America and South Korea: An Alliance That Needs to Be Mended

Donald G. Gross and James E. Goodby
James E. Goodby Former Brookings Expert, Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow - Hoover Institution

August 6, 2004

From its disastrous first summit meeting with then President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea, to its recent unilateral decision to cut U.S. troop numbers on the Korean Peninsula by one-third, the Bush administration has undermined the U.S.-South Korean alliance. It will be up to Senator John Kerry to fix this serious problem if he is elected president in November.

Back in March 2001, President Kim came to Washington seeking to reaffirm the U.S.-South Korean relationship and Seoul’s policy of engagement with North Korea. Despite providing a few nice photo opportunities, President George W. Bush denigrated the value of negotiations with North Korea and severely weakened Kim politically, while generating high anxiety in Seoul about the Bush administration’s policy.

Just last month, in spite of the courageous decision by President Roh Moo Hyun to send several thousand South Korean troops to support the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, the United States unilaterally announced that 12,500 troops would be withdrawn from South Korea by the end of next year. Even the most conservative supporters of the alliance in Seoul were taken aback.

Seoul has long pleaded with America to negotiate seriously with North Korea. Yet neoconservatives in the Bush administration have treated South Korea’s entreaties with contempt, delaying the administration’s first detailed proposal for resolving this issue until late last month. Only after Japan endorsed South Korea’s engagement policy—leading Washington to fear that it would be isolated at the six-party talks—did the administration introduce a serious offer.

Even now, by all accounts, Bush administration hard-liners regard the recent U.S. offer to North Korea as a tactical retreat and are bent on denying U.S. diplomats the necessary flexibility to make the next round of six-party talks in September a success. The Bush administration’s neoconservatives favor “regime change” in North Korea, a policy that is alienating South Korea and causing lasting harm to the alliance. By disregarding Seoul’s fundamental security interests and by showing that it does not regard its ally with respect, the Bush administration is driving Seoul toward greater accommodation with China—and eventually a policy of neutrality in the region.

A Kerry administration would need to restore the U.S.-South Korean alliance by placing it on a sounder basis of shared interests. This will not be easy. After parliamentary elections in April, a new generation of South Koreans is shaping Roh’s policies. This generation does not feel deeply the sense of shared sacrifice, dating from the Korean War, that has traditionally underpinned the alliance, and resents what it sees as a pattern of American arrogance. The Bush administration’s actions have fueled this resentment.

A strong and mature alliance depends on treating Seoul as an equal partner. America once supported South Korea’s own aspirations, in addition to protecting the country from attack. This must once again become the rationale for the alliance.

A Kerry administration should also reinforce the important tension-reduction measures that South and North Korea negotiated last month. The six-party talks can be a basis for an evolutionary process of building a multilateral security system in East Asia. Mutual security assurances, routine high-level consultation about security issues in the region, military-to-military cooperation and other tension-reduction measures should all become a part of a permanent security mechanism in the area.

Finally, a Kerry administration should negotiate a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue with North Korea, recognizing that the nuclear issue will not go away until there is a settlement of outstanding political and security issues on the Korean Peninsula. The 1953 Armistice Agreement and a series of ad hoc improvisations are not an adequate basis for bringing a permanent end to recurring nuclear crises.

By peacefully settling the broader political and security issues through diplomacy, a Kerry administration would demonstrate its deep appreciation for South Korea’s fundamental security interests and for its national aspirations, thus strengthening the U.S.-$ South Korean alliance in the long term.