Skip to main content

The United States and South Korea: A Troubled Alliance

Richard Weitz

Whatever the fate of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the strained relations between the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) over this and other security issues make clear the need for both countries to take action to reinvigorate their bilateral defense alliance.

During the past decade, relations between South Korea and the United States have deteriorated considerably. South Koreans appreciate having an American defense guarantee, both for helping them deter a possible North Korean attack and for enhancing their leverage vis-à-vis China and Japan. Yet, they oppose American military threats against North Korea and U.S. efforts to isolate Pyongyang as a pariah regime.

A complicating factor throughout the recent U.S.-ROK deliberations regarding North Korea has been Washington’s greater concern about Pyongyang’s non-nuclear policies. Unlike their ROK counterparts, U.S. officials have regularly denounced North Korea’s efforts to develop long-range ballistic missiles and engage in transnational criminal activities. One of the main goals of the U.S. national missile defense program is to counter a possible North Korean missile threat against U.S. territory. American policy makers also more frequently express fear that the economically strapped North Koreans might sell weapons of mass destruction to terrorists or other rogue states. Until recently, senior administration officials openly opined that the only lasting solution to the threats emanating from North Korea would be a change in its regime.

In contrast, many South Koreans seem to find a continuation of the status quo, ameliorated through growing economic and social ties between the two Korean nations, a tolerable situation for at least the next few years. Despite the continuing difficulties between the two Korean governments, many South Koreans still maintain that the best way to moderate Pyongyang’s aggressive foreign policy is to reassure its leadership about its security and make its economy more dependent on sustaining good relations with the international community.

In addition, South Koreans have long lived with the threat of catastrophic losses from a North Korean military attack involving conventional weapons such as massed artillery. The North’s development of ballistic missiles, as well as its involvement in arms and narcotics trafficking, present few additional security threats to the ROK. South Koreans also doubt that their northern neighbors would ever use a nuclear weapon against them. Rather, they interpret the DPRK’s nuclear aspirations as aimed at deterring an American-led military attack.

In many respects, these divergent American and South Korean perspectives reflect the different roles the two countries occupy in the international system. U.S. policy makers, representing a superpower deeply interested in maintaining peace and stability throughout the world, naturally worry about the implications of North Korea’s policies for other global and regional issues. For example, a major concern at present is how developments relating to North Korea will affect Iran’s nuclear weapons policies.

Another complicating factor is that the U.S.-ROK differences over the DPRK have taken place against the backdrop of other fundamental changes in the U.S.-South Korean security relationship. The most momentous transformation has occurred in the military dimension. Evolving global security threats, improving military technologies, and other factors have led the Bush administration to decide to cut back the number of U.S troops permanently stationed in South Korea and relocate those that will remain.

First, the United States has begun implementing a three-phased program to reduce the number of American military personnel deployed in South Korea from approximately 38,000 in 2004 to 25,000 troops by 2008. Second, the U.S. military contingents will be redeployed from front-line positions along the armistice line to two hub areas south of the Han River. Finally, the two governments are adjusting the command arrangements governing U.S. and ROK military operations. Although they are still negotiating the details, they have already agreed that, by April 17, 2012, South Korea will no longer cede operational control of its 600,000 troops during wartime to the U.S.-led Combined Force Command, which will be dissolved.

From the American perspective, the changes in the U.S. military footprint in South Korea represent one element of a larger process of realigning the American military presence to adapt better with the imperatives of the post-9/11 world. American officials argue that the need for U.S. troops to serve as a “tripwire” along the intra-Korean border to guarantee that the United States would intervene militarily to halt any North Korean invasion has become outdated. Instead, American forces would rely on their superior mobility as well as air and naval support to crush a DPRK attack. From the perspective of the overstretched Pentagon, repositioning the troops could also facilitate their participation in non-Korean contingencies. Many South Koreans see the changing security relations as indications that the United States is degrading its defense ties with South Korea in order to focus on more important priorities elsewhere.

Periodic waves of anti-American sentiment have also complicated the alliance. Since the late 1980s, important sectors of ROK society have viewed the United States more critically. These waves of anti-Americanism have had diverse long-term causes. The most important reasons include a combination of the ROK’s increasing economic development, the advent of a new South Korean elite (the “386 Generation”) less favorably disposed to the United States, the transformation in intra-Korean relations, and opposition to various U.S. policies. Whatever its causes, the increased anti-American sentiment in South Korea and the corresponding backlash within the United States have reinforced perceptions of a deeply troubled bilateral alliance at a time when East Asian security alignments have become increasingly fluid.

Related Articles

When the Going Gets Tough, China Cuts Rates

John Lee

The 40-basis point cut in the one-year benchmark lending rate by the People’s Bank of China last Friday caught the world by surprise. It has also o...

Continue Reading

Why China Will Not Become the Dominant Power in Asia

Paul Dibb & John Lee

The belief that China will soon become the dominant power in Asia is based on assumptions that its continued and rapid economic rise, and its emergenc...

View PDF

FCAI News Highlights (November 17-21)

Financial Corruption & Autocracy Initiative

Financial corruption and autocracy media coverage....

Continue Reading