from Asia Program

The Korean Pivot

Seoul’s Strategic Choices and Rising Rivalries in Northeast Asia

February 01, 2017

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Overview

As U.S.-China tensions intensify and as the North Korean threat grows, the importance of the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) has become clearer than ever. Yet the U.S.-ROK alliance faces a period of uncertainty. In the United States, President Donald J. Trump has stated that South Korea should shoulder a greater burden for its own defense. In South Korea, the national assembly has suspended President Park Geun-hye from office after she was implicated as an accomplice in the criminal investigation of her close friend, Choi Soon-sil.

Given this uncertain strategic environment, this discussion paper by Scott A Snyder, Darcie Draudt, and Sungtae "Jacky" Park argues that it is critical for U.S. policymakers to understand South Korea's geopolitical position in the context of the reemergence of great power rivalries in Northeast Asia and the acute constraints on South Korea's foreign policy and strategic options. For the United States to effectively manage rising regional tensions, South Korea's ability to deftly navigate Northeast Asia's rivalries and coordinate with the United States and regional partners will be critical. Simultaneously, the United States and South Korea will need an even closer alliance and improved multilateral cooperation to deal with the North Korean threat and to prepare for any scenario of instability in North Korea.

To such ends, South Korea should continue to pursue hedging diplomacy to maintain a strong alliance with the United States while deepening ties with China. The United States can work with South Korea most effectively by understanding that South Korea ultimately shares its broader interests; Washington should allow room for Seoul to maneuver in its relationship with Beijing and not seek to lock South Korea into a balancing posture against China. With cautious but firm leadership and diplomacy, a flexible U.S.-ROK alliance could help prevent the catastrophes that engulfed Europe and Asia in the twentieth century.

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