Alliance or dalliance?This year the South Korea-United States alliance turns 64 and will celebrate its birthday in October, certainly followed by much debate about what purpose the alliance now serves and whether it has a rosy future in an era of the Trump administration, as if performing what’s called “a rebalanced alliance kabuki” to signal that a liberal president is in town. Many on the right see the emergence of a left-leaning government as symptoms of tomorrow’s crisis in the alliance, believing that alliance, like anything else, rises and falls over time.
In today’s polarized society, in fact, there are not many issues on which the right and the left easily agree, but they do not disagree that the solid alliance has helped turn a poverty-stricken country into a politically and economically prosperous one and provided safe haven for the development of democracy. The alliance has focused the political will and military power of the United States on the Korean Peninsula. Unlike China, America is the unmatched friend, albeit geographically distant, with no territorial or historical claims of its own.
The backdrop is, however, somber. With President Moon Jae-in of South Korea set to hold his summit meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump this week (June 29-30) in Washington, there is a deep concern that the failure of South Korea to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile shield as previously agreed would threaten the alliance’s future. Can the liberal Moon government wisely meet what the Trump administration championed the need for the denuclearization of the peninsula?
On the surface, the Moon government is headed for serious trouble that another left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun government had before: in its dealings with its American friend on the depth and direction of the traditional alliance. The difficulties most recently were papered over by the presidential national security adviser’s visit to Washington, but beneath the visit they are steadily growing.
The root of the trouble is the fragile agreement to put the controversial Thaad battery into the peninsula, which can detect the militarily sensitive area of China, not to mention the whole area of North Korea. The American anti-missile systems are, in Washington military planners’ judgment, supposed to be a realistic alternative until the Kim Jong-un regime cries uncle.
But the Thaad systems are becoming “apples of discord” in South Korea. They are helping to split the Korean society; unlike in the previous Park Geun-hye government, they are not likely to find a friend in the left-leaning government; they are irritating to the progressive pundits; they pose unpleasant choices for politicians in the governing party. The doubtful agreement on their deployment requires the Seoul government to undertake precisely an environmental impact review, whose obvious purpose is, because of the delicacy of the situation, to buy time to persuade China on the one hand and on the other, to justify the withdrawal of Thaad when it gets through with its review.
China quickly welcomed Moon’s go-slow approach, in hopes that the Seoul government will eventually withdraw the controversial American anti-missile batteries from the peninsula in the foreseeable future. From the Chinese perspective, Mr. Moon’s decision is a considerable improvement on the status of Thaad they did not think of in an era of the conservative Park government.
On the contrary, however, worrisome things are visibly taking shape in the United States. The U.S. Congress and administration both are unhappy about the decision that is described as a big victory for China. The decision has eventually given the United States real jitters. It could get the Trump administration reconsider the alliance with South Korea.
One might be forgiven for thinking that South Korea is trolling the United States. There has been a lot of talk about the credibility of placing the American anti-missile batteries system in South Korea. In the popular South Korean narrative, Thaad would never really be the wall to protect South Korea. Few trust Thaad technologically, although advocates of the alliance point out that the withdrawal of Thaad should be like creating a big doughnut hole in the middle of South Korea-U.S. security alliance.
The long-planned test of the ground-based interceptor system is not sort of “perception,” a word policy planners often use for things they cannot really see. On top of this, it is wrong to predict and judge the whole scenery of the alliance through a tiny window of Thaad. The final decision on when and how to use Thaad — or not — would still rest in Moon’s hands. Moon’s decision may have as much to do with strategic good sense.
As far as I can tell, there is no one who has been perfectly right about the structure of the alliance. It is a hard matter, and politically polarized answers have always had people’s attractions. South Korea has its alliance dilemma regardless of Mr. Trump’s actions. That said, the Thaad conflict would be a turning point for South Korea-U.S. relations and also an indication of the success of continued friendship.
This year marks the 64th anniversary of the alliance. (President Moon was also born in 1953.) “Will you still need me when I’m sixty-four?” sang the Beatles. As long as the alliance remains a lynchpin of keeping South Korea safe, the answer is an obvious yes. The military, diplomatic and economic energy the two allies have so far invested should be used for the future of the sound and robust alliance that is now, as always, what the present alliance needs most.
*The author is vice president of the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.