U.S.- ROK: The Forgotten Alliance

Kongdan Oh
Kongdan Oh Former Brookings Expert, Asian Specialist - Institute for Defense Analysis

October 13, 2008

Most stories about Korea in the news media are about North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK). The Six-Party Talks seeking an end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program are not going well. Severe food shortages continue. North Koreans are caught in smuggling and counterfeiting operations. And on the country’s 60th anniversary, its dictatorial leader, Kim Jong-il, fails to make an appearance, strengthening rumors that he is severely ill.

But South Korea (the Republic of Korea or ROK) is of much greater importance to the United States. Its gross national income is 35 times larger than North Korea’s, and its trade volume 240 times greater. South Korea has been a member of the OECD group of economically successful nations since 1996, and is today America’s seventh largest trading partner. In 2008, South Korea also is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and in October, the 40th Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) between the U.S. and ROK secretaries of defense, which receives little press coverage. The first SCM (under a different name), was held in March 1968 to coordinate defense strategy against North Korea, which two months earlier had captured the USS Pueblo and launched a commando raid against the ROK presidential mansion (the Blue House).

The U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty, signed in October 1953, two months after the end of the Korean War, has guaranteed South Korea’s national security. The security alliance counts as one of the most important of America’s alliances, not only serving to deter another North Korean attack on South Korea, but also providing a continental base for U.S. forces to face China and Russia and to provide a front-line defense for Japan. The alliance has also augmented South Korea’s military forces and provided a nuclear umbrella, thus enabling the South Koreans to pursue economic progress with relatively low military budgets.

Like other security alliances, the U.S.-ROK alliance is easily overlooked during peacetime. It is sometimes viewed as more of a burden than a benefit, considering the shared cost of keeping troops stationed in Korea and the imposition, if you will, of having foreign troops stationed in one’s country—an experience Americans are not familiar with. Sometimes the presence of American forces has triggered large protests, most notably in 2002 when a large American armored vehicle accidentally crushed two fourteen-year-old Korean girls walking along the side of a country road.

Emotions eventually cooled after that horrific event, and apologies were belatedly offered, but issues of contention continue to bedevil the alliance. The U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) have agreed to vacate their large base in downtown Seoul and relocate to the countryside, but the two countries disagree on how to share the enormous costs of the move. As the USFK consolidates its operations, other bases are closing, with debates about how much responsibility the United States bears for cleaning up the land before handing it over to the original owners.

A turbulent decade

The past ten years have been difficult times for the alliance. Beginning in 1998, two successive South Korean administrations, under presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, adopted policies of pan-Koreanism and reconciliation with the North Korean regime. South Korea provided aid and investment to the North, even when the monies were improperly used. Criticism of the North Korean regime was stifled. President Roh went so far as to cultivate, or at least tacitly encourage, anti-Americanism to promote his politics. He advocated that South Korea play a “balancing” role between countries of the region, rather than taking sides. Some South Koreans even began referring to the presidential residence as the “pink house.”

Although the Roh administration’s popularity declined dramatically, largely because of its inept handling of domestic issues, many Koreans of the younger generation agreed with the policy of extending a helping hand to North Korea and distancing themselves from the United States. President Roh requested that the United States relinquish its operational control over South Korean forces in the event of a war (peacetime control had been returned to South Korea in 1994). Many South Koreans are wary of such a change, which will almost inevitably lead to a reduction in U.S. security protection, but the Americans, who were tired of being hectored by the Roh administration, agreed to make the transition in 2012. How the two forces will be commanded after that date remains to be seen.

In September 2001, the George W. Bush administration declared war on terrorists and those who might provide them with weapons of mass destruction. With North Korea targeted as one of three “axis of evil” states, South Korea was dragged into a war on terror it had not chosen to fight. A related problem is the American expectation that its allies will support the wars it launched in Iraq and Afghanistan, even in cases when the allies oppose the wars. Needless to say, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was never popular among South Koreans, but the defense treaty is, after all, a mutual defense treaty.

As an additional facet of its global war on terror, the George W. Bush administration has adopted a policy of “strategic flexibility,” whereby U.S. forces must be prepared to respond to conflicts anywhere they are needed, not just in the neighborhood in which they are located. U.S. troops in South Korea are no longer stationed there simply to prevent a North Korean invasion, but might be used, for example, to respond to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. If such were the case, South Korea, which is working hard to develop good relations with China, would find itself hosting troops that are attacking its friend. The Koreans refer to this strategic flexibility policy as a “water ghost”—which will drag anyone who pursues it into deep water.

In February 2008, a new South Korean administration was inaugurated under the leadership of President Lee Myung-bak of the opposition political party. President Lee’s new foreign policy is one of pragmatism, which translates into a more confrontational approach toward North Korea, which for its part has always believed that South Korea should extend the North unlimited aid “for the good of the Korean nation” without requiring anything in return. From the first days of the Lee administration, the North Korean press has routinely called President Lee a Korean traitor. President Lee is also committed to repairing weaknesses in the U.S.-ROK alliance.

North Korea remains a threat, but not so much because of its capability to launch a second invasion of South Korea, which would ultimately fail. China and even Russia pose more existential threats to Korea.

Recasting the alliance

In response to the political discord in the U.S.-ROK alliance over the last decade and the declining consensus on the raison d’être, several advisory groups have convened in recent years to propose guidelines for the future. One such group, commissioned to advise the Department of Defense, is the Policy Research Group, supported by the Institute for Defense Analyses and the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. After surveying the successes and shortcomings of the alliance as it now stands, the group considered four options: ending the alliance, keeping the alliance but withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea, making adjustments in the alliance, and substantially transforming the alliance. The group recommended the latter course of action.

It is important to note that these positive efforts to transform the alliance have been undertaken during a relative low point in Seoul-Washington relations. Even though the structure of the alliance was being questioned, its strong foundation, which includes the annual Security Consultative Meeting, led both sides to make the decision to transform it rather than abandon it. Taking advantage of the solid base of the alliance, important issues such as base closures, force relocation, and future joint warfare command – as well as broader issues concerning what the overall U.S.-ROK security alliance should look like and what roles it should play in the post-Cold War era – need to be discussed at meetings such as the SCM.

Any revision or transformation of the U.S.-ROK security alliance must take several factors into account. Most South Koreans today have no direct memory of the Korean War, and they find it hard to believe that the North Koreans would ever launch an invasion of the South. Many even believe that the Korean War was actually triggered by both sides, or by the United States. Consequently, North Korea is not considered to be a security threat—and certainly is no longer the “main enemy,” as it used to be called. Instead, most South Koreans realize that some day they will be reunited with their northern brethren, and rather than prepare to fight them, they must help them rebuild their economy so that when the day of reunification arrives, the cost to South Koreans will be manageable. No longer viewing North Korea as an enemy calls into question the central role of the U.S.-ROK security alliance.

What does concern many Koreans is the rise of China. Japan is still widely viewed with suspicion for its former imperial designs on Asia, but China is seen as the country to deal with in the future. Rather than consider China as a competitor, most Koreans want, or at least hope, to work with China as trade partner, and perhaps in the future, even as an ally. To the extent that South Koreans believe that U.S. forces in Korea are stationed there to confront China’s rising military capabilities, Korea and the United States are at odds.

South Korea’s rising confidence, borne of political and economic progress, sometimes verges on nationalism, a sentiment that Koreans in both north and south are susceptible to. Most Koreans (like people in many other countries), are highly skeptical of U.S. foreign policy, especially the policy of preemptive defense. As noted earlier, South Koreans are particularly concerned that the American defense policy of “strategic flexibility” will drag them into conflicts they do not want to be a part of. This issue must be dealt with very seriously in future negotiations over the shape of the security alliance.

For Americans, combating terrorism in its many forms has become a preoccupation, and the U.S. military is being transformed into a terrorist fighting organization. North Korea, the traditional focus of U.S. military concern on the peninsula, remains an enemy to the extent that it possesses weapons of mass destruction that could be transferred to states or groups that wish to do Americans harm. Somehow, American need to convince South Koreans that combating terrorism is an important role of U.S. forces abroad, even if the terrorists are targeting Americans rather than South Koreans.

Transformation of the U.S.-ROK security alliance must begin with a general agreement on the mutual interests and concerns of the two countries. In the future, defense against another North Korean invasion cannot be used as the main rationale for the alliance. U.S. and ROK forces must play more equal roles in the alliance, with the ROK taking a leading role in its own defense, backed up by those defense capabilities that the United States specializes in. The contingent of U.S. forces stationed in Korea will inevitably shrink, and those forces that remain will become subject to more ROK jurisdiction. South Koreans will need to accept the logic of strategic flexibility that enables U.S. forces to fight enemies (e.g., terrorists) wherever they may be, as well as helping to guarantee South Korea’s security from its neighbors. Finally, each government will have to communicate to its citizens what the alliance is trying to accomplish, and remind them that sacrifices are required by each side in order to guarantee that, if the need should ever arise, U.S. and ROK forces will be prepared to fight side by side.