The New Face of the South Korea-U.S. Alliance and the North Korea Question
By Selig S. Harrison
In carrying out his election campaign pledge to reshape the U.S.-South
Korean alliance, President Roh Moo Hyun has skillfully balanced
conflicting national priorities during the first three years of his
Economic priorities make it necessary to avoid a sudden disruption of
the alliance. The U.S.-ROK Mutual Security Treaty creates a climate of
stability favorable for foreign trade and investment and for
preferential treatment by U.S.-controlled international financial
institutions. The U.S. force presence also provides an economic subsidy
to South Korea by enabling Seoul to maintain a much more formidable
defense posture than it could afford on its own.
At the same time, the favorable economic impact of the alliance is
offset by the constraints that it imposes on the scope and speed of the
President’s effort to carry forward the accommodation with North Korea
initiated by President Kim Dae Jung at his June, 2000, North-South
summit with Chairman Kim Jong Il.
Kim Dae Jung meets Kim Jong Il in North Korea
The United States has attempted to slow down and, at times, to obstruct
the reconciliation effort, arguing that food aid and other economic help
from the South to Pyongyang undermines the six-nation diplomatic effort
to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But President Roh has
pursued his North Korea policy undeterred, while demonstrating his
sensitivity to U.S. interests by sending South Korean forces to Iraq,
and by yielding to U.S. pressure for a new base at Pyongtaek, facing
The alliance did not impede North-South reconciliation during the
Clinton Administration because the United States was itself pursuing
improved relations with Pyongyang. North Korean plutonium production was
frozen under the 1994 Agreed Framework. President Clinton welcomed the
North’s second-ranking leader, Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to the White House
in October, 2000, and a month later, Kim Jong Il gave red-carpet
treatment to visiting Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The U.S.
commitment to normalized relations with Pyongyang at that time was
symbolized by the fact that Secretary Albright paid her respects at the
late Kim Il Sung’s mausoleum, which Kim Dae Jung had not done in June.
From the start, the Bush Administration has been divided over whether
to continue the Clinton policy. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell
declared on March 6, 2001, that “we do plan to engage with North Korea
and to pick up where President Clinton and his Administration left off,”
only to be promptly countermanded by the White House. Two days later, in
the presence of Kim Dae Jung, Bush pointedly questioned whether North
Korea was honoring its existing agreements and, specifically, whether
its “secretive” leader, Kim Jong Il, could be trusted to honor any new
agreements. In reality, North Korea had scrupulously observed the
inspection provisions of the Agreed Framework, as the International
Atomic Energy Agency and U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
inspectors had frequently declared.
Bush’s attack on North Korea, Iraq and Iran as an “Axis of Evil” in his
January, 2002, State of the Union address was followed by increasingly
explicit indications during 2002 that the White House goal was not to
continue the pursuit of normalized relations with North Korea but, on
the contrary, to promote its collapse.
Bush labeled North Korea as part of an
"Axis of Evil" in his 2002 State of the Union
On February 17, 2002, on the eve of a visit by Bush to Shanghai for an
Asian economic conference, the Financial Times reported that “the trip
will be dominated by the challenge of toppling Kim Jong Il’s regime,”
quoting a senior Administration official as saying that “the key
question is how we can get Russia and China to cut loose the North
Koreans.” European and South Korean engagement with Pyongyang, said this
account, “is little short of appeasement. One official asked, ‘Don’t
they feel they have blood on their hands when they meet the North
Koreans?’” Against this background, it was not surprising when Bush,
interviewed by Bob Woodward for his book Bush At War, declared that “I
loathe Kim Jong Il. They tell me that the financial burdens will be so
immense if we try to _ if this guy were to topple. I just don’t buy
that. Either you believe in freedom or you don’t.”
The divergence between South Korean policy toward the North and the
hard-line Bush approach has increased steadily since late 2002, when the
United States took a series of steps that culminated in the abrogation
of the Agreed Framework.
In October, the United States accused the North of cheating on the
accord. The CIA declared that the North had a secret weapons-grade
uranium enrichment plant in place that would be able to make “one or
two” uranium-based nuclear weapons per year by “mid-decade.” I have
confirmed from the concerned South Korean authorities that only sketchy,
inconclusive evidence in support of this assessment was presented to
South Korean intelligence officials during intelligence exchanges with
the CIA both before and after the publication of this assessment. South
Korea was told that as a “good ally,” it should accept the U.S.
allegation on faith.
The accusation that North Korea had cheated on the Agreed Framework was
used to justify a termination of the oil shipments to the North required
under the 1994 agreement. South Korea succumbed to intense U.S. pressure
for the oil cutoff. Predictably, this gave opponents of the Agreed
Framework within North Korea their opportunity to resume the plutonium
production that had been suspended at the Yongbyon reactor since 1994.
The Yongbyon reactor
The so-called “second nuclear crisis” with North Korea that has
subsequently intensified was welcome to Washington hard-liners, who
wanted to shift to a confrontational posture toward Pyongyang that would
set the stage for overt efforts to bring about “regime change,” or at a
minimum, to forestall economic help for North Korea as part of a
denuclearization agreement. As I have spelled out in Foreign Affairs,
(January and April, 2005), the Bush Administration has yet to present
evidence sufficient to establish that a weapons-grade uranium enrichment
program exists. Pakistan made clear on September 15, 2005, that it
provided only 12 prototype centrifuges to Pyongyang, not the thousands
of already-manufactured, ready-to-use centrifuges that would be
necessary to make weapons-grade uranium. Even before this, in February,
2005, the South Korean National Intelligence Service announced its
conclusion that North Korea did not have a weapons-grade uranium
capability. China has been more circumspect, but has increasingly
signaled that it shares the South Korean assessment. As my own extensive
conversations with Chinese officials make clear, Beijing also questions
whether Pyongyang has so far developed a militarily operational,
plutonium-based nuclear weapons capability.
The underlying assumption of the hard-liners in the Bush Administration
was originally that China would cooperate in bringing about a collapse
of the Kim Jong Il regime by putting economic pressure on Pyongyang.
China instead began stepping up its economic help to Pyongyang, made
clear that it did not want North Korea to collapse, and criticized the
United States for hamstringing the six-party nuclear negotiations. The
hard-liners then staged a temporary tactical retreat. They permitted
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to launch a serious
negotiating initiative with Pyongyang in mid-2005. The result was the
September 19 six-party Beijing Declaration, which envisaged the eventual
normalization of U.S.-North Korean relations. Immediately thereafter,
however, the hard-liners deliberately set out to undermine Hill’s
effort. An “Axis of Evil” within the Administration—David Addington,
Vice-President Cheney’s Chief of Staff; Deputy National Security Adviser
J.W. Crouch, and John Bolton’s successor as Undersecretary of State for
Arms Control and National Security, Robert Joseph—have orchestrated a
campaign to depict North Korea as a “criminal regime” with which
normalized relations are not possible. The cutting edge of this campaign
has been the crackdown on a Macau bank linked to alleged North Korean
counterfeiting and drug trafficking. If the charges against the bank are
true and North Korea has suffered a financial loss, as intended, from
the crackdown, then further denuclearization negotiations are likely to
remain paralyzed unless China finds an under-the-table way to compensate
Pyongyang for the monetary losses it has suffered.
The steadily widening divergence between U.S. and South Korean
priorities in relation to North Korea was dramatically underlined when
the U.S. Ambassador to Seoul, Alexander Vershbow, made his January 17
appeal for South Korea to join in treating Pyongyang as a “criminal”
regime. South Korea’s priority objective is to stabilize and liberalize
the existing regime in Pyongyang—a “changing regime” policy—leading
to a confederation and eventual reunification. By contrast, the U.S.
policy is “regime change.” Faced with this divergence, President Roh is
no doubt tempted to tell Ambassador Vershbow that the South regards the
alliance as military, not political, in character, and that the United
States, as a “good ally,” should respect South Korea’s sovereign right
to define its own national priorities and to decide how best to defuse
any remaining North Korean military threat.
President Roh has resisted this temptation. Indeed, he has rarely
expressed explicit disagreement with U.S. policies, with the notable
exception of his November 12, 2004, Los Angeles speech declaring that it
was “understandable” for Pyongyang to pursue the development of nuclear
weapons, “considering the security environment they live in,” a
reference, in part, to the Bush National Security Doctrine with its
explicit threat of preemptive military action against potential U.S.
adversaries. In my view, the reason for his discretion is that he
understands the economic value of the alliance for South Korea. It is a
common sense policy for Seoul to avoid a sudden disruption of the
alliance, so long as Roh does not let the United States slow down the
momentum of his economic aid and military tension-reduction policies
On a recent visit to Seoul, I was surprised to find that so many South
Koreans, of all political views, appear reconciled to the continued
presence of U.S. forces for the indefinite future. I repeatedly asked
why this was so, and explained why I was surprised.
After all, I said, North Korea is no longer in a position to sustain a
protracted invasion like the one in 1950. The Pentagon knows that is the
case, as emerging plans for force redeployments and reductions show. So
why does the United States still want to stay in Korea if the North
Korean threat is fading?
One reason, I suggested, is that the Defense Intelligence Agency and
the National Security Agency want to keep on spying on China with their
secret electronic monitoring facilities in Korea. Another is that Air
Force and Army units stationed in Korea might be useful in a war with
China over Taiwan. These reasons suggest that the divergence between
South Korean and U.S. priorities will grow in the years ahead, since
Seoul increasingly values close ties with Beijing.
Roh (right) meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao
Some conservatives replied promptly that North Korea is still
unpredictable and that the presence of U.S. forces will, therefore,
remain critical for security reasons for a long time.
A more common answer was that the U.S. alliance creates a climate of
stability favorable for foreign trade and investment. But no one
mentioned what I consider the real, unspoken, underlying reason why the
prospect of an end to the U.S. alliance is unsettling to South Korea:
the U.S. military presence and the alliance commitment provide the
massive economic subsidy to the South mentioned earlier.
This unspoken reason was once spelled out to me by a former U.S.
Ambassador to South Korea, the late William J. Porter, later Ambassador
to Saudi Arabia. In April, 1971, I was visiting Seoul for the Washington
Post and had a long conversation with Porter, who was a very
plain-spoken man. He was angry. He was engaged at that time in bitter
negotiations with the Park Chung Hee military regime over the size of
the U.S. military presence in the South. He had successfully pushed the
Nixon Administration to cut down the U.S. presence from 60,000 to 40,000
troops, but South Korea was fighting it tooth and nail. “That’s not
surprising,” he said. “They have attached themselves to the big fat
udder of Uncle Sam and naturally they don’t want to let go.”
The subsidy provided by the U.S. presence enables South Koreans to
postpone hard choices concerning how fast, and how far, to move toward
reunification, and thus it postpones hard choices between civilian and
military budgetary priorities.
The U.S. presence enables the South to minimize the sacrifices that
would otherwise be necessary to maintain its existing high levels of
defense spending. By the same token, the withdrawal of U.S. forces would
force Seoul to decide whether it should seek the same level of security
now provided by the U.S. presence by upgrading defense expenditures—or
whether, instead, the goal of accommodation and reunification with the
North would be better served by negotiating a mutual reduction of forces
with the North.
Joint US-ROK Osan air base
Lower-income groups in the South would benefit from a diversion of
resources from military spending to social welfare programs. The South’s
upper and middle-income minority, by contrast, has acquired a vested
interest in the status quo. Without its U.S. subsidy, Seoul would have
to double or triple its military budget if it wanted to replace the
conventional forces now deployed for its defense by the United States _
not to mention the much higher outlays that independent nuclear forces
In addition to the direct costs of its forces in Korea, averaging $2
billion per year, the United States spends more than $40 billion
annually to maintain the overall U.S. defense posture in East Asia and
the western Pacific on which its capability to intervene in Korea
depends. So long as Seoul regards this U.S. economic cushion as an
entitlement, it will be under no compulsion to decide whether to move
toward the confederation envisaged in the June, 2000, summit, as a
prelude to eventual reunification.
A significant portion of the South Korean defense budget goes to a vast
military-industrial complex. There are more than 80 defense contractors
in the South producing some 350 categories of defense equipment in
nearly 150 factories. This powerful interest group, allied with leaders
of the armed forces, opposes reduced defense expenditures.
To be sure, there are certain aspects of the U.S. military presence
that are particularly crucial to the defense of the South: sophisticated
command and control and intelligence capabilities in particular. Seoul
would be wise to upgrade these capabilities to prepare for an eventual
U.S. withdrawal, even at a high cost. Some spending on them is already
underway and is justified. But that is very different from a
broad-based, across-the-board expansion of the armed forces designed to
replace the overall U.S. presence.
The South should respond to the recent U.S. force reductions and
redeployments, in my view, by offering to resume the dialogue on mutual
force reductions with the North agreed upon in the 1992 North-South
Agreement. The Joint North-South Military Commission envisaged in the
agreement was never implemented after the nuclear crisis erupted but
should now become a priority for President Roh. The agreement
specifically provided for negotiations on mutual force reductions under
the auspices of the Joint Commission.
Just as the military-industrial complex in the South opposes mutual
force reductions, so there is also a military-industrial complex in the
North, allied with hard-liners in the Workers Party. Force reductions
are not popular with this hard-line faction in Pyongyang. In the case of
the North, however, economic factors have made it imperative to reduce
defense spending, and Kim Jong Il is prepared to join in mutual force
reductions if the South is ready to do so, I was told in Pyongyang last
April. By contrast, since the South spends so much less of its GNP on
defense, the pressures for reductions are not as great as in the North.
The South’s rapid economic growth, together with the U.S. military
presence, have enabled successive regimes to avoid increasing the
proportion of GNP allocated to defense while, at the same time, steadily
raising the actual level of defense expenditures.
A US-made F-15, part of a multi-billion dollar deal with Boeing Co.
In addition to mutual force reductions, I have urged in my book, Korean
Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and the U.S. Disengagement
(Princeton, 2002), that the United States and South Korea negotiate a
pullback of forces from the 38th Parallel in return for North Korean
pullbacks, as part of a broader accommodation with Pyongyang. Instead,
the Pentagon has pursued the U.S. relocation of U.S. forces as part of a
policy of confrontation with the North. In negotiations on the
relocation of forces, President Roh has not attempted to define a
long-term approach to the reduction of the U.S. presence in the context
of improved relations with Pyongyang.
The most striking example of the President’s desire to avoid disturbing
the status quo has been his decision to send South Korean forces to
Iraq. This has been done at a high cost to South Korea’s reputation in
the international community. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is widely
regarded throughout the world as a blunder of historic proportions that
will foster continuing instability in the Middle East and the Persian
Gulf, and is inflicting horrendous humanitarian suffering on the people
of Iraq. President Roh’s determination to back the U.S. adventure in
Iraq underlines his desire to avoid disruption of an alliance that still
has wide public acceptance in South Korea for economic reasons. At the
same time, on the plus side, it has strengthened his hand in seeking to
restrain the Bush Administration from pursuing a confrontational policy
with Pyongyang that could lead to war.
In conclusion, during his remaining two years in office, President Roh
could seek to make the alliance more compatible with his North Korea
policies in three ways.
First, he could pursue mutual North-South force reductions in bilateral
discussions with Pyongyang, resisting pressures from the Pentagon and
his own military-industrial complex.
Second, he could press for the more “open and equal” alliance discussed
by Ruediger Frank in the January Korea Policy Review, focusing on
preparations for the return of full operational control over South
Korean forces to Seoul and for an eventual shift from the existing
Combined Forces Command model to the more equitable Japan model, under
which co-equal Japanese and U.S. command structures and intelligence
operations are closely linked.
Finally, he could step up efforts to promote a trilateral peace treaty
ending the Korean War (The United States, North Korea and South Korea).
The Pentagon fears that a formal end to the Korean War would increase
pressures in the United States and South Korea alike for total U.S.
disengagement from the peninsula. But it should be remembered that the
U.S. presence is governed by the ROK-US Mutual Security Treaty, which
would remain in force even if a peace treaty ended the Military
Armistice Commission, the U.N. Command and other relics of the 1953
armistice agreement. Given the huge network of U.S. bases and facilities
in Korea, it would take many years for a complete withdrawal, even if
both sides should want one in the years ahead.