The ROK-US Alliance – 1


The ROK-US Alliance at 60 and Beyond

The year 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the ROK-US security alliance, which was officially established with the signing of the ROK-US Mutual Defense Treaty in October 1953. The number 60 carries significant meaning in Korea since it refers to the completion of one cycle of the zodiac and the beginning of a new one.

For the past six decades, the ROK-US alliance has fulfilled its primary objectives very well, and it represents a great success story—the enduring alliance forged in blood. Of course, there were difficult times, when many were concerned with the future of the alliance, but we have successfully overcome those difficulties and learned valuable lessons for the future.

Nowadays, the ROK-US alliance functions as the cornerstone of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the region, but it exists in a more complex environment, facing unprecedented challenges. The old threats—North Korean threats—have not disappeared. Rather they have become much more serious and diversified: bigger, closer, and deadlier. At the same time, in recent years, we have seen the emergence of new security concerns such as the rise of China, a shifting military balance amid uncertainty about the regional security architecture, and the rise of new, non-traditional security (hereafter NTS) problems. To tackle these different challenges, South Korea and the United States agreed on the concept of “strategic alliance” in June 2009 through their Joint Vision Statement and reaffirmed their commitment to it in the Joint Declaration of May 2013. The strategic alliance is still in the making. Continuous efforts are required for realizing the substance necessary for such a strategic alliance. In this first Topics of the Month essay and the monthly updates that follow, my goal is to reflect on the follow-up to the Park-Obama summit and suggest what “strategic alliance” should include in the rapidly evolving regional environment of 2013.

Alliance in Retrospect

In upgrading the ROK-US alliance, there are some lessons we must keep in mind. Among others, three dangers stand out: A lack of understanding of the ongoing transformation in international politics (changing challenges and ways to meet them); a lack of effort to narrow the perceptual gap, which contributes to the erosion of trust and confidence between the two allies; and the absence of a vision reflecting a common understanding for what lies ahead. The first results from a dearth of long-term analysis of the fundamental changes in our era and their implications for the alliance, often owing to an inclination to focus mainly on domestic elements in interpreting the resulting problems. As a result, constantly changing public opinion on specific issues overshadows discussions about the alliance, and, in analyzing and resolving the problems, it is hard to overcome dichotomies of the right vs. the left, conservatives vs. progressives, or pro-American vs. anti-American. Framing issues in this way hinders understanding of the reasons for transforming the ROK-US alliance, and, even more, for setting a suitable direction for the alliance transformation.

The second lesson we can draw from the past is the importance of cognitive elements in maintaining and strengthening the alliance. Over the past two decades, despite all of the agreements, we have suffered from repeated erosion of trust and confidence between the two allies. A perceptual gap was its source, and little effort was generally given to finding a way to address it. Beneath the surface of the official statements and explanations of both the ROK and US governments during the period of the Roh administration, friction between policymakers as well as opinion groups in both countries went beyond simple policy differences. Both sides became very suspicious of the other’s intentions, sincerity, and integrity. This left emotional scars, which many assume were healed during the Lee Myung-bak period, but, I argue, remain not far below the surface and may burst out if a problem arises.

The second lesson leads us to the third lesson: The absence of a vision for the ROK-US alliance that could serve as a framework for issue-driven adjustments. The Roh and Bush administrations failed to identify a rationale for the alliance as circumstances were changing or to forge common understanding of the desired form of the future alliance. This contrasts to the new understanding in the US-Japan alliance achieved during the 1990s, which breathed fresh life into those relations after the end of the Cold War. The alliance adjustment process in the 1990s-2000s between South Korea and the United States was driven by specific, often urgent, issues without a common vision to guide the alliance into the future. There is no rationale for transforming and strengthening the alliance, identifying respective roles, missions, capabilities, and strategies, and tailoring the structure of the alliance accordingly.

Alliance Prospects

There are at least three challenges ahead of us, all closely related to the lessons we have learned. First, it is necessary for the two allies to articulate a concrete action plan. What this means is that we must work hard to have a shared estimate of the mid- to long-term security environment ahead of us while working on pending issues. Of course, there will be differences between the two allies, as we have seen in the case of the comprehensive security assessment (CSA), but through such a process, it is possible to narrow the gap and enhance mutual understanding. Three issues must be seriously discussed: The North Korea question (or the Korean Peninsula question, including the post-reunification era); the China question; and the regional security architecture, including a mini-lateral security cooperation framework. In the following months, I will offer some suggestions for addressing these themes, which Americans may fear are too sensitive for South Koreans to address in the current environment.

Second, we must carefully manage and solve the pending issues from now to the end of 2015. Some critical issues of alliance management stand before us:

  • The Nuclear Cooperation Agreement
  • The wartime OPCON transfer and a new command structure (including the United Nations Command (UNC)
  • Extended deterrence
  • The base relocation issue
  • The Special Measures Agreement (or burden-sharing)

As we have witnessed before, ineffective handling of these issues can seriously damage the alliance, since they can have huge political impact. We should not try to impose one side’s position on the other. We need to take a cautious, thoughtful approach in handling these issues, driven by strategic thinking, mutual respect, a spirit of responsibility-sharing, and realistic assessments of the situation. Consultation, coordination, cooperation, and mutual respect (C3R) must guide us in finding solutions. Furthermore, we must think of damage limitation should some undesirable thing happen.

Third, we must think of ways to strengthen domestic understanding and support for the alliance. To minimize volatility, as untoward events may occur, we should clearly and constantly provide a rationale highlighting the benefits of maintaining and upgrading the alliance. For that, it is necessary to put the alliance in a regional as well as global perspective, and it is desirable to expand the area of cooperation. Not only government-to-government but also people-to-people contact across various fields is necessary for enhancement of mutual understanding. We should keep in mind that public diplomacy is growing more important, even between the two allies. For a fruitful discussion, we need to get down to the specifics of how to realize these aspirations.

As the ROK has become a global player, its interests are becoming more interlocked with those of the United States in global affairs, mostly on NTS issues, and it is ready to make greater contributions. So, there will be more chances to work together in meeting those challenges along with other, like-minded countries, which will contribute to upgrading the alliance. From traditional “mil-to-mil” cooperation to government-to-government and people-to-people cooperation, the alliance can grow more robust and comprehensive, which is what is meant by “strategic alliance.” Of course, we must keep in mind that what makes an alliance different from other relations is the military/security interconnectedness. Thus, the expansion of cooperation into other areas should not be pursued at the expense of military cooperation. Rather, we must think about the use of military assets in supporting the achievement of other objectives.

The exchange of views that I am proposing encompasses specific bilateral agreements and coordination on broader regional and global challenges. As a step toward shared understanding of the transformation under way, I will offer some thoughts on what that might be. On reducing the perception gap, I will try to pinpoint some elements of it. As for a vision of the “strategic alliance,” I propose that this be our priority in the discussion ahead. Having argued that three issues must be seriously discussed, I am planning to make suggestions for each of them; on North Korea, on China, and on the regional security architecture. Above all, this exchange is intended to be a step toward clarity about difficult choices in order to narrow the perception gap. I hope that many of you will respond and join me in this undertaking.

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