The U.S.-ROK alliance was built on the logic of the Cold War and kept in place by authoritarian leaders in South Korea. The shift away from these two key realities has led many on both sides to seek to change the fundamentals of the alliance. South Korea’s growing strength is leading to questions on both sides about the necessity of its current dependence on America for security. The ROK and the U.S. share similar concerns about North Korea, but there are key differences in priorities. Also, South Korea has differing economic and foreign relations priorities in East Asia as it becomes more of an important global actor. In the US, these changes are causing some resentment over the high price of maintaining the US presence in Korea, as well as the view that the Korean’s are not contributing enough to the alliance. Relations between America and South Korea were at a low point during ROK President Roh Moo-Hyun and American President George W. Bush’s time in office.
Many of South Korean President Roh’s (2003-2008) positions and comments presented a turn away from the traditional alliance, such as during his presidential campaign when he said that during any potential conflict between America and North Korea, “we will not side with North Korea or the United States,” and suggested that if a conflict broke out, South Korea could act as a mediator and ask for concessions from both sides. This continued throughout his presidency, in 2007, Roh told visiting American Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the “biggest security threats in Asia were the U.S. and Japan.” Aside from his comments, Roh also sought to assert South Korean sovereignty by returning OPCON to the ROK army.
During the Presidency of George W. Bush, there was a fundamental disagreement of how to approach the North Korean threat. Bush personally despised Kim Jong-Il and was loath to engage with North Korea, but the two South Korean Presidents in power during his term, Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun made engaging with North Korea central to their presidencies. When President Kim Dae-Jung came to Washington D.C. to visit President Bush, Bush referred to Kim Dae-Jung as “this man” in an official joint statement, angering the Korean public who saw it as a sign of disrespect. Many South Koreans also disapproved of President Bush labeling North Korea part of the “Axis of Evil” as it directly conflicted with the current South Korean Sunshine Policy. During this time period, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld openly contemplated reducing troop levels in South Korea, as well as planning to institute a policy of strategic flexibility that would enable American troops to deploy from Korea to conflict zones like the then current war in Iraq.
The current South Korean president, Park Geun-hye has a more positive perception of the U.S.-ROK alliance. President Park has been maintaining the close cooperation started by her predecessor, President Lee Myung-Bak, with the U.S. on North Korean issues. However, even with a more conservative president and closer coordination, there will remain differences in U.S.-ROK priorities in the region. South Korea depends on the US strategically, but it has to be careful to balance that relationship with the economic importance of its largest trading partner, China. Also, South Korea cannot view North Korea solely in terms of its nuclear program or security issues. One initiative started by President Park is known as her “Trustpolitik.” Although the policy promises to remain tough in the face of North Korean provocations, it also focuses on increased engagement with North Korea, such as offering the possibility of talks with the current Kim Jong-Un regime, increased South Korean investment in North Korea, and continued humanitarian aid to the North Korean population.
In America, two of the key criticisms regarding US-ROK relations are costs and unequal contributions. In fiscal year 2012, non-personnel U.S. costs in South Korea were estimated to be $1.1 billion dollars. In coming years there will also be considerable American expenses involved with moving US forces from current bases in Seoul and near the DMZ to bases further south. In 2014, Seoul agreed to cover $867 million of US military costs in Korea, an increase of 5.8% of the previous year, but that is still only about 40% of the total costs associated with the American military presence. As America suffers from tough economic times at home, and is drawing down its military, some question why it is necessary to spend so much money defending South Korea.
Last November the Director of the South Korean Defense Intelligence Agency informed a Parliamentary audit that without the U.S. Military’s support, the South would most likely lose in a war with North Korea. In addition, the South is prohibited from developing nuclear weapons through the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the North has already successfully tested nuclear weapons. As long as North Korea possesses nuclear weapons and a much larger conventional military force, maintaining a credible American deterrent will remain important to prevent North Korea from fulfilling its long stated goal of reunifying the whole Korean peninsula.
Last year, while celebrating the 60th anniversary of the military alliance, Presidents Park and Obama released a joint statement that called the partnership an “anchor for stability, security, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula, in the Asia-Pacific region, and increasingly around the world.” For President Obama, South Korea is an important part of his strategic “Rebalance” to Asia. President Obama has visited South Korea four times, more than any other US President, and President Park and Obama visited the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command together in April, 2014. The U.S. also plans to send an additional 800 American soldiers to South Korea at a time when overall American troop levels are being significantly drawn down.
Despite the many tensions and changes in the relationship, the U.S.-ROK military partnership remains strong. As South Korea further becomes a world class nation, it is reasonable for it to assume more responsibility for its own defense. The U.S. needs to recognize that increasingly the ROK will seek to establish its own priorities based on its geopolitical position and interests. For the alliance to work it needs to remain mutually beneficial, as well as based on trust and good will. In South Korea, there is always the possibility that latent anti-Americanism can reemerge, as it did in the 1980’s or in 2002. In America, as defense budgets are being cut and Americans are increasingly worrying about debt deficits and looking inwards, there is the risk that Korea will come to be seen as not worth the investment. Also, as the potential for conflict rises in East Asia, if the alliance continues it shouldn’t be restricted to a one sided security guarantee that only looks North, but real thought should be developed in regards to what role the treaty would play if there was a conflict in the East China Seas, or in the Taiwan Strait. Would Korean forces come fight with Americans, or would American deployed in South Korea be able to be redeployed to deal with the conflict? Also, would the end of North Korea present an existential crisis to the alliance and the need for security on the Korean Peninsula, or would it be a rebirth of the treaty as a source of stability. The U.S. and ROK have fought and died together and have remained strong friends for more than 60 years. This friendship can remain a source of strength for decades to come, but it can not remain static, both sides need to work together to understand the changing situations and react with flexibility to their partners needs.
 Doug Bandow, “Cutting the Tripwire: It’s Time to Get out of Korea,” Reason, July 1, 2003, p. 36.
 Remarks by President Bush and President Kim Dae-Jung in Press Availability – Seoul, Korea (accessed April 29, 2014) ; available from http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/631713/posts
 Barbara Demick, “Rumsfeld, S. Koreans Find the Devil Is in the Details,” Los Angeles Times, November 18, 2013. http://articles.latimes.com/2003/nov/18/world/fg-rumsfeld18
 Congressional Research Service, U.S.-South Korea Relations (accessed April 25, 2014); available from https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41481.pdf
 Han Suk-hee, “South Korea Seeks to Balance Relations with China and the United States,” Council on Foreign Relations, November, 2012. http://www.cfr.org/south-korea/south-korea-seeks-balance-relations-china-united-states/p29447
 Zachary Keck, “The Three Faces of Park’s “Trustpolitik”,” The Diplomat, May 9, 2013. http://thediplomat.com/2013/05/the-three-faces-of-parks-trustpolitik/
 Inquiry into U.S. Costs and Allied Contributions to Support the U.S. Military Presence Overseas, Report of the Committee on Armed Services United States Senate, April 15, 2013, 18.
 “South Korea to contribute $867 million for U.S. military forces in 2014,” Reuters, January 11, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/12/us-korea-us-defense-idUSBREA0B01S20140112
 John Power, “The Relevance of the South Korea-US Alliance,” The Diplomat, April 14, 2014. http://thediplomat.com/2014/04/the-relevance-of-the-south-korea-us-alliance/
 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Joint Declaration in Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States of America (accessed April 27, 2014); available from http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/04/25/press-conference-president-obama-and-president-park-republic-korea
 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Press Conference with President Obama and President Park of the Republic of Korea (accessed April 27, 2014); available from http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/04/25/press-conference-president-obama-and-president-park-republic-korea
 Tony Capaccio and Nicole Gaouette, “U.S. Adding 800 Troops for South Korea Citing Rebalance,” Bloomberg news, January 7, 2014. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-07/u-s-adding-800-troops-for-south-korea-citing-rebalance.html