As the reigning consensus has it, the U.S.-ROK alliance is one of the most successful of its kind in history. The alliance not only succeeded in defending South Korea from North Korean aggression for over half a century but also oversaw the industrialization and democratization of South Korea as the once impoverished country led by authoritarian leaders grew into the world’s 10th-largest economy with a flourishing democracy. It is also the current consensus, however, that the alliance is in trouble.
To be sure, the weakening of the alliance was something that had been foreseen for quite some time. In particular, the end of the Cold War has long been seen as undermining the rationale for the alliance that was forged at its height. The fall of the Soviet Union, China’s shift to capitalism, and the collapse of the North Korean economy dramatically illustrated the success of the alliance, but at the same time these events robbed it of reasons for its continued existence. As the sense of a perpetual and imminent security threat that sustained the stand-off between the two Koreas dissipated, the role of the United States on the Korean peninsula became increasingly ambiguous. As the likelihood of an invasion by an economically crippled and politically isolated North Korea decreased dramatically, the U.S. forces, originally placed there to serve as a trip wire that would guarantee full-scale U.S. intervention in the case of a North Korean attack, suddenly seemed superfluous. The alliance became a victim of its own spectacular success.
However, despite the end of the Cold War, the external conditions for the continued success of the alliance still all seem to be in place. With China growing powerful and beginning to play an increasingly active role in the region, Japan recovering from its economic doldrums while seeking to balance China, Russia flush with oil money and wanting to regain some of its old clout in the region, and a nuclear-armed North Korea still a palpable threat to the security and stability of the region, a strong U.S.- South Korea alliance would seem to be the perfect anchor for the security of South Korea and Northeast Asia. Indeed, “contrary to conventional wisdom, the resiliency of the U.S.-ROK alliance is actually overdetermined” (Cha and Hahm 2001, 68). That is, “despite all the efforts at rethinking new rationales and revising components of the alliance to avert future erosion, objectively speaking, the conditions surrounding the Korean peninsula are ideal for maintaining the alliance in the short to medium term” (Cha and Hahm 2001, 68).
What then is the real source of the tensions in the U.S.-South Korean alliance? The causes of current difficulties in the alliance go beyond the changes in the external circumstances, as great and as dramatic as these may have been. The most important reason for the deterioration of the alliance is the sea change in South Korea’s domestic politics that has taken place during the past 10 years, one that saw the rise of the “progressives,” supported by a new generation with views of North Korea and the U.S.–South Korean alliance that are radically different from the views espoused by the older generation. Having grown up amid increasing prosperity with no memory of the Korean War and the ideological warfare that consumed Koreans in the 1950s, South Korea’s younger generation espouses a much more benign view of North Korea and its potential threats to South Korean security.
According to the progressives, mostly supported by the younger generation, the United States was involved in Korea and the region because of its own self-interest, imperial and otherwise. Instead of being seen as a staunch ally that came to South Korea’s rescue in times of its greatest need, the United States is seen as a superpower bully that sustained authoritarian rulers and their cronies in South Korea in an effort to impose its will on the country and the region. Not surprisingly such views have come to have a profoundly corrosive effect on South Korean public’s perception of the United States and the alliance. Such a view, once relegated to the so-called radical leftist fringes of South Korea’s political spectrum, came into the political mainstream with the election of President Kim Dae-jung (1998–2003) and then became the majority under the Roh Moo-hyun administration (2004–present). The Sunshine Policy, a policy of engagement with North Korea started by the Kim Dae-jung administration and inherited by Roh, gave full expression to this view (Hahm C. 2005).