The Koreas | Security | East Asia

Beyond North Korea: Fractures in the US-South Korea Alliance

Tracing near-term, structural, and strategic divergences in the alliance.

Clint Work
Beyond North Korea: Fractures in the US-South Korea Alliance
Credit: DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro

With U.S.-North Korea talks at an impasse and Pyongyang sticking to a tactically ambiguous line, attention has moved away from the Korean Peninsula. However, policymakers should not lose sight of ongoing developments within the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Although the Trump administration refers to the alliance as the “linchpin” of its Indo-Pacific strategy, and Congress passes resolutions in support of Asian allies, it is unclear whether U.S. policymakers fully appreciate the extent to which U.S. and South Korean perspectives diverge on fundamental bilateral and strategic issues.

Whether or not diplomacy with Pyongyang moves forward or continues to erode, alliance cohesion is crucial. Yet the allies face multiple interrelated challenges, which not only undermine cohesion vis-à-vis Pyongyang, but call into question the longevity of the alliance itself. These include tensions over the nature and scope of alliance cost-sharing; changes to the alliance’s bilateral military command architecture; and, more broadly, differing perspectives amid a shifting strategic context and rising China.

SMA Talks

Washington requesting that Seoul take on a larger share of the alliance burden is nothing new. Such requests began in the 1960s and became more institutionalized in the late 1980s amid the first Special Measures Agreement (SMA) negotiations. What is different today is the nature and extent of President Donald Trump’s demands.

As a recent retrospective analysis shows, Trump’s skepticism about the alliance or need for U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula is actually quite consistent. It long preceded his presidency. Immediately upon arrival, Trump essentially blew up the established SMA process. He derided Seoul as a free-rider, and claimed Washington gets “practically nothing compared to the cost” of the alliance. Instead of following a three-decades old process of negotiations, characterized by three- to four-year agreements and a steadily increasing South Korean share of the non-personnel costs of basing U.S. forces, Trump made exorbitant demands up front, telling Seoul it needed to double its 960 billion won ($860 million) annual contribution.

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In February 2018, only after the final negotiation deadline passed and pressure built in the run up to the Hanoi Summit, did the U.S. and South Korea reach a one-year deal. Seoul increased its contribution by 8.2 percent to 1.0389 trillion won (about $920 million), covering roughly half the non-personnel costs. Yet this was merely a stop-gap measure, and the shortened time-span immediately complicated the process.

Current SMA talks, which were supposed to begin soon after the previous deal, started months behind schedule. Officials close to the negotiating process expressed concern regarding the seeming lack of an interagency process on the U.S. side. After six rounds of talks, the allies once again failed to meet the December 31 deadline. And Washington has upped the ante. Last month, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) sent a 60-day notice to roughly 9,000 Korean employees who face an unpaid, administrative furlough starting on April 1, absent an agreement. Yet with Korean National Assembly elections set for April 15, it seems hard to believe the Moon administration will agree to a deal. After all, though recent polling shows high support for the alliance among the South Korean public, respondents were very strongly opposed to an increase in spending in any new agreement.

There are several interrelated problems. First, of course, is Trump’s ask. He initially demanded Seoul pay $5 billion dollars, a 400 percent increase from last year’s bill. Seoul, unsurprisingly, has not budged from its position that it should only have to incrementally increase its payment as it progressively has over the last 30 years. Right or wrong, Seoul’s stubbornness only exacerbates Trump’s ire.

Second, beyond the ask itself, is the problematic messaging. Although reports indicate Washington has backed off of the $5 billion figure, officials will not say by how much. Instead, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page to publicly pressure Seoul. South Korea, they argue, is no longer a dependent, yet it only covers one-third of the costs “most directly associated with the stationing of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula” and 90 percent of those contributions ultimately end up back in the local economy. This may be true as far as it goes, but it begs a question. If the $5 billion ask has been lowered to, say, $4 billion (still a 300 percent increase), would this mean South Korea was not only covering 100 percent of the costs of directly stationing U.S. forces, but even paying a 33 percent premium to do so? Based on the Trump administration’s own cost-plus formula, this is the only logical interpretation. But it hardly ends there.

Third, there is the larger mismatch in strategic perspectives. Esper and Pompeo repeated another element of the administration’s argument, namely, that there are additional costs beyond just those associated with stationing U.S. forces. Consequently, Washington has asked Seoul to broaden the scope of its contribution beyond logistical and salary support to include money for U.S. rotational troops and other off-peninsula costs. As U.S. officials often repeat, the U.S.-South Korea alliance is the “linchpin” of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Yet here Seoul wonders: Why must it shoulder such an outsized demand, if the alliance is so crucial to Washington’s own regional strategy? The rub, of course, is that Korean officials do not readily embrace the Indo-Pacific concept, which is indelibly aimed at confronting a growing, more assertive China (more on this below).

Seoul is left juggling very conflicting sentiments. On the one hand, Trump’s repeated dismissal of the alliance raises fears of troop reductions and potential abandonment if SMA talks fall apart. Some even wonder if Trump’s exorbitant demand is an effort at alliance subterfuge. On the other hand, while Trump questions the validity of the alliance, his administration demands what Seoul perceives as unquestioned fealty to U.S. strategic dictates it does not fully share. South Korea feels increasingly entrapped.

This affects even small details. For example, during the fourth round of SMA talks, Washington reportedly proposed that a joint crisis management manual be revised to expand the concept of crisis beyond the Korean Peninsula, warranting a joint alliance response for U.S. contingencies elsewhere, from the South China Sea to the Middle East and beyond. South Korean officials demurred. The same entrapment concern also partly motivates Seoul’s push for the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the United States back to South Korea.

Transfer of Wartime Operational Control

If the Moon administration is stubborn on cost-sharing, it appears intent to move forward with wartime OPCON transfer. In fact, President Moon wasted little time reintroducing the issue once elected in 2017. Still, it presents several real challenges.

First, successful OPCON transfer requires certification of South Korean command and control capabilities under certain conditions. In 2019, the allies conducted the Initial Operational Capabilities (IOC) test, with a Full Operational Capability (FOC) test scheduled this year and the Full Mission Capability test after that. However, there is disagreement between U.S. and ROK officials regarding the adequacy of testing conditions. Another complicating factor is that military exercises are necessary for the allies to properly test command and control capabilities, yet exercises have either been cancelled or downgraded over the previous 18 months in order to further diplomacy with Pyongyang, with the Trump administration recently announcing the springtime exercises will be similarly downgraded. The alternative is to increase exercises to their previous 2017 level (or something approximating that) in order to more properly carry out capability and operational tests, yet this would likely worsen inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea relations. Moreover, OPCON transfer also is predicated on Seoul’s procurement of high-end weaponry and ISR assets, which elicits strong protests from Pyongyang (i.e., Seoul’s acquisition of Global Hawks and F-35s).

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Second, Moon is intent on moving forward with the process for political reasons. Moon, one of President Roh Moo-hyun’s closest advisors during the mid-2000s OPCON debates, has adopted a less outspoken approach. Yet he also sees OPCON as an imperative of sovereignty. Some U.S. officials hold that Seoul is pushing the process forward and accepting even inadequate testing conditions due to this imperative. However, the future South Korean-led Combined Forces Command (CFC) would still include U.S. forces and does not involve abrogation of the Mutual Defense Treaty. It is very difficult to assume U.S. commanders or policymakers would ultimately accept an inadequately tested and underprepared bilateral command arrangement to which they are wedded by an enduring physical presence and defense treaty. Representative Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), noted at a recent HASC hearing that 2022 “seems awfully soon.” The United States would not rush to a situation where preparedness and interoperability were undermined.

Third, OPCON transfer is also significant in terms of the institutional complications that may arise in its wake. During August 2019 IOC test, U.S. and South Korean officials strongly differed over how the transfer would affect the UNC Commander’s authority. The U.S. side maintained that the UNC (still commanded by the same U.S. four-star general who previously commanded the CFC) should be allowed to give directions to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff in contingencies in order to fulfill its primary role of maintaining the armistice. Korean officials disagreed, stating such directions would overstep South Korea’s authority and collide with ROKJCS military operations. The crux of the issue is differences over respective rules of engagement. The UNC prioritizes enforcement of the armistice agreement and thus stresses a proportionate response to North Korean provocations, whereas the South Korean military allows for stronger countermeasures.

The UNC would receive forces from other UN member states deployed to defend South Korea and it is not clear how OPCON transfer would affect the commander’s responsibility for their OPCON and combat operations, as the CFC is its own institution. Such contradictions are not necessarily new. The same questions attended U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s abortive troop withdrawal policy in the 1970s. The difference is that today these institutional changes are more likely to occur. Furthermore, it is unclear what implication OPCON transfer has for extended deterrence and how the future South Korean-led CFC would communicate with USINDOPACOM in general and regarding the possible deployment of U.S. strategic forces in a contingency.

Fourth, OPCON transfer is problematic due to the historic nature of the change. For all but one year of South Korea’s national existence (June 1949 to June 1950), it has occupied a subordinate position in the alliance’s command architecture. Although the 1978 establishment of the CFC provided a relatively more equal bilateral command structure, full wartime OPCON transfer presents a fundamental reordering of the alliance relationship insofar as an American will be the deputy to a Korean; the only such inverted bilateral military command arrangement to which the United States would be party. It seems difficult to imagine U.S. policymakers would ultimately accept this arrangement. In fact, during the aforementioned HASC hearing, Representative Austin Scott asked how OPCON transfer would affect future U.S. force deployments. He said he hoped another Korean War “never happens,” but “if it did happen, I expect that…the U.S. would in the end be the lead. We’re the ones that have the airpower. We’re the ones that have the command and control aspect of things. We’re the one that have the weapons systems that it takes to win in that scenario. And to give operational control of that to another country’s commanders is…that timeline is very concerning.”

Considering certain sentiments in the U.S. and ongoing tensions over cost-sharing, it is possible that the perception of such a transfer and shift in roles could increase calls for U.S. disengagement. After all, the issue of sovereignty cuts both ways. Trump’s vision of sovereignty is clear: America first, second to none. Were the new command arrangement explained to Trump, it is not hard to imagine him calling for force removals. Combine Trump’s displeasure over burden sharing, his inclination to question the U.S. force presence, and misperception over OPCON transfer, and the whole mix quickly degenerates into real alliance discord.

Same Treaty, Different Perspectives

The SMA dispute is an immediate, near-term problem. OPCON transfer is a more mid-term, structural one, which is also conditions-based and could be delayed depending on electoral outcomes and events with North Korea. Nevertheless, underneath both runs a growing strategic divergence.

The U.S. presence on the Korean Peninsula has always been subsumed by broader interests. From internal State Department planning documents in 1943 until today, U.S. policymakers fit Korea within a wider tapestry. As Representative Smith said at the outset of the recent HASC hearing, “We are not just there to protect South Korea.”

Early on, Washington saw the Korean Peninsula as lacking innate value. But for its relation (and proximity) to Japan and regional stability, it was seen as a strategic liability. While Seoul’s economic growth and democratization have, over the years, increased its intrinsic value in U.S. eyes, it did nothing to change the fact that Korea was still ultimately of derivative importance.

To be clear, South Korean leaders were quick to leverage this fact to their enormous advantage. Today, Seoul’s enhanced status (which Trump argues is the reason it needs to pay more) makes it less willing to give in to Washington’s demands. Yet the demands or pressure go further than monetary contributions

Alliance transformation is about more than cost-sharing. It is about reorienting the alliance, beyond deterring North Korea, to confront an assertive China. However, South Korean officials, regardless of political stripe, are very reticent to sign on in the way Washington feels they ought to. South Korean scholars, who have served in both progressive and conservative governments, have noted as much in our conversations. Geopolitical proximity and economic ties, one noted, meant that even conservative South Korean administrations, normally inclined to bolster relations with the U.S., find it exceedingly difficult to align with Washington’s vision. It would take at least five to 10 years for a greater consonance of views, they noted.

This is evident when one drills into their varied perspectives of the Mutual Defense Treaty, in particular Article 3, which reads: “Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties in territories now under their respective administrative control, or hereafter recognized by one of the Parties as lawfully brought under the administrative control of the other, would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.” The “Pacific area,” if taken at face value, is expansive. It implies U.S. bases in Japan, Guam and beyond. South Korean officials might oppose revision of alliance crisis manuals, but the treaty itself implies extra-peninsular obligations.

However, another scholar made the revealing observation that they (and others) do not take such language seriously. In other words, for them, the treaty applies solely to the defense of South Korea, with Seoul’s obligations centered there. While understandable, the implications of this interpretation for alliance transformation are quite serious: if the relationship is not handled with care, both in respect to near-term and larger strategic trends, it could easily fray or fracture.

None of this is to imply the alliance is beyond repair. Indeed, there are enduring alliance constituencies in both countries that have deepened ties over time and shepherded the alliance through previous periods of alliance friction. But it would be foolish to assume that the stickiness of the alliance will carry it forward purely based on institutional inertia alone. It requires a more nuanced approach on the part of the Trump administration, or, barring that, a U.S. Congress willing to fill that gap.