Will America Lose Seoul? Redefining a Critical Alliance


As relations between the United States and North Korea move between maximum pressure, engagement, and stalemate, South Korea is pressing ahead with its own North Korea policy: rapprochement. Led by liberal President Moon Jae-in, Seoul has made the strategic choice of seeking to bring sustainable peace to the Korean Peninsula through reconciliation. And the Moon administration increasingly sees progress in the inter-Korean relationship unrelated to U.S.-North Korea relations. The growing gap between Washington and Seoul in their respective North Korea policies is leading to fears that the U.S.-South Korean alliance will be the most important casualty of the Trump administration’s Korean Peninsula policy.

These fears might be overstated, at least in the short term. There is no indication that its alliance with South Korea will go away any time soon. A recent poll by the Asan Institute indicates that 95 percent of South Koreans support the alliance. Moon has made no indication that he wants it to fold. On the U.S. side, President Donald Trump might have questioned his administration’s commitment to what he sees as an expensive alliance, but he has not taken any serious step towards its dismantlement.

Yet, from the perspective of Seoul’s current liberal administration, South Korea’s relationship with the United States is undergoing fundamental changes. Based on my research and, most recently, five weeks of interviews with South Korean elites, it seems clear that the alliance is not at risk, but if it is to continue to function properly (or potentially be strengthened), it must be redefined.

The central issue seems to be North Korea: Seoul feels that it is South Korea’s prerogative to define its North Korea policy regardless of the state of Washington-Pyongyang relations. The Moon administration feels it has the right to oppose U.S. policy when necessary. Most notably, Seoul believes that the time for all-round engagement rather than sanctions has come. In short, South Korea wants independence of action. Moon still has over three and a half years in office. And if South Korea’s democratic history is any guide, liberals are likely to get a second consecutive five-year term in office. Seoul’s current pro-engagement policy therefore seems likely to endure for the foreseeable future, absent a major disruption such as war.

To understand South Korea’s current thinking and why a well-functioning alliance is at risk, it is necessary to examine how the situation looks from Seoul, especially in the eyes of its ruling liberal government. In particular, it is important to understand the interaction of the “Trump factor,” long-standing intrinsic tensions in the alliance, and South Korea’s rise. Only by considering these factors and allowing them to inform policies will the United States be able to maintain an effective alliance with South Korea.

The Trump Factor

Korea hands might be ready to dismiss what’s happening now in South Korea as history repeating itself. It is true that previous liberal administrations have prioritized inter-Korean relations over the alliance with the United States. But Trump’s unpopularity has exponentially increased the risk that the U.S.-South Korean alliance might suffer significant damage. The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on North Korea throughout 2017 and early 2018 dramatically increased South Koreans’ distrust towards the United States. Trump openly talked about launching a military strike on North Korea. South Koreans came to believe that he would be willing to simply trade off Seoul for Los Angeles. This was not the case under previous U.S. administrations, which might have contemplated a strike on North Korea but did not openly and continuously discuss this possibility while directly threatening Pyongyang.

Unsurprisingly, Gallup found that Trump’s popularity among South Koreans plummeted to single digits in mid-2017. The Pew Global Attitudes survey also showed that confidence in the U.S. president went down by 71 percent between 2015, when Barack Obama was president, and 2017. According to this survey, no U.S. president has been as unpopular as Trump in South Korea.

Even though the threat of war has receded, an important bone of contention separating the United States and South Korea has emerged. In short, Washington and Seoul have different priorities. For Washington, denuclearization is the top priority. The United States still maintains that Pyongyang needs to take significant steps towards denuclearization before a peace treaty is signed or sanctions are lifted.

This puts Washington at odds with the Moon government, for which inter-Korean reconciliation comes first. Seoul remains committed to nudging Pyongyang towards full denuclearization. But Moon does not want the promise of improvement in inter-Korean relations to be hostage to the nuclear issue. Media reports suggest that Seoul has started to argue behind closed doors that the two issues do not need to run in parallel. Importantly, Moon’s push for a peace treaty with North Korea that would move Seoul and Pyongyang towards reconciliation cuts across the South Korean liberal-conservative divide. One poll following April’s inter-Korean summit put support for a treaty at 91 percent. More generally, over 70 percent of South Koreans consistently back a treaty.

The final Trump-related factor driving Washington and Seoul apart is sanctions. Since Trump took office, the U.N. Security Council and the United States have ramped up sanctions on North Korea to unprecedented levels. Washington believes that sanctions have been key in North Korea’s decision to cease missile and nuclear tests. But the view from Seoul is different. Sanctions failed to prevent North Korea’s development of its nuclear program. Also, they do not address Pyongyang’s border artillery deployment that arguably is a bigger threat to South Korea. Thus, sanctions have not reduced the security risk to South Korea.

Even worse from Seoul’s perspective, sanctions are an external constraint to inter-Korean economic cooperation. During the George W. Bush and Obama years, the degree of inter-Korean cooperation was decided by both Koreas. The situation is different under Trump. Even the re-opening of a liaison office in Kaesong has proved controversial because it could potentially breach the sanctions regime on North Korea. Seoul backed tougher sanctions on Pyongyang in support of U.S. policy throughout 2017, but the Moon administration feels that Washington should reciprocate by easing them now. The longer sanctions prevent greater inter-Korean rapprochement, the more likely Washington and Seoul are to grow apart.

Alliance Matters

It would be disingenuous to think that U.S.-South Korean relations will dramatically improve once Trump leaves office. President George W. Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun also had problems due to their different North Korea policies and disagreements over the issue of operational control of South Korea’s military during wartime. Obama had the support of conservative South Korean presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye. However, it is unlikely that Moon would have sat quietly without seeking rapprochement with North Korea. In other words, there are structural issues affecting the U.S.-South Korean alliance that explain its weakening, at least when liberals are in power.

Wartime operational control transfer of South Korea’s military operations has been a controversial issue since Roh officially raised it in 2005. Right now, South Korea’s armed forces would be under the control of the U.S. general commanding the Combined Forces Command were war to break out in the Korean Peninsula. South Korean liberals dislike this arrangement. From their perspective, it means that their country is not fully sovereign. Presidents Lee and Park postponed the transfer. Last September, Moon asked for the transfer to be accelerated.

South Korean conservatives believe that operational control transfer would weaken the alliance with the United States. Around the time when Moon made his announcement, the chairperson of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, Hong Jun-pyo, stated that returning operational control would essentially disband the alliance. Liberals disagree, as the Mutual Defense Treaty would still stand and U.S. troop presence in South Korea would continue. Until South Korea regains control of its armed forces during wartime, liberal South Koreans will feel that their country is not fully sovereign.

The United States, for its part, has been critical of South Korea’s alleged insufficient economic contribution to the alliance. The issue of burden-sharing resurfaces periodically. Under the bilateral Special Measures Agreement, Seoul provides support for wages for South Koreans hired by U.S. Forces Korea, military construction costs, and military supply costs. The current agreement ends this year, so it is in the process of being renegotiated. Seoul’s contributions have increased nine-fold since the first agreement was signed in 1991. Washington, however, argues that Seoul should spend more.

This issue is not going away. There always seems to be another potential disruption lurking in the background. This year, U.S. Forces Korea finally relocated from Seoul to Pyeongtaek. Relocation took ten years longer than originally planned. Costs escalated accordingly. The United States has covered eight percent of the total relocation costs. Many South Koreans take this as an example that their country is spending enough on the alliance. The United States disagrees. This illustrates that burden-sharing causes regular friction between the two allies.

Another important thorn in the alliance is the issue of China. From an American perspective, North Korea’s behavior and inter-Korean relations are part of the broader relationship between Washington and Beijing in East Asia. The Bush administration insisted on China hosting the Six-Party Talks as it sought to integrate Beijing into multilateral governance. Presidents Obama and Trump, meanwhile, tried to get Beijing on board with the implementation of sanctions against North Korea.

From a South Korean perspective, Washington’s insistence on linking Korean Peninsula affairs to its relationship with Beijing is an example of its actions being constrained by great power relations. The Moon administration is not the first to argue that inter-Korean relations are a matter for the Koreas to settle. When President Kim Dae-jung, also a liberal, held his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in June 2000 it was presented as an expression of Korean independence of action. Any American statement linking Korean Peninsula affairs to Sino-American relations raises suspicions in Seoul that the U.S.-South Korean alliance is as much about containing China as it is about North Korea.

South Korea’s Rise

It is true that the U.S.-South Korean alliance strengthens when South Korean conservatives are in power. But there has been a structural change which means that not only liberals but also conservatives want more independence of action. In recent years, South Korea’s military has been deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Gulf of Aden. South Korean diplomats are key members of international organizations, best exemplified by Ban Ki-moon’s tenure as U.N. secretary general. In short, in recent years there has been growing confidence among many South Koreans regarding their country’s position internationally.

South Korea’s rise has had a profound effect on the country’s foreign policy, including relations with the United States. To begin with, South Korea has forged its own foreign policy identity. Dating back to the Roh years, South Korea has seen itself as a middle power supportive of multilateral governance. This means that South Korea does not invariably follow U.S. foreign policy. Even when it does, civil society might react. Roh’s decision to deploy South Korean troops to Iraq was very controversial. Lee’s renegotiation of the U.S. free trade agreement led to big demonstrations.

Washington, therefore, cannot take Seoul for granted. This is clearest in South Korea’s support for East Asian regional governance, where Seoul has been encouraging further integration even when the United States was excluded. During the Obama years, Park refused to join Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations to distance itself from U.S. initiatives and because it had bilateral free trade agreements with almost all its members. Meanwhile Seoul participated in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership discussions, a free trade agreement involving 16 Asia Pacific countries of which the United States was not part. Park also signed up to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank even as the Obama administration asked allies not to do so. Meanwhile, Lee was supportive of the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization, portrayed as a challenge to the International Monetary Fund and therefore U.S. influence. Conservative governments might not have challenged the alliance, but they were willing to go against the wishes of Washington in East Asian affairs. Indeed, the highest point in Sino-South Korean relations in recent years came when Park attended China’s World War II military parade in 2015. As a middle power, Seoul sees itself as a balancer in the region.

South Korea’s growing independence of action has come at a time of generational change in the country. Elites shaping South Korea’s foreign policy today can barely remember the Korean War. Both liberals and conservatives are thankful to the United States for the crucial role that it played during the war. But they do not define their country in relation to the United States only. Making sure that Washington remained committed to the alliance was the foremost foreign policy goal for South Korean policymakers for decades. This is not the case anymore.

As new generations of South Korean leaders come of age, the U.S.-South Korea alliance will lose its centrality in Seoul’s foreign policy. Talking to younger diplomats and military officials, both liberal and conservative, is instructive in this sense. Younger conservative political leaders have caught up, and are urging a rethink of their country’s alleged reliance on the United States. South Korean elites have a wide range of interests that go beyond relations with the United States. The centrality of the U.S.-South Korean alliance is one of the casualties of this wider range of interests.

A Stronger Alliance

The short-term and long-term factors affecting the U.S.-South Korea alliance need not spell its end. In fact, the alliance can be maintained and strengthened even with a liberal president in South Korea. But the short-term and long-term factors weakening the alliance must be addressed. Seoul and Washington should be honest about the fact that their top priorities are different when it comes to North Korea, at least when South Korean liberals are in power. The former wants reconciliation. The latter denuclearization. This means that their policies towards Pyongyang will not always run in parallel. Even if both of them ultimately want stable peace in the Korean Peninsula, their chosen paths are different.

Also, it would be useful to delink different issues as much as possible. Not every action taken by one of the two partners needs to be seen through the prism of the potential end of the alliance. Improving inter-Korean relations is not correlated with South Korea seeking to end its relationship with the United States. Discussions about potential wartime operational control transfer and negotiation of a new Special Measures Agreement necessarily redefine the alliance, but do not result in termination. Seoul’s independent foreign policy, supported by both liberals and conservatives, affects relations with Washington but does not mean that it is about to replace its main foreign policy partner. Delinking is easier said than done. Nonetheless, cool heads should prevail and acknowledge that the alliance is ultimately stronger when the United States and South Korea understand that their actions do not challenge the alliance itself.

Finally, the United States should become more supportive of South Korea’s current policy. As the world’s greatest power, the United States has to juggle many foreign policy priorities, of which North Korea’s nuclear program is only one. For South Korea, relations with North Korea are an existential issue. No other foreign policy matter comes close. Even if full denuclearization of North Korea is not realized, the United States should not be raising the prospect of imposing sanctions on South Korea simply for trying to pursue inter-Korean engagement. As the senior partner in the relationship, it can afford to be more generous towards its ally. Ultimately, this is bound to strengthen relations with South Korea.


Ramon Pacheco Pardo (@rpachecopardo), PhD, is the KF-VUB Korea Chair at the Institute for European Studies of Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Reader (Associate Professor) in International Relations at King’s College London.

Image: U.S. Embassy, Republic of Korea

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