US President Donald Trump (R) attends a bilateral meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in (L) at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on June 30, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Brendan Smialowski

When two nations fight a bloody war and are on the same side, it creates lasting bonds – though maybe not for as long as Americans expect. Sometimes when the breakup comes, the Yanks end up saying: “Never saw that coming.”

Could this be said of the US-South Korea alliance? Something isn’t quite right with the relationship and hasn’t been for a while.

Some analysts claim South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in and his close associates see Washington, not Pyongyang as the problem – and the reason the Korean peninsula is divided. It’s claimed Moon et al have a soft spot for the Kim family’s Juche ideology and reckon Korea should be aligned with the People’s Republic of China rather than the United States.

This likely is not a majority opinion in Korea – or even in Moon’s party. But a small, dedicated group, with a clear (though vaguely stated) objective and some ruthlessness can shift an entire country. Just get a grip on enough levers of power before enough people notice.   

Far fetched? Maybe not.

Moon apparently can’t do enough to placate Pyongyang, starting with inviting North Korea to the 2018 Winter Olympics. This undercut President Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ approach – which was jolting the North Koreans and was heading towards secondary sanctions on the PRC.

Moon moved to cancel large-scale military exercises with the US military and has kept them canceled – thus reducing readiness. Admittedly, Trump went along with this, but it was Moon who put him in a difficult position. And Moon has been cracking down on South Korean citizen groups opposed to the Kim regime.   

As for the PRC, when Covid-19 broke out Moon said South Korea would “suffer together” with China. He probably didn’t ask for a show of hands.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in speaks to the press as US President Donald Trump looks on following a meeting with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized zone on June 30, 2019. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

Earlier, after the US deployed the THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea, the Chinese complained. And in 2017 Moon offered sent a “three no” signal to Beijing: (1) no additional THAAD deployments; (2) no participation in an integrated US missile defense network; and (3) no trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan.

Even if this was just a shrimp balancing between two whales – as the local saying goes – it isn’t what you spring on an ally that sacrificed around 40,000 lives to keep South Korea free, and that has promised to risk World War III on South Korea’s behalf.

Maybe Moon is just naïve? The US had President Jimmy Carter, after all.

But look at Moon’s people – his close advisors and some of his appointees to key positions. For some of them, the description far-leftist isn’t quite enough.

Just take Lee In-young, the Unification Minister appointed in July 2020, and read the transcript of his confirmation hearing in the National Assembly. Lee is biting his tongue but doesn’t seem to have changed much since his days as the #2 person in the Anti-American Youth Association – the underground organization that provided leadership to Jeondaehyup, the violent, radical 1980’s student organization based upon North Korea’s Juche ideology. 

Moon has packed the judiciary and tried to bring the prosecutors under control as well. The head of the intelligence service is reportedly chummy with North Korea. And the local media are intimidated as the Moon administration uses libel laws (truth is no defense in South Korea) to silence and even imprison critics – including private citizens.

The military was put on notice with the arrest of a four-star general a few years ago on sketchy “abuse of power” charges of which he was later acquitted. But the military got the message.

And Moon uses the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) like a weapon.

Samsung is in the crosshairs. This seems beyond bringing a powerful company down a notch. Rather, big business is one of the few remaining major obstacles to total control. And get KCTU cells inside a company – like Communist Party committees inside “private” companies in the PRC – and you can intimidate and control.

Until recently there was another missing piece:  the National Assembly. Thanks to good timing, this year’s April 15 election was an unexpected and overwhelming victory for Moon’s Democratic Party. The party can now pass any legislation it wants. Peel off three votes and amending the constitution is possible.

Some conservatives alleged the election was rigged, and with Chinese help.

Specifically, they claim that the National Election Commission’s electronic network was hacked and the vote manipulated. That’s the stuff of spy books. But it’s maybe not as hard as imagined. The network is basically a main server at the election commission that connects to each polling site. It’s not the decentralized system Americans are used to. And Chinese Huawei equipment is said to be installed in the hardware.   

If true, and given that PRC cybercriminals’ hacked the US Office of Personnel Management in 2015, stealing the personal information of 22 million current and former federal employees, one imagines they could handle the South Korean NEC system without breaking a sweat. 

Particular suspicions center on the early votes with their QR-coded ballots. The early votes heavily and uniformly favored Moon’s party – unlike election day voting. A former head of the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology noted:  “Either God did it or it was rigged.”

South Korean election officials sort voting papers for ballot counting in the parliamentary elections at a gymnasium in Seoul on April 15. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

This writer asked a statistician, who claimed he’d verified the algorithm used to allocate votes, why “they” wouldn’t have made the results look less obvious?  His answer: “They weren’t meticulous enough.”

Regular citizens – facing government pressure – produced additional evidence of problems with electronic counting machines, counterfeit ballots, and ballot ‘chain of custody’ issues. The evidence is detailed, public, and open to challenge.

Moon’s response? Call it fake news and conspiracy theories, while pressuring the people who raised the charges. The election commission’s response was muddled and unconvincing, as it apparently destroyed the evidence. 

One notes that the National Election Commission top officials include Moon loyalists.

The judiciary and prosecutors are sleeping on the job, as are the local and foreign media. Even the main opposition party isn’t so interested, although some observers say that has more to do with the nature of the opposition and its leadership than with the actual fraud charges.

As for claims of Chinese involvement, there is

  • Motive: breaking the ROK-US alliance and getting the Americans off the Korean peninsula;
  • Access: easy, given the hardware and system layout and the Moon administration’s demonstrated close ties with the PRC;
  • Expertise: Chinese hackers are world-class. 

But maybe the worries about Moon and the alliance are overblown?

After all, politics is rambunctious anywhere. And there’s a history in which South Korea’s conservative administrations earlier played rough and tried to muzzle opponents, doing shady things with elections.  

Yes, politics is always about power, but something seems different as Moon and his coterie quietly take control of the levers of power in South Korea – throttling democracy and consensual government, and stilettoing free speech in the process. If permanent one-party rule is what you’re after, this is how you do it.

And if the people in power express admiration for North Korea and the Chinese Communist Party, maybe they mean it.

US should worry

But it could never happen in South Korea, could it? People can give you any number of reasons why not: South Korea and the US have a solid friendship forged in blood during the Korean War. It’s just local politics. 

Moon is a leftist, yes, but he’s a human rights lawyer – and he’s still a democrat and a capitalist. We have a long-time military relationship, a defense treaty and military bases in South Korea. And anyway, Moon can’t get away with it. (Fill in the blank) will stop him.

And there is always “I know lots of Koreans… they’re great guys. They are patriots. And they love America.” 

One heard similar excuses for Turkey in the years after Recep Tayyip Erdogan took office in 2003: It’s unthinkable. He’s religious but he’s not going to change things. He’s a capitalist. We have bases in Turkey. NATO is too important. 

He wants in the EU. He’s just worried about the Kurds. He faces too much opposition. He won’t get reelected. The military will step in. It’s not in anybody’s interests. The Turks fought alongside us in the Korean War.

For a while now, Turkey has been a headache for Washington, at best – and at worst a sometimes enemy. 

But maybe it’s not too late for the South Korean-US alliance. Although a very sizable chunk of the Korean population votes left, a more sizable chunk values the US alliance and, according to public opinion polls, does not want to be unified with North Korea, much less become like the Workers’ Paradise up north. And they don’t want to be a Chinese satrapy either.

Also, assuming a clean election, South Korean voters often vote according to how the economy is affecting them, or to punish whatever party has been caught in the latest scandal.

US and South Korean soldiers in Yeoncheon-gun, South Korea. Photo: AFP Forum via Getty Images/Chung Sung-Jun

But Washington can help itself.  

First, don’t demand more money from South Korea for US troops – and stop threatening to withdraw US forces if Seoul doesn’t pay up. All that does is anger people – many of whom are either pro-American or on the fence.

Second, give South Korea preferential trade advantages. The US should have done this immediately after (or even before) the PRC launched an economic war against Seoul over the THAAD deployment. That was a lost opportunity, but it’s not too late.

Third, admit that Moon Jae-in represents a group of Koreans who have different interests and values from ours – and different from those of many South Koreans as well. Stay on guard.

Fourth, Washington might take a look at the April 2020 election, and decide for itself.

So don’t assume the US-South Korea relationship is rock solid. 

If the South Korea-US alliance unravels it will be a disaster with global effects, so pay attention. Let’s hope the day won’t come as it did in Turkey, Iran, Venezuela, the Philippines and other places when we hear dumbstruck US officials whine, “Never saw that coming.”

Grant Newsham, a retired US Marine Corps officer and former US diplomat, currently is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and the Center for Security Policy. This article originally appeared October 8 in And Magazine. It is republished with permission.