The first priority of the U.S. alliance is to deter North Korea from invading South Korea again. The second priority of the alliance is less advertised and less known; it is to restrain South Korea from provoking a war with North Korea. This trend dates back to the founding of the ROK, before the Korean War and the beginning of the modern alliance. Despite providing support for Syngman Rhee, the first elected president of the ROK, the United States was uncomfortable with many of his policies and worried about his interest in unifying the Korean peninsula through force. The United States had good reason for worry; before the Korean War Rhee had overseen several border skirmishes with North Korea, some of which involved large-scale fighting between the opposing sides. The desire to prevent Rhee from carrying out his stated reunification intentions was at least partially responsible for the United States supplying far less military equipment to the ROK than the USSR did to the DPRK.
One mechanism that the United States designed and maintained from the start of the alliance to prevent unilateral ROK action was operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean forces. This has a practical, war fighting purpose, of making coalition battles easier to plan and fight between the two allies, but it was also intended to prevent the ROK from taking unilateral military action. To underscore this point, the United States made it clear to Rhee that if he engaged in unilateral military action against North Korea it would be unsupported by UN command troops or assets. The United States would not provide any support, material or otherwise, for the operation, and that U.S. economic aid would cease immediately. This pattern of restraint has continued since the formation of the alliance, and has created tensions between the two allies and undermined ROK ability to deter North Korea provocations. However, the policy has been successful in preventing another wide-scale conflict that would risk drawing the United States into another Korean war.
Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan Era
On January 21, 1968, a group of North Korean commandos stormed the ROK Presidential Blue House in an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate President Park Chung-hee and U.S. Ambassador William J. Porter. As previously mentioned, the United States did not respond forcefully to this major provocation; however, in addition to this lack of response the United States, through Porter, warned Park that any ROK retribution would met with strong U.S. opposition. A similar pattern occurred two days after the assassination attempt when North Korea seized the USS Pueblo from international waters. Again, the United States declined to retaliate, and denied requests from Park for air strikes against North Korea. In addition, to prevent Park from taking any unitary action in the aftermath of these two major provocations, the United States sent Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance to Seoul. Later, Vance recalled the purpose of his mission as ensuring “that President Park should be under no illusion as to the seriousness of any such action; and that if such a step were taken without full consultation with the United States the whole relationships [sic] between our countries would have to be reevaluated.”
On October 9, 1983, the North Koreans unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during a state visit to Burma. In the attempted assassination, a bomb went off, killing several high-ranking ROK officials. In the aftermath of the attempt, some military officers in the ROK wanted to respond forcefully. The United States, even though it affirmed that they had no doubt that North Korea was behind the attack, sent Ambassador Richard Walker to talk with Chun and make a strong case against retaliation. A month later, after there had been no ROK or U.S. retaliation, U.S. President Ronald Reagan told Chung “We and the whole world admired your restraint in the face of the provocations in Rangoon.”
For much of the Cold War, the United States had a legitimate fear of the ROK dragging it into another war in Korea. Rhee was vocal about his desire to reunite the Korean peninsula, and during the Korean War took actions designed to prolong the conflict. Park wanted to respond to North Korean provocations forcefully, but it was at this time that the United States was already engaged in a disastrous land war in Vietnam. The degree of restraint shown by the United States, and imposed on the ROK, during the Cold War is astounding. It is clear that several of the incidents, such as assassination attempts against ROK heads of state, described in this section are acts of war committed by the DPRK against the ROK and the United States, and in different circumstances would have justified significant retribution. This pattern has resulted in the U.S. treating the DPRK as a special case, ignoring provocation after provocation, and negating the ROK’s ability to use force to deter North Korea.
Implications for the Future
Now that the Cold War has ended, and the ROK has developed a strong liberal democracy, this dynamic is not as potent as it once was. One sign of this is the 1994 transfer of peacetime OPCON from the United States to South Korea, and the expressed willingness of the United States to transfer wartime OPCON as well. However, now that South Korea is a democracy, there is a possibility that public opinion could make it harder for a South Korean president to back down and not retaliate in the face of a flagrant enough DPRK provocation. This phenomenon in fact began to emerge after the 2010 North Korean sinking of the ROK Cheonan warship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. In the aftermath of these attacks, ROK Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin stated that the military is developing “an active deterrence and will build an attack system to swiftly neutralize North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, while significantly improving our military’s capability of surveillance and reconnaissance.” In recent years, there has been increased tension between South Korea and North Korea over the disputed maritime boundary known as the Northern Limit Line that has resulted in both sides shooting live shells into the other’s waters.
After the Korean War, it was clear that it was not enough to restrain one side of the divided peninsula. After the terrible costs of the war, America’s credibility was on the line in Korea, but the three previous years of fighting had resulted in a stalemate where neither the communist nor U.S. forces could hold ground past 38th parallel. Because of this grinding experience, the United States settled on a status quo strategy that involved deterring North Korea and restraining South Korea. This strategy has prevented any large-scale conflict in Korea since 1953, achieving its preeminent goal. This strategy has come with significant costs, and has been far more effective at restraining the ROK than at deterring DPRK hostility. This alliance formulation has caused distrust, and has given the DPRK free reign to carry out limited provocations without worrying about actual reprisal. This dynamic is likely to continue as long as the alliance and the North Korean threat do. Indeed, as late as 2010, after North Korea sank the Cheonan, U.S. leaders were quick to condemn the attack, but also quick to urge both sides to show restraint.
Leon Whyte is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University as well as the Senior Editor for the Current Affairs section of the Fletcher Security Review. His research interests include transnational security and U.S. alliances in East Asia. You can follow him at @leon_whyte