Trans-Pacific View

3 Obstacles to US-South Korea Cooperation on the North Korea Issue

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Trans-Pacific View

3 Obstacles to US-South Korea Cooperation on the North Korea Issue

The alliance cannot hope to address the North Korea threat until it overcomes these three hurdles.

3 Obstacles to US-South Korea Cooperation on the North Korea Issue
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Bobbie G. Attaway

With the ever worsening nuclear and missile threats from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, commonly known as North Korea), the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) and the United States, as allies, are standing at an important crossroad. Although both South Korea and the United States share a history of working together to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, they have been criticized for failing to act in a synchronized manner during times of heightened tensions, due to the differing perceptions and policy options in the face of North Korean nuclear threat. The upcoming summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in holds great meaning in that it will serve as a first bridgehead for the two allies to resolve the North Korean issue together.

There are also worrisome echoes recollecting the history of disconnect between the Roh and Bush administrations, with some observers concerned that the Trump administration’s “America First” policy and the Moon government’s overall foreign policy stance of self-reliance might cause conflict at the summit. Added to this are domestic frictions in South Korea regarding the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and the media reporting on the infuriated U.S. president as he is briefed on the situation. Remembering past experiences and lessons learned, both countries must overcome three hurdles at this summit if they are to resolve the nuclear crisis.

Segmented Domestic Preferences

The first hurdle for the alliance to overcome is the discord between national preferences. The conflicts that arise due to different policy preferences on North Korea are more visible at the domestic level. In this era of the third North Korean nuclear crisis, which has continued under North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Pyongyang is persistently testing its nuclear and missile capabilities. However, the alliance has been unable to hold a firm and balanced response due to domestic political divisions.

The United States has taken a cautious stance on military intervention after 15-plus years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and lacks the decisive power to  break through the thorny dynamics of the Six-Party Talks, which is now further complicated by the rise of China, Japan’s “military normalization,” and an increasingly assertive Russia. On the other hand, South Korea has its own difficulties in pursuing a consistent policy toward North Korea due to the ideological discord between the conservative and progressive camps.

It is hard to say that the two countries’ policies are set in stone as they prepare for the presidential summit this week. There are still plenty of vacancies in the diplomatic security teams on both sides. After the historic impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, South Korea is confronted with new hurdles to overcome, such as garnering domestic political consensus and establishing a financial base in order to build a new policy toward North Korea. Meanwhile, the four main pillars of the Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea are not contradictory to preexisting policies, but could change at any time because of China’s economic and military rise and the increasingly bold stance taken by North Korea. The controversial option of a surgical strike has even been debated in the United States.

Therefore, at this summit, the two leaders need to be prudent in approaching the agenda as they have not had enough time to draw up domestic consensus on their North Korean policies. Since this is an important first meeting that will determine the future framework of U.S.-ROK relations going forward, coming to an agreement on the basic principles of policy direction will suffice.

Discrepancies in Threat Perceptions

The second hurdle is the different threat perceptions in the alliance. Although North Korea is increasing the intensity of its blackmail and intimidation, the sense of urgency felt by South Korea and the United States can hardly be compared.

This is not a new problem. In May 2003, for example, the United States demanded a hardline policy against North Korea, which the Bush administration referred to as part of the “axis of evil,” but South Korea advocated for a more careful approach. This revealed the differences between the two sides. In particular, then-President Roh Moo-hyun sent a false signal to the United States in 2005 when he announced that “South Korea needs to be at the center of balance in Northeast Asia.”

During that tumultuous time for the alliance, South Korea criticized the United States for only pursuing hardline policies, and Washington denounced Seoul for its heavy reliance on conciliatory gestures toward the North. As a result, North Korea was able to take advantage of the fissures in the alliance. Although the 13 rounds of the Six-Party Talks initially suggested a path to the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue, Pyongyang demonstrated its capability and determination to possess nukes by conducting two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

At this summit, there is a possibility that the stark difference in threat perceptions by the two countries will be accentuated. Moon Chung-in, the special adviser to President Moon, ruffled feathers when he argued for the possibility of discussing the reduction of U.S. strategic assets in South Korea and scaling down joint military exercises if Pyongyang halts its nuclear and missile activities. Although the Korean Blue House quickly came to distance the administration from the special envoy, the White House still holds doubts about the possibility of the South pursuing its own North Korean policy without prior coordination with Washington. Media reports of President Donald Trump’s outrage over South Korea’s decision to suspend THAAD deployment, which will inevitably delay the time when the THAAD battery can achieve full operational capability, fleshes out concerns that Trump might come to a shocking decision to withdraw the THAAD system and/or change the deployment of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

However, the alliance was established and maintained to jointly respond to common threats. Koreans should not forget the missile threats pointing at USFK and targeting the U.S. homeland, and Americans should be mindful of Seoul’s vulnerable defense environment and the all-out pressure coming from China. The key of the alliance is credibility. And the key to credibility is not about claiming one’s own position, but beginning to understand the counterpart’s circumstance.

The Asymmetric Alliance Dilemma

The third hurdle is the dilemma of the asymmetric alliance, which emerges during the alliance’s interactions. Any asymmetric alliance will involve trade-offs between “entrapment/abandonment” and “security/autonomy” as well as balancing alliance burden-sharing. If the alliance’s preferred countermeasures diverge, and the alliance is only loosely connected in an institutional or behavioral manner, it cannot respond appropriately to the common threat.

For instance, during the 1993 ROK-U.S. summit, President Kim Young-sam criticized the United States as an ally for failing to maintain South Korea’s confidence. In particulate, Kim expressed his dissatisfaction with “the United States merely informing already ‘decided’ policy to South Korea.” In 1994, moreover, South Korea feared being implicated in the U.S.-planned surgical air raid on North Korea; at the same time, Seoul was worried about being pushed aside in the U.S. dialogue with North Korea. After the Agreed Framework was inked, the alliance suffered conflicts over cost-sharing, including funding the promised light-water reactor, which ultimately allowed Pyongyang to buy time to develop its own nuclear weapons.

The inevitable dilemma intrinsic in the asymmetric alliance structure must be overcome with the credibility of the alliance, and the key goal to be achieved at this summit should be restoring that credibility. First of all, South Korea needs to attend to U.S. concerns by addressing its position on THAAD deployment and its North Korean policy. Ultimately, Seoul should be willing to bargain, sacrificing a certain level of autonomy for safeguarding national security. The United States, on the other hand, needs to understand the worries of its counterpart, such as the drive to keep South Korea’s autonomy, fears over possible entrapment and abandonment, and the need for reassurance about U.S. extended deterrence. South Korea plays a key role in eliminating North Korea’s nuclear threat and managing the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. For the United States, having a close ally such as South Korea in the Asian region is essential to containing the rise of China and sustaining the U.S. presence in Asia.

The alliance has successfully deterred a North Korean invasion and its thirst for reunification under communist rule for more than 60 years, since the end of Korean War. Of course, there have been noticeable conflicts, such as Washington’s lukewarm response to North Korea’s attack on the Blue House in 1968, the partial withdrawal of U.S. forces in South Korea during the Nixon and Carter administrations, and South Korea’s independent nuclear development under President Park Chung-hee. Regardless of the past hiccups and the internal struggle within the alliance, it was able to withstand those challenges for the betterment of the Korean Peninsula.

Now the North Korean nuclear crisis puts the ROK-U.S. alliance to the test once again. If the three hurdles listed above are overcome, the alliance will come out stronger and be able to contribute to the security and prosperity of both countries. This first summit between Moon and Trump should be a process of overcoming hurdles, through these three steps: garnering domestic consensus on North Korea policy, reaching a shared threat perception in the alliance, and restoring credibility to overcome the dilemma of the asymmetric alliance.

Hanbyeol Sohn is currently an assistant professor at department of Military Strategy, Korea National Defense University (KNDU). His research areas include the ROK-U.S. alliance, Northeast Asian security, and nuclear strategy.