Frictions in the U.S.-South Korea Alliance


There are several signs of friction in the half-century long U.S.-South Korea alliance.  The American plan to reduce its forces in Korea and yet at the same time broaden the role of these forces is only the most recent example.  South Korea has also been delaying its promised deployment of troops to support the American intervention in Iraq.  Trade and investment issues are never far from the surface.  But perhaps most fundamentally, the U.S. and South Korea seem to be working from different playbooks when it comes to North Korea.


Disagreements between allies are certainly nothing new, they are as natural as squabbles in a marriage or a family.  Truly mature alliances can survive principled disagreement.  The U.S. and the French have been bickering about their respective roles in Europe and the world at least as far back as the presidency of Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, and they continue to snipe at each other today about the war in Iraq.  Yet seeing George Bush in France on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, few doubt the fundamental solidity of the alliance.


But it is important to analyze the causes of friction in the U.S.-Korea alliance so that current disagreements do not lead to broader misunderstanding.  Conservatives in both the U.S. and Korea point to a rising tide of anti-Americanism among Korean youth, but that is really more an effect than the original cause.  The í░anti-Americaní▒ Koreans were basically right about the war in Iraq.  It has been an unmitigated disaster.  Even if the United States can somehow temporarily stabilize the situation before the U.S. election in November, the original reasons given for the war have proven to be false.  The toll of human suffering that has ensued cannot be justified, not even by the ouster of the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein.  And most important, in the long run many times more angry Islamic terrorists have been created by the U.S. occupation of an Arab nation than have been rooted out by the intervention.


Conservatives in the U.S. and Korea believe that Korea has an obligation to support the American fiasco in Iraq.  They argue that because Americans died defending South Korea, South Korea now must be willing to put Korean blood on the line to support its friend in time of need.  But a real friend does not blindly support a friend who is taking foolish risks.  A true friend has the responsibility to point out to an imprudent friend the error of his ways.  If anything, a real friend has an obligation take a principled stance and not to contribute to a friendí»s destructive behavior, hoping to help the foolish friend wise up.


Similarly, the í░anti-Americaní▒ Koreans have been right about the Bush administrationí»s í░axis of evilí▒ policy of isolation and punishment of North Korea.  North Korea today is much closer to being an effective nuclear weapons power than it was when Bill Clinton left office.  South Korea has stood up to U.S. pressure and continued to doggedly pursue the difficult path of engaging the admittedly obstinate regime in North Korea.  By patiently lobbying the Bush administration to negotiate, South Korea eventually smoothed the way for reopened dialogue with the North through the 6 party talks.  Perhaps South Koreans have grown too comfortable with the Northí»s dangerous and destabilizing pursuit of nuclear weapons as former Defense Secretary William Perry recently warned.  But the strategy of the South in continuing to demonstrate the benefits that could accrue if the North gave up its nuclear weapons will have more positive impact on the Northí»s decision making than the Bush administrationí»s insistence that the North must first disarm and then depend on the goodwill of the U.S.


It is not so much that young Koreans are anti-American, but rather, like many thoughtful Americans and Europeans, many of them are anti Bush foreign policy.  Korea is not the only ally experiencing rising discontent with the Bush administrationí»s adventurism.  The unilateralism of Bushí»s foreign policy has jeopardized Americaí»s relations with all its allies and friends around the world.


Conservatives in the U.S. and Korea have also fumbled the ball on changes in the structure of U.S. forces in Korea.  The Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld has been so single-mindedly pursuing the transformation of the U.S. military into a leaner, meaner, more mobile force that they have proceeded without adequate consultation and input from allies.  Similarly, General Campbellí»s impolitic remarks revealing intentions to expand the role of U.S. forces in Korea beyond the Korean Peninsula were totally insensitive to the fact that any redefinition of roles requires the consent of the Koreans.


But the reaction of conservatives in Korea, who claim to want a strong alliance, has made a bad situation worse.   Their í░the sky is fallingí▒ rhetoric in response to U.S. plans reveals a seeming lack of faith in the U.S. as a partner.  Either Korean conservatives do not really believe in the depth of the U.S. commitment to South Korea, or they are cynically trying to score political points domestically. 


The U.S.-Korea alliance will survive the strains it is currently undergoing.  Both countries need each other too much.  South Korea needs insurance against potential conflict with the North.  The U.S. knows the alliance helps the U.S. retain its preeminent position in the Northeast Asian region.  No U.S. president would dare abandon the alliance with South Korea before a stable peace regime on the Korean Peninsula is established.  Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and President Truman are still excoriated half a century later because it is believed Achesoní»s omission of Korea on a list of U.S. vital interests in the Pacific encouraged the North to attack the South.  No American president could bear the risk of withdrawing U.S. forces from South Korea if there is the remotest chance a second Korean War would then to break out.  So despite the growing frictions, the U.S. and South Korea will remain bound together for some time to come.


However, the adjustments the alliance is now facing are small compared to the changes it will have to undergo if a peace regime finally emerges on the Korean peninsula.  A durable peace regime will require guarantees from all the major powers in the region—China, Russia, and Japan as well as the U.S.—to be truly stable.  If South Korea clings too tightly to the U.S. apron strings, other powers may be disinclined to enter such a multilateral security framework.  A stable peace regime will also require the U.S. to lessen and eventually terminate the threat it poses to North Korea.  The U.S. will have to accept a greater role for China and other regional powers on the Korean Peninsula.  Ultimately, as Selig Harrison suggests in his book Korean Endgame, the best outcome for both a reconciled Korea and the U.S. might be a neutralized Korea.  A reunifying Korea might take Switzerland as its model, a nation friendly with all the larger powers around it but aligned with none, and thus a threat to none.


But whatever the final outcome, the U.S.-Korea alliance will certainly face ever greater challenges in dismantling the Cold War structure on the Korean Peninsula.  The alliance should be able to withstand these pressures.  But it will require greater maturity, reason, and vision than has too often been lacking in recent years.