The Future of U.S.-South Korean Security Relations

In its crudest form, geopolitics is a zero-sum game. The United States recognizes mainland China and breaks official ties with Taiwan; Washington leans toward Karachi and away from New Delhi. A gain along one axis is offset by a loss along a second. But diplomacy is usually too complex an amalgam of relationships to evaluate so starkly on a balance sheet, and there are often opportunities for simultaneous improvements between mutually antagonistic countries. Take, for example, the surprising improvement in U.S. relations with both China and Taiwan over the past three years. Alas, the flip side to win-win diplomacy is lose-lose diplomacy. Since 2000, when U.S. relations with both halves of the Korean Peninsula seemed to be on the upswing, Washington has managed to unravel its incipient relationship with Pyongyang while tangling its ties with Seoul.

The reasons for this dual deterioration include a neoconservative shift in U.S. foreign policy, the geopolitical shake-up after the September 11 attacks, the North Korean tactic of playing its adversaries off against one another, and the enduring influence of nationalism on Korean policymaking. Regardless of the reasons, however, the necessity of improving U.S. relations with the Korean Peninsula is critical in order to bolster mutual security and enhance the general stability of the region. The November elections in the United States may well provide an opportunity to re-evaluate the failed policies of the last four years. But it will take a new leadership approach to move from lose-lose to win-win scenarios.

U.S. Policy Toward North Korea

The chief variable in U.S.-South Korean (ROK) security relations has been each country’s policy toward North Korea, both at the macro level shaping the overall tenor of approach (engagement, containment, rollback) and at the micro level of alliance structures. When U.S. and South Korean macro approaches toward the North have meshed–during the overlap of Bill Clinton and Kim Dae Jung’s tenures, for instance–security relations have generally hummed along despite micro-level disagreements such as periodic conflicts over arms purchases. In contrast, the incompatibility of Bush administration policy toward the North with first Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine” policy and then Roh Moo Hyun’s “peace and prosperity” policy has created one of the most profound crises in security relations between Washington and Seoul in five decades.

Any improvement in U.S.-ROK relations on security issues, then, must involve a harmonization of approaches toward the North. There have been some signs of a very gradual narrowing of differences over the last four years. South Korea, after all, is participating in the Six Party Talks and has endorsed (though with some reservations) the approach of complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement (CVID) of nuclear weapons production. The United States, at the last round of talks, at least clarified its negotiating position and what it is prepared to offer, if North Korea freezes and dismantles its nuclear programs.

But these are, ultimately, minor concessions. Washington and Seoul have fundamentally different views of the North Korean threat. South Korea, feeling the tyranny of proximity, is more concerned about artillery barrages than long-range missiles. And economically, the Roh government believes that commercial engagement is the best way of improving relations, turning the North into a stakeholder in peninsula economics and ultimately offering all sides in the security equation an opportunity to shift resources from the military sphere into the economic sphere.

The United States, meanwhile, is focused on North Korea’s nuclear program and its capacity to dispatch such weapons over long distances or to pass them into the hands of terrorist organizations. Despite several comments from Bush administration officials about the importance of market reforms within North Korea, the current White House has concerns that economic engagement will provide dual-use commodities that could enhance North Korea’s offensive capabilities. More generally, engagement is envisioned as bolstering a government that the administration would prefer to see collapse.

And there are other fundamental differences in how the United States and South Korea “perceive” international relations in the region. For the United States, China is no longer a strategic partner but a strategic adversary, while a new generation of South Korean politicians views China as a more important interlocutor than the United States. The transformation of Japan’s defensive military posture is accepted as normal in Tokyo and Washington but is considered a potentially troubling development in Seoul. The United States views multilateral mechanisms (the Six Party Talks, the Proliferation Security Initiative) in an instrumental sense, as a means to the end of isolating and containing North Korea. South Korea, on the other hand, tends to embrace multilateralism as a value in itself. When Seoul does treat multilateralism instrumentally, its goal is quite different–making North Korea a more viable entity in the interests of peaceful reunification.

And disagreements at the micro level between the United States and South Korea threaten to widen the breach. The major issue is the simultaneous upgrading and downsizing of U.S. forces in the region, a dispute with substantial symbolic content as well as actual policy ramifications. South Korean troop contributions to the occupation of Iraq are a second major point of tension. Further down the list are what were once, during the relatively tranquil period of the late 1990s, the chief bones of contention; namely, South Korea’s perception that the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) are not equal and Seoul’s desire to diversify its military supply chain.

If the Bush administration wins another four years, it is likely that current U.S. policies will continue and that cooperation with South Korea will deteriorate in the three major policy areas–the micro level, posture toward the North, and relations within the region. On the other hand, calmer heads (or more pragmatic temperaments) within the Republican Party might prevail and shift U.S. policy toward more equitable engagement. A Democratic victory, meanwhile, will not necessarily lead to a dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward Korea. Democratic Party positions regarding North Korea became more confrontational both after the September 11 attacks and after the October 2002 HEU imbroglio. However, just as the current administration cultivated an ABC (Anything But Clinton) style after Bush’s inauguration, it is possible that a Kerry-led ABB (Anything But Bush) approach might stimulate new thinking on a range of Korea-related issues. To say much more than this would be to indulge in speculative fiction, since the vote-seeking positions of the presidential candidates and even the current posture of the sitting administration do not necessarily translate into future policies.

Promoting Engagement

Ideally, moderate Republicans and Democrats will forge an alliance after the elections to recast the U.S. approach toward both Koreas. Their first step should be to embrace the key principle in South Korea’s engagement policy, namely that improved economic relations with North Korea can have positive national security implications. Toward that end, the Kaesong development project should be considered a national security priority. This large economic zone, which will eventually employ 100,000 South Korean and 725,000 North Korean workers, is located just north of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and, as such, represents as significant a confidence-building measure as do troop withdrawals from the border. With a thriving economic center located near the DMZ, North Korea is less likely to launch an attack that would put its “golden-egg-laying goose” in the path of danger (though, frankly, the prospects of massive retaliation by U.S. and South Korean troops is likely deterrent enough already). U.S. concerns about sensitive technology transfer might have been warranted with respect to South Korean involvement in earlier special economic zones such as Rajin-Sonbong. But North Korea already has very sophisticated computer capabilities, can acquire almost everything it needs either formally from its allies or informally on the black market, and in the end will not glean anything of significant military utility from the technology transfer currently planned for the light industry in Kaesong.

The other U.S. objection to economic engagement with North Korea–that it extends the lease on life for the Pyongyang government–can be countered in two ways. First, economic isolation of the North allows the current leadership in Pyongyang to blame all domestic ills on outside imperialists, much as Fidel Castro has retained power by blaming Washington for Cuba’s travails. Several U.S. administrations have built their North Korea policy around the expectation of the government’s collapse, only to readjust this policy when presented with obvious evidence to the contrary. Hard-line policies seem to do little more than harden the resolve of the leadership in Pyongyang.

Second, economic engagement has the potential not only to soften animosities–or at least shift them to the largely nonviolent realm of trade–but also to encourage North Korea further along the path that China has followed since its Cultural Revolution. Though the level of human rights and individual freedoms in China might leave much to be desired, few would deny that considerable progress has been made in the political realm. While pursuing the human rights issue multilaterally, the United States should not attempt to link improvements within North Korea to any aid that might accompany a possible security agreement, as legislation recently passed in Congress attempts to do. Such linkage has not proven successful in the past.

If the United States and South Korea can hammer out a compromise position that provides incentives to North Korea throughout its denuclearization process rather than simply at the endpoint, the other parties in the talks will likely concur. Finally, Washington should acknowledge publicly that the South Korean engagement policy toward the North includes a prudent containment component. South Korean military expenditures are rising, border policing and surveillance remain at a high pitch, and there is no naiveté within Seoul’s military and intelligence communities concerning North Korean motives. Instead of being “soft,” the South Korean government is essentially acting pragmatically.

With respect to the region as a whole, even if the United States doesn’t revive the earlier “strategic partner” role for China as part of its relationship with Beijing, it should respect and indeed encourage stronger ties between South Korea and the mainland. South Korean-Chinese trade relations are booming, and South Korea greatly appreciates China’s role in fostering the Six Party Talks. Mindful of this increasing goodwill, Washington worries that South Korea might repeat history by falling into the Chinese orbit. But given periodic imbroglios over both trade and history–the latest being the Sino-Korean tussle over who can claim the ancient kingdom of Koguryo–the two countries are not going to declare a grand alliance any time soon.

At a practical level, South Korea is following its economic interest. And forging closer regional economic links can have a positive ripple effect on security relations, particularly in potential flashpoints such as northeast China (Yanbian). Stronger ties between South Korea and China suggest an important blurring of divisions in the region, divisions that promote zero-sum thinking and outcomes. Closer connections between South Korea and China make a multilateral security system for the region workable for perhaps the first time in the post-Korean War period.

Japan’s Role

Japan’s role in this evolving regional security system remains unclear, in part because Japan itself is unclear about what role it wants to play. Also discomfiting is the fact that Japan and South Korea have still not reached a level of mutual ease that could permit, for instance, the kind of security cooperation existing between the former European antagonists that contributed to the creation of NATO. Washington can play an important role here in managing the transformation of Japan’s defensive capabilities in a way that satisfies concerns in Seoul and Beijing (not to mention Pyongyang). The United States has long justified its military presence in East Asia as a buffer between historically contentious countries. Now is the time to live up to this buffer role by persuading Japan to forego its more radical reforms, such as the acquisition of an in-flight refueling capacity, the lifting of its bans on arms exports and the weaponization of space, and the more aggressive search-and-destroy capabilities of its navy.

Finally, the United States and South Korea must grapple with issues related to U.S. ground forces. In 2004, the Bush administration announced a one-third reduction of U.S. troops in South Korea. Over and above its political dimensions, this decision directly stems from a much longer process of force restructuring. The Pentagon’s assessment is essentially correct that troops in fixed positions with slow-moving tanks fight yesterday’s wars. U.S. deterrent capacity largely resides in firepower based outside the peninsula, such as the Fifth Air Force and the Seventh Fleet in Japan.

But this reality raises provocative questions. Do U.S. forces in Korea serve only a symbolic rather than a deterrent function? And why didn’t the Bush administration consider troop reductions as a bargaining chip in negotiations with North Korea?

Several studies suggest that South Korea could repulse an attack by North Korea without U.S. support. This should come as no surprise, since the South has been outspending the North in the military sphere by a factor of two since 1990. The North Korean military has been adversely affected by food shortages, energy shortages, and spare part shortages, and North Korea’s military has not kept pace with the latest technological developments. Les Aspin, former U.S. secretary of defense, has estimated that South Korea’s military strength represented 60% of the coalition forces arrayed against Iraq in the first Gulf War while North Korea’s represented 60% of the total Iraqi offensive force at that time. And we all know the results of that unequal fight, even though Iraq, unlike North Korea, was a relatively prosperous oil-rich country. No one should underestimate North Korea’s ability to destroy Seoul with an artillery barrage or the North Korean military’s ability to fight against an invader. However, North Korea’s capacity for launching a conventional attack with troops and tanks is no longer the threat it was 50 or even 20 years ago, and it is this conventional type of attack that U.S. forces are prepared to counteract.

But if U.S. forces stationed in Korea have largely lost their specific deterrent function, they still serve other roles. The South Korean government values the U.S. military presence as a concrete sign of alliance health and U.S. commitment to its defense, even if that defense would be largely undertaken by forces based outside the peninsula. And North Korean leaders, it has been reported, are not opposed to a U.S. military presence even after unification–perhaps in a peacekeeping capacity–as an insurance policy against revived Japanese militarism. Moreover, there is the question of the impact that future U.S. troop reductions could have on investor confidence in South Korea.

These are not easy issues. The Bush administration has taken a positive step by breaking the taboo on troop reductions. It would now be appropriate for the next administration to consider further reductions within a regional security framework.

By endorsing economic engagement with North Korea, negotiating a reasonable compromise on the nuclear issue, articulating a mediating role in the China-Japan-South Korea security triangle, and fully reconsidering the function of U.S. troops in South Korea, the next U.S. administration, Democrat or Republican, can turn the frustrations and failures of the last four years into a new, positively reinforcing spiral of mutual security. But at the heart of any new policy must be a transformed security relationship between the United States and South Korea in which the United States listens to and respects South Korean perspectives.

There is a temptation among U.S. hard-liners to see every knot as a Gordian one, soluble only by the sword. U.S.-Korean ties have indeed become tangled, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity. It is up to the next administration to begin the patient process of untangling, rather than severing, the current U.S.-South Korean knot.

John Feffer–www.johnfeffer.com–is currently a Pantech Fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University and a regular contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). He is the author, most recently, of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis.