Interview: Thomas Byrne on the Future of the US-ROK Alliance

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Interview: Thomas Byrne on the Future of the US-ROK Alliance

A conversation about prospects for the relationship amid domestic political changes in both countries.

Interview: Thomas Byrne on the Future of the US-ROK Alliance
Credit: U.S. Army Photo

Thomas J. Byrne is president of the Korea Society in New York. He recently spoke with The Diplomat’s associate editor Prashanth Parameswaran about the future of the U.S.-ROK alliance, as well the domestic politics in both countries. An edited version of that interview follows.

The Diplomat: South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye is currently embroiled in an impeachment scandal, and the ripple effects on the country’s domestic politics will likely persist through much of 2017. How do you see this playing out?

Thomas Byrne: First of all, the scheduled election if there weren’t this political crisis would have been at the end of this year, so this was to be the last year of President Park Geun-hye’s term. And the president’s party had also lost its majority position in the National Assembly earlier this year. So it looked like we were in for the possibility for the opposition party taking over anyway. There was this new dynamic developing even before the Choi Soon-sil scandal broke out at the end of October.

Now I think everything is up in the air. If the Constitutional Court upholds the impeachment, then there has to be an election really quickly, in two months, and the parties will have to scramble to come up with candidates. Two months is a short period of time, even in Korea which doesn’t have these long, drawn out election cycles like we do in the United States. There are a number of potential candidates whose names have been bandied about in the public opinion polls in Korea. What happened in previous elections is you have a dark horse which just appears on the scene, and wasn’t one of the initial candidates talked about. That happened with President Roh Moo-hyun.

We’ll have to see what happens with the Constitutional Court, but there’s a lot of uncertainty with Korean politics. The conservative party looks like it’s already going through a transformation, and there’s a lot of uncertainty there.

What do you think that uncertainty means for the U.S.-ROK alliance?

In regard to the security relationships, no matter which side of the spectrum you are in Korea, whether you’re a conservative or progressive, as long as you’re center-left or center-right, the value of a strong and robust U.S.-ROK alliance is pretty solid. So I don’t see much uncertainty there. After the election here in the U.S. of course President-elect Trump called President Park and reassured her that the U.S. commitment to South Korea was steady and strong. There’s less concern about that.

I think some of the commentary that was made by President-elect Trump during the campaign about burden sharing and South Korea not paying its fair share was misinformed. It seems to be pretty fair to me: 50-50 on personnel costs roughly, and South Korea is paying more than 90 percent, more than $10 billion dollars, of costs for relocation of the garrison from north of the Han River in Seoul to south of the Han River. And South Korea purchases its own military equipment. The last year I saw full data for was 2014 where they purchased more than Japan and were one of the largest purchasers. So there’s no military assistance given to South Korea, as we give to Israel and Egypt, where the taxpayer pays a big chunk of their arms purchases. South Korean citizens pay for their own arms. So the burden seems to be fair.

There’s some uncertainty about whether the 50-50 breakdown in terms of personnel costs is fair in the case of the new administration. We’ll have to see once the key positions are filled. But, still, I think I’m less concerned there will be a major rethink or reset of the alliance system and the true costs of basing troops and forward deployment in South Korea.

You’ve talked about where we might see continuity in the U.S.-ROK alliance. But where do you see the potential for change? There have been some concerns expressed that we could see some change with respect to some significant decisions, including THAAD deployment. Do you think those concerns are unfounded?

The comment that the speaker of the National Assembly, Chung Sye-kyun, has made about the [THAAD] system is that it wasn’t properly vetted through the National Assembly. Perhaps there’ll be more discussion about that in South Korea.

My understanding, however, is that, particularly after the fifth nuclear test by North Korea, a strong majority of South Korean citizens now feel threatened by North Korea. And so, how do you respond to that threat? Do you put in this anti-missile system? The Park government made the decision that this is in South Korea’s best interest. Years ago, North Korea wasn’t really perceived as being a direct threat to South Korea. Now I think it is pretty clear that South Koreans feel like it is. And so, given the public support for a stronger stance against North Korea, that could justify THAAD even if it is under a progressive government in the future.

But there is some uncertainty. China will probably seek to exploit that since the Chinese cannot be convinced that it is not directed at themselves. Yet you have the most senior American military officials, both current and past, who clearly say this is not directed against China.

Despite the strength and endurance of the U.S.-ROK alliance, there have been concerns on some issues in the past, with alignment on perceptions with respect to China being a major one. Do you see that as being an issue with the domestic transitions in both countries, and how do you see that playing out?

 South Korea has an alliance with the United States. And in South Korea, no matter where you sit on that political spectrum, as long as you’re center-left or center-right, that alliance is very much valued. At the same time, China is South Korea’s biggest economic partner on trade, and maybe in the future investment too even though that hasn’t really occurred yet. South Korea is not quite as open to foreign investment as other countries.

I don’t think that the United States – which has also sought to engage China – has felt that South Korea’s attempts to engage China, particularly economically but even politically to get China on board taking a firmer stance on North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, sees this as a problem, like when Park visited China during the WWII commemoration parade in Beijing. My understanding is that this was fine for South Korea to do that, to try another track in getting China on board for shared objectives.

I don’t think the United States feels threatened by closer economic ties, and if South Korea could get China on board to deal more effectively against the North Koreans, I think that would be a win-win situation for everybody.

Speaking of North Korea, the North Korean threat, as you mentioned, has been increasing and shows few signs of ebbing anytime soon. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, in his New Year’s address, indicated that it’s full steam ahead with respect to the development of its capabilities. How do you see the North Korean threat evolving through 2017?

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another nuclear test, more tests as it seeks to get a functional and reliable ICBM. I don’t see the North Koreans abandoning this desire to become a nuclear armed state with the capabilities to attack others. I don’t see them stopping until there’s a stronger and more unified and steady pressure placed on them.

Now, I think we need two tracks, both diplomacy as well as sanctions. And, the fact of the matter is, sanctions haven’t really been given the chance to work against North Korea. The sanctions regime has been piecemeal, and it hasn’t been comprehensively and consistently applied over a long period of time. That could change with the new round of sanctions adopted in March, and the tougher round of U.S. sanctions put in place a month before that, if China comes along and plays.

But even if China doesn’t come along and play, the United States can choose to put in place secondary sanctions. And financial sanctions bit really hard during the brief period back in 2005 when Banco Delta Asia was designated a money laundering concern which had ripple effects. The United States backed off because North Korea wouldn’t negotiate without having those sanctions relieved, but they really hurt North Korea. Financial sanctions would be very tough for North Korea because North Korea cannot develop its economy unless it has stronger financial and investment linkages with countries outside North Korea.

The sanctions regime today has been piecemeal, it’s been like a mallet, like a whack-a-mole game at an amusement park. An individual or an entity is designated as helping North Korea proliferate, so he is sanctioned or she is sanctioned. But comprehensive sanctions, like were imposed against Iran’s energy sector, are only now being implemented in North Korea in sectors like coal.

We’ve talked a lot about the regional context, but I wanted to bring things back now to the United States, where we have Donald Trump about to assume the presidency. There’s obviously been some worrying rhetoric on issues such as alliances and free trade. Are there any particular concerns you have about the U.S.-ROK alliance on the U.S. side?

The U.S and South Korea basically share common values. They’re both democracies, they both have been free trade countries.

We’ll see what goes on in the Trump administration with respect to trade policies. But the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement is not center-front in the sights of the Trump administration. NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] definitely is, along with others that siphon off jobs from the United States. But I don’t think KORUS is really like that. There hasn’t been a surge of investment to Korea following the agreement.

In contrast, the South Koreans have invested significantly more into the United States following that agreement. The growth of investment and the growth of jobs created by investment since the adoption of KORUS is faster than the pace we’ve seen in other similar cases, although it started from a low level. The number of workers hired by South Korean companies has actually doubled since KORUS. And they’re paid pretty well; higher than the average rate of a worker employed by a foreign company in the United States, which is beneficial for the U.S. economy. I think that’s the main beef that President-elect Trump and his advisers have with free trade, that they siphon off jobs. KORUS is not really siphoning off U.S. jobs; in fact, it is creating more jobs. So, according to that criteria, it should be a good free trade agreement. We’ll see if the Trump team comes around to that conclusion.

As we see domestic political transitions in both the United States and South Korea, what’s your checklist for both sides?

Basically, continuity with past policies. U.S.-South Korea relations hit a low point around 2002, but the relationship proved, to use an overused term, resilient, and they really bounced back. Now, the security relationship is more robust than ever, and North Korea is a clear and present danger, not just for the Korean Peninsula but the whole region. North Korean provocations now complicate the U.S.-China bilateral relationship, whereas at point, it looked like that was a shared geopolitical interest between the two countries. So first and foremost I think would be the maintenance of the security relationship.

Second, I think as I said before both countries benefit from the trade relationship. They could benefit more. South Korean companies could probably invest more in the United States, and, if South Korea became a bit more investor-friendly, I’m sure American companies would want to increase their investments in a number of key areas. South Korea is a big market, a sophisticated market, and it would be good for it to open up to more foreign investment. So the economic relationship could be strengthened, but, as I said before, there are already benefits that we see in that economic relationship.

Cultural exchanges are strengthening between the two sides, and I think that helps people become comfortable with each other and provides a foundation for the security and economic relationship to be strengthened.