The year 2006 witnessed increasing concern among both Americans and South Koreans that their alliance of more than 50 years might be in jeopardy. Differences between the two governments over the nature of the North Korean (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) regime and the challenges it posed—differences now openly acknowledged by South Korean leaders—raised fundamental questions about an alliance founded principally to deter and defend against a North Korean attack on the South. Meanwhile, the United States continued to reduce its troop levels in Korea, and the South Korean government decided to exercise operational control of its own forces in wartime, a responsibility the United States has held since the Korean War. While the U.S. and South Korean governments insisted publicly that the military measures were being taken in a cooperative manner, many South Koreans feared such steps would lead to a weakening of deterrence and possibly even the unraveling of the alliance. Within the region as well, the United States and the Republic of Korea differed in their basic approaches to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Japan.
Less pessimistic observers, however, suggested that the current troubles needed to be put in historical perspective. They noted that U.S.-ROK relations have rarely enjoyed smooth sailing for any extended period, and yet the alliance has survived and prospered. They pointed out that, historically, many conservative South Koreans have long been wary that the United States might abandon the Republic of Korea, and most South Koreans feel that the alliance was, and remains, unbalanced in favor of the United States. In the United States, concerns about authoritarian South Korean governments were a more serious danger to the alliance than the current U.S. incomprehension of ROK “naïveté” toward the North and anger at anti-American protests. How to deal with North Korea has often been a major issue in U.S.-ROK relations. The United States has conducted numerous troop reductions over the decades, which were controversial at the time but were soon accepted with no apparent loss of deterrence. U.S. officials have recognized for decades that the ROK felt its interests threatened by tensions between the United States and the PRC and that South Koreans harbored great fear of a resurgence of Japanese militarism.