Could South Korea abandon its strained alliance with US?
With rising regional risk, some South Koreans are wondering if it's time for the country to stand on its own
In the blissful afterglow of US President Donald Trump’s gaff-free state visit to South Korea – where he appeared to upgrade his personal relationship with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and delivered a powerful, well-received speech at the National Assembly – few are questioning the Korea-US alliance’s future.
But with the foundation upon which that alliance was built having shifted radically since Trump assumed office, the partnership must brace for greater strains in the near future.
Since Seoul and Washington signed a mutual defense treaty after the 1950-53 Korean War ended, it was exclusively South Korea (including US troops on its soil) that the alliance defended from North Korea. Now, however, the United States itself is falling within the range of Pyongyang’s expanding arsenal of strategic weapons.
In August, US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham made the possible ramifications shockingly clear. Trump has “to choose between homeland security and regional stability,” Graham told a US TV show. “Japan, South Korea, China would all be in the crosshairs of a war if we started one with North Korea. But if [North Korea gets] a missile they can hit California – maybe other parts of America.” He added, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there, they’re not going to die here.”
Yet the worrisome possibility of Washington prioritizing its own defense before South Korea’s is absent from Korean public discourse.
“I don’t get the sense that the change is acknowledged,” said Koo Se-woong, editor of Korea Expose, who penned a column for the New York Times this month questioning the value of the alliance for South Korea. “But then again, from the South’s view, the alliance has been about the protection of South Korea. That perception is what fuels the gratitude that some, especially conservatives, express toward the US.”
Despite their recent camaraderie, there are wide policy gulfs between the national leaders. Trump raises “all options” and threatens North Korea with “fire and fury;” Moon rules out war “under any circumstance.” While Trump blows hot and cold on negotiating with Pyongyang, Moon consistently presses for talks and engagement – a stance Trump slammed Moon for in a Tweet.
Moreover, Moon – who, as a liberal and former human rights lawyer, comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum to conservative tycoon Trump – recently made clear that his administration will not join the US missile defense shield. His foreign minister also stated that South Korea will host no further US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) batteries, and will never join a formal, trilateral alliance with Japan. That is a particular blow to Washington, which favors a regional alliance.
Seoul’s comments came in the form of guarantees offered to Beijing just one week before Trump’s visit. In return, Beijing – which, infuriated by the THAAD deployment, retaliated against Korean companies and K-pop performers and scaled back tourism to South Korea – agreed to normalize relations.
Trump, diplomatically, did not raise these issues (at least, not publicly) during his visit. But American pundits were appalled.
“The fact that Seoul would delegate such a critical decision to Beijing is remarkable,” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert with Troy University. “For China, this is a huge win, it could be a small contribution to unravelling [the Korea-US alliance].”
This convergence of risks and issues is potentially more combustible than the spark for the massive anti-American protests which shook the alliance in 2002: The death of two schoolgirls in a road accident with US troops, who were not charged under Korean law due to the status of force agreement.
And the alliance itself is in flux. A massive relocation of US troops in Korea, first agreed in 1990, boosted in 2003, then delayed by conservative administrations in power in Seoul from 2008-early 2017 is now, finally, fully underway. The redeployment of the bulk of the 28,500 GIs in Korea to a sprawling network of land-air-sea bases around the brand new Camp Humphreys – the first stop on Trump’s Korea visit – means that no US combat troops will remain as “speed bumps” between the DMZ and South Korea’s capital.
“Conservatives are loathe to see this move, while Americans have expressed in the past that they were not comfortable with putting American lives on the front line,” said magazine editor Koo. “But the strategic implication of the relocation is rarely discussed in the domestic media, at least to my knowledge, maybe because they don’t want to think about it. “
While the oft-delayed redeployment appears to be proceeding relatively smoothly, the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean troops to Korean leadership – “OPCON transfer” – is rockier. Currently, the Combined Forces Command is headed by a US general with a South Korean deputy. But with Washington reluctant to place US troops under the command of foreign generals, and with Seoul considering the issue a matter of sovereignty, the CFC may be dissolved. It is unclear what system or protocol, agreeable to both governments, could replace it.
These developments help explain the sale of billions of dollars of sophisticated US equipment to South Korea, as announced during Trump’s visit. Seoul needs reconnaissance, intelligence, and command and control systems before it can effectively control its own defense destiny.
A rising desire for greater independence in South Korea, a nation which some think hangs too tightly upon Washington’s coat tails and which others believe is home to an emotive form of prickly nationalism, is becoming apparent. A Korea Times-Gallup poll of 1,004 South Koreans this month found 60% want their own nuclear deterrent, obviating Seoul’s reliance upon Washington’s atomic umbrella.
Some are thinking the once-unthinkable. Presidential advisor and academic Moon Chung-in raised the rhetorical question, amid the THAAD controversy, as to whether the US could be trusted to defend South Korea. “If the alliance breaks down over a defensive weapons system like THAAD, you have to question whether the US military would come running in the event of an emergency,” he said in June.
Even so, no mainstream Korean voices – yet – are calling for nixing the US alliance.
Certainly, the colossal costs Koreans would have to bear are not being discussed. In addition to massively increased defense spending – an expense that has hobbled the economy of enemy North Korea for decades – these would include increased borrowing costs for South Korea’s government and companies, due to a likely sovereign credit rating downgrade. Foreign investment would also be impacted.
In a region bristling with strategic threats, mid-tier power South Korea is squeezed between China, Russia and Japan. There is no regional friend in sight – natural ally Japan is despised by Koreans for its perceived failure to acknowledge historical aggressions. So, could South Korea go it alone?
“All the world’s democracies are in military alliances with other democracies, notably America,” said Seoul-based Mike Breen, author of “The New Koreans.” “Still, if needs be, South Korea has one of the strongest militaries and economies in the world; its weak point is confidence.”