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Korea's Domestic Base for Alliance with the United States
Published May 25, 2011
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The past decade in the Korea-U.S. alliance relationship has not been smooth. Since the late 1990s, Koreans have been raising issues related to the past or current actions of the U.S. Army, which was unthinkable before democratization. The No Gun Ri massacre of civilian refugees and villagers by U.S. soldiers during the Korean War was reopened and publicized in 1999. Environmental concerns of local residents near the Maehyang-ri military camp drew heavy public protests when an accidental bombing during a drill in May 2000 went unheeded. The firing camp was closed eventually. This was soon followed by another incident in which poisonous material leaked from the Yongsan Garrison to the Han River, drawing strong denunciations from Korean nongovernmental organizations and strengthening the popular pressure to move the Yongsan Garrison from the heart of Seoul. Growing anxiety over social and environmental problems associated with United States Forces Korea (USFK) led to unprecedented candlelight vigils in late 2002 when U.S. GIs involved in the deaths of two middle-school girls during an armored vehicle exercise were acquitted. The resulting public outcry effectively turned the revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) into a presidential election campaign issue, as anti-U.S. sentiments intertwined with the heated election politics.

By the time anti-U.S. sentiments subsided, the Pentagon’s initiative to realign the Korea-U.S. alliance was launched. Although the move was intended to restructure overseas U.S. troops in line with the new post–September 11, 2001, strategic environment, rising anti-U.S. sentiment in Korean society clearly entered the calculus of realigning USFK. During the critical years between 2003 and 2005, new global strategic postures of the United States and the nationalistic policy tenets of Korea interacted to change the nature of the alliance in a significant way. Eleven meetings of the Future of the Alliance (FOTA) concluded in 2004 with a 10-point agreement that included the early relocation of the Yongsan Garrison and the 2nd U.S. Infantry Division away from the Demilitarized Zone. To ease the security anxiety of Koreans, the United States proposed a plan to invest more than $11 billion over the next four years to modernize the combined defense. The Korean government responded with a large defense budget increase to bolster its self-defense capability through weaponry modernization and drew up its “cooperative self-reliant defense” policy.

Separate from the relocation negotiations, the U.S. government unilaterally notified Korea of its plan to redeploy some of the USFK to Iraq in May of 2004. Two weeks after this decision, the United States announced a plan to cut the USFK by 12,500 by the end of 2005. The two governments finally agreed in October to reduce the proposed 2008 size of the forces over three stages. Replacing the FOTA, the Security Policy Initiative (SPI) came into effect on 9 February 2005 to discuss the operation of USFK outside the Korean peninsula under the new concept of “strategic flexibility” and the future vision of the alliance. One major issue concerning the SPI was the transfer of wartime command from the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC) to the Republic of Korea. After some 15 months of official negotiations, both governments finally agreed in February 2007 to transfer the wartime command to Korea on 17 April 2012 and consequently resolve the CFC at the same time.

In retrospect, the transformation of the Korea-U.S. alliance during the Roh Moo- hyun government—involving the USFK’s relocation, its reduction, and the return of wartime command to Korea—is a dramatic development considering that all these negotiations were carried out just as the North Korean nuclear crisis was unfolding. While the crisis was being handled within the framework of the six-party talks, the alliance proceeded to transform itself along the two countries’ changed but not necessarily shared interests. Subject to the new U.S. global strategy and to Korea’s domestic politics, the Korea-U.S. alliance has been marginalized during the past several years.

With the half-century alliance at a crossroad, both Seoul and Washington are searching for a durable basis to sustain the alliance into the foreseeable future. Concerned security experts from both sides are calling for the alliance to be reinvigorated with a new vision and renewed support. To this day, the Korea-U.S. alliance has served successfully the goal of deterring military aggression by North Korea. With the inter- Korean rapprochement, however, the alliance came to require other rationales in order to be sustained. Liberals argue that the alliance can be reshaped as a political alliance promoting common values such as peace and democracy. Realists call for a realignment to take the form of a force to manage regional contingencies. Whichever the future path of the Korea-U.S. alliance, keeping the alliance is a political decision, and domestic support in each country is essential to the sustainability of the alliance. On the basis of such concern, this paper will discuss Korea’s domestic base in sustaining the alliance relationship with the United States.

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