South Koreans just elected a new president: Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Party of Korea. Moon’s victory ends a decade of conservative-party-led government — and provides a bookend to a divisive political scandal, which saw President Park Geun-hye impeached in December.
In Washington, however, Moon’s presidency raises significant questions about potential friction over South Korean foreign policy, particularly regarding North Korea. Are U.S.-South Korean relations heading toward an alliance crisis?
Will Moon seek greater independence from Washington?
The two sides may experience growing pains. However, my research suggests there is significant alliance resilience among democratic partners — even in the face of leadership change.
In the past, South Korea’s center-left parties pushed for more independence from Washington — and increased engagement with North Korea. The countries’ alliance experienced greater friction under progressive South Korean leaders, most notably during the 2003-2007 Roh Moo-hyun government.
President Roh famously vowed not to “kowtow” to the United States. Roh also pursued the “sunshine policy” of economic engagement and coexistence with North Korea. This created tensions with the George W. Bush administration, which advocated a strategy of containment and isolation in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.
There are three immediate tensions in the U.S.-Korean alliance
The first and most significant issue is North Korea. The Trump administration has made clear it intends to increase pressure on Pyongyang, and invoke tighten economic sanctions in response to DPRK leader Kim Jong-Un’s stepped-up nuclear weapons program.
The Trump administration has been vocal about exercising military options, including preemptive strikes, to halt North Korea’s nuclear ambition. Moon has stated he is not opposed to sanctions. But by seeking inter-Korea talks, promoting an “economic community” and persuading regional partners to pursue engagement with rather than coercion against North Korea, the new South Korean government may find it difficult to coordinate its North Korea policy with Washington.
Second, and more acutely, Moon and his party have criticized the recent U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Area Altitude Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea. Although THAAD is intended to protect the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea — and, by extension, the South Korean people — against a North Korean nuclear attack, Moon’s party objected to THAAD’s expedited installation as a U.S. political move to prevent the new South Korean government from rolling back on the THAAD plan.
A third point of looming contention is the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) Free Trade Agreement, which the two sides signed in June 2007. President Trump recently pledged to renegotiate, if not terminate, the bilateral agreement, citing concerns that it has contributed to the U.S. trade deficit. Moon’s party remained muted on KORUS prior to Election Day, but has more to lose than the U.S. if KORUS is scrapped.
Both sides have adjustments ahead
With recent leadership transitions in both countries, Washington and Seoul may experience some turbulence. After 10 years of conservative party rule in South Korea, U.S. officials will probably see Moon roll out a more progressive foreign policy agenda. Meanwhile, South Korea’s new leadership must figure out where Trump’s foreign policy priorities lie — beyond the sometimes-confusing rhetoric.
Narratives of crisis in the U.S.-South Korea alliance, however, are misplaced. After conducting research on the role of norms and alliance management, my co-author and I argue that alliances among democratic partners tend to demonstrate greater resilience and flexibility relative to alliances that lack any norms of democratic consensus. In particular, policymakers in Seoul and Washington share a strong consensus on the value of the security alliance.
Here are some examples. Even at the height of anti-American sentiment in the early 2000s, a strong consensus among U.S. and South Korean policymakers in support of the alliance enabled the two governments to cooperate. South Korea dispatched 3,000 troops to Iraq in 2004, the third-largest contingent of the Bush administration’s “coalition of the willing,” after U.S. and British forces.
And in the mid-2000s, as part of the alliance transformation process, the two sides agreed to relocate U.S. forces 50 miles south of Seoul to Pyeongtaek. The United States also returned to nuclear negotiations through the Six Party Talks framework, initiated in 2003 to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
Some experts associate Moon Jae-in’s political rise with anti-Americanism. However, the newly elected president understands the significance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. It exists as a core element of South Korea’s national and regional security strategy.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Moon stated, “I believe the alliance between the two nations is the most important foundation for our diplomacy and national security.” Like Korea’s previous progressive presidents, Moon will seek to take greater initiative on issues pertaining to the Korean Peninsula — rather than rely on just the United States or China.
The Trump administration may welcome its ally taking on more responsibility. Trump also seems to be taking U.S. alliances in Asia more seriously than his campaign rhetoric suggested when he stated the United States was “not going to invest as much as we have in Asia.”
Trump sent several high-level officials to South Korea in the first 100 days of his administration, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Vice President Pence. All three officials unequivocally stated the importance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance in the wake of increased missile and nuclear threats from North Korea.
Any alliance can see periods of contested policies and discord. Washington, and now Seoul, is in the process of filling positions of potential administration officials who will coordinate and manage the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Both sides can expect some friction, but the alliance should remain on solid footing.
Andrew Yeo is associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author of “Activists, Alliances, and Anti-U.S. Base Protests.”