The US and South Korea: A Fracturing Alliance?

Main Image Credit The Kaesong industrial complex. Courtesy of Mimura/Wikicommons

While there is a strong relationship between the US and South Korea, the new administrations in both capitals face challenges in adopting a common approach to Pyongyang.

US President Donald Trump and newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in are holding their first official meeting later this week. Security on the Korean Peninsula will be a priority.

The US’s policy of extended deterrence to South Korea is a major feature of the alliance. One key aspect of the US commitment is the force deployment to the country, with the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) – an anti-ballistic missile defence system – a recent addition.

However, reports suggest the US–South Korean relationship is currently strained. There has been some friction over the deployment of THAAD: Moon has been openly critical of the deployment and is conducting a review. There has also been increasing pressure to address the enduring challenge of North Korea. So, is the alliance between Washington and Seoul starting to show cracks?

Under former Presidents Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye there appeared to be a robust consensus on strengthening US military presence on the Korean Peninsula to bolster extended deterrence. This was to be achieved by increasing joint exercises and troop rotations, and the deployment of THAAD. But as the two new administrations have taken hold in both Washington and Seoul, there appear to be some important differences in the approaches of the two capitals on handling the North Korean crisis.

Moon Jae-in ran an election campaign that put re-engagement with Pyongyang at the centre of his North Korea policy. Frequently likened to former liberal Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s Sunshine policy, Moon wants to increase both dialogue and economic engagement with North Korea.

Still, although Moon has started to develop his statements beyond the headlines generated on the campaign trail, a clear-cut policy is yet to emerge in Seoul. During his campaign, Moon called for a reopening of the Kaesong industrial complex, the joint North–South industrial investment venture closed by President Park following North Korea’s launch of a satellite in February last year.

However, since his swearing-in, Moon’s stance on Kaesong appears to have changed. Statements suggesting the reopening of the complex have since been caveated with a precondition that North Korea should cease its tests, and that direct engagement between Seoul and Pyongyang should be dependent on the ‘conditions being right’.

However engagement is still a priority and Seoul administration appointees appear to be in line with Moon’s preference for engagement. The former coordinator of two inter-Korea summits, Suh Hoon, has been appointed national intelligence service chief, and Cho Myoung-gyon, who spent many years working on and overseeing projects on North–South ties, was nominated as unification minister. Moon has also reportedly doubled the size of the National Security Council to create the capacity for a sustained engagement.

Moon also acknowledged the need continue to pressure the northern communist regime in the form of sanctions implementation, but has suggested building confidence and engagement measures such as jointly hosting international sporting events. Still, he has made clear that no concessions can continue should North Korea persist in its nuclear and missile developments.

President Trump has also sought to bear a combination of pressure and engagement. During his campaign, Trump stated he would be willing to share a burger with Kim Jong-un, appearing to put negotiations without preconditions on the table. Since then, however, US administration officials have noted on a number of occasions that strategic patience – the approach to North Korea associated with the Obama era – is over. This immediately suggested that pressure from sanctions to bring Pyongyang back to negotiations was no longer the key US strategy.

However, this implied divergence from the old Obama strategy may not be so absolute. In a White House briefing on the matter, it emerged that the new US administration intends to continue to pressure North Korea towards negotiations. Trump appeared to put greater emphasis on an increased role for China in bringing this about, but this effort appears short lived, with Trump since tweeting that China’s efforts have not worked out.

Sanctions implementation against the North Korean regime appears to be an area of convergence for Trump and Moon, although both presidents have also recognised that this is not enough. There are other differences on this topic: for Moon, the additional tool is engagement; for Trump, additional military pressure appears to be prominent. It is these suggestions of additional military pressure that have implied strains on the alliance.

When tensions increased around the weekend of North Korea’s Day of the Sun celebrations in April, the administration deployed the USS Carl Vinson carrier group to the region – although mistakenly so in the first instance. Days prior to this, US Vice President Mike Pence remarked that North Korea should not test the resolve of President Trump, and cited events in Syria and Afghanistan as evidence of the danger of doing otherwise.

Prior to the election, Moon told reporters that the US will need to consult with South Korea before it takes confrontational measures, and that ‘South Korea should be the owner of North Korean issues and take the lead in dealing with them’, signifying a clash of leadership in this area.

But this strain is merely a result of miscommunication between allies, rather than hinting to a wider fracturing of strategic approaches, for the broad ideas touted in US and in South Korea approaches share large similarities. Both presidents seem to have highlighted pressure and engagement as options, although what they have failed to do so far is align these tools to the end-game they seek to achieve.

The US has a major concern about the development and deployment of a North Korean ICBM tipped with a nuclear warhead. President Moon, and South Korea more generally, want to prioritise immediate stability, improving relations and averting the risk of military confrontation.

The alliance is, therefore, not fracturing, although there is little doubt that more communication is required. At their forthcoming summit, Presidents Trump and Moon must talk seriously about their goals and preferred pathways in order to strengthen their common ground; any new strategic approach which emerges must be a joint effort and adequately address the concerns of both sides of the alliance.

As South Korea’s newly appointed National Security Council head, Chung Eui-yong, has stated, ample room exists ‘for the US and South Korea to calibrate and plan their joint engagement with the North’.

Now, the presidents must make this happen.


Cristina Varriale

Research Fellow

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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