Who’s Driving the Wedge Into US-South Korea Relations?

Don’t blame Pyongyang: the United States and South Korea are weakening their alliance on their own.

Who’s Driving the Wedge Into US-South Korea Relations?
Credit: Cheong Wa Dae

There has been concern for months about a rift the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance. As the diplomatic torrent of 2018 involving both Koreas and the United States took off ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, U.S. commentators were warning that North Korea wanted to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Following the Singapore Summit between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June 2018, more alarms were sounded about North Korean wedge-driving. With all the wedge talk, South Korean and U.S. officials have often stared into cameras to assure the world that all is well in their alliance.

Painting North Korea as the wedge-wielding villain is natural given its nefarious march to developing nuclear weapons, history of breaking deals, abhorrent human rights record, and unique ability to balance China and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) off each other to pursue its own interests. It’s a convenient narrative, and easy to sell. Yet while North Korea certainly is not opposed to tensions in U.S.-ROK relations, it is not the main instigator of the discord. The United States and South Korea are weakening their alliance on their own. And the fundamental reason for the widening gap between the United States and South Korea is a difference in national interests on the Korean Peninsula and how to pursue their interests. These interests are not decided by Pyongyang, but formed by leaders in Washington and Seoul.

The chasm between the two partners was clearly on display for all to see in U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement of November 20, 2018: “We have made clear to the Republic of Korea that we do want to make sure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea aren’t lagging behind the increase in the amount of inter-relationship between the two Koreas. We view them as tandem, as moving forward together.” In other words, to U.S. policymakers, peace and denuclearization are two different outcomes that must be reached separately, although preferably simultaneously. Lurking behind this statement is the military option. Denuclearization can be achieved via violence through pre-emptive war and peace would come after a regime change in North Korea. Thus, the priority for Washington is denuclearization, not peace. And the means to achieve that goal span from war to sanctions, but do not include economic engagement or sanctions relief.

This fundamentally conflicts with South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s North Korea policy. For South Korea, peace and prosperity are the first priority. To achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, the resolution of the nuclear issue is a single goal, and it is accompanied by two others: developing sustainable inter-Korean relations and building a new economic community on the Korean Peninsula. No sequencing exists for achieving these three goals, as they all contribute to the ultimate national interest of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula. If advances in inter-Korean relations are easier to make than immediately achieving denuclearization, that is not a problem according to the policy of the Moon administration. With peace as Seoul’s main interest, the government rejects a violent resolution to the nuclear issue and prefers easing sanctions and economic engagement to induce North Korea out of its isolation and into the community of nations; presumably it will then become enmeshed in the world economy and forsake violent provocations and, eventually, nuclear weapons.

This is where the wedge exists in U.S.-ROK relations. North Korea did not orchestrate this fundamental difference in the national interests of the two alliance partners. Seoul and Washington are just not in sync when it comes to engaging North Korea. The United States is seeking denuclearization first and foremost, while South Korea has a broader goal of peace and prosperity. The methods to achieve these interests are also divergent.

The United States has not been shy about forcing South Korea to adopt its denuclearization-first policy either. As South Koreans make plans for potential economic cooperation initiatives with North Korea as part of the Moon administration’s goal of realizing an economic community on the Korean Peninsula, Washington is issuing veiled threats if such economic ties are reopened before sanctions are lifted — and sanctions will not be lifted until denuclearization is underway. This behavior, along with comments from Trump questioning the sovereignty of South Korea, are likely to deepen the split further than anything Kim Jong Un could hope to do.

Can the alliance be saved? Certainly. But the national interests of the two countries will have to realign. The bedrock of the alliance throughout the Cold War was anti-communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union the two allies remained steadfast in opposing North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon, although they often disagreed on how to go about halting it. While there are still doubts about North Korean nuclear and missile technology, Kim Jong Un has declared “mission accomplished” and is now striding out to engage the international community. This represents a new era in relations with North Korea for both South Korea and the United States, and there is disagreement about how to deal with this new, confident Pyongyang. The United States, for the most part, has yet to change course. Despite Trump’s flashy summit with Kim, the bedrock of U.S. North Korea policy remains “final, fully verified denuclearization.” While South Korea affirms its commitment to that goal, it is only a part of its North Korea policy, which is more fixed on realizing peace on the Peninsula. Either the United States will have to adjust its goals to align with South Korea or a return of the conservatives to the Blue House will be needed if the two long-time allies are to get back on the same page.

Benjamin A. Engel is a Researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies and holds an MA in Korean Studies from the same school. His research interests include modern Korean history, democratization in East Asia, and U.S. foreign policy.