Features | Diplomacy | East Asia

The US-South Korea Alliance and the China Factor

In the current context of U.S.-China competition, Washington’s strategic preferences and Seoul’s search for greater autonomy are clashing.

Clint Work
The US-South Korea Alliance and the China Factor

The South Korean and American flags fly next to each other at Yongin, South Korea, Aug. 23, 2016.

Credit: U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Ken Scar

In July, the U.S. Army War College’s (USAWC) Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) released a report titled “An Army Transformed: USINDOPACOM Hypercompetition and US Army Theater Design.” It questioned U.S. preparedness in the Indo-Pacific vis-à-vis China and argued that U.S. forces in South Korea (and Japan) are too concentrated and, though sufficient for a large-scale clash with North Korea, are “grossly inadequate for either hypercompetition or armed hostilities” with China.

Despite being the product of a U.S. Army think tank and not official U.S. government policy, the report apparently caused significant consternation among South Korean officials as a sign of things to come: either U.S. troop reductions or U.S. forces becoming entangled in wider regional contingencies.

Nonetheless, the report highlights a long-running fact: The U.S. presence in South Korea has never been just about the Korean Peninsula. Rather, it’s one node within a wider strategic tapestry. Although the immediate mission is to assist deterring and defending against Pyongyang, U.S. policymakers have long conceived of those forces and the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance within a larger framework. This enduring fact has run through U.S. discourse and strategic planning since World War II and continues today.

U.S. and South Korean policymakers have generally understood and agreed on this. However, at times it has caused very real tensions in the alliance. If left unattended, misunderstanding about this basic fact may cause greater friction. If approached constructively, it could serve both countries’ interests and foster stability on the peninsula and in the region.

Historically, the importance of Korea to wider imperatives helps explain why U.S. policymakers established the U.S. Army Military Government (USAMGIK, 1945-48) in Korea and a separate, anti-communist South Korean state. It helps explain why, despite the fact that Korea lacked any innate value in most Americans’ eyes and was even seen as a strategic liability by military planners, the United States rushed to its defense in the wake of North Korean invasion in June 1950.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

With the globalized reconceptualization of national security embodied in NSC-68 and the catalyzing effect of the Korean War, the U.S. peninsular deployment took on increased importance. The result was that after the war, Washington was willing to solidify its massive Korean commitment through a mutual defense treaty and stationing of tens of thousands of forward deployed troops.

Broader imperatives (and Korea’s derivative relationship to them) also help explain why, in spite of the fact the U.S. force presence was never meant to be permanent, successive American presidents who’ve pursued force reductions could never fully implement their plans as originally conceived. U.S. forces in Korea represented a sort of keystone in the regional arch. Too precipitous a reduction (or a full withdrawal) and the arch tumbles.

Once there, forward deployed U.S. forces provided closer access to China and the USSR in the case of a larger conflict during the Cold War. Moreover, as part of the general U.S. force structure in the Western Pacific, the immediate threat environment on the Korean Peninsula provided a high-level training ground for U.S. troops, acting as a platform for potential deployment elsewhere. For example, the 1st Calvary Division, which participated early on during the Korean War, later returned to the peninsula as the main front line infantry division situated along the western portion of the DMZ in 1957, and was deployed to Vietnam in 1965. The Second Infantry Division (2ID) replaced it on the front line. Following the later U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia, U.S. forces in Korea remained the last Asian mainland foothold, thus enhancing their strategic importance as a symbol of U.S. leadership and credibility in the region.

After the Cold War, a similar dynamic prevailed. In the mid-2000s, as the United States focused on strategic flexibility on and around the Korean Peninsula, 2ID’s 2nd Brigade was tapped for deployment to Iraq and did not return to the peninsula. More recently, the Army transformed 2ID’s last forward deployed brigade into a rotational Armored Combat Brigade Team (ACBT). Since then various ACBTs have deployed to the peninsula from the United States. The rotational process helps build more armored brigades and rotational force readiness across the U.S. Army, which fits squarely within a larger strategy to increase mobility and expeditionary capabilities alongside lighter forward deployed footprints globally.

Importantly, the U.S. vision of Korea as embedded within a wider hegemonic framework is not limited to U.S. forces. It extends to the ROK military as well. From the earliest formation of the South Korean constabulary during the USAMGIK period, American officials aimed to create interdependent yet indigenous anti-communist forces as part of its increasingly global conception of national security; as Steven Lee writes, “to create interdependent centers of power, not independent ones.” Allies were a supplement to U.S. capacity.

In later years, due to budget deficits and shifting strategic calculations and as South Korean capabilities increased, the supplementary role of the ROK military was made more explicit in the U.S. “More Flags” campaign and Seoul’s large deployment of combat forces in Vietnam. The add-on role of ROK forces was further conceptualized under the Nixon administration with Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird’s “Koreanization” of ROK defense alongside simultaneous inclusion of ROK forces in U.S. “Total Force Planning.”

To be clear, this was not an arrangement to which South Korean leaders were unwittingly subject. From their perspective, being a junior partner or client in the larger Cold War project provided numerous advantages. Successive South Korean presidents proved eager to play a supplementary role in U.S. conflicts sometimes before Washington was willing to accept such contributions. For Seoul’s conservative and military elite, it was a deeply instrumental logic.

They saw such willingness as a means to continue receiving much needed U.S. economic and military assistance, to shore up the U.S. commitment in light of possible troop reductions, and to bolster their internal legitimacy. Perhaps President Chun Doo-hwan’s statement to President Ronald Reagan during their 1981 summit embodied the sentiment best. South Korea “could not only stop North Korean aggression but could also be a strategic asset for the United States in Northeast Asia,” Chun said.

ROK deployments in support of U.S. and multilateral security missions included the aforementioned Vietnam deployment and smaller medical, engineering, guard, and support units to both Iraq wars, Afghanistan, and various peace keeping operations (PKOs), usually under U.N.-auspices. Several of these deployments occurred under progressive South Korean presidents, demonstrating the depth of this inherent agreement.

As the 1990s progressed, though, and South Korea’s democracy consolidated under progressive opposition leaders, a growing diversity of voices entered the foreign policy process. Alongside its continued economic growth and emergence as a middle power, South Korean presidents strove more openly for autonomy both within and outside the alliance. However, as Scott Snyder writes, due to the broad convergence of U.S. and South Korean interests and depth of Seoul’s structural ties to the United States, “a true independence option was not politically or practically feasible.” Still, over time, the relationship has transformed into what both scholars and U.S. and South Korean officials call a strategic alliance. Seoul has taken on a greater burden, improved relations with major powers other than the United States, and contributed to U.S. and multilateral security cooperation while also limiting Washington’s ability to impose its strategic preferences.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

However, in the current context of U.S.-China competition, Washington’s strategic preferences and Seoul’s search for greater autonomy are clashing, particularly in Northeast Asia. While Seoul has borne an increasing defense burden on the peninsula and contributed significantly to U.S. and multilateral security missions globally, there remains a sort of donut hole in Seoul’s contribution within the region, as one former official described it. Or, as another put it, the alliance went global before it went regional, and this gap will become a bigger issue over time, possibly threatening the relevancy of the alliance.

Official U.S. policy refers to the U.S.-ROK alliance as “the linchpin of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia, as well as the Korean Peninsula”; a key node within the larger Indo-Pacific strategy, a strategy focused on contesting China’s expansionist and illiberal vision for the region and beyond. It is clear that U.S. strategists view South Korea as embedded within a larger strategic tapestry with “enormous potential for the ROK as a complementary regional security exporter,” as the USAWC report states.

The report continues: 

Over time, South Korea—like Japan—will provide the United States with a potential operational strongpoint with myriad options for a widely distributed Joint Force enabling grid. The RoK provides for US presence on the Asian mainland, and it is well within the PRC’s anti-access/area-denial umbrella. Ultimately, as both an independent pan-Pacific security force and reliable US ally, South Korea has enormous potential for affecting outcomes both on the Asian mainland and well outside of the Korean peninsula in the wider Indo-Pacific.

This enormous potential (admittedly a conditional phrase) will be the result of a process of alliance transformation already underway. Yet it’s apparent Seoul is not readily embracing the American vision.

For example, in June, Seoul’s ambassador to Washington told reporters he feels pride in South Korea being able to “choose” between the United States and China and not be forced to choose. David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, soon thereafter said that “Korea made a choice back in the ’80s…That’s the choice; they chose democracy.” Alliance transformation is complicated by this divide. During a July 22 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, “Advancing Effective U.S. Competition with China,” Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun remarked that the near-term priority should be to settle the ongoing cost-sharing dispute with Seoul, fund the alliance, and have a “strategic discussion” about its long-term future. However, embedded in the cost-sharing dispute are questions about its strategic future.

In the cost-sharing talks, Washington has proposed greater financial contributions from Seoul for U.S. rotational deployments. However, it’s rightly understood that the rotational deployments are not just about South Korea but part of a larger U.S. strategy. Reportedly, during the talks Washington also proposed revisions to a joint crisis management manual that expands the concept of crisis, warranting a joint response not only for contingencies on the Korean Peninsula, but also U.S. contingencies elsewhere, from the South China Sea to the Middle East and beyond. Seoul has pushed back against both proposals. And this doesn’t even begin to address the fact that the South Korean public is overwhelmingly against increasing payments to anywhere near what President Trump has demanded.

The same goes for Seoul’s effort to take greater responsibility for its conventional land defense, including the transition of wartime operational control (OPCON) from a U.S. commander to a South Korean commander. Although the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) test for OPCON transfer occurred in 2019, the Full Operational Capability (FOC) test has been partly delayed. The main reason is COVID-19, which forced the cancellation of the joint exercises in the spring and required a scaled down version of the summertime exercises. Only a minimum number of the necessary staff were able to take part in the summer exercises due to concerns over the virus’ spread.

Nevertheless, South Korean progressives believe the U.S. Army has been uncooperative and obstructed completion of OPCON transfer. Reportedly, the United States insisted the summer exercise should focus on joint readiness against North Korea rather than assessing the full operational capability of the future ROK-led CFC. The perception in Seoul is that behind Washington’s stance is the feeling that wartime OPCON transfer runs counter to its strategy to contain China. Whether or not this is accurate, historically Washington has indeed shown a distinct reticence to cede too much initiative to Seoul. Either way, the perception is real and requires greater alliance consultation.

The Trump administration argues the United States can no longer afford to carry so much of the burden in alliances. But it also can’t afford to let alliances languish due to inattention or degrade due to a misplaced assumption that it can dictate terms. Allies are more essential now than ever, and if Washington is going to pressure and persuade allies to take on more of the burden both in terms of budget and capability, it also must allow them to have more leeway and responsibility and even lead the way in certain areas. Seoul’s uniquely vulnerable geopolitical and middle power position give it distinct insight in how best to traverse a constantly shifting strategic environment and maximize limited resources. Washington could stand to better consider their allies’ insights (Tokyo’s included) as well as foster better trilateral relations, a role which Trump has all but abdicated.

Moreover, regarding North Korea, Washington should embrace Seoul taking the lead with substantive inter-Korean projects as a necessary precondition and potential means for inducing substantive denuclearization talks. Otherwise, Pyongyang has no incentive to take Seoul’s overtures seriously. This requires a more deliberate effort by Washington to better incorporate Seoul’s perspective but also abandon its failed maximalist approach toward Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program and instead allow for a step-by-step, reciprocal, and verifiable set of actions. The current trend, wherein Washington dithers, Seoul is embarrassingly and repeatedly rebuffed, and North Korea continues to develop its capabilities, only alienates allies and provides Pyongyang breathing space and a slow-moving normalization of its nuclear status.

But this is not just about South Korea. Without making such substantive improvements with Pyongyang and creating a stable situation on the Korean Peninsula, Seoul cannot turn its attention elsewhere and begin to fill the regional gap U.S. policymakers want it to. If the U.S.-China competition is in fact the new “organizing principle” of U.S. national defense strategy, then putting greater effort into diplomacy with North Korea and settling the longstanding Korea question would help further that strategy. It isn’t just a progressive’s dream in Seoul. It’s in the US interest as well.

The Trump administration seems to think it is still 1946, the United States has half the world’s productive capacity, and can assert its preferences upon dependent allies. It isn’t. It doesn’t. And it can’t. Allies can no longer be considered as add-ons to U.S. capacity but should be treated as equal partners in a shared endeavor. After all, COVID-19 shows us not only that the United States needs allies but that many of them are more capable than Washington in responding to new and emerging threats.