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Divergent Consensus: Meeting the Needs of Both Sides of the Coin: A Young Leaders' Perspective on U.S.-ROK Relations

The relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea is unique; the challenges it faces are not. Next-generation views of the ties between Seoul and Washington do not challenge the idea that the U.S.-ROK relationship con- tinues to make up one of our most valuable and valued alliances. However, we do realize that, as in any relationship, the United States and the ROK need to continue to keep it fresh—a relationship requires both parties to work continu- ously at keeping the alliance relevant and beneficial. This is challenging not in spite of the depth and magnitude of our relationship but, rather, because of these qualities.

The U.S.-ROK alliance is defined by the mutual defense treaty. This implies a military bond that, while solid, tends to overshadow broader economic, social, and political ties. The military alliance is in need of realignment while the relationship, as a whole, should be further emphasized in order to bolster ties between Seoul and Washington. In particular, the post–Cold War era requires us to transform the military realm of the alliance from one focused on the defense of South Korea through deterrence of North Korean aggression to one focused more on the comprehensive security of the Korean peninsula and the Asian re- gion. Furthermore, not only has South Korea’s role in support of conventional military operations grown, with President Roh Moo-hyun’s dispatching of the third-largest contingent of troops to support U.S. operations in Iraq and sending troops to other international operations, including Afghanistan and peacekeeping operations on the African continent, but U.S. forces’ increased flexibility and South Korean support for operations off the peninsula will also allow the two to work more closely in response to nontraditional security threats.1

The goals are ambitious, but at least sights have been set. The challenge to the relationship, too often absent during discussions among experts, is how to get there. In efforts to provide a next-generation perspective of the future of the U.S.-ROK relationship as well as of the issues raised in the Korea Economic Institute’s 20th annual academic symposium, “Navigating Turbulence in North- east Asia: The Future of the U.S.-ROK Alliance,” two American and two South Korean members of the Pacific Forum, CSIS Young Leaders Program, each with extensive experience in, and ties with, both the United States and the ROK, offer a joint perspective addressing the priorities of the relationship.2 By examining how the Young Leaders view and envision the U.S.-ROK relationship, one can glimpse what type of ideas and momentum may be in force when this genera- tion takes its place in society. This perspective first provides an assessment of the U.S.-ROK relationship as the American Young Leaders view it, followed by how the Korean Young Leaders view the relationship. Next, this paper examines points of convergence and divergence in the two views in order to highlight op- portunities for the U.S.-ROK relationship to achieve and maximize synergetic effects. Last, this paper concludes with an action plan, or “flight plan,” to help navigate the relationship through the turbulence discussed in the symposium.

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