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


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. 

August 27, 2012 at 06:40

Lee is limited to one-term.  Of course, he might be posturing for his party's nominee.

August 25, 2012 at 21:27

I do hope they resolve their issues amicably, I can feel what JohnX is feeling because that is what we sometimes feel, especially about the Coast Guard cutter wherein the US even removed the radars and other essential equipment making the cutter a sitting duck in a conflict.

Hence, we are in talks with Italy for 2 Maestrale Class Frigates with all the equipments. Also, being a Filipino a big THANK YOU to SK for allowing us to purchase jets which we badly need since the US rejected our request for F-16's.

The Expert
August 24, 2012 at 17:08

Leonard R.
You overestimate the US military presence in Korea, which is less than 10% of total military strength.

August 24, 2012 at 00:06

Agreed, US should pull out of Korea and Asia.
The Chinese will eventually make Korea a tributary state ( or states) anyways.
Japan will become a dead land due to their past sins, nothing we can do.
Our best option is to just leave it all and threaten immediate nuclear bombardment with out impressive arsenal if they ever look to deny us access.

Leonard R.
August 23, 2012 at 22:50

S. Korea should be free to increase its missile range. Why are the Americans meddling in that decision? Is there no end to US meddling? 
Ultimately, this is an ill-fated alliance. SK is like Taiwan. It cannot be defended without being destroyed. 
SK makes more money in the PRC than it makes in the US. And the US has shed enough blood and spent enough taxpayer money to protect Koreans so they can get  rich trading with Chinese. The US should pull the plug, or at the very least, SK should pay the US for its 24/7/365 security guard service it has been getting. 

The Expert
August 23, 2012 at 19:08

1. The ballistic missiles are aimed at Beijing, not at North Korea. The ROK doesn't really care about the North Korea anymore, North Korea will be crushed in matter of days and it is now all about battling China in the second war. 
2. As for the nculear fuel processing, recall that the ROK is a world class competitor in civilian nuclear power, whose nuclear power plants are the most competitive in terms of technology/cost ratio. The ROK is literally sitting on 10,000 tons of spent fuel and is running out of storage because they cannot process the spent fuel. Accordingly, the demand for a spent fuel processing is perfectly legitmate and is justified.

August 23, 2012 at 14:31

Be patient. N. Korea will make another provocation or just collapse and China will be threatening S. Korea. This is just election yr. theatrics so Lee can get re-elected after appearing too  weak in  the Japanese treaty attempt.
It was only two weeks ago China was in the S. Korean news for torturing a S. Korean activist for months for trying to help N. Koreans flee genocide. South Korea will not be allying with China anytime soon. You would have to be insane to destroy an existing alliance because of events 70 yrs. ago and at the same time build an alliance with a country whose modern day policies and values are totally opposed to your own.

August 23, 2012 at 10:44

From what I understand, North Korea could more or less obliterate Seoul using conventional artillery.  You'd think South Korea could do the same (if not, then at least with air to surface missiles).  Perhaps the nuke capability is directed more at China (and possibly Japan) than North Korea? 

August 23, 2012 at 03:56

I have serious doubt this alliance is worth a damn anymore for the US. End the alliance. Drop NK as our problem and make it a Korean and Chinese prob.

August 23, 2012 at 01:47

The problem is that the USA is seen as a fair weather friend.
When the sun is shiny and the white clouds are blowing, the US is there.
When the shells are landing on Korea and China is backing the enemy. The US doesn't say much, which is strange as thats the time when a huge hole should have appeared on the NK side of border.
So with Chinas growth and SK concern over what it means for them, who can be suprised that they want the gloves off. If Leonard who seems to be a war monger can say that the US shouldn't involve itself in SK, then who else says fk em, let China eat cake.
Though, if they give up on one and restrain them too hard, then dont be suprised if others notice.

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