Rough Waters? The State of the ROK-U.S. Alliance
Image Credit: DOD Photo by D. Myles Cullen

Rough Waters? The State of the ROK-U.S. Alliance

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As the U.S. and South Korean militaries conduct their annual joint military drill, their political counterparts have found themselves at odds over a number of different issues. Although none of the proximate issues are insurmountable, together they suggest Washington and Seoul have diverging visions for how to best address the rapidly changing region. If left unaddressed, this could impair the health of the alliance over the long-term.

A number of issues have plagued the alliance in recent weeks. One such dispute has been over South Korea’s interest in extending the range of its ballistic missiles. Under a 1979 bilateral Memorandum of Understanding, as amended when Seoul joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2011, South Korea cannot build ballistic missiles that have a range exceeding 300 km (186 miles) or capable of carrying a payload heavier than 500 kg.

Seoul has increasingly chafed under these restrictions, however, and has sought ballistic missiles that would allow it to hold North Korea’s northern-most cities at risk. Indeed, it has already sought to circumvent the restrictions on ballistic missiles by building cruise missiles with ranges exceeding 300 km.

Still, the U.S. has remained wary of South Korea’s bid to enhance its ballistic missiles, preferring instead to use its own military capabilities to counter the threat from Pyongyang. Indeed, shortly after leaving her position in the Pentagon earlier this year, Michèle Flournoy, told South Korean media outlets that Seoul and Washington should approach North Korea “as a problem for the alliance. We should look at not only what capabilities does South Korea need but also what capabilities do we as an alliance need."

One of Washington’s ideas for dealing with the North Korean threat as an alliance is through strengthening Japanese-ROK ties. The U.S. has increasingly pressed its two allies to resolve their historical grievances and forge closer defense and security ties, including cooperating on a regional missile defense system and holding joint military drills.

These efforts appeared to be succeeding when the South Korean government announced last month that it would sign a pact with Japan providing a legal framework for the two nations to share intelligence on North Korea. The immediate and unrelenting firestorm this set off in South Korea, however, quickly forced President Lee Myung-bak to back down and sacrifice one of his top aides to quell public anger. With renewed tension between Tokyo and Seoul over the Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, a formal defense agreement appears as unlikely as ever.

Seoul and Washington have also been at odds over a number of different nuclear issues as well. For instance, after the DPRK’s failed rocket launch in April, some members of the U.S. Congress began advocating redeploying tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) to the Korean peninsula. Although the Obama administration was staunchly opposed to the idea, and it enjoyed limited support even in the legislative branch, the mere proposal provoked significant controversy in Seoul.

So did the revisions Japan made to its nuclear law in late June, which added national security as one of the areas Japanese policymakers should consider when making nuclear policy. In South Korea, as elsewhere in the region, this was widely interpreted as a sign Japan intended to acquire nuclear weapons, leading some prominent South Koreans to argue their country must also develop this capability.

Like their American counterparts advocating for redeploying TNWs, this viewpoint was almost certainly in the minority among political elites in Seoul. Nonetheless, it just as surely made an impression in Washington, especially in light of Seoul’s past record of nuclear transgressions under the dictatorship of President Park Chung-hee.

Washington’s concerns over South Korean’s nuclear ambitions have only been heightened by Seoul’s latest campaign to acquire indigenous enrichment and reprocessing facilities, which it is proscribed from doing under a nuclear pact it signed with Washington in 1974. In contrast, the U.S. has signed agreements recognizing Japan’s reprocessing and enrichment rights as well as India’s de facto reprocessing capability.

Now, with the U.S. and South Korea renegotiating the 1974 nuclear pact that will expire in 2014, South Korea has demanded that Washington acquiesce to Seoul building enrichment and processing facilities. South Korea’s immediate interest in acquiring these capabilities is not nuclear weapons but rather further expanding its nuclear energy industry at home and abroad. Nonetheless, the U.S. has rejected South Korea’s request thus far, with President Obama’s top proliferation adviser, Garry Samore, telling South Korean reporters last month, “There is no danger that Korean industry will not be able to get access to low enriched uranium," 

Washington has a number of reasons to oppose South Korea’s request, many of which have nothing to do with Seoul. For instance, a key component of President Obama’s nuclear security agenda is the goal of securing all nuclear materials worldwide within four years. Allowing South Korea to begin producing its own fissile materials would run counter to this goal and undercut the administration’s important successes in reducing the number of countries that possess and produce these materials.

Allowing South Korea to build these facilities would also undermine the current U.S.-led campaign to persuade Iran to abandon its own enrichment facilities. It would also adversely affect a number of U.S. objectives in the Asia-Pacific, including persuading Pyongyang to surrender its own nuclear program, according Japan a heightened status among U.S. allies, and keeping Southeast Asia’s budding nuclear energy programs on their current peaceful trajectories.

Under the surface, however, Washington’s opposition is likely due in part to its uncertainty over South Korea’s long-term nuclear intentions. As noted above, South Korea already has a history of covertly seeking nuclear arms. That this took place before Seoul became a democracy is cold comfort to the U.S given that South Koreans have at times been overwhelming in favor of their country acquiring nuclear weapons.

In other words, at a time when the region is undergoing sweeping changes, the U.S. is increasingly less confident that South Korea will continue to rely on Washington for its security indefinitely. Indeed, there are already a number of signs that Seoul is seeking greater autonomy. These come at a time when the U.S. will need South Korea more than ever in order to properly rebalance its forces in the region.

Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat. 

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