Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News.
A recent piece by the online editor of a prominent South Korean newspaper complained that the United States is pressuring South Korea to rejoin the trilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington that shares intelligence on North Korea.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in stated that he would pull out of the pact in response to Tokyo’s refusal to address issues lingering from Imperial Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Additionally, the op-ed decries American attempts to coerce South Korea into paying more – perhaps as much as six times more – toward the cost of stationing U.S. troops there for defense. The question was raised about whether Seoul’s pulling out of GSOMIA marks the beginning of the end of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
However, a subsequent opinion piece in the same newspaper explains that the bigger picture includes American concerns about regional solidarity against a mutual adversary – North Korea – as well as making common cause to contain an ever more aggressive China.
The latter article also points out (among other things) that some South Koreans unwisely believe they can go it alone against the not insignificant threat posed by Pyongyang. And as the South Korean Foreign Minister recently admitted, leaving GSOMIA would benefit North Korea and China.
Seoul took an extremely impolitic action in conflating current intel-sharing with post-war issues. Given the importance of real-time intelligence sharing between and among all three signatories of the agreement, it was quite foolish and immature to threaten letting GSOMIA expire.
Now, Seoul has reconsidered and GSOMIA is back in force, at least for the time being. Regardless, the arguments presented in both opinion pieces do not adequately consider all of the facts relevant to the current situation facing Seoul and Washington.
MOON’S “FOUR NOS”
Perhaps the genesis of the current disagreement between South Korea and the United States can be traced to a statement made by Moon shortly after his election in May 2017. In a speech on June 30 of that year during a visit to Washington, Moon announced a policy of “four nos” in dealing with North Korea:
No hostile policy toward North Korea,
No intention to attack North Korea,
No attempts to undermine or replace the North Korean government,
No efforts to artificially hasten Korean reunification.
In and of themselves, the principles are high-minded and seemingly pose no threat to American policy regarding North Korea.
However, how these principles have been put into action is another matter. Moon intends to actively engage the North to further show goodwill to it.
He has often touted financial engagement with Pyongyang, knowing full well that inter-Korean projects would almost certainly violate UN sanctions against North Korea as well as a host of unilaterally-imposed sanctions levied against the North by the United States.
Two such projects in particular – the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) and the Mount Kumgang tourist attraction – do little more than serve as cash cows for the Kim regime, as wages to laborers at the KIC are skimmed by Pyongyang with perhaps 70% or more going to the regime.
Moon apparently does not want to see the problem in that, believing only that cross border projects would assist his administration in jump-starting a South Korean economy in need of help and facilitate his liberal political agenda.
EVALUATING THE SOUTH KOREA-UNITED STATES ALLIANCE
As a result, there is disagreement about what to expect of the alliance – even whether it should continue. A timely essay provides some points on which one can judge the merits of any alliance with the United States.
To begin, as the article points out, not all alliances are equal, and alliances have downsides as well as the perceived benefits that brought the alliance members together.
Alliances clearly provide strength in numbers financially or militarily – and certainly psychologically as well. Nevertheless, they also come with obligations that can be costly in terms of both blood and treasure.
Moreover, alliances are not set in stone. As the needs of alliance members drift over time in response to changing circumstances, a formerly useful alliance could become more of a liability than a benefit.
Three main criteria of a good alliance are:
Having a strong economy and military to contribute to the alliance, or some other value such as occupying a strategic location,
Being politically stable domestically so that resources are not wasted on keeping the ally safe from various internal threats,
Sharing goals and having similar values so that building common cause against a mutual adversary is easily accomplished.
So, before throwing the baby out with the bath-water, it is useful to look at how the Seoul-Washington alliance pencils out.
SEOUL’S ‘THREE OVERS’
With regard to the notion that an ally ought to be economically sound, South Korea is not a good candidate for an alliance.
A principle taught in business schools of yore was that it is unwise to rely too heavily on one supplier or one customer. As argued previously, South Korean over-involvement in China’s market brings up concerns that Beijing will at some point exercise its resultant influence to unduly sway Seoul regarding economic or geopolitical issues.
Moon also seems to be making some rather unusual military decisions as well. Even while desiring American troops on the peninsula – but not necessarily wanting to pay full freight for them – he intends to reduce South Korea’s military strength from roughly 600,000 to 500,000 troops.
The rationale is that technology will offset the 100,000-troop reduction. Of course, this ignores the lessons of the Korean War and the Vietnam War, that technology alone does not stop a determined adversary. Only boots on the ground can do that.
This leads to the conclusion that South Korea suffers from an over-dependence on the United States for its own national defense. Yet the population of South Korea is nearly double that of the North, and its economic wealth and state-of-the-art weaponry are so superior to North Korea’s that comparisons between the two are nearly meaningless. That disparity is why many in America are asking why a country like South Korea cannot take care of itself.
Washington perceives Seoul’s policies as being supportive of Pyongyang
Finally, Moon is over-confident that economic engagement with the North will initially blunt and then over time diminish the threat from the North until there is no longer any chance of hostilities. This is wishful thinking.
Pyongyang has rarely honored any agreement with outsiders, fiscal or otherwise. Three decades of history show that once they get what they want, they quickly revert to their normal antagonistic comportment. North Korea’s behavior is reminiscent of a 1976 American pop song titled Take the Money and Run.
In short, South Korea’s ‘three overs’ are as follows:
Over-reliance on China for its international trade,
Over-dependence on the United States for its own national security,
Over-confidence that economic engagement with Pyongyang will defeat the long-term threat from North Korea.
Any one of these alone makes for a less-than-preferred alliance partnership. In concert, the three make a strong case against the alliance. But there is something else, equally important with regard to an alliance, to be considered.
AN ALLIANCE IS NOT MERELY NUMBERS
As the article about good allies also stresses, alliances are also relationships. There are times when, despite the negatives such as Seoul’s ‘three overs,’ an alliance ought to endure.
South Korea may be one such ally since it occupies a strategic spot in Northeast Asia in countering North Korea, and it is particularly well-positioned for dealing with other adversaries common to the free world.
Yet, an ally that “repeatedly flirts with one’s rivals” as Moon does in attempting to gain the confidence of North Korea’s Chairman Kim Jong Un – despite the clear objections of U.S. President Donald Trump – does raise questions about the value of the alliance. In fact, Washington perceives Seoul’s policies as being supportive of Pyongyang.
Even so, current strong-arm tactics by the United States to increase the cost-sharing by South Korea are unwise – and counter-productive. They come off as crass, demeaning, and money grubbing.
It is quite inappropriate for the United States to automatically demand that all host nations pay all – or even only most – of the cost of having American troops stationed in their countries. The reasoning is simple: (1) American troops ought not be viewed as mercenaries available for sale, (2) not every country can afford to pay full freight, and (3) there are times when it is advantageous for the U.S. to have its troops stationed abroad in willing countries, regardless of costs.
One example of the latter is having American forces stationed close enough to protect strategic areas, the loss of control over which would present serious threats to U.S. geopolitical objectives or grievous damage to American commercial interests.
[South Korea] is particularly well-positioned for dealing with other adversaries common to the free world
Still, the United States ought to make it clear to allies when alliances are forged whether those relationships are semi-permanent or merely provisional. Concurrently, Washington must recognize that there is a moral obligation to a partner – so long as the alliance remains in good standing.
Moreover, the benefits and detriments of alliances must be better explained to the American public so as to gain domestic support for alliances that may – at least on the surface – appear to be one-sided. Further, when rifts between or among partners in an alliance do develop, they are best discussed behind closed doors, as airing dirty laundry in public serves no purpose other than to give the enemy an opportunity to exploit those differences.
However, Americans are beginning to realize belatedly that it is not in their best interests as taxpayers – let alone as a country seen as the leader of the free world – to continually get entangled in foreign swamps where few – or no – American interests are involved. The idea of Washington being the enforcer of the liberal world order was hubristic from the very start, and it is financially as well as ethically irresponsible.
So, all this brings us to the question of how to reconcile what seems to be the divergent needs of South Korea and the United States to keep the alliance intact – or whether that is even possible.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent the views of NK News. A recent piece by the online editor of a prominent South Korean newspaper complained that the United States is pressuring South Korea to rejoin the trilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington that shares intelligence
Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force Korean linguist and analyst/reporter who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years. He continues to follow developments in East Asia closely. Mr. McCoy’s book Tales You Wouldn’t Tell Your Mother is now out. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/ which also lists his previous essays and has personal vignettes on Asia (Tidbits) not published elsewhere.