the rest of his term and that outcome will be the precursor to the next national election.
And so from that perspective I think that’s how people are viewing the stakes related to the election. It will be a referendum on Yoon and the opposition could lose its ability to curb President Yoon’s freedom of action and also potentially if they lose the national assembly find themselves in a more difficult situation in the run up to the next presidential election.
LINDSAY: Over here.
Q: Thank you. Congratulations. Guillermo Christensen, a partner at a law firm that actually has a big office in Seoul.
I wonder if you could assess the current state of the U.S.-South Korean trade relationship, whether it supports the fail or must not side of the equation, and also in light of U.S.-China tensions around trade, the semiconductors, and all the things that are going on with that. Thank you.
SNYDER: I’ve already referenced something about the U.S.-Korea trade relationship because foreign direct investment—the inflow from South Korea—is really driving a shift in the overall configuration of South Korean trade.
It is contributing to the growth in the South Korea-U.S. bilateral trade relationship. At the same time, some of the pressure is related to supply chain resiliency and some of the new U.S. laws are a factor that is restricting some of the China-South Korea bilateral trade because a substantial portion of that trade—China has been South Korea’s number-one trade partner for some time. I would say 30 (percent) to 40 percent of that trade is in semiconductors, and to the extent that the U.S. passes laws that restrict semiconductor exports from South Korea that will have a negative impact on the side of that trade.
And that issue has been an issue of discussion in the U.S.-South Korea economic relationship because commerce restrictions on exports of chips have required SK Hynix and Samsung to gain exceptions, and I think that the final kind of resolution to that was related to end user verification pledges that South Korean firms have indicated they would provide that have replaced the one-year exception that they had that was supposed to run out last October.
So all this is to say that, you know, South Korea—some South Korean firms have some significant investments in legacy semiconductor production in China that still constitute a significant stake and a significant sector where South Koreans would like to continue to get returns on investment.
But if I look at where South Korean cutting-edge technology investments are flowing they’re very focused on the CHIPS and Science Act. They’re very focused on the IRA. Samsung has a large semiconductor firm, as everybody knows—that they are—a plant that they’re building in Texas and there’s a lot of accompanying flows and interests and additional investments in the semiconductor sector that really are coming really as a result of the shift in focus that I mentioned earlier from China as a potential market for integration—export market for integration by South Korean firms to the U.S. as the place where they hope that they can achieve some integration.
And so that’s the reason why, for instance, the Inflation Reduction Act provisions as related to the tax credit were so sensitive in South Korea because, you know, that was a measure that South Koreans read as protectionist due to the ambiguity related to the issues of sourcing in that tax credit and whether or not South Korean firms were going to qualify for the credit.
And so there’s been extensive public focus on that in South Korea and there’s been extensive, I think, government-to-government and private sector engagement on that issue.
LINDSAY: Scott, on that question how close are we to the boiling point where this goes from being an issue that sort of people in Washington are aware of to an issue that becomes really prominent and dominates the relationship?
And I say it because when the Inflation Reduction Act was passed my understanding was that South Korean officials both in Seoul and here in Washington had—what’s the favorite phrase, frank and candid exchange of views with U.S. officials, that they felt that their interests had been trampled on.
You have elections coming up. There’s a lot of money at stake. Are we near the boiling point? Are we—or, really from the American point of view, you can play this string out for quite some time?
SNYDER: I think that the—we’re actually a little bit further away from the boiling point than we were last fall—
SNYDER: —primarily because it’s been possible for South Korean firms to address the issue of continuing to supply some components for manufacturing for the semiconductor firms that exist in China.
They’ve clarified the end user verification and also there was this deal made as related to Hyundai’s qualification for the tax credit especially since Hyundai is building big EV plants, $5 billion to $10 billion worth of investment, mainly in Georgia.
You know, the solution was that Hyundai’s leased vehicles could qualify for the tax credit through 2025 at which time the domestic production would start to come online, and so that appears to have lowered the temperature so far, I would say, sufficiently.
But there are other issues that could pop up. I think there are other issues that we can anticipate. You know—
LINDSAY: What would those be?
SNYDER: Well, so one interesting and complicated issue, I think, is related to South Korean new investments and how they meet expectations for structuring their own factories and relationship with labor at the factories.
And so, you know, to be more specific the question of both would new investments automatically be accompanied by a unionized labor presence in those factories or not, and so I think that is an issue that is out there. It’s related to the costs and projections for margin as related to production.
And then, of course, the other issue that I think is out there in the background is, well, what are the actual costs of production for U.S.-based factories compared to production in other parts of the world.
LINDSAY: Let me ask you to shift gears a slight bit. You have written over the years about South Korea’s ambitions to be a middle power that can sort of mobilize like-minded countries to sort of navigate amidst the great powers.
How is that faring now that the great-power rivalry, particularly between the United States and China, has really picked up momentum?
SNYDER: Well, I don’t hear as much middle power discourse these days in South Korea. It may be that the benefits of being a middle power are less when you’re talking about the relationship—talking about major power rivalry, and also South Korea has shifted in its alignment in a way that it’s kind of betting on the United States in a way that is very different from the prior administration.
So previously in the prior administration it was not necessarily uncommon to hear people talk—for some people to talk about, well, maybe the middle powers can get together and kind of mitigate the effects of Sino-U.S. rivalry by banding together and serving as a buffer.
Well, that discourse has really disappeared in South Korea as South Korea has aligned with the U.S. and also instead what we hear, I think, from the Yoon administration is discussion of the, quote/unquote, “global pivotal stage,” and President Yoon wrote his article during the campaign in Foreign Affairs about how South Korea could step up internationally.
And so actually what I think is really interesting about South Korean foreign policy at this moment, you know, President Yoon did make a pretty dramatic gesture to normalize the relationship with Japan and that has enabled South Korea to participate more actively in international fora together with Japan.
But I think that what South Korean—what this administration may see as their ultimate prize related to those decisions is really participation in some kind of expanded G-7 or some other tangible affirmation that I think from their perspective would imply not a middle power status but actually a global leadership status, and whether or not that is achievable or occurs we’ll have to wait and see.
LINDSAY: Coming to the close of our time, a parting question lightning round. What’s your advice for the Biden administration? What should it either keep doing or stop doing or start doing?
SNYDER: Well, for the Biden administration I think that a lot of the focus on revitalization of alliances that has occurred in this administration, obviously, it’s—those are steps that I appreciate because I just wrote a book about the alliance.
So it goes without saying and so—
LINDSAY: Also makes your life easier when you go to Seoul.
SNYDER: Yeah. Well, life is fine when I go to Seoul but we’ll see, you know, what it’s like longer term. I don’t know.
I think that more active publicization of the value of the alliance would be useful to maintain public support for the relationship and actually I also worry about this is not—and maybe a little bit more effort to try to make the case to the South Korean domestic public about the importance of the relationship.
But basically I think that the main thing that the Biden administration is doing that I think is—that I greatly appreciate is really trying to institutionalize and broaden cooperation. I mean, I’ve never seen this relationship in a situation where so many different government agencies were cooperating with each other on both sides in order to try to achieve common interests.
And so that deep institutionalization. National security advisors are in Seoul this week from Japan and the U.S. and South Korea to talk about critical technologies.
And so I think that, you know, finding ways to promote future cooperation reliant on the economic and technological convergences that we’re seeing in the relationship that’s, I think, potentially the most powerful lever for sustaining the alliance relationship longer term.
LINDSAY: On that upbeat note I want to bring this session to a close. I want to remind everybody both here in the room and joining us via the magic of Zoom that this meeting has been on the record and I’m going to ask all of you to join me in congratulating Scott both for the publication of his book and for his excellent insights and guidance he’s offered today. (Applause.)