Amid ongoing discussions about the potential for North Korean denuclearization, the alliance between the United States and South Korea may soon face fundamental questions. As experts outlined at a Brookings event on August 22, even if a major breakthrough with Pyongyang is unlikely, the Singapore Summit and related events have at least raised questions: How should the U.S.-ROK alliance evolve? Should it even continue, after a possible defusing of the North Korean threat at some point in the future?
Experts discussed the state of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, where it might be headed in the years ahead, and the implications for regional security and economic prosperity. Panelists were Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as Brookings Senior Fellows Jung Pak (SK-Korea Foundation Chair for Korea Studies at Brookings) and Michael O’Hanlon (director of research for the Foreign Policy program).
O’Hanlon opened the discussion with the idea that if indeed North Korea’s Kim Jong-un ultimately denuclearizes, it would raise fundamental questions about whether, and in what form, the U.S.-ROK alliance should continue. After all, that alliance was created in 1953 for the very specific purpose of addressing the North Korean threat.
O’Hanlon pointed out that withdrawing U.S. troops from the Korea Peninsula—which President Trump has mentioned on multiple occasions—as well as associated ideas like “offshore balancing” have some support in the policy world. There is also a more pointed way to put the same question: What if Kim Jong-un offers to carry out complete denuclearization if the United States and South Korea end their alliance?
O’Hanlon then turned to Pak and Green for their views.
Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst focused on the region, pointed out that while there was nothing wrong with the core idea of the Singapore summit, and that it is indeed quite important to have leader-to-leader talks in this kind of situation, most Korea-watchers have been left disappointed by developments coming out of it so far. For one, there was some hope that a strong and structured statement with verifiable goals would come from the talks. That has not happened.
Pak said: “According to reports, the IAEA said that North Korea has not made any credible advances toward denuclearization,” although top leaders in the United States and South Korean governments have assessed that North Korea is making progress on denuclearization.
Despite a few high-profile moves like blowing up the entrance to a nuclear test facility, Pak said: “We haven’t see any credible responses or activities by North Korea to move toward denuclearization.”
She argued that a key indicator to watch is the possibility of a second summit between Kim and Trump. There is also the upcoming United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York City in September. Will Kim be invited? Would he come?
Mike Green of CSIS also expressed wariness about the prognosis for denuclearization, but emphasized an undeniable achievement: The relative military calm of recent months. This contrasts with the prior period, where “U.S. Forces Korea Pacific Command was constantly on alert because of missile tests and nuclear tests. The provocations are basically strategic provocations. Nuclear and missile tests have basically come to a halt.”
Beyond that, Green agreed with Pak, that there’s “not much else to point to of any significance.” He went on: “the June 12th statement itself was, certainly compared to the Agreed Framework and the Six-Party talks, by far the thinnest.” In short, he concluded: “there is not much there.”
Green laid out three main ways he sees the situation unfolding:
- First, and least likely by far, would be substantial denuclearization by North Korea. Since there “is no precedent” for this, in his words, he considers it very unlikely.
- Option two is that there is enough movement and change to declare peace between North and South Korea, even with a background nuclear threat existing. While slightly more plausible, Green still doesn’t think consider such an outcome too likely.
- Green believes that the parties will ultimately fall back into a cycle of confrontation. It might come after the midterm elections in the United States, and probably not before North Korea sees what it can get out of talks. “I don’t see a military strike, but going back to confrontation seems likely,” he said.
O’Hanlon wondered if President Trump may be willing to end the U.S.-South Korea alliance as a primary part of a deal with Pyongyang. He noted that the alliance is actually one of the most significant the United States has militarily, in terms of its size, combat capabilities, legacy, and the burden-sharing contributions from Seoul. South Korea’s economy also ranks 11th-largest in the world. Yet the end of the North Korean threat, however hypothetical, would raise questions about whether the United States wished to keep forces deployed on the Asian mainland in defense of a distant ally, O’Hanlon said.
Green responded that there is in fact plenty of historical precedent for the United States not to be on the peninsula, saying: “This is unnatural in some ways for the United States, and yet, if you look to the most recent American opinion polls by Chicago Council and others, a significant majority of Americans favor defending Korea if it’s attacked.”
He agreed with O’Hanlon on the importance and overall usefulness of an ally like South Korea, even beyond the North Korea situation. Today, the alliance is strong: “It is more valuable than ever,” he said, underscoring its role in a dynamic Asia-Pacific region and a competitive U.S.-China relationship.
In reference to polling, Pak emphasized similar points. According to a recent Pew poll, she said, “a vast majority of South Koreans expected the U.S. to come to their aid if North Korea attacked.” Here at home, Americans “think that we should defend South Korea if it is attacked.” She also pointed to Asan Institute for Policy Studies polling suggesting more favorable views among South Koreans toward America than toward China.
The question of what future the U.S.-ROK alliance should aspire to in the event of peace (or meaningful arms control) on the peninsula may be a long way off. But the panelists agreed that denuclearization talks with Pyongyang are already surfacing the issue. As such, serious strategic thinking in Washington and Seoul about what the alliance’s future should be is already appropriate.