[Column] Fundamental problems of S. Korea-US alliance

Posted on : 2021-06-02 16:55 KST Modified on : 2021-06-02 16:55 KST
The South Korea-US alliance remains fundamentally unequal today, though less so than before
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung

When I first came to Korea in 1991, 30 years ago, I saw with my own eyes student protesters chanting the slogan "American troops go home" on numerous occasions. That was a pretty common slogan back then.

The students who used to chant those slogans described themselves as being devoted to the Republic of Korea and the Korean people. I find myself wondering where those students are now and what they're doing.

Some of them are probably managing the Blue House's diplomatic schedule, which aims to strengthen the South Korea-US alliance. Others are likely working at various newspapers, where they're writing articles about how South Korean President Moon Jae-in's visit to the US has brought in a "new era" in the South Korea-US alliance.

While it's true that Moon's visit to the US was quite successful, the articles I've read about that visit don't seem to address the fundamental problems with the South Korea-US alliance. Do those one-time student activists who are now steadfast advocates of strengthening the South Korea-US alliance ever reflect upon their old arguments or consider whether the points they made then remain valid today?

The thing that angered student activists about the South Korea-US alliance 30 years ago was its palpable asymmetry. While state sovereignty is one of the key values of the modern age, the South Korea-US alliance was extremely unfair and seemed to seriously infringe upon the sovereignty of the South Korean state.

Until 1994, the US army held operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military not only in wartime but also in peacetime. The South Korea-US alliance remains fundamentally unequal today, though less so than before.

For example, the South Korean president, elected by the South Korean public, has to coordinate every aspect of South Korea's policy toward North Korea with the US. But the US doesn't feel the need to even pretend to heed the South Korean government's opinion in regard to US policy toward China or Russia.

Since former President Roh Moo-hyun signed off on deploying South Korean troops to Iraq in December 2003, the South Korean government has basically never refused a US request to send South Korean troops overseas. Moon Jae-in reportedly opposed sending troops to Iraq in his capacity as senior secretary for civil affairs in the Roh administration. But last year, as president, he approved sending a South Korean naval vessel to the Strait of Hormuz.

It would be more accurate to say he was forced to approve that deployment. Given the basic structure of the South Korea-US alliance, it's nearly impossible to say no to the US in that situation.

Some might suggest that there's nothing wrong with tolerating an unequal alliance and limitations on sovereignty for the sake of ironclad security. To be sure, sovereignty need not be regarded as absolute. In the long term, however, limitations on sovereignty carry considerable risks.

As long as the US, as the senior partner in the alliance, wants to maintain the status quo in Northeast Asia, it may claim to guarantee the security of South Korea, the junior partner in the alliance. But the moment that the US seizes upon other objectives, such as containing China's rising power, South Korea's position as junior partner grows more precarious.

That was eloquently illustrated by China's vociferous pushback to the first mention of the Taiwan issue in a joint statement following a summit between South Korea and the US a few days ago. For China and some South Koreans, the Taiwan issue is an internal issue for China. But for the US, ensuring the continuation of an independent government in Taiwan is part of the strategy of containing China.

Even though South Korea and the US have different positions on this issue, the South Korean government, which seeks to gain the US's consent for improving relations with North Korea, is compelled to share the US viewpoint on matters related to the whole of Northeast Asia, like it or not. That's just the nature of the South Korea-US alliance.

If the rivalry between China and the US grows even sharper in the future, what other diplomatic and commercial inconveniences and risks will South Korea be forced to take on because of the nature of that alliance?

The conservatives who stood in opposition to the student activists 30 years ago often cited the threat of North Korea as the most important reason for maintaining the South Korea-US alliance.

While this argument is still sometimes repeated today because of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles, it's also well-known that North Korea's nominal GDP — estimated to be around 35.3 trillion won, or US$31.87 billion — is only around 70 percent of South Korea's defense budget this year — 52.84 trillion won, or US$47.71 billion. South Korea's military ranked 6th in the world in 2021, while North Korea's ranked 28th.

Considering further that North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles are generally designed for defense against the US, claims about the necessity of a South Korea-US alliance including an American troop presence as a "deterrent against North Korea" don't sound very convincing.

So what's the real reason that liberal politicians who shouted the slogan "American soldiers go home" in protests in their youth have now adopted the line of strengthening the South Korea-US alliance?

Most analysts say that former members of China's tributary system and Chinese neighbors with large populations of ethnic Chinese have recently been stressing cooperation with the US, including in the military area, as a contingency against the rise of China.

Vietnam, formerly laid waste by American aggression, initiated military cooperation with the US ten years ago and has been allowed to purchase armaments from the US since 2016.

In 2015, Singapore signed an expanded agreement for military cooperation with the US that allows American patrol planes to access air bases in Singapore and American military vessels to dock in its ports.

Even Malaysia, which has traditionally relied not on the US but on the UK, has recently purchased a large amount of cutting-edge weaponry from the US, apparently hedging its bets against the rise of China.

In short, South Korea and other countries in the region appear to be approaching the US more aggressively, aware of the possibility of a revival of Sinocentrism or Chinese regional hegemony.

But Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore can navigate their relationship between the two superpowers of the US and China much more effectively than South Korea, reaping benefits from both sides.

These three countries in Southeast Asia have maintained military relations with China even while bolstering their military ties with the US. Such a practice is nearly inconceivable in the exclusive alliance between South Korea and the US.

There's one potential misconception I'd like to clear up here. I don't think a breakup of the South Korea-US alliance is practical at the present moment. The fact is that the South Korean military is almost inextricably integrated with the US military and that more than 90 percent of South Koreans voice support for the alliance in every opinion poll.

We must bear those facts in mind as we take stock of the problems with the South Korea-US alliance.

Aside from the possibility of South Korea getting needlessly ensnared in a conflict between China and the US, I also have my doubts about whether the current structure of the South Korea-US alliance would really allow movement toward inter-Korean confidence-building, arms reduction, and eventual unification along the lines of a loose confederation of states.

Just because it's widely thought that the South Korea-US alliance should be strengthened doesn't mean we should abandon our critical perspective on that alliance.

Pak Noja
Pak Noja

By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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