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US-South Korea: Alliance in Hot waters

Alliance formation is not a new phenomenon in world politics, states because of their economic, strategic and political interest form alliances but what matters the most is how these alliances evolve and sustain with the changing world order and trends. South Korea and the US alliance were one of the major alliances of the cold war as it was a very important instrument of Truman’s policy of containment in the region, and over all these years their relationship has evolved from a mere strategic viewpoint to economic and social ties. But the very important question that arises here is why this decades-old alliance is on the verge of breaking?

Well, the answer to this question lies in the attitude of the leadership of both the countries e.g. Trump slogan of “making America great again” and US isolationism or be it President Moon Jae-in’s threat of the termination of General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan and US. Taking about the 66 years old alliance, South Korea is not only a US strategic partner, but they also share some economic interests like the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA). This means that if the relationship between Washington and Seoul deteriorates its not only the strategic sector that is going to be affected but also the economic prosperity of the region will be halted. Trump’s demand for the increase in payments, and the Moon Jae-in’s interest in inter-Korean economic engagement projects to boost the flagging South Korean economy.

Both the leaders have the interest of their states in hand and are acting accordingly, but it is to be understood that the breaking of the alliance doesn’t only have implications for only South Korea and US but also the shock waves will be faced by NATO, Japan ( US other major alliance in the region), North Korea and also China whose policy of peaceful rise will shape the future of the region.

Although the alliance of the US and South Korea has evolved over all these years in almost all the sectors of social development, it is equally important to understand the global power shift and the influence of both internal and external factors on the alliance and its future. However, analyzing the policy options both states are opting for, it is quite clear that both are adopting a pragmatic approach and moving towards state strengthening policies that are need of the time.

Historical Evolution of the Alliance:

The relationship between South Korea and the US have evolved over time, under different leaderships, the historical ties between the two states were modified and reevaluated be it their security ties like OPCON treaty or support for the free market, civic engagement, democracy, and liberty.

Historically analyzing the birth of this alliance which goes back in 1945 when after the surrender of the Empire of Japan,  the formation of the People’s republic of Korea which was short-lived and later on after the UN organized election divided at the 38th parallel into North (Republic of Korea- ROK) and South (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea- DPRK) Korea respectively controlled by the Soviet Union and the USA. It was also the time of Truman’s policy of containment and because of the continuous threat of the spread of communism due to which it was impossible for America to withdraw from South Korea giving the Soviet Union a chance to struck the gold. Formation of a US Army Military Government was in the vested interests of Americans which lasted from 1945 to 1948.

An agreement was signed between ROK and US soon after the formation of the US Army and Military government in South Korea, stating that South Korea will gradually assume the command of its security forces but until the remaining American troops withdrew the USA would retain the operational control over ROK forces. The withdrawal was completed in June 1949 leaving behind around 500 American troops while transferring full control to ROK.

during the Korean war in 1950, the US forces returned and help ROK in retreating the North Korean forces. On July 14,1950, the president of ROK signed a treaty “Taejon Agreement” under which the command authority of ROK forces was handed over to General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of UN forces. In 1953 following the retreatment of North Korea the US and ROK signed “U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty”, according to which US forces would remain in South Korea and that ROK forces would remain “under the operational control of the United Nations Command while that command has responsibilities for the defense of the Republic of Korea, unless after consultation it is agreed that our mutual and individual interest would best be served by a change”.

The change that was mentioned in the clause came in 1970 when the UN Command’s (UNC) legal status and appropriateness for defending South Korea came under heavy criticism leading to the withdrawal of all the non-US members of UNC. The dissolution of UNC leads to the creation of U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command (CFC) in 1978 under this agreement the operational capability of ROK forces would be enhanced.  The difference between both the agreement was that under UNC, United States held unilateral OPCON (Operational Control) over ROK forces whereas, under CFC OPCON was jointly guided by both states. Under this treaty, both the peacetime and wartime OPCON of CFC were headed by U.S commander.

OPCON Transfer

In 1994, peacetime OPCON was transferred to South Korea that happened under President Bill Clinton and Kim Young-sam. However, in 2007 President Roh Moo-hyun and President George Bush agreed on an initial timetable that aimed at the complete transfer of the wartime OPCON to be completed by 2012.

During the early 2000s, a wave of anti- American sentiments was spread throughout South American, and taking advantage of that President Roh Moo-hyun framed the OPCON transfer as a sovereignty issue. Following the Cheonan incident in 2010 with North Korea,  President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea postponed the OPCON transfer to 2015 and after the Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in 2013 another postponement was requested by Lee’s successor Park Geun-Hye, President Obama made this transfer indefinitely and conditioned based. Following were the capabilities required to be achieved by ROK after which full transfer could be materialized:

  • Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR)
  • Command, control, communication, computers, and intelligence (C41)
  • Ballistic missile defense (modernized missile defense)
  • Countering WMD (warning, protection, decontamination capabilities)
  • Critical munitions (increased munition stockpiles)

It was stated that an appropriate transfer date will be determined once “critical ROK and Alliance military capabilities are secured and the security environment […] is conducive to a stable OPCON transition.” None of these conditions were met by President Park’s administration.

Theoretically analyzing the causal factors

The causes behind the breaking of the 66 years old alliance can be understood under the umbrella of Realism which talks about the power struggle and shift, before digging deep into the issue we will have to keep in mind that now the international order is in shift it is neither the unipolar and nor the multipolar in fact it is “loose multipolarity”, with the rise of regional actors like China, India. Analyzing the power struggle between two states and the attitudes of the leader which tend to shape the foreign policy behavior of the states. Trump after coming to power adopted the policies to practically shape his slogan of making America great again whether it be the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan or the rising tensions between South Korea and the US.  

There are around 28,500 American troops stationed at South Korea and North Korea’s border, Trump administration is persuading South Korea to increase its payments for the stationed American troops at the peninsula. Even though South Korea has already increased the payment for 10% and it is also bearing the local and incremental cost of stationed American troops at the border. Not only this South Korea has also paid for about 90% of the costs associated with relocating many American troops from areas in; and near the capital Seoul to Camp Humphries some 50 miles south. Now with the Trump administration demand for a five-fold increase in the payment; which is definitely not going to be a fair play for South Korea’s reason being the South Korea’s total defense spending is around 2.5% of its total GDP which is higher than any American treaty allies.

The average spending of NATO members on their armed forces is around 1.5% of their GDP where as the goal for NATO members in 2%, which mean that if South Korea has to meet the goal it will have to cut down on its defense spending by at least $5 billion a year and not increase which the Trump administration is demanding. Now, because of the China-USongoing trade war, South Korea’s leaning attitude towards China, and the threat of South Korea’s termination of an intelligence-sharing agreement among the United States, Japan, and South Korea (The general security of military information agreement) which was later on postponed.

All these factors have contributed and fueled the tensions between the two states (South Korea and the US), on one hand, where the US demands for the increase in payment is unfeasible for the South Korean government, its interest in joining China’s proposed multilateral trade agreement which doesn’t include the US and also doesn’t favor its free and open Indo pacific concept. So, it is not only Trump’s demand that has caused the rift but also the National interest of South Korea that is shaping the future of the alliance.

In international politics interest is permanent, alliances tend to form and dissolve, but states always keep their national interest their foremost priority. During Bush’s administration, the number of already stationed American troops at South Korea’s border was also reconsidered and during the 2000s a brigade of American troops was shifted from South Korea to the Middle east.

Similarly taking South Korea’s argument further increasing the payment doesn’t favor its national interest whereas signing an agreement to increase defense exchanges and establishment of military hotlines, an agreement that was signed between South Korean and Chinese defense ministers at a multilateral gathering in Southeast Asia is in the National interest of South Korea. Hence, the realist argument of power shaping the foreign policy choices holds to be true.

Prospects for the Future

If the US-ROK alliance deteriorates it has a lot of implications for ROK. According to President Moon Jae-in under his peacetime initiative, he stressed the ROK’s need for taking the driving seat and deal with the Korean Peninsula related issues on their own. After Trump’s threat to unleash “fire and fury”, on North Korea because of its nuclear test in 2017, President Moon urged on the urgent transfer of OPCON along with a bolstered ROK military to deter North Korea, he looks at it as an opportunity to transform South Korea into a Northeast Asian security hub and a security provider helping to stabilize the region. Defense reform 2.0 was initiated with aiming to reach OPCON criteria by 2022 for this average annual defense budget was increase to 7.5%.

Economic integration has always kept states from going into an open confrontation because North Korea is a common threat to both US and South Korea and to counter this the inter-Korean and ROK- China economic ties are a ray of hope to bring peace at the Korean peninsula. Because OPCON transfer has implications for South Korea to become a central counterpart in negotiations between ROK-DPROK and China so they might try to mitigate chances of open confrontation by integrating economically.

While talking about prospects for China replacing the US as ROK ally, taking Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” into consideration according to which the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

In his thesis by fault lines, he was referring to the ideological differences among different identities especially based on religion and ethnicity. But if we rephrase it based on Political ideology analyzing it in context of ROK and China, we are then able to evaluate that because the potential difference of their political-economic ideologies and historical ties (referring to Korean war times), the two states coming together on one table and form an alliance is nowhere to be seen.  Also, even if the US-ROK alliance breaks, the passive influence of the US on ROK cannot be ignored and the belligerence of North Korea is a factor that cannot be disregarded. Taking reference from history, during the time of the Korean war when China fully backed North Korea. Mitigating relations to achieve mutual benefits is different, but forming an alliance is a whole different idea that requires commonality, and ROK and China have nothing common of that sort.  

To conclude, it is quite clear that internal factors together with the external forces have influenced and shaped the relationship of both states. Internal factors involving the leadership together with state strengthening policies adopted by a different administration, and externally the common threats that have forced states to come together defending their mutual and sometimes unilateral interest. But now it is the global power shift is what is guiding their relationship.

With US forthcoming elections, even if Joe Biden wins the relationship between US, North Korea, and China is not going to be any different because we have always seen a consistency among US leaders and the policies even though Trump tried some major shifts but still no difference can be expected from Joe Biden who has always criticized Trump for not being tough enough. If the setback in an alliance is going to be permanent or temporary also depends on the threat perception perceived by the US and South Korean administration and the capability of ROK to put an end to anti- American sentiments within the state and also if it is able to achieve the conditions required for OPCON transfer till 2022.

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