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An Old Alliance Under a New President: U.S. and South Korean Relations

In his second public press conference since entering office in May of last year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in credited U.S. President Donald Trump with helping bring about the recent talks between North and South Korea that occurred on Tuesday, January 9. “I am giving a lot of credit to President Trump…. I am expressing my gratitude,” Moon said.

Though Trump himself had tried to claim credit for the talks before Moon’s press conference, the South Korean president’s professed gratitude towards him may seem surprising, given Trump’s penchant for bellicose statements regarding North Korea and his repeated insistence that “talking is not the answer!”

Yet the U.S.-South Korea alliance is highly valued in South Korea, and Moon knows that the U.S. is an important ally that South Korea needs on its side in the current climate.

The South Korean government seeks to engage with North Korea in hopes of de-escalating the heated rhetoric that swirls over the peninsula. The tone taken by the American government, however, has been considerably more hawkish as Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un trade insults and threats.

Amidst each government’s maneuvers, many people have wondered how the actions taken by the U.S. and South Korea will affect the alliance that has bound these two countries together since World War II.

Japan occupied Korea for much of the first half of the twentieth century, but Japanese control of the peninsula ended following the Allies’ defeat of the Axis Powers in WWII. Following Japan’s surrender in 1945, American forces occupied the area of the peninsula south of the 38th parallel while Soviet forces controlled the area north of the line. The two powers promised independent elections, but a breakdown in discussions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. led to the establishment of a pro-U.S. government in Seoul and a pro-U.S.S.R. government in Pyongyang in 1948. Neither government regarded the other as legitimate.

The U.S.’s antecedent to the CIA installed Rhee Syng-man as the leader of the South Korean government, and Rhee established a decidedly pro-American and anti-communist foreign policy. Before long, heightened tensions on the peninsula erupted in the Korean War when North Korean forces invaded the South in 1950.  

The U.S. led a coalition of forces allied with South Korea and North Korea received assistance from the U.S.S.R. and China. The three years of fighting claimed millions of lives and resulted in devastating physical destruction on both sides of the 38th parallel.

An armistice signed in 1953 ended the fighting and established the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas, who have technically remained at war for the past 64 years.

U.S. influence remained strong in South Korea following the armistice. In 1953, the two countries signed the Mutual Defense Treaty, which stated that either country would come to the other’s defense in the event of aggression from an outside force. The treaty also allowed the United States to station its forces in South Korea “as determined by mutual agreement,” and the U.S. has maintained a constant military presence in South Korea ever since.

Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. was keen to maintain pro-U.S. governments in South Korea as a bulwark against the communism of its neighbors. For decades, South Korea was controlled by military dictatorships that had the backing of the United States.

In recent years, the closeness of U.S.-South Korea relations has varied somewhat with the parties that have held the South Korean presidential Blue House. Conservative governments have typically favored closer coordination with the U.S. than liberal governments have. This is partly due to the fact that liberal presidents have tended to seek increased dialogue with North Korea, which has sometimes appeared to drive a slight wedge between South Korea and its ally across the Pacific.

Since the discovery of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, several American and South Korean administrations have seen their two governments disagree on how to approach the regime. When liberal South Korean presidents have favored dialogue with the North, American leaders have worried that this approach allows North Korea to buy time with which to continue developing its nuclear weapons program. Liberal South Koreans, however, believe that this approach can slow down or even stop the program.

Liberals held the Blue House from 1998-2008 under Kim Dae-Jung and his successor Roh Moo-hyun. Following Roh’s second term, conservative governments held power under Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-Hye until Park’s impeachment in March of 2017.

Kim Dae-Jung and Roh were both strong proponents of the “Sunshine Policy” towards North Korea. The Sunshine Policy involved increased dialogue and trade with the North, in addition to joint infrastructure and business projects coordinated between the two Koreas.

When Roh was elected in 2002, he had campaigned on a platform that included engagement with North Korea and greater independence from the United States. At the time, U.S. President George W. Bush was attempting to convince Japan, China, and Russia to increase their pressure on North Korea in order to suppress the North’s nascent nuclear weapons program.

America’s constant military presence in South Korea has sometimes stirred controversy, too, and Roh benefited from a surge in anti-American sentiment leading up to his first election.

A few months previously, an American military vehicle had run over and killed two South Korean middle school students. Their deaths sparked outrage in South Korea, and anti-American protests ensued in Seoul and other South Korean cities after a U.S. military court dismissed the negligent homicide charges filed against the two soldiers who had been operating the vehicle. (The 1966 Status of Forces agreement allows criminal accusations against American military personnel to be dealt with by the American military instead of by South Korean authorities.)

Much like other liberal presidents before him, Moon has returned to a softer approach towards North Korea.

Even before his election, as the 2017 South Korean presidential race began to favor Moon, many people predicted that his election would lead to a change in tone towards the North.

Given his background, Moon’s stance is unsurprising. His parents fled North Korea during the Korean War, and he worked as a human rights lawyer prior to his involvement in politics.

During his law student years in the 1970s, Moon was jailed twice for protesting against the U.S.-backed dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. Incidentally, Park Chung-hee was the father of Moon’s conservative predecessor, Park Geun-Hye, who took a more hardline approach to North Korea before her impeachment.

Furthermore, Moon had ties to Roh even before either of them were involved in politics. In the 1980s, he worked for Roh in a law practice in the port city of Busan, defending labor and pro-democracy activists during years of South Korea’s rule by military dictatorships.

Moon began his political career as a top aide to Roh once he became president, serving as chief presidential secretary and on a team of lawyers that helped Roh avoid impeachment in 2004.

Though Moon sought to reaffirm the importance of South Korea’s alliance with the U.S. during his 2017 presidential campaign, he also argued that South Korea should be able to “say no to the Americans.” After becoming president, in a speech on August 15, 2017—around the time that Trump was speaking of meeting North Korea with “fire and fury”—Moon promised to work to prevent war with North Korea at all costs. He also asserted that the decision to engage in military action against North Korea should be made by South Korea, not the U.S.

It should not be assumed that Moon is anti-American, however. His recent comments regarding Trump and his steadfast willingness to engage with the U.S. government on the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program should serve as proof that he is not, or that he at least appreciates the tactical necessity of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Moon has even authorized the U.S. to deploy batteries of the controversial terminal high-altitude area defense (THAAD) system, in spite of China’s firm opposition to the system.

Though Trump has since suggested that he would be open to meeting with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, he has also repeatedly criticized Moon’s calls for dialogue.

The 2018 New Year, however, brought with it a string of events that may herald the beginnings of détente on the Korean Peninsula.

In his New Year’s Speech broadcast on North Korean state TV, Kim Jong-un offered to send North Korean athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea next month. Moon had repeatedly encouraged North Korea to send a delegation to the games, and when Kim offered to hold talks to discuss the Olympic delegation, the South Korean government immediately accepted.  

On Wednesday, January 3, the two Koreas agreed to restore a border hotline that had been inactive for nearly two years. North Korean officials stopped answering calls on the line in 2016 after Moon’s conservative predecessor Park Geun-hye shut down the Kaesong industrial complex in response to North Korean weapons tests. The Kaesong complex, a remnant of the Sunshine Policy, was located in North Korea and hosted South Korean-owned factories at which many North Koreans worked.

The next day, Moon and Trump agreed to suspend, at least until after the Olympics, the joint military exercises that South Korean and American forces have been carrying out since the summer. Though some of these exercises were pre-planned, they have also been used to rebuke North Korea following several of its weapons tests. North Korea views these exercises as practice for a potential invasion and has repeatedly demanded that they be halted.

On Tuesday, January 9, North and South Korean delegates met on the South Korean side of Panmunjom, a border village which lies across the Demilitarized Zone. The delegates agreed that the North would send athletes to the Olympics, along with high-ranking officials, cheerleaders, journalists, and a performing arts troupe. The South Korean government also proposed that the two Koreas’ delegates march together in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, as they did in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, and the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

Delegates met again on Monday, January 15, and agreed that North Korea would send an orchestra to perform in Seoul and in Gangneung, where some of the Olympic games will be held.  

Seoul hopes that these talks will be the start of warming relations. As a next step, the South Korean government hopes to resume temporary reunions for families who were separated by the establishment of the Demilitarized Zone and North Korea’s isolation after the Korean War. South Korean officials hope that the reunions could be organized in time for the Lunar New Year holiday next month.

In the press conference on Wednesday, January 10, Moon said that “This is only the beginning…. We will draw out more dialogue and cooperation for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and the establishment of peace.” North and South Korea have agreed to stage further talks regarding the Olympics.

Moon also said that his country and its allies should use North Korea’s new willingness for dialogue to push for talks including the United States and focusing on ending the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Even as Seoul hopes for warming relations, however, officials in the American government appear to be emulating the Mutually Assured Destruction security policy of the Cold War in their dealings with North Korea.

In his New Year’s speech, Kim said that “It is not a mere threat but a reality that I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office. All of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike.” Trump lost no time in responding via Twitter: “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” (In fact, though the president can order a nuclear strike, there is no nuclear button.)

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley was quick to defend Trump’s comment in brazen words, saying “We want to always remind them we can destroy you, too, so be very cautious and careful with your words and what you do.”

Aside from bellicose statements, however, there are other signs that the Trump administration is tensing for conflict.

On the same day of North and South Korea’s first official talks in almost two years, NPR reported that the Army is training its soldiers to fight in tunnels such as those found throughout North Korea. The Pentagon is also purchasing equipment specifically suited to tunnel warfare.

The Trump administration also intends to relax U.S. government guidelines regarding nuclear weapons. A nuclear posture review from the Pentagon outlines plans to expand the situations in which nuclear weapons can be used so that these situations include retaliation for non-nuclear attacks that result in mass casualties or that target critical infrastructure or nuclear sites. The review also discusses plans to develop two new, more “usable” nuclear warheads.

Furthermore, and perhaps most alarmingly, Trump is reportedly considering a “bloody nose strike” against North Korea. Such a strike would be targeted at a North Korean missile facility or launch site and would aim to serve as a warning against the regime, instead of as an act of war—even if Kim might interpret it as one.

Even though Trump has suggested that he would be willing to engage in talks with Kim, the signs that his administration is preparing for conflict raise the worrying idea that Trump does not see diplomacy as the preferred solution.

What is perhaps most troubling of all with regards to the current state of the U.S.-South Korea alliance is that some officials in Washington seem to not understand what such an alliance is supposed to mean at all.

In August 2017, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told NBC News that Trump had said to him that “ ‘If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there.’ ”

“When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States,” said Graham.

Certainly, Trump’s allegiance should lie with the people of the United States, but his value for human life should also extend to the United States’ allies. A key part of an alliance such as that shared by the U.S. and South Korea is mutual defense, but Trump and some of the people surrounding him seem to not care how many Korean lives would be lost in a strike against North Korea, or in the aftermath of such a strike.

Trump has displayed a frighteningly cavalier attitude towards the use of nuclear weapons, and that should concern anyone with a regard for human life.

What is more, South Korea’s 51 million people are within easy range of North Korea’s weapons, nuclear or not.

South Korea needs the U.S. on its side—perhaps not because of the strength of the U.S. military, but because South Korea cannot afford for the U.S. to unilaterally decide to risk the lives of its people through dangerous military action against North Korea.