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South Korea-US Alliance in Difficult Transition

Americans walk by an effigy featuring an US Army soldier as South Korean protesters stage a rally in front of the US Army base in Seoul
The alliance between South Korea and the United States is undergoing a major, and sometimes uncomfortable, shift to meet changing global realities. Fundamental differences of perspective exist about the threat posed by North Korea, and South Korea's regional role.

As South Korea and the United States seek a solution to the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, they are also grappling with questions about the future of their relationship to each other.

North Korea's threat to the South has been the essence of the alliance since North Korea invaded the South in 1950. The United States led a United Nations force to the rescue and the conflict ended in a truce without peace in 1953. Since then, tens of thousands of U.S. troops stayed in South Korea as a deterrent.

But this central arrangement of the alliance is changing due to shifts in both nations' perceived security needs.

For many South Koreans, views of the communist North Korean threat have changed radically since 2000 when the leaders of both Koreas held their first and only summit, pledging eventual reunification. Kongdan Oh, with the U.S.-based Institute for Defense Analyses, recalls the return of then-president Kim Dae-jung from his historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il

"What he declared was that, in my personal conversation Kim Jong Il assured me that there would be no more Korean war, because you and I shook hands.… Since then, people's perception changed, and South Koreans mostly believed that North Korea would not attack South Korea," she said. "So North Korea's classic threat perception dramatically changed."

Current South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun says he is seeking to build on the goals of that summit by influencing North Korea through economic cooperation and engagement. That has put Mr. Roh in conflict with the Bush Administration, which has taken a much tougher stance since 2002 because of North Korea's nuclear weapons development. Washington will only consider incentives after impoverished North Korea complies with its non-proliferation agreements.

Moon Chung-in, Chairman of President Roh's Committee on Northeast Asia Policy Initiative, says the alliance is vital but it must also now be viewed in the context of Seoul's broader obligations.

"For us, [the] alliance is an instrument... Look, [the] alliance is a function of national interest. But unification and peaceful coexistence on the Korean Peninsula is our national mandate. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we take a closer position on North Korea, at the expense of our relations with the United States. That's dead wrong," he said.

The Roh administration came to power in 2003 pledging to take a more independent path, if needed, from the United States. The president has been delivering on that promise.

Last month, South Korea's National Security Council publicly rejected a contingency plan allowing the United States to take overall military command in the event of turmoil or collapse in North Korea. The government says the plan would compromise South Korean sovereignty.

This move appears to be part of President Roh's new policy agenda, which he began outlining in March. The main concept is for South Korea to strive to be what he called a "balancing power" in the region.

Moon Hee-sang, Chairman of President Roh's Uri Party, says the balancing role reflects changing global realities.

"The Northeast Asia Balancer theory is not a traditional theory on power balance, but it is a Northeast Asia Peace Balancer theory which pursues peace with the objective of realizing a regional community very much like the European Union," Moon Hee-sang added.

Mr. Moon says a balancing role would make use of South Korea's "soft power," including its cultural and economic influence with North Korea, China and Japan.

South Korea's government has offered very few specifics about what it would do differently as a regional balancer, except to announce last month that Seoul would seek increased military cooperation with China, raising it to the same level as cooperation with its ally, Japan. Seoul's current military relationship with Japan includes joint naval drills, and visits to each other's ports by warships.

Mr. Roh's balancing policy has met initial criticism from conservative opposition lawmakers, who say it implies an inappropriate degree of neutrality towards the United States.

But Don Oberdorfer, a longtime Korea correspondent for the Washington Post who is now at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., says South Korea's balancer theory is mostly about aspirations for more autonomy from the United States.

"The idea that South Korea could balance China and Japan, is just, in my mind, plainly ridiculous," said Mr. Oberdorfer. "At the same time, I think the desire by South Korea to take a role of greater flexibility and in some cases greater independence is understandable and it's, in itself, probably time."

One of the reasons South Korea may be seeking more autonomy is because it has to. Seoul has watched the United States grapple with post-2001 terrorism threats and large force deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The strain has led Washington to pull some troops from South Korea and to outline plans to streamline presence here.

Peter Beck, with the International Crisis Group in Seoul, says South Korea is uncomfortable with U.S. plans to make its forces lighter and more deployable in other regional conflicts.

"[South] Koreans, I think, are balancing fears of abandonment with fears of entrapment. They realize they can't go it alone. They need the U.S.," he said.

South Korea may feel it is being treated as a second priority, as U.S. strategic objectives evolve. David Steinberg, an Asian security specialist at Washington's Georgetown University, says U.S. military resources are stretched thin especially at senior levels.

"Our decision making process is constipated at the top, where people have only very limited time to spend in dealing with foreign issues. And so, the tendency is to concentrate on one," explained Mr. Steinberg. "The Bush Administration sort of [is] saying, well, we don't have a crisis in North Korea, not yet. We do have crises in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinians, and so forth. … We can't deal with that at the same time."

Publicly, Seoul and Washington agree that fundamentally they are committed to the alliance and that changes are necessary, even if it means occasional growing pains. South Korean officials of most political stripes admit the U.S. alliance, while not always ideal, is the best option available at this time for stabilizing the region. However, President Roh says he is aiming for the country to be militarily self-sufficient within the next 10 years.