As South Korean President Moon Jae-in embarks on a path of geopolitical independence, the US may question whether Seoul remains a strategic part of Washington’s national-security structure.
To the degree that US foreign policy has been successful, it has been so in large part because of the course taken – a balance between intervention and isolation, one that has been adjusted as global conditions and national interests have shifted.
Now, with Moon moving South Korea down a more independent geopolitical path, it is likely that the national interests of Seoul and Washington will diverge. US President Donald Trump is clearly concerned about the threat to both countries posed by North Korea but feels that the South should follow the US lead in dealing with it.
Thus Washington views Seoul’s engagement with Pyongyang as a less than encouraging development. However, by “allowing” South Korea to engage in dialogue with the North, Trump likely recognizes that Moon is going to do that anyway, and appearing to agree with the junior partner in the alliance is one way of saving face for the senior one.
Consequently, it should be expected that Washington will ask itself, “How does Moon charting his own course affect the South Korean-US alliance?”
Hub-and-spoke alliance by design
To answer this question, the nature of the alliance must be understood for what it is: a hub-and-spoke bilateral arrangement with the US as the more powerful partner. It came about for very significant reasons as South Korea came into being in the late 1940s after World War II.
South Korea in its infancy was a non-democratic country with hardly any industrial base upon which to build a bulwark against the spread of communism in Far East Asia. That, however, did not stop then-South Korean president Syngman Rhee from agitating to reunify the peninsula by force.
As America’s ambassador-designate to South Korea, Victor Cha, states in his 2016 book Powerplay, the relationship between Washington and Seoul was tailored to keep an impetuous Rhee from starting an Asian land war that Washington did not want.
Managing a reckless partner, as in Rhee, or an independent one, as in Moon, can take two forms. One is to exercise more material and political control, as was done with Rhee. Another way is to disengage by withholding support until the wayward partner returns to the desired course of action.
The more things change …
Seventy years later, with Seoul and Washington negotiating the conditions and date for OPCON, the transfer of wartime operational control of all South Korean forces from US-led to South Korean-led command, the rationale behind the hub-and-spoke arrangement is once again brought to the fore. This time, though, the concerns are different from those of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
As the new South Korean administration guides its ship of state into waters friendlier to China and North Korea, the danger to Washington is that Seoul is weakening the South’s alliance with the US.
When one country is at risk of being pulled into danger by another, it is appropriate that the country being pulled questions the benefit of its relationship with the country doing the pulling. The question here might be, ‘What is the strategic value of the South Korean alliance to US national interests?’
The alliance has great value to Seoul, as not only a military safety net but also a significant economic guarantor, and Moon needs to keep that in mind as he marches South Korea to a decidedly non-American drum. While independence from US oversight is long overdue, Moon’s engagement with North Korea poses risks.
As risk created by the junior partner in a security alliance increases, one response by the senior member is to increase defenses to counter that risk. The US installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system before the Moon administration could block it is an example.
Another way is to distance itself from that risk. What may be perceived as Trump going along with Moon’s dialogue with the North may instead be a temporary sidestep to see if Seoul trips over its longer leash. Before disengaging from Seoul, however, Washington needs to evaluate the utility of the alliance.
Protecting national interests
The lessons of the Korean War stalemate could be instructive, but after the Vietnam debacle, it seems that the US wants to avoid another land war in Asia. Key in that is whether Moon fully understands the 70-plus years of a generally hostile relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang.
If Seoul follows a course of engagement with the North that leaves the South vulnerable to blackmail – or worse – by Pyongyang, it is the US that would have to pay the piper for the tune chosen by South Korea. Seoul is deeply reliant on Washington for defense.
When one country is at risk of being pulled into danger by another, it is appropriate that the country being pulled questions the benefit of its relationship with the country doing the pulling. The question here might be, “What is the strategic value of the South Korean alliance to US national interests?”
With Washington’s state-of-the-art offshore weapons and long-range delivery systems – in addition to a more cooperative ally, Japan, in the immediate vicinity – the question becomes whether a foothold on the Asia landmass in the form of US bases in South Korea remains necessary to American national interests in Northeast Asia.
The answer to that question might surprise some and severely disappoint a great many others.