The State of the U.S.-ROK Alliance

Current Issues in U.S.-ROK Relations

October 14, 2011


Republic of Korea (ROK) president Lee Myung-bak arrived in Washington this week for a state visit with President Barack Obama. This U.S.-ROK summit meeting comes as the legislatures of both countries are in the final stages of approving the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS-FTA). The ratification of the KORUS-FTA takes on particular importance as an affirmation of the relationship in light of strategic challenges the U.S.-ROK alliance will face in 2012 and beyond.

Han Sung-joo

Former Foreign Minister, Republic of Korea

With presidential elections in Russia, Taiwan, the United States, and South Korea, as well as the leadership transitions taking place in China and North Korea, 2012 may bring unprecedented changes that seriously affect Northeast Asian security dynamics. With the threat of a double-dip global economic recession on the horizon, a strong, comprehensive, and future-oriented alliance is needed as the security linchpin for the region.

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One of President Obama's primary security objectives is to build stronger alliances with Asian and European countries, and he has made concrete progress with Seoul. The two sides have stepped up joint military drills and boosted the deterrent power Washington extends to its allies in the region. They have also agreed to postpone the date of the transfer of wartime operational control from 2012 to 2015. Strong U.S. support played a decisive role in South Korea becoming the host nation for the 2010 G20 Summit and the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit. The allies have collaborated as indispensable partners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world to further global peace and security.

The U.S.-ROK alliance has grown beyond a traditional security relationship and now encompasses shared political, economic, and cultural values. However, the alliance still faces several significant challenges: North Korea, domestic politics, economics, and geopolitics.

The North Korean threat continues to be the fundamental basis for the security relationship. Yet the growing unconventional nature of this threat (i.e., nuclear program, military provocations, and chemical/biological weapons) challenges efforts to find coordinated solutions to these problems. Even though the two governments have closely coordinated their policies toward North Korea in recent years, it is inevitable that one or the other is likely to be more hard-line vis-à-vis North Korea.

The serious nature of the threat and the increasing frequency and severity of North Korean provocations make it even more necessary to build a stronger comprehensive security alliance, one that assures deterrence and can effectively deal with proliferation issues (i.e., North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Myanmar). The dilemma of strongly reacting to North Korean intransigence on the one hand and containing the possibility of conflict escalation on the other constitutes a particular challenge for U.S.-ROK alliance coordination.

Another facet of the North Korea problem is the possibility of a "contingency" that may result from an implosion or some other case of serious instability there and require the intervention of outsiders. Given the combination of the North Korean arsenal that includes both nuclear weapons and missiles, and the possibility of a humanitarian disaster, the allies must prepare for a possible contingency situation in North Korea, including policy coordination regarding the necessity, feasibility, desirability, and nature of their intervention. This scenario will also require consultation, understanding, and coordination with other powers such as China, Russia, and Japan.

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A second challenge for the U.S.-ROK alliance is domestic politics. Even though support levels for the U.S.-ROK alliance have been climbing in both countries, some people/experts/parts of the public still have doubts about the need for the alliance, and the cost of maintaining it may be deemed too high. In South Korea, depending on various circumstances, anti-American and anti-alliance sentiments may flare up again. In the United States, the U.S.-ROK alliance could become the unintended victim of a budget squeeze and/or isolationist sentiments arising there.

The third challenge is the budget problem that arises in an atmosphere of fiscal constraint. Both countries, but particularly the United States, are facing economic and financial difficulties. Belt-tightening military budgets are inevitable. This situation will force both sides to deal with issues of cost-sharing and securing resources for military hardware as well as financing the planned relocation of U.S. troops in South Korea.

Finally, there is the geopolitical challenge posed by a "rising China." In the past, China saw a strong relationship between South Korea and the United States as desirable because it helped prevent a Japanese military buildup. But in recent years, China has exhibited misgivings over South Korea's close alliance with the United States, especially regarding naval exercises in the Yellow Sea and the augmentation of South Korean military capabilities. The Republic of Korea and the United States must convince China that their alliance will actually be in China's interest by promoting the security, stability, and prosperity of the region.

Though China wants North Korea denuclearized and the Korean Peninsula free of military conflict, it would also like to keep the North Korean regime afloat. Its collapse, China believes, could mean instability on the Korean Peninsula, the outflow of North Korean refugees into northeastern China, and the loss of what China considers a buffer separating it from U.S.-friendly South Korea. China in recent years has been playing a dual role, shielding North Korea diplomatically and aiding it economically while restraining it from further provocative actions and inducing it to return to the Six Party Talks. The United States and South Korea must persuade China to apply greater pressure on North Korea to denuclearize and refrain from military provocations.

In sum, to build a stronger alliance that will lay the cornerstone of peace and security in Northeast Asia in 2012 and beyond, President Lee and President Obama must tackle several difficult challenges. They should form working groups or initiate dialogues where solutions and specific steps for implementation can be formulated. Both sides must recognize and expand on their mutual interests, since shared values are as important as geopolitical interests in sustaining the alliance. Seoul and Washington should let shared values like democracy, prosperity, peace, and security—globally as well as regionally—serve as strong foundations for the further development of the alliance.

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