The alliance looks aheadThe first summit between President Park Geun-hye and President Obama came at a critical moment as the two countries celebrated the 60-year-old alliance founded on the 1953 South Korea-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. It marks a new beginning as the United States moves its focus from Europe to Asia with the administration’s “pivot to Asia” initiative while South Korea tries to define its new global and regional role beyond the Korean Peninsula.
The meeting between the two leaders symbolizes a new milestone in their countries’ important political changes as Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, welcomed Park, the first woman president of South Korea.
Forged during the Korean War, the alliance today represents one of the most successful cases for a “comprehensive strategic alliance” based on “shared values of liberty, democracy and a market economy,” defined in the joint declaration of the summit.
Looking back, the alliance has endured many challenges and tests. Just a decade ago, waves of anti-American protests swept through South Korea’s capital over issues involving the U.S. military. Many in both Seoul and Washington thought the alliance was doomed. Following years saw other controversies and protests over the Korea-U.S. FTA and beef import.
But after years of deliberate efforts to restrengthen the alliance by former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and American support during the times of North Korean attacks on the Cheonan warship and Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, the current South Korea-U.S. alliance has never been stronger.
The basis for today’s Korea-U.S. partnership is firm and strong. And that is largely thanks to the increasing importance of South Korea in U.S. security interests. First, with its remarkable success in political as well as economic development, South Korea has emerged as an important global player and key partner for the U.S., as seen in its hosting of the Group of 20 meeting in 2010 and Nuclear Security Summit in 2012. Second, the rise of China and the ensuing U.S.-China rivalry enhance South Korea’s geostrategic importance in Northeast Asia. Third, at a time of a declining NATO with its dwindling military budget, South Korea’s over half-million man army represents a well-trained, well-equipped and ready partner for U.S. forces in joint operations beyond the peninsula. Fourth, the relative decline of Japan in its economy and, more importantly, its will to play a global role, elevates the importance of South Korea in U.S.’ regional and global engagements.
Yet, those are not enough to guarantee the future success of the alliance. The two allies face serious immediate and long-term challenges that require careful joint coordination.
First, they have to come up with a comprehensive plan for dealing with the North Korean problem. For that, they need a new approach to address North Korea’s nuclear program in the broader context of Pyongyang’s unstable regime. While continuing to emphasize the denuclearization efforts, they need to find a way to engage Pyongyang to de-escalate the current tension on the peninsula. The two allies should prepare for any possible North Korean military provocation, to which they need to response in a firm yet flexible manner. Such preparations should include unexpected contingencies in North Korea that may lead to a regime change, if not collapse. That requires more comprehensive and long-term discussions of military, diplomatic, political and economic measures both bilateral and multilateral.
Second, Seoul and Washington should make joint efforts to prevent various bilateral issues from becoming tests of the alliance. During the presidency of Park and Obama, the two leaders have to address several outstanding bilateral issues such as the revision of the Atomic Energy Cooperation Agreement, the reallocation of the Yongsan garrison to Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, and the transfer of wartime operational control by 2015. All these issues are not easy and any mishap can put the whole alliance into serious disarray. While officials from both sides make concerted efforts to come up with workable solutions, the leaderships at the top continue to exhibit unchanging commitment and trust to the basic cause of the alliance.
Immediate bilateral issues should be discussed in the broader context of a long-term vision for the alliance as well. The bottom line is Koreanization of Korean defense. South Korea should recognize that it needs to assume a leading role in a major contingency on the Korean Peninsula while the American forces will play a supplementary role with air and naval support. The wartime operational control transfer will be a stepping stone for such a transition.
Third, the two allies should play a more active role in regional and global peace efforts. Most of all, they need to redefine their partnership vis-a-vis China. For China’s leadership, the U.S. alliance in East Asia is often understood as a means to “contain” China. But the Korea-U.S. alliance should define itself as a positive factor in East Asian security that includes China. In particular, South Korea’s unique middle position between Beijing and Washington and between Beijing and Tokyo may allow Seoul to play a role of force-multiplier in building peace in Northeast Asia.
If the past 60 years of the South-U.S. alliance have been the defender of peace on the Korean Peninsula, the next 60 years should be the promoter of peace in Korea, Northeast Asia and beyond.
*The author is a professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at Seoul National University.
by Sheen Seong-ho