The U.S.-South Korea alliance can withstand the current diplomatic pressures
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is eager to engage North Korea to try to decrease tension and build ties. The Trump administration wants to compel North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons through stringent sanctions — including the Treasury Department’s Dec. 10 targeting of three senior North Korean officials, enraging Pyongyang. This appears to put the two allies at odds, or at least on different timelines.
But the alliance — based on a six-decade commitment to democracy, security and shared prosperity — is strong enough and flexible enough to withstand this period of diplomatic ferment. It is no impediment to inter-Korean engagement.
Moon is in a relative rush to engage North Korea because he seems to sense a rare opportunity for a breakthrough in establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. Kim’s newfound interest in engagement with Seoul and with the United States may signal a weariness with international isolation and economic deprivation — and an ultimate willingness to denuclearize.
Carrots as well as sticks are needed to achieve that end. South Korea’s inter-Korean efforts of late include establishing a liaison office in the shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex in September and launching a joint survey of railway lines in North Korea in November, despite Washington’s initial misgivings.
Further engagement, as Moon seems to envisage it, starts with peace that would lead to prosperity, or at least economic gains, for North Korea. And beyond the foreseeable horizon lies reunification, not in the form of absorption by South Korea, but rather a merger facilitated by North Korea’s entering the ranks of “normal” countries through internal economic and — implicitly — political reforms.
The window for successful diplomacy, however, might not be wide. Moon was elected last year and is limited to a single five-year term. Trump’s reelection in 2020 is hardly assured, yet he has placed a large bet on being able to resolve tensions over the future of the Korean Peninsula and has indicated that another summit with Kim is possible next year.
In the past, diplomatic overtures foundered because North Korea was not ready to embrace reform that entailed an opening up of its autarkic economy. Pyongyang prioritized a songun, or military-first doctrine. But this time may be different. Though any pronouncement by Kim must be viewed with skepticism, in April he did declare that, having succeeded in making North Korea a nuclear power, he had made economic development his top priority.
South Korea is not contemplating sacrificing the alliance for engagement. As Moon told Vice President Pence last month: “It is entirely the power of the strong Korea-U.S. alliance that drew North Korea into dialogue and made the current situation possible.” But what could strain the alliance, potentially crippling a coordinated diplomacy of engagement? Of immediate concern is the failed negotiations on the Special Measures Agreements that govern burden-sharing for the 28,000 U.S. troops based in South Korea. The agreements, which are renegotiated annually, saw Seoul’s contribution increase by nearly 500 percent in dollar terms, from $150 million in 1991, when the agreement began, to $860 million in 2016.
In diplomatic circles it is understood that the United States wants South Korea to significantly increase its share beyond the roughly 50 percent it currently pays. Indeed, a South Korean lawmaker says the Trump administration wants Seoul to raise its contribution from $860 million to $1.3 billion. Negotiations have proved difficult — 10 rounds of talks produced no deal — and the two sides will not meet again before year end, raising the risk of a funding gap. Playing hardball with South Korea on the payments is puzzling at this historic moment, given the troops’ larger strategic purpose.
Korea also needs the U.S. alliance to provide geopolitical balance in East Asia. Korea, whether divided or unified, will always be much smaller than regional neighbors China, Russia and Japan. Given that disproportion, the U.S.-South Korean alliance should go on serving Korea, much as NATO serves midsize European countries.
Stability in East Asia is critical for U.S. economic prosperity, in turn, as global supply chains are concentrated in this region. Instability and disruption would have global economic consequences. Moreover, the 20th century teaches us that when America signaled its abandonment of Korea in 1950, war broke out, at a cost of 1.6 million civilian deaths and more than 36,000 U.S. military deaths.
The U.S.-South Korean alliance got us to this point of potentially historic engagement. It functions as the ballast that makes summit diplomacy possible. An alliance that can continue to adapt to changing conditions, amid the crosscurrents of denuclearization, is essential for moving the process forward.
Thomas J. Byrne is president of the New York-based Korea Society.