Defining Future Goals of the ROK-US Alliance
During the Cold War era, South Korea anchored its security policy mainly to deterrence against the North Korean threat. The main functions of the ROK-US alliance were limited to the Korean Peninsula, leaving the regional role of the alliance rather underdeveloped. However, with the rapid emergence of South Korea as an economic middle power successfully democratized and with the transformed nature of the regional and global environment, things have changed. Its national strategy has been reshaped beyond the scope of the peninsula and begun to be concerned with broader security architecture. This raises questions on how to adjust the alliance for a wider context.
Long after the end of the Cold War, unpredictability has increased at the regional level with the rise of China and the rebalancing strategy of the United States. Since the 2008 economic recession, how the balance of power between great powers in East Asia will change remains open to diverse expectations, and this makes designing South Korea’s future security strategy more difficult. One sure thing is that it will not be able to prosper in an outright standoff between the United States and China. The structural discrepancy arising from economic interdependence with China and close security relations with the United States makes the choice between two superpowers inconceivable.
Given this situation, the future functions of the ROK-US alliance need to be redefined in the light of South Korea’s long-term security policy at both the peninsular and regional level. While the alliance will be one of the critical elements in determining the future of inter-Korean relations and possible reunification, its wider importance becomes more salient with the rising unpredictability of regional architecture. What should be the functions of the alliance for long-term regional security relations?
For inter-Korean relations, the usefulness of the alliance is indisputable. Not only for the core function of deterring military provocations and threats, strong cooperation between South Korea and the United States has enormous benefits in the process of negotiating with North Korea. During the course of North Korean provocations in the first half of this year, demonstrating formidable military cooperation between South Korea and the United States was crucial in hamstringing its intended use of these for inter-Korean relations. Much more than that, the alliance changed the way North Korea devises and implements its long-term strategic goals. From late March, it pursued the so-called “two-tract strategic line,” to achieve the status of a weaponized nuclear power and to realize economic development simultaneously. However, North Korea learned that provocations do not reinforce its position in realizing its interests with the South and the United States, and it somewhat refrained from expressing its ambition to be a nuclear power. From June, North Korea has not often mentioned the two-track policy, while making public the intention to participate in the negotiations for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which actually contradicts the main contention of its two-track policy.
The alliance also affects the balance of power in negotiations with the North. For mid-term prospects to realize the aim of denuclearizing North Korea, the alliance will perform the function of tilting the negotiations in favor of South Korea and the United States. South Korea’s strategic goal in dealing with North Korea is to engage with it and facilitate its reform and opening. Moreover, South Korea seeks to achieve peaceful reunification. During this process the alliance will bring the following benefits. First, if the process of denuclearization proceeds well, the peace system on the peninsula will be one of the pending issues with North Korea. Pyongyang has insisted that the withdrawal of USFK be a prerequisite for concluding a peace treaty with South Korea and the United States. However, South Korea has clearly demonstrated that the alliance will not be the object of any negotiations regarding a peace treaty. To deliver a clear message the alliance is essential in demonstrating the limits in the future process of concluding a peace treaty.
Second, if reunification comes into sight, the function of the alliance will be more critical. No one knows how reunification may materialize. In the event of an abrupt collapse of the North Korean regime leading to reunification, ensuring that the process is peaceful and preparing for any rump North Korean military opposition will be required. Partnering with the United States, South Korea will be able to stabilize the process. Alternatively, in the case of South Korea pursuing more gradual and peaceful reunification, the alliance will still be an essential element. To stabilize the process and to gain diplomatic support from other countries, especially China, will be an additional function of the alliance. Obviously China will worry about the strategic orientation of a reunified Korea. It is natural for it to think of the possibility that a reunified Korea with the alliance will hurt Chinese interests. Washington can play the role of reassuring the Chinese that a unified Korea and a continuing alliance will not hurt China’s interests.
When we address the issue of the long-term prospects of the alliance, defining its role after reunification will arouse much debate. Importantly, the role of the alliance post-unification will affect the current position of China and North Korea when they deal with the impending issues of denuclearization and structural changes of North Korea. They will not actively participate in the process if they think that US influence after reunification will have an unfavorable impact on their interests, especially Chinese interests.
The East Asian security architecture at the time of actual reunification will be the most decisive element in defining the future role of the alliance. If the United States and China maintain a strategically stable and cooperative relationship, China will, arguably, not seriously question the strategic significance of the alliance in both its regional and global role. South Korea will become a constructive middle power contributing to a cooperative regional structure with two-pronged mechanisms of the ROK-US alliance and the strategic cooperative relationship with China. Also, there will be a network of diverse mini- and multi-lateral cooperative institutions in line with South Korea’s security strategy. The real challenge comes if there will be a highly competitive relationship between the United States and China. If the peninsula remains as it is, it will suffer as a divided buffer. As the geostrategic competition between the two powers over the Korean Peninsula grows more serious, the range of South Korea’s strategic alternatives will be severely limited. The role of the alliance, in that case, will be limited, serving the balance of power logic between two great powers.
If the US-China relationship is not totally antagonistic but still very competitive, there are no easy answers on how managing inter-Korean relations will impact this relationship. If the two great powers still endeavor to maintain mutually beneficial relations, cooperating on issues regarding the peninsula may be critical in sustaining a sense of cooperation. It is suggestive that presidents Obama and Xi Jinping agreed to a “new type of great power relationship” at their June summit, while declaring the North Korean nuclear problem one of the most explicit examples of cooperation under this new relationship. Strategic mistrust between the United States and China, then, may decrease if the North Korean problem is handled with great care and consensus. The role of the alliance will be newly recognized in the process of denuclearization and engagement with it.
Seoul and Washington need to closely cooperate to synchronize the effort to develop East Asian security architecture and reconciliation between the two Koreas. The alliance is based on a solid consensus on the values and visions for the future security environments, and committed to common strategic purposes. South Korea will endeavor to overcome its destiny as a divided buffer and to become a more constructive middle power, and the United States wants to bring stability to East Asia with its rebalancing strategy and a new strategic relationship with China. The following points need to be considered for the future of the ROK-US alliance:
1. The role of the ROK-US alliance for deterring and defending against North Korean military threats has stood the test of time and will continue.
2. For the mid-term goal of North Korea’s denuclearization and the long-term goal of reunification of the Korean Peninsula, the function of the alliance is indispensable. It will provide the stability and support for negotiating to solve North Korean problems.
3. The role of the alliance after reunification needs to be redefined, and it will affect the current strategic positions of both China and North Korea, reassuring them that South Korea and the United States will pursue regional stability and global peace without harming the future interests of China.
4. If the US-China relationship remains highly competitive, Korean affairs will be subject to the litmus test of the future relationship between them. If well managed, Korean affairs will contribute to developing strategic trust between the two, and the alliance will be more inclusive for a better relationship with China.