Can US-South Korea alliance survive tensions among Trump, Kim and Moon?

Can US-South Korea alliance survive tensions among Trump, Kim and Moon?
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A marriage variously may be a meeting of hearts and minds, merger of estates, or simply a tactical union of convenience. It may last a lifetime, or just as easily fall apart over something as seemingly trivial as money.

An alliance, on the other hand, always is the latter, a contractual agreement born mostly of utilitarian calculations and always of a common security threat. It may last for decades or, like the World War II alliances on both sides, vanish once its raison d’etre, the presence of common enemies, is gone. Just as in a marriage, a mutually beneficial alliance almost overnight could become divorce absolute.


The United States-Republic of Korea alliance, celebrated as the cornerstone of de facto peace since the end of the Korean War, is veering off its “ironclad” path. The seeds of fissures in the alliance are not necessarily miserly interests over the cost of stationing U.S. troops in the South, but the divergent perception on the nature of the common enemy, North Korea.  

President TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE has called on South Korea to pay 50 percent more than it currently does (about $850 million a year), but Seoul maintains that it defrays a fair portion of the overall cost of U.S. presence and the demand is politically unacceptable. With negotiations between Washington and Seoul at a deadlock and the mutual agreement on cost-sharing, formally called Special Measures Agreement, having expired at the end of 2018, thousands of South Korean employees of the U.S. military face furlough in April.

The two sides may reach a compromise before then and agree to kick the can down the road. That would stop the hemorrhage, but the deeper wound is unlikely to be healed because the ailment — incompatible views of North Korea — cuts deeply into the flesh. Washington views the Kim Jong Un regime as a fundamentally threatening entity with revisionist (hostile) impulses; Seoul, after dramatic summit pageantry in 2018, has resuscitated its old view of the North as an unthreatening entity prompted mostly by reactive (benign) impulses.

Ask a child or sage on what basis Seoul today sees the decidedly undemocratic Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — “unparalleled” in the world as violator of human rights and armed with weapons of mass destruction and the world’s most hyperinflated military — as a reactive state, and the child or sage may reply, “Threat intention lies in the eye of the beholder.” Ask Trump the same question, and the reply has been near uniform, with a margin of error: he “trusts” Kim, they have “good chemistry,” or they “fell in love.”

Coupled with Trump’s general underappreciation of U.S. alliances, and his strangely sanguine take on Kim even as the U.S. intelligence community remains deeply skeptical, the cost-sharing dispute with Seoul has the potential to impel Trump to use what he likely believes is his ace card: Threaten South Korean President Moon Jae-In with the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from his nation.

Counter-intuitive as such a move may be, by ruthlessly simple logic, threatening the South with implicit downgrading of the alliance, if not outright abandonment, may be presumed to achieve the following:

  • Strike fear in Moon and compel him to be less stingy;

  • Strike fear in the rapidly arming Kim of a greater U.S. propensity to preemptively strike by evacuating troops beforehand;
  • Instill fear in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he needs to pay more for U.S. protection; and
  • Cast doubt in Beijing that the United States may give South Korea and Japan free rein to go nuclear since it’s amenable to full withdrawal of U.S. troops from both countries.

Such a message, even if conveyed with the utmost sincerity, in reality is far more likely to achieve something quite to the contrary.

First, Moon, his advisers and much of his support base remain insouciant about a U.S. drawdown despite what is said in public. In fact, any perceived slight by Trump during negotiations may breed ill feelings and even trigger large-scale anti-U.S. protests, the likes of which remain rare outside the Middle East.

Second, while Kim cannot rule out the possibility of a U.S. first-strike, he, his father, and grandfather before him all have called U.S. bluff. They have deftly played on such “fears,” presenting themselves as paranoid, reactive victims nuking up for sheer survival, thus garnering sympathy from the gullible and willful denialists the world over. In truth, since the end of the Korean War, there has not been a single case of first or retaliatory strike by the United States.

Most importantly, U.S. withdrawal from the region long has been Pyongyang’s priority. Couched under the odd phrase “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (there are no nukes in the South), Washington and Seoul have engaged in this charade since 2005, when the phrase came into being. Lest there be any ambiguity as to its meaning, North Korea last month spelled it out.

The Kim regime has striven assiduously to reach this point in history, driving wedges in the U.S.-South Korea alliance by employing a time-tested carrot-and-stick strategy. The striking contrast between Pyongyang’s provocations in 2017 and diplomatic outreach the following year has given wind to calls for premature sanctions relief and placing trust in Kim.

Born in the crucible of the Korean War, the alliance has become a shining vindication of U.S. commitment and sacrifice. President Obama, addressing U.S. veterans on the 60th anniversary of the armistice, proclaimed, “Korea was a victory. When 50 million South Koreans live in freedom — a vibrant democracy, one of the world’s dynamic economies, in stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North — that’s a victory; that’s your legacy.”

There may come a time when the need for such remembrance, like the alliance, may be a relic of the past. The United States, like all other contracting parties, is free to walk away from any alliance and relieve itself of the duty to defend its ally. If it chooses to walk away from South Korea, will it be safer? Will the United States be certain not to be entangled in a war of liberation started by a reinforced nuclear North Korea? And will the United States be able to repair its relations with a unified Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?

The Vietnam model — U.S. peace accord with North Vietnam in 1973, withdrawal from the South thereafter, and apathy as Hanoi liberated Saigon in 1975 — suggests yes, yes and yes.

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He has testified as an expert witness at the House Foreign Affairs Committee and advised the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Korea policy. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.