Trans-Pacific View

Is the US-South Korea Alliance in Trouble?

Recent trends suggest that U.S.-South Korea relations are increasingly strained.

Is the US-South Korea Alliance in Trouble?
Credit: Official White House photo by Andrea Hanks

While the resplendent beauty of cherry blossoms returned to Seoul this spring, the hordes of curious and free-spending Chinese tourists, upon which the local Korean economy has become dependent, did not. In the wake of an as-yet unresolved spat between South Korea and neighboring China over the former’s agreement to host the U.S.-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense system in 2016, the flow of visitors, inbound investment and trade from mainland China to South Korea shifted from a deluge to a trickle. Key export-driven sectors like entertainment, cosmetics, automobiles, electronics, and tourism were hit hard by the virtual Chinese boycott. Many Koreans have openly wondered whether crossing Beijing to maintain favor with an erratic Washington was wise and in the nation’s long-term interest. In light of South Korea’s rising economic codependence with and historical affinity for China, the rise of a progressive government historically given to wariness toward the United States., and younger Koreans’ increasing skepticism toward Washington’s geopolitical motives on the peninsula, it is fair to ask whether the best days of this security alliance, and the sometimes uneasy friendship that accompanied it, are over.

China is now Korea’s largest trading partner by a large margin; the Middle Kingdom was the destination for more than $90 billion in South Korean exports in 2017. This figure has grown more than 82 percent over the last five years, and was nearly double the value of goods and services sold to the United States (just over $46 billion), where bilateral trade volumes have grown far more sluggishly, at about 7 percent over the same period. But China’s concomitant emergence as a tech and industrial power in its own right means that South Korea cannot simply rely on its neighbor as a captive consumer market for wildly popular South Korean music, movies, and beauty products. China is also a source of technology, research and development, and even competition in South Korea’s other leading industries. Chinese rivals have continued to capture significant market share from South Korean shipbuilding, chemical, and consumer electronics companies. As bilateral economic ties grow and evolve, good relations with China will become more important to Seoul.

As the complexity of the trade and cultural relationship has grown amidst China’s emergence as an economic superpower, so too have Beijing’s assertiveness and confidence in perceiving that it can, at a minimum, give Seoul major pause in simply going along with the demands of its long-time U.S. ally. The de facto trade sanctions imposed by China may already have borne fruit: despite Seoul’s acceptance of the THAAD shipments, some reports indicate that the South Korean government hasn’t decided when or where to deploy additional batteries. This hesitation may reflect an apparent (if implicit) bowing to Beijing’s pressure campaign. Recent strong-arming of South Korean counterparts by the Trump administration to renegotiate portions of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has repeatedly criticized since his 2016 presidential campaign, may also trigger resentment in South Korean diplomatic circles, while bringing little substantive economic change: U.S. exporters were unable to even reach the original export quotas, suggesting that the raising of these levels will make no practical difference in the volume of trade.

The election of President Moon Jae-in last year, South Korea’s first liberal president since 2007, following two staunchly pro-American administrations, ushered in a new era with predictable consequences. The disparity between the liberal government in Seoul and the Republican administration in Washington has led many to predict that U.S.-South Korea relations are heading south and likely to stay there. The last time a liberal South Korean president was paired with a conservative U.S. counterpart, the two allies witnessed a significant rollback in relations, including a wave of angry anti-U.S. protests in Seoul following a tragic accident in which two Korean schoolgirls were run over by a U.S. Army personnel carrier, a gradual reduction in the size of U.S. forces on the peninsula (from 37,000 to less than 24,000), and a decision to plan the removal of U.S. Forces Korea/8th Army headquarters from Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. Early in his term, Moon drew rebukes in U.S. conservative circles for his suggestion that the United States could not launch a preemptive attack against North Korea without the South’s permission.

U.S. hawks are concerned that Seoul’s eagerness to defuse tensions and compassion for its brothers to the North will make the achievement of conservatives’ strategic goals, which include the maintenance of a U.S. military foothold on the Asian continent, problematic. Moon has been reluctant to publicly advance the perception of any rift with Washington. But his sky-high 71 percent approval rating among the South Korean public and his party’s condemnation of its now-disgraced conservative predecessors’ obsequiousness toward the U.S. make it likely a more formal and transactional, if not estranged, relationship with Washington will continue to emerge over the remaining four-plus years of Moon’s term. Ironically, a move toward a permanent peace, as much as a move toward war, between the U.S. and North Korea may produce the same effect: without the need for Washington’s military muscle, South Koreans may see their future along a more culturally comfortable Asian axis than a trans-Pacific one.

But perhaps the biggest long-term threat to Washington’s influence over Korean security and strategy is demographic: the younger voters in South Korea, culturally influential and a critical part of Moon’s political base, are openly skeptical, if not hostile, toward Washington’s intentions. A well-publicized recent survey of incoming South Korean military cadets identified the United States, not North Korea or even Korea’s colonial occupier Japan, as the nation’s leading security threat. Far too young to share their grandparents’ nostalgia for the arrival of U.S.-led UN forces in the dramatic Incheon landing, younger Koreans have watched the United States wage wars of choice and topple regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and fear the massive death and destruction that could follow a similar action launched against its North Korean neighbors. Younger South Koreans feel that their nation’s burgeoning success as a cultural, sporting, and geopolitical power deserves greater respect and attention, and have found more receptive and appreciative audiences in neighboring Asian countries, China in particular, than they have in the United States. Young Koreans are turning their attention to China; more now study on the Chinese mainland than in the United States.

For U.S. voters, the planned summit with North Korea later this spring should force a reckoning of the future prospects of the South Korean alliance. In the event of a war between nuclear powers, are U.S. citizens really willing to trade San Francisco for Seoul? The risks of a nuclear attack against the U.S. homeland created by a seemingly outdated security arrangement designed to contain the spread of communism may be too great for many to accept, and even a moment’s hesitation in affirming their commitment may cause many suspicious Koreans to conclude that their trust in a U.S. security umbrella has been misplaced and naive. Conversely, if Trump and Kim Jong-un can strike a deal which eliminates the North’s nuclear arsenal and joins the two Koreas together peacefully, how can America justify the costs, in blood, treasure and goodwill, of maintaining its robust presence on the peninsula, itself the raison d’etre of the bilateral alliance? While the events of the coming months will surely tell us more, it is conceivable that South Korea’s economic maturity and changing political priorities, coupled with Washington’s reassessment of its security needs and priorities, may soon drive these once unshakable allies widely and perhaps irrevocably apart.

Patrick Monaghan is a former U.S. Navy intelligence officer, who served as indications and warning officer at the Combined Forces Command in Seoul from 1999-2000. He is now a practicing attorney, corporate Board member and technology investor, residing in Seoul. All opinions expressed here are his own.