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South Korea’s American Century


More than any other nation, America helped create today’s Republic of Korea (ROK). A U.S.-led U.N. coalition defended the South following the North’s invasion in June 1950. It negotiated the terms of the armistice signed sixty years ago this month. It defended the ROK as a communist frontline through the latter half of the 20th Century, buying the the country time and providing it resources through the decades it took to develop into a stable democracy. It is surprising, therefore, that the opportunity the upcoming armistice anniversary provides to examine the state of the U.S.-ROK relationship, and the U.S. role in Asia overall, has produced little examination thus far.

Last Friday, the CATO Institute held an event — “The Korean War Sixty Years On” – aimed at such an examination. America’s role in ROK history is not a reason for militant chest-thumping. It is, however, an important example of U.S. influence in shaping 20th century geopolitics. Like Japan, where the U.S. spent the immediate post-WWII years establishing a lasting democracy, U.S. efforts in the ROK were aimed first at preventing communist infiltration, then at creating a self-sustaining democracy that would change Asia’s political landscape over the long term. Much of the CATO discussion acknowledged the success of the US-ROK relationship, and asked where the economic strength and democratization South Korea has achieved should take the alliance.

New South Korean Ambassador to the U.S., H.E. Ahn Ho-Young, opened the meeting with appropriately anodyne remarks centered on the alliance moving “from strength to strength.” Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Scott Snyder and CATO Senior Fellow Doug Bandow then discussed the changes in the alliance since the end of the Korean War. Snyder emphasized how both countries were “filled with mistrust” at the signing of the armistice; years of building a relationship centered on economic and civil, in addition to military, issues later brought stability. Russia, Snyder noted, is no longer a presence on the Korean peninsula. China, however, “looks at South Korea and sees the U.S.” Despite a nominal alliance with rogue North Korea, China has an interest in helping to manage the peninsula to avoid a disorderly reunification that would push refugees across its borders.

Bandow recognized the value of U.S. military backing for ROK but argued that it was now “outmoded” since South Korea is well able to defend itself. The U.S. military will have fewer resources in coming years, and they need to be deployed where they are most needed. “Subsidizing” South Korean defense, Bandow argued, discourages the country from developing a capacity for self-defense and regional leadership.

In recent years, the U.S. has drawn down the number of troops it maintains in South Korea. As the CATO conversation showed, however, defining South Korean military self-sufficiency has its challenges. With North Korea intent on nuclear capability, and the U.S. nuclear umbrella the ROK’s historic source of protection, debate quickly turns to the pros and cons of South Korean nuclear capability. There are mostly cons. A South Korean nuclear capability would impact and provoke enemies (North Korea), “strategic competitors” (China) and allies (Japan) alike. The U.S. would lose influence over South Korea’s ability to set strategic policy on the peninsula. Most importantly, nuclear expansion would destabilize relations on the peninsula. In Bandow’s view, attempts at nuclear non-proliferation, like gun control, “resulted in only the bad guys having weapons.” The idea that introducing more nuclear weapons into the region would improve security is a provocative minority view. The argument, however, pointed to the conundrum raised by calls for South Korea to bolster its defense capabilities. Like Japan, the U.S. would welcome a build-up in conventional forces that could contribute to regional and international security missions. It has reasons, however, to draw a red line on nuclear development by both countries. Snyder and others agreed that all stakeholders on the peninsula value stability and movement toward an orderly reunification.

Reunification is the elephant in the room in South Korea: the question looms large but is little discussed. Bandow articulated the “barely suppressed horror” with which South Koreans observed the German reunification over a decade ago. Though peaceable, it was incredibly expensive for a German economy that was and remains larger than South Korea’s. Could South Korea weather the economic costs of an orderly reunification? The panelists agreed that it would most likely require assistance from the international community.

Sixty years on, South Korea has new found economic power and democratic governance. Both give it greater power over its own destiny. Allies that are more independent create new complexities in U.S. relations in Asia. More importantly, however, they have the capacity to reduce U.S. security responsibilities by taking on their own. It is worth noting too, at a time when U.S. engagements have been measured in years, that the U.S.-ROK alliance succeeded through commitment over decades.



Michael Crowley

Mike Crowley received his MA with distinction from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in American Foreign Policy and European Studies in 2003 and his MFA in Classical Acting from The Shakespeare Theatre Company/George Washington University in 2016. He has worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. He's an actor working in Washington, DC and a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and he looks for ways to work both into his blog occasionally.