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View more articles by Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna
Anthony V. Rinna is a Senior Editor with the Sino-NK research group. He's lived in South Korea since 2014.
Diplomats and security chiefs the world over, including South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha, gathered in Munich, Germany for the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) last weekend.
This year’s theme — “Westlessness” — focused on the potential form an emerging international security environment based on great power competition would take.
It is unclear what significance Kim’s presence would have had for denuclearization talks, since Kim Son Gyong is part of the DPRK foreign ministry’s European affairs division.
The conference nevertheless presented an opportunity for the ROK to promote its interests vis-à-vis Korean security. One of Kang’s major goals while in Munich was to bolster international support for Seoul’s inter-Korean peace process.
Around the time of Kang’s departure for Germany, Chung Eui-yong, head of South Korea’s National Security Office, presided over a standing committee within the ROK’s National Security Council tasked with promoting international support for the Moon Jae-in administration’s diplomatic initiative toward Pyongyang.
Amid debate over potential challenges to American primacy, few issues are as important to the Korean peninsula as the nature of the U.S.’s alliance network in Northeast Asia.
Seoul and Washington are long overdue not simply for talks on cost-sharing, but for a discussion on the purpose of the ROK-U.S. alliance
Earlier this month, Kang asserted that Seoul remained open to terminating the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) pact with Japan, based on the ROK’s national interest.
The agreement, from which Seoul nearly withdrew in November 2019, received a temporary, last-minute reprieve. This, however, was never intended as a permanent policy reversal on Seoul’s part, which put forth the resolution of outstanding issues in Japan-ROK relations as a condition for continued security cooperation.
Kang held sideline discussions in Munich with Mike Pompeo and Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi, in both trilateral and one-on-one formats, respectively.
The three countries mutually reaffirmed their commitment to cooperation on issues such as North Korean security challenges. Kang, however also broached some of the tougher spots in Seoul’s ties with Washington and Tokyo, namely the cost-sharing of United States Forces Korea (USFK) and the fallout from Japan and South Korea’s dispute over wartime labor and export restrictions.
The South Korean government’s actions and agenda in Munich against the backdrop of a conference with the theme of the U.S.’s changing role in global security underscore the need for a discussion between Seoul and Washington on the purpose of the ROK-U.S. alliance itself.
Furthermore, policymakers from both sides of the partnership have continued to express their desire to see the alliance live on.
Earlier this month, Moon Jae-in expressed the need for a new purpose for the ROK-U.S. alliance as the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War approaches. In particular, Moon couched the alliance in the context of ROK-U.S. economic relations.
Likewise, the North Korea Policy Oversight Act of 2019, introduced in the U.S. Senate in the spring of 2019, reaffirms the U.S.’s commitment to providing defense assistance to the ROK in the event of an attack.
By affirming the U.S.’s commitment to assist in the defense of the ROK, the bipartisan bill, originally meant to provide oversight to Donald Trump’s engagement with Kim Jong Un, demonstrates that not all of Washington is in lockstep with the President Trump’s rough treatment of the U.S.’s South Korean ally.
Such a divide between the U.S. government’s executive and legislative branches is normal in the context of American politics, as tensions between the powers of the U.S. president and those of Congress in the conduct of foreign policy are purposely enshrined in American law.
Nevertheless, an apparent bipartisan desire on Capitol Hill to maintain the status quo of the U.S.’s defense commitment to the ROK cannot disguise the fact that Seoul and Washington are long overdue not simply for talks on cost-sharing, but for a discussion on the purpose of the ROK-U.S. alliance, a reality not inconsistent with the overarching theme of this year’s Munich Security Conference.
The U.S.’s current policy toward the Korean peninsula finds itself at the confluence of stalled direct DPRK-U.S. summit diplomacy, American demands for the ROK to take up a larger financial burden for its national defense, and ongoing, history-entrenched tensions between South Korea and Japan.
Such difficulties are hardly an indication that South Korea and the U.S. should part ways. Indeed, as Stanford University’s Gi-wook Shin recently argued, while the ROK-U.S. alliance cannot last forever, it is still important for the time being.
The North Korean security threat certainly does not exist in a vacuum, and violence on the Korean peninsula – the heart of a geographic area where three of the world’s most powerful economies converge – will have far-reaching consequences.
Still, there are limits to what the U.S. can do in partnership with sovereign states, as well as uncertainty about how much of both the ROK and the U.S.’s national interests are served by Washington continuing to position itself as the primary guarantor of South Korean security.
Dialogue between Seoul and Washington over the nature of the ROK-U.S. alliance should therefore focus on how the ROK can be the primary defender of South Korean sovereignty against the North Korean threat while the various stakeholders in Korean security continue to engage in diplomacy aimed at securitizing the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia as a whole.
Otherwise, the U.S. could remain entrapped in a cyclical debate over how much of a burden, in both financial terms and the potential human cost, it must take on for the ROK’s defense.
Likewise, Washington, which does not share in the historic consciousness that shapes (or at least remains in the background of) inter-state relations in Northeast Asia, will continue to find itself attempting to foster security trilateralism between itself, Seoul, and Tokyo.
As Japan and the ROK are both democracies, their citizens are free to elect whomever they choose. This means that there is no guarantee that the prevailing political mood in Seoul or Tokyo will be in favor of cooperation in the shadow of long-standing tensions, as is in Washington’s interests.
Heavy-handedness on the U.S.’s part, meanwhile, be it in attempting to wrest a higher South Korean financial contribution for defense or force reconciliation between Seoul and Tokyo runs the risk of backfiring and simultaneously damaging the interests of the ROK and the U.S.
Edited by James Fretwell