U.S.-ROK Alliance: Enduring through the Leadership Transition

J. James Kim
Director, Washington D.C. Office, Asan Institute for Policy Studies

Historically, South Korea’s geographical position among larger and—in the case of its neighbor to the north—adversarial countries has placed it in a precarious foreign policy situation. This has been compounded by the recent impeachment of President Park Geun Hye at a time when North Korea has advanced its nuclear and missile programs and the leadership transition of its strongest ally, the United States. The Cipher Brief spoke with Dr. James Kim, director of the Asan Institute’s Washington office, to learn more about how South Korea is managing its foreign policy under such trying circumstances.

The Cipher Brief: How has (or potentially how could) the impeachment of Park Geun Hye affect some of South Korea’s foreign policy initiatives?

James Kim: President Park is stripped of all executive power until the Constitutional Court can issue a ruling on the impeachment vote. Until then, Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn is the acting president. Obviously, this means that the government is constrained in areas like foreign policy for the time being. State visits are difficult since any agreements with the caretaker government can be overturned by the next administration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is reportedly keeping the first six months of the 2017 calendar year entirely blank. The previously scheduled trilateral South Korea-China-Japan summit in Tokyo has been postponed. Neither President Park nor PM Hwang was at the APEC Summit in Lima in late November. Meeting with the incoming U.S. administration is also likely to be postponed until a new government is installed in the event the impeachment vote is upheld.

This does not necessarily mean that the South Korean government is unable to function at all. In fact, there is some room to maneuver in certain areas with momentum. For instance, the government was able to sign the long delayed intelligence sharing agreement (General Security of Military Information Agreement – GSOMIA) with Japan in November and finalize the land swap deal with the Lotte Group over the deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense battery in Seongju.

TCB: With an incoming Republican administration in the United States, how would the election of either a liberal or conservative president in South Korea affect relations between the United States and South Korea?  Could you speak to how the two cases might differ?

It is important to bear in mind that the U.S.-ROK alliance has an enduring history that spans over six decades. There have also been four conservative and two progressive administrations in Seoul since South Korea’s transition from authoritarian rule in 1986. Looking back, the last Republican administration under President George W. Bush has had to deal with both progressive and conservative administrations in Seoul. Generally speaking, relations between a progressive government in Seoul and a Republican administration in Washington have been chillier than when a conservative South Korean government is in power. Traditionally, progressives tend to favor more engagement with North Korea and less USFK footprint in South Korea. Conservatives favor a more hawkish stance on North Korea and desire more robust US military presence on the Peninsula.

But the alliance remained steadfast even when relations between Seoul and Washington turned rocky. In fact, some of the more productive developments occurred under the stewardship of a progressive Korean government and Republican administration. For instance, President Roh Moo-hyun pushed ahead with a more conciliatory approach to North Korea while also agreeing to contribute South Korean forces to Iraq and establish a new U.S. military base in Pyongtaek. The two countries also agreed to transfer wartime operational control (OPCON) to South Korea and deepen South Korea’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

TCB: No matter the outcome in South Korea, how well do you foresee South Korea and the United States cooperating under the Trump administration on issues such as North Korea and bilateral trade relations?

This is probably the most important question for which there is no clear answer. As of today, President-elect Trump has said and tweeted many things about what his administration would or would not do once he is in office. At least three issues stand out among others when it comes to U.S.-ROK relations. One is cost sharing for U.S. troop basing in South Korea. Donald Trump is on the record stating that South Korea should contribute more towards U.S. troop basing. At the moment, the existing U.S.-ROK Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which expires in 2018, requires South Korea to contribute 2014 real KRW 920 billion ($764 million) annually. This is approximately 41-45 percent of the cost, depending on how one sets the ledger. If the President-elect stays true to his words, he would like this figure to increase. The question for Seoul is how much of an increase ROK is willing to live with. To the extent that nuclear North Korea is an existential threat to South Korea, the U.S. security guarantee will weigh heavily on Seoul. Therefore, South Korea is likely to cooperate with the Trump administration to strike a balance.

On North Korea, President-elect Trump has also stated a willingness to sit-down with Kim Jong-un, “eating a hamburger on a conference table.” He also stated that “there’s a 10 percent or 20 percent chance I could talk him out of having… nukes.” While a progressive administration would find these remarks to be more encouraging than a conservative one, the reality on the ground is more complex. North Korea ultimately sees both the U.S. and South Korea as its existential threat and given the security ties that South Korea maintains with the U.S., it will be difficult for the U.S. to not cooperate with South Korea on this important issue.

On bilateral trade relations, the United States is South Korea’s second largest trading partner. South Korea is the sixth largest trade partner for the United States. On net, South Korea has a trade surplus but if we look at the breakdown, the United States has maintained a surplus in service trade (+$11 billion in 2015) and a deficit in goods trade (-$28 billion in 2015). In terms of foreign direct investments (FDI), Korean Export-Import Bank data shows that South Korea’s FDI to the U.S. in 2015 was over $10 billion, while U.S. FDI to South Korea was over $5 billion. In short, both sides have measurable gains from this relationship, so it is unlikely that the FTA would be gutted altogether. The more likely outcome is some adjustments on the Korean side with regards to the FTA implementation. As a whole, this is another area where both sides would be better off cooperating than not.

TCB: How could the impeachment process affect the deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea?

JK: USFK Commander General Vincent Brooks has stated that the decision to deploy THAAD on the Korean Peninsula “is an alliance decision.” As of July, the two countries have agreed to move ahead, and all preparation for the deployment looks to be on track. The funding for deployment will likely come from the U.S. army services budget. The Korean government has settled on a land swap deal with the Lotte Group to place the battery on a golf course near Seongju.

However, there is a risk that domestic politics could complicate the deployment schedule, with some opposition presidential candidates threatening to roll back this decision. One additional concern is a decline in public support over time. In a survey conducted by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, the public support for THAAD deployment was at 74 percent after the fourth nuclear test (2/10-12/2016). This figure dipped to 54 percent (8/16-18/2016) after the fifth nuclear test. The latest poll conducted by Realmeter on December 29 shows only about 34 percent support for early deployment and 25 percent wanting the next government to make this decision.

Depending on how quickly the Korean Constitutional Court can issue a ruling on the impeachment, the election may take place as early as April or even as late as August of this year. Given the dip in public support and reservation by the opposition party, there is a risk that domestic politics could delay or complicate the THAAD deployment schedule. But if the deployment can be expedited, it is likely to happen before the next presidential election. 

The Author is J. James Kim

J. James KIM is the director of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies (Washington, DC) and research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies (Seoul). He is also an adjunct lecturer in the SIPA Executive Master of Public Administration program at Columbia University. Previously, he was an assistant professor of political science at the California State Polytechnic University (Pomona).

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