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Pressuring Friends: Recent Developments in the ROK-US Alliance

As we enter 2020, the United States-South Korea relationship is facing two key issues creating tensions within the alliance. Since October, the United States has pressured South Korea to pay more to station American troops in country and to settle a regional dispute with Japan. Despite a rise in tension, it is in the United States’ best interest to preserve this strategic alliance.

American President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and First Lady Kim Jung-sook on the grounds of the Blue House in South Korea. Photo courtesy of Shealah Craighead © 2017

Historically, the United States’ alliance with South Korea was a military alliance centered around a key threat: North Korea. Early formation of the alliance sought to restrain South Korea’s first president Syngman Rhee from attacking North Korea. Between 1950 and 1953, the United States provided military assistance for South Korea to fend off an invasion from Pyongyang. This military background shaped the creation of the Combined Forces Command Korea and the United States Forces Korea, which, to this day, continue to play an important role in the maintenance of the alliance.

Over time, however, the alliance has evolved beyond the military. In 2009, the two countries signed the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). Since taking effect, the KORUS agreement has created a fairer trade environment by cutting tariff barriers, acted as a growth mechanism for jobs, and slashed the bilateral trade deficit by 68%. As the alliance expanded to a more comprehensive partnership, the economic benefits of the alliance also grew.

The alliance has tremendous benefits throughout the region and the world. As Michael O’Hanlon wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the alliance “transcends specific threats from North Korea, Russia, or any other hostile power.” In the region, a strong US-Korea alliance works to deter North Korea, contain China, and provide the United States with a variety of collaborative military options; in fact, South Korea has the largest military of any American ally by head-count and is “arguably one of the toughest and most combat-capable forces” of America’s allies.

However, several key issues—defense cost sharing and the status of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in particular—have increased the pressure in the alliance since October.

The first contentious topic is recent demands from the Trump Administration for a massive increase in South Korea’s payment for a continued troop presence on the peninsula. In their most recent negotiations, Washington asked Seoul to pay $5 billion for the deployment of American troops in South Korea, a 500% increase from the previous year. As South Korea pushed back, the United States simply walked out of the negotiations, claiming that South Korean requests were not responsive to American demands. On the other hand, South Korean negotiators implied the United States was simply not flexible in its position.

Another recent pressure point within the alliance is American attempts at mediating South Korea’s recent tussle with Japan. In November 2019, the United States called on South Korea to reconsider its position on the termination of GSOMIA, a bilateral agreement on the sharing of military intelligence between South Korea and Japan. South Korea rejected. Following the decision, Korean media lauded the decision and called on the government to continue resisting American demands regarding GSOMIA until relations with Japan improve.

Regional actors such as China and North Korea can exploit these rifts to advance their own national interests. For example, North Korea’s regional strategy is built on cutting off the American-South Korean relationship to bring down South Korea. A natural rift greatly enhances Kim Jung-un’s ability to gain unilateral concessions and tear apart the alliance without resorting to militarism. China, on the other hand, can exploit the growing rift by offering South Korea a seemingly more stable and reliable partner in the region. Though regional adversaries have yet to firmly respond, it is highly plausible they will work to leverage the growing rift to further their regional interests.

Though American actions have exacerbated the tensions, it is imperative that the two nations work together to resolve these issues. A key first step was the November decision by South Korea to reverse the termination of GSOMIA. Now, the United States must work with South Korea to come to an agreement on the defense cost sharing issue. Critical to this is resuming negotiations. In the next round of negotiations, the United States must back off its demand of $5 billion and work towards a compromise with South Korea. As journalist Andrew Jeong argued, if President Trump wishes for a massive increase, he must show South Korea how he intends to use it.

The United States clearly benefits from its alliance with South Korea. By working to resolve the contention in the alliance, the United States can showcase its commitment to regional security and stability, as well as highlight its reliability to a key ally and partner.

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Benjamin Zimmer

Benjamin is a Master of International Affairs student at The Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University where he focuses on East Asia and intelligence. He is the creator of The Korea Page: News and Analysis from the Korean Peninsula. His research interests include North Korean politics, the North Korea-United States relationship, and nuclear proliferation. His writings have appeared in The Peninsula Report, Foreign Policy Press, and The Sphere. He can be found on twitter at @bzimmer8.

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