Future of U.S.-Seoul Ties

Just back from a trip to Seoul and the Demilitarized Zone, I was reminded how much is changing in the U.S.-South Korea alliance—probably the most turbulent and dynamic of all major American alliances in the world today.

But despite a rough half decade, and despite substantial disagreements between the Bush and Roh administrations over how to handle North Korea, it was encouraging to discuss and debate with many South Korean scholars and officials how much the allies still have in common. This alliance may be in some trouble, but it is a critical security partnership worth working hard to retain and improve.

Indeed, the alliance would still make sense for both partners if and when the North Korean threat is ever eliminated. Even a reunified Korea would have powerful interests in retaining an alliance with the United States. And America would benefit greatly from maintaining ties with a young democracy fielding one of the world’s best militaries—and having accomplished more for its people and its region in 50 short years than virtually any other country in world history.

There are many benefits to an ongoing formal alliance solidified by an ongoing American military presence on the peninsula. A U.S. military presence there could, as an insurance policy, help deter any untoward Chinese actions against Korea and damp tensions in the Japan-Korea relationship. More concretely, it would provide a regional hub for military activities against other threats, such as pirates, terrorists and possible instability in the waterways of Southeast Asia.

In each case, stationing U.S. forces in Korea would produce a much more credible security commitment than simply retaining a formal alliance agreement. Only the presence of U.S. forces would guarantee immediate involvement of Americans in any conflict an outside country might wage against the Republic of Korea; only that would demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt the seriousness and military readiness of the alliance.

South Korea should know that, under such circumstances, Seoul could veto U.S. use of bases on its territory for operations that did not serve South Korean objectives. Many European allies have done so over the years—as in the 1973 Mideast war (when U.S. aircraft were not allowed to land anywhere except Portugal to refuel) and the 1986 bombing of Libya (when France denied the United States aerial overflight rights).

Saudi Arabia and Turkey have also restricted which types of military operations could be conducted from their territories, most notably in combat operations over Iraq.

Washington does not always appreciate such allied resistance, of course. But for countries worried about close linkage to American action abroad, it provides a useful form of checks and balances—and foreign policy independence.

China seems very unlikely ever to invade South Korea or a reunified Korea. However, international relations being what they are, it is not implausible China could someday appear seriously threatening to Korea’s core interests, perhaps in regard to disputed seabed resources. U.S. forces stationed in Korea would give further reason for pause to future Chinese leaders who might contemplate making any such threats.

Knowing this, Korean leaders would probably be less inclined to develop a nuclear arsenal as a hedge against Chinese pressure. If a continued U.S. presence in Korea reduced regional nuclear proliferation prospects, that in itself would be very important.

A U.S. force presence in Korea would also benefit Japanese-South Korean relations. First, it could reassure the Koreans, who would not have to wonder if they were a second-class U.S. ally in any major dispute with Japan over disputed territories or maritime resources. Second, the Japanese government might prefer this arrangement. With U.S. military facilities also in Korea, Japan would avoid becoming the only country in the region hosting U.S. forces, and Tokyo would probably find it easier to sustain public support for the alliance.

Both Japan and Korea are small, mountainous and heavily populated countries where land, airspace, ports and other requirements for military bases and operations are at a premium. Although both countries also recognize the importance of a deterrent against regional instability, both are also appropriately sensitive to the need for good relations with their neighbors and avoid creating the perception they are trying to contain China or any other specific country. Under these circumstances, it seems imprudent to ask either country to provide the U.S. military bases without the other doing so.

Also, keeping forces in the two countries would help Washington retain influence with both Korea and Japan, similar to how the United States has ensured its influence with even more quarrelsome neighbors, such as Greece and Turkey or Israel and Egypt, by forging close military relations with both.

In this way, the United States could also help facilitate tightening of a trilateral network of military officers and officials, complementing other steps to introduce confidence-building measures and expand regional military-to-military exchanges. From a Korean perspective, keeping U.S. forces there would prevent the U.S.-South Korean alliance from playing second fiddle to the U.S.-Japan alliance, and ensure U.S. interests in a strong relationship with Korea would continue to remain at or at least near a par with the U.S.-Japan alliance.

So much for possible threats. More positively, keeping U.S. forces in Korea actually could enrich the Asia-Pacific community and help it achieve further stability in the future.

To begin with, strong ties among countries with much different cultures and histories help bind the globe together. The trans-Pacific alliances of the United States with Japan and Korea refute those who anticipate a dangerous clash of civilizations.

America’s security relationships with Japan and Korea are the principal intercultural and interethnic security unions in the world today. Increasingly integrated, moreover, they can help create a stronger security network in the region, beginning with better ties between Seoul and Tokyo. U.S. forces in both Japan and South Korea should facilitate this by ensuring strong U.S. influence with both Northeast Asian countries.

Second, and more concretely, strong security structures appear to be very good mechanisms for keeping the peace. As history shows, they are much better than a system of numerous independent states operating in an anarchical international environment. They are also better than paper treaties and last-minute public commitments in a major crisis or conflict, like those issued unsuccessfully in Europe before the world wars.

Many would like to give up on the U.S.-South Korean alliance, given all the recent tensions and the likelihood younger South Koreans are less committed to the United States than the older generations have been.

But this alliance is worth working hard through tough times to retain. It is South Korea’s only formal security partnership. In many ways, it is the most impressive alliance the U.S. now has. Don’t let the naysayers convince us to abandon it just yet.