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The Peninsula

Is There a Rift in the U.S.-ROK Alliance?

Published February 13, 2018
Author: Mark Tokola
Category: South Korea

By Mark Tokola

Foreign affairs commentators and journalists can be depended upon to address two topics: (1) is American influence declining, and (2) are there rifts between America and her allies?  On the former, there is a rich vein of declinism literature, pro and con, going back at least sixty years.  The rift stories generally are country-specific, and usually stand in opposition to statements by U.S. government officials that “relations are the better with (fill in the country) than they have ever been.”  That is rarely a literally true statement, even when bilateral relations are excellent, and seem intended to be read as “I am better at managing relations with (fill in the country) than any of my predecessors.”  Because government public statements regarding relations with allies tend toward Pollyannaism, commentators and journalists provide useful balance by looking for frictions, or rifts.

Even before the May 2017 election of a progressive South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, there were stories of rifts between the United States and South Korea.  The relative cost of defense, i.e. burden sharing, has been the subject of periodic negotiation between the two countries for years, as have been U.S. restrictions on South Korean missile technology, agreements on civilian nuclear power, and the negotiation and implementation of the KORUS Free Trade Agreement.  If anything, it is a sign of the depth of the relationship that there have been issues over which to disagree.  The U.S. and its closest allies, such as the UK, have policy disagreements because there are so many policies in which they have a joint interest.  The U.S. relationship with South Korea has become multidimensional and important enough to generate its share of disagreements.  Alliances become closer by working through disagreements.

Since the election of Moon Jae-in, the relationship has particularly been under a microscope because of a widely-shared preconception that a progressive Blue House (the South Korean president’s residence) would not be able to get along with a conservative White House.  On the issue of relations with North Korea, in particular, there was concern in Washington that Moon Jae-in would rush to implement a new “Sunshine Policy,” similar to that of previous progressive South Korean administrations, undercutting U.S. efforts to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear weapons program.  That has not happened.  Although President Moon has clearly expressed his desire to find a peaceful solution to the North Korea problem, he also has made clear his belief that close cooperation between Seoul and Washington is essential to achieve that end.

Over the past nine months, President Moon has: proceeded with THAAD deployment, resisted Chinese economic retaliation against South Korea, rejected North Korean demands to suspend U.S.-ROK military exercises, encouraged third countries to reduce ties to North Korea, and seized two ships because they were engaged in sanctions violations with North Korea.  The United States and South Korea under President Moon have been closely aligned on implementing a policy of maximum pressure.  At the same time, Moon Jae-in has advocated inter-Korean cooperation on humanitarian issues such as reunions among families divided between North and South Korea.  The U.S. government has agreed that there is nothing contradictory between maximum pressure and such humanitarian gestures, so long as they do not violate sanctions or serve to strengthen the Kim Jong-un regime.  Indeed, they may helpfully reduce tensions, making negotiations more possible.  Remember, the goal of maximum pressure is to lead North Korea into constructive negotiations.

The “Olympic Peace” which brought North Korean athletes and performers to South Korea for the Winter Olympics at PyongChang has served both sides’ short-term interests.  South Korea received assurance that North Korea would not disrupt the games and North Korea was able to pretend that it is not an international pariah.  In addition, the Kim regime received all-expense paid vacations for five hundred or so regime loyalists, not a small thing.  Hopeful observers have been quick to imagine that this may be a turning point regarding the Korean nuclear crisis.  That is something we should all hope for, but it seems extremely unlikely.

The ideal interpretation would be that North Korea’s request to send a delegation to the Olympics was an acknowledgment that sanctions and pressure had worked.  Kim Jong-un’s invitation to Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang – delivered by Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong – would be the beginning of a North Korean climb-down from the situation it had created by its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal.  That might be an interpretation worth testing.  How otherwise would we know when North Korea had reached such a point, other than by such an initial step?  Unfortunately, it is far, far, more likely that Kim Jong-un has every intention of pursuing development of his nuclear weapons and is testing South Korean and U.S. resolve or alliance cohesion.  Moon Jae-in has signaled Pyongyang that he is willing to attend a summit under the right conditions, but is not willing to acquiesce to North Korean demands.  He had already stated that U.S.-ROK military exercises will proceed as planned after the Olympics.  Washington and Seoul are saying the same thing: we are willing to talk to North Korea, but not to make unilateral concessions, and not to let North Korea buy time.  Maximum pressure will continue.  That is not a rift.

That is not to say that a significant rift could not develop between the United States and South Korea.  Among the causes would be: the U.S. disavowing the KORUS FTA; South Korea unilaterally suspending joint military exercises; South Korea moving to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex in violation of UN sanctions; a breakdown in U.S.-ROK negotiations over burden sharing; a U.S. agreement with China or North Korea without having consulted Seoul; or a U.S.-imposed “alliance litmus test” such as requiring that South Korean deploy more anti-missile systems under threat of a U.S. drawdown of forces.  South Korea would be no more willing than the United States to be seen as caving in to a unilateral demand.  They have domestic politics, too.

It is unhelpful and could even be self-fulfilling to assume that a rift is inevitable.  And, there is no need to look to subtle auguries of a rift.  If a rift between the United States and South Korea develops – and we should hope that it doesn’t for the sake of U.S. policy towards North Korea and across Northeast Asia – it will have a visible cause.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Natig Sharifov’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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