In the blissful afterglow of US President Donald Trump’s gaff-free state visit to South Korea – where he appeared to upgrade his personal relationship with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and delivered a powerful, well-received speech at the National Assembly – few are questioning the Korea-US alliance’s future.
But with the foundation upon which that alliance was built having shifted radically since Trump assumed office, the partnership must brace for greater strains in the near future.
Since Seoul and Washington signed a mutual defense treaty after the 1950-53 Korean War ended, it was exclusively South Korea (including US troops on its soil) that the alliance defended from North Korea. Now, however, the United States itself is falling within the range of Pyongyang’s expanding arsenal of strategic weapons.
In August, US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham made the possible ramifications shockingly clear. Trump has “to choose between homeland security and regional stability,” Graham told a US TV show. “Japan, South Korea, China would all be in the crosshairs of a war if we started one with North Korea. But if [North Korea gets] a missile they can hit California – maybe other parts of America.” He added, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there, they’re not going to die here.”
Yet the worrisome possibility of Washington prioritizing its own defense before South Korea’s is absent from Korean public discourse.
“I don’t get the sense that the change is acknowledged,” said Koo Se-woong, editor of Korea Expose, who penned a column for the New York Times this month questioning the value of the alliance for South Korea. “But then again, from the South’s view, the alliance has been about the protection of South Korea. That perception is what fuels the gratitude that some, especially conservatives, express toward the US.”
Despite their recent camaraderie, there are wide policy gulfs between the national leaders. Trump raises “all options” and threatens North Korea with “fire and fury;” Moon rules out war “under any circumstance.” While Trump blows hot and cold on negotiating with Pyongyang, Moon consistently presses for talks and engagement – a stance Trump slammed Moon for in a Tweet.
Moreover, Moon – who, as a liberal and former human rights lawyer, comes from the opposite end of the political spectrum to conservative tycoon Trump – recently made clear that his administration will not join the US missile defense shield. His foreign minister also stated that South Korea will host no further US THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) batteries, and will never join a formal, trilateral alliance with Japan. That is a particular blow to Washington, which favors a regional alliance.
Seoul’s comments came in the form of guarantees offered to Beijing just one week before Trump’s visit. In return, Beijing – which, infuriated by the THAAD deployment, retaliated against Korean companies and K-pop performers and scaled back tourism to South Korea – agreed to normalize relations.
Trump, diplomatically, did not raise these issues (at least, not publicly) during his visit. But American pundits were appalled.
“The fact that Seoul would delegate such a critical decision to Beijing is remarkable,” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based international relations expert with Troy University. “For China, this is a huge win, it could be a small contribution to unravelling [the Korea-US alliance].”
This convergence of risks and issues is potentially more combustible than the spark for the massive anti-American protests which shook the alliance in 2002: The death of two schoolgirls in a road accident with US troops, who were not charged under Korean law due to the status of force agreement.
And the alliance itself is in flux. A massive relocation of US troops in Korea, first agreed in 1990, boosted in 2003, then delayed by conservative administrations in power in Seoul from 2008-early 2017 is now, finally, fully underway. The redeployment of the bulk of the 28,500 GIs in Korea to a sprawling network of land-air-sea bases around the brand new Camp Humphreys – the first stop on Trump’s Korea visit – means that no US combat troops will remain as “speed bumps” between the DMZ and South Korea’s capital.
“Conservatives are loathe to see this move, while Americans have expressed in the past that they were not comfortable with putting American lives on the front line,” said magazine editor Koo. “But the strategic implication of the relocation is rarely discussed in the domestic media, at least to my knowledge, maybe because they don’t want to think about it. “
While the oft-delayed redeployment appears to be proceeding relatively smoothly, the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean troops to Korean leadership – “OPCON transfer” – is rockier. Currently, the Combined Forces Command is headed by a US general with a South Korean deputy. But with Washington reluctant to place US troops under the command of foreign generals, and with Seoul considering the issue a matter of sovereignty, the CFC may be dissolved. It is unclear what system or protocol, agreeable to both governments, could replace it.
These developments help explain the sale of billions of dollars of sophisticated US equipment to South Korea, as announced during Trump’s visit. Seoul needs reconnaissance, intelligence, and command and control systems before it can effectively control its own defense destiny.
A rising desire for greater independence in South Korea, a nation which some think hangs too tightly upon Washington’s coat tails and which others believe is home to an emotive form of prickly nationalism, is becoming apparent. A Korea Times-Gallup poll of 1,004 South Koreans this month found 60% want their own nuclear deterrent, obviating Seoul’s reliance upon Washington’s atomic umbrella.
Some are thinking the once-unthinkable. Presidential advisor and academic Moon Chung-in raised the rhetorical question, amid the THAAD controversy, as to whether the US could be trusted to defend South Korea. “If the alliance breaks down over a defensive weapons system like THAAD, you have to question whether the US military would come running in the event of an emergency,” he said in June.
Even so, no mainstream Korean voices – yet – are calling for nixing the US alliance.
Certainly, the colossal costs Koreans would have to bear are not being discussed. In addition to massively increased defense spending – an expense that has hobbled the economy of enemy North Korea for decades – these would include increased borrowing costs for South Korea’s government and companies, due to a likely sovereign credit rating downgrade. Foreign investment would also be impacted.
In a region bristling with strategic threats, mid-tier power South Korea is squeezed between China, Russia and Japan. There is no regional friend in sight – natural ally Japan is despised by Koreans for its perceived failure to acknowledge historical aggressions. So, could South Korea go it alone?
“All the world’s democracies are in military alliances with other democracies, notably America,” said Seoul-based Mike Breen, author of “The New Koreans.” “Still, if needs be, South Korea has one of the strongest militaries and economies in the world; its weak point is confidence.”
Korea has the potential to become the ‘Benelux’ of North Asia as opposed to a ‘front line state’, located opportunistically as it is between China, Russia and Japan. Any two out of the three should be sufficient to guarantee its security.
To become a real Sovereign Nation, South Korea should terminate the US Bases and oversee their own defense. South Korea has become a victim of North Korea’s anger towards the USA, not South Korea. US does not always work in South Korea’s best interest but their allies. One of the US allied is Israel who is afraid of North Korea exporting nukes to Iran. There can be no doubt the US will not hesitate to sacrifice South Korea to protect Israel. For the US taxpayers it would be great if US stop subsidizing the defense of South Korea. Liberty from the USA allows South Korea to buy quality weapons from who they want to half the price.
Art Laramee In my humble opinion the US has sacrificed too many fine young soldiers fighting other nations wars. Why should US taxpayers pay for the defense of rich nations? Are there no problems in the US that needs money? When we see all the death and misery in the Middle East due the alleged war on terrorism after the 9/11 false flag, it looks like genocide. The starving children and cholera victims in Yemen does not look like terrorist to me. A great tragedy the US is run by the “deep state” and not by the elected politicians. President Trump has done the opposite of what I promised in the election.
The US should be concerned about the situation in the regional nuclear superpower, Pakistan. Who has nukes funded by US military aid. North Korea has been able to get ballistic missile thanks to technology from the US friend Ukraine. The US friend Japan has sold heavy lift cranes to North Korea enabling vertical fueling of the missiles inside the mountain bunkers.
The fuzz about Korea seem to be over for now, but will be back again for sure. President Trump has his suitcase full of new arms contracts to supply South Korea and Japan. Iran and Lebanon will be the next verbal wars, to squeeze the Arab Gulf State to purchase more US weapons.
Falk Rovik it’s as I thought.
Initially I had you pegged as an open minded person who doesn’t have a particular biased. Kind of fact-based and friendly to all.
But the more of your comments I read, the more I realize that you have a heavy biased towards the new Russia and China are our saviors mindset.
Don’t let this biase taint your otherwise informed and factual way of understanding world affairs and don’t believe that the west is the evil responsible for all the world’s woes.
Stuart Budgen Maybe I am biased against USA, but I firmly believe Asia should stand on their own feet and not be dependent on US assistance. The many US covert operations in Asia, sanctions, bullying and wars in Asia is not a good way to make friends with Asian Nations. The genocide in Yemen is not good for US image either.
I see you write from the Philippines. Praise the Lord for your President Duterte, who dare speak his mind. He truly has proven the Philippines is a Sovereign nation and the Philippines do business with whoever they want, even Russia and China. I guess you are aware of President Obama administration had plans to “unseat” President Duterte long before he was elected. Hopefully, President Trump has cancelled those plans. Philippines is on the right path, but the country is held back by corruption and bureaucracy. I lived in the Philippines for many years and see the need for the actions President Duterte has implemented to eradicate poverty.
Art Laramee There was no North or South Korea until the US partititioned the country, and claimed the south as a colony.
South Korea unwillingly pays the US $800 million a year, and is spending $10.8 billion to build new bases for the US.
Allan Jeffreys Ah, noticed you seem to have forgotten that China and Russia were also involved in the division. If SK didn’t want the US troops, thery would of been gone along time ago.
one man rule or dynasty or regime does not help so kill it before the populace is chained
Art Laramee people seem to forget that the two Koreas were, in fact, one country. If you were to read US history pertaining to that fact you would certainly have cause to think differently. Yes, again, US intervention to curb the spread of communism, was responsible for many of the problems that the world faces in our time. Like in medicine, you do not address the syptom, you treat the cause.
John Sampson So you are saying that all the world problem are to be blame upon the USA? That is very one sided of you. Makes one to think you are trying to put Russia and China hisatory with other countries in a positive light.
Falk Rovik I like the idea of Asia becoming an independent continent.
But it’s path towards that end will only improve when it can prove without a shadow of a doubt that it poses absolutely no threat whatsoever to the United States.
Don’t forget that the current balance of relative peace that Asia is prospering from has happened IN CONJUNCTION with the US and many of Asia’s players are genuinely glad for US presence AND are smart enough to know that they have a choice also.
America didn’t just show up here looking to conquer the place, the current state of affairs is how it ended up once the dust settled after the 2nd world War. Which America did not start.
If you look at the country’s here who co operate with America like South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, they are all doing extremely well and benefitting from American support.
I agree that it would be great to see an independent Asia but it isn’t buy hating America (like the North Koreans) or challenging them to their number one spot (like China) that they will achieve this goal.
Now of course there are some dark spots on American foreign policy choices over the years since they assumed the role of world police and decided to take on the bad guys so to speak but this is to be expected in such a complicated world.
Even Yemen, well America cannot fully control its allies and must choose them with the options that actually present themselves.
If other countries would simply obey, we would probably live in a peaceful world but of course it doesn’t work like that.
About Duterte, with the political situation as it is, it would have been easier for America to have a puppet leader in the Philippines in order to address the mountain of other problems that they have.
But they didn’t they got Duterte and that is even better for the people here than what America could have done.
Anyway what I think is that Asia will have a far better chance at Independence if the North Korea threat is stopped permanently and if North Korea settles down and prospers like most other countries here are doing.
AND if China would be a little less ambitious and not try to over take the USA.
Don’t forget that most Asian countries don’t trust China’s expansion and don’t forget too what China could become if they grow too big to be curbed by us in the future.
It is normal that the world will fear china’s power.
Anyway these are complex issues and the solution is not to hate America nor to judge it too harshly.
‘Since the discovery of the Americas?’ Who do you suggest discovered the Americas? Did anyone actually consult the peoples of the Americas?
Stuart Budgen How many? If they were indeed real monks, they wouldn’t have done so. In Buddhist teaching forbids taking one’s own precious life. As a monk, you are supposed to use this lfe to preach dharma to the people. Dalai lama himself inciting self-immolation for his own self-interest and has nothing to do with peace. He’s an oppressice theocratic who seems to collect designer sunshades. If you have a spare time, go and read Dorje Shudgen and why is banned by him and his loyalists.
It is a very technical no how..
It is a very technical no how..
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