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Behind the chill between South Korea and the US

Written by: (Contributed) on 9 March 2021


While South Korea (ROK) and United States diplomatic relations continue to cool, it is important to identify causal factors. Once a highly regarded as a US ally, ROK diplomatic relations and related military considerations have been down-graded by the Pentagon in recent times.

There are a number of reasons to explain the development: a major factor which continues to bedevil diplomatic relations, for example, is control of the ROK armed forces. The matter is considered to be of the utmost importance by the presidential administration of Moon Jae-in in Seoul, while the US continues to attempt to exert diplomatic pressure upon ROK governments.

During his 2017 presidential election campaign Moon Jae-in campaigned for the ROK to achieve operational control of the country's armed forces before the end of the administration in 2022. (1) It was regarded by many electors as an important issue of sovereignty, seeking to push the US away from present control. While the ROK has control of its armed forces in peacetime, control reverts to the US in time of war.  

The issue, however, has a long history linked to previous Cold War ROK-US diplomacy and has raised serious defence and security considerations for the Pentagon with the new Cold War in recent years.

The US took control of the ROK's armed forces following the end of the Korean War in the early 1950s, together with the stationing of large numbers of military personnel in the country. The US military planning formed part of the Defence of Japan doctrine; the ROK-based military were intended for rapid deployment in time of war.

The ROK remained central to US regional foreign policy throughout the period; Cold War diplomatic positions also ran deep into civil society. An enormous defence and security system foisted upon it by the US was centred upon the Korean Central Intelligence Service (KCIA), supported by right-wing administrations in the presidential Blue House. It had serious implications for ordinary people; South Korean people have a long history of repression by successive presidential and military-led administrations toward political opposition figures and organisations, such as trade-unions.

It is not particularly difficult to identify some of the repressive state apparatus in the ROK.

 In 1980, for example, the ROK had a small civil defence capacity consisting of about 90,000 personnel linked into US-led military facilities. Within a decade it had risen to over a 3.5 million strong national network. (2) It was regularly mobilised alongside US-led annual military exercises; its tentacles were used for intelligence-gathering in civil society during the transition from authoritarian and military control to limited democratic provision.

The state apparatus also rested upon successive ROK governments increasing defence budgets to comply with US directives; in 1976 the budget doubled, in 1979 it doubled again, by 1980 it was estimated to be double that of the DPRK. (3) The budget has continued to grow to the present day; $39 billion was allocated in 2017, rising to $44 billion by 2019. (4)

Following the end of the previous Cold War the US diplomatic position toward control of the ROK’s armed forces shifted; the US sought to transfer control to Seoul. The US planning, however, continued to meet with numerous problems. It was noted in 2013, for example, that 'a succession of governments in Seoul has repeatedly delayed the command transfer', where attempts in 2009 and 2012 failed to materialise. (5) A later attempt scheduled for 2015, likewise, failed to achieve objectives.

While a number of reasons were eventually forthcoming about the problem, the most likely explanation has been that centre-right governments were quite content to retain US-led tutelage in their political system; it safeguarded traditional class and state power, of which they had benefited, over a working-class which was regarded as unpredictable and sometimes volatile. (6)

Declassification of official US intelligence documents in 1986 revealed the extent of their concerns. When an uprising ousted President Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, the US feared it would embolden the Korean opposition 'as the next potential flashpoint'. (7) A later study conducted in 2004 found 20 per cent of South Koreans would actively support the DPRK 'if it came under attack by the US', raising serious questions about social divisions on the Korean peninsula in time of crisis. (8)

With the advent of the second Cold War, US diplomatic positions toward the ROK have been clouded by a number of related considerations. The US still requires military facilities in the ROK, although they have downgraded intelligence-collection with the present Indo-Pacific strategy. The ROK is now regarded as a 'lower-level partner' alongside Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and others and is now linked to Japan in a junior partner-type intelligence-gathering relationship, highlighting US disquiet with developments. (9)

Other problematic issues for the US include the changed political situation in the ROK, where Washington and the Pentagon now face a centre-left administration supported by a large majority of the working-class. Reforms, which have included the raising of national minimum wage-levels, have made the administration very popular. President Moon Jae-in is surrounded by a large number of highly competent advisors. Demands for unification of the two Koreas together with the re-opening of the joint Kaesong Trade Park in the DPRK, likewise, have raised the political temperature of those supporting the traditional Cold War positions of the centre-right and their hold on class and state power; they no longer pull the strings of political puppets inside the Blue House.

The ROK has become more assertive and developed an ability to question US-led diplomatic positions and their implications in terms of 'national interest'.

A recent study established by the Trump administration in 2019, for example, demanded the ROK 'declare its full-scale participation in the Indo-Pacific Strategy … insisting South Korea clearly state its intention to take part in a unified front against China'. (10) The ROK was regarded by the Trump administration as dragging its heels when being issued with directives: China had become the ROK’s biggest trading partner and the Moon Jae-in administration were reluctant to sign away their future, unconditionally, to a US-led coalition against China, for obvious reasons; diplomatic relations, therefore, cooled still further.

The strong diplomatic links between the ROK and China have had far-reaching implications for US traditional hegemonic positions on the Korean peninsula. China is also the main trading partner with the DPRK.

It has been noted 'China and South Korea … proved to be natural trading partners' and in four decades of trade relations between the ROK-China has increased dramatically, forty times over:

                                                      $19 million   -  1979
                                                      $188 million -  1980
                                                      $462 million -  1984
                                                      $1.3 billion   -  1986
                                                      $3.1 billion   -  1988
                                                      $243 billion  -  2019   (11)

The mutually beneficial trade relations have enabled the ROK to end its 'client state' compliant diplomatic relations with the US; it has far-reaching implications for the incoming Biden administration and their regional foreign policy.

ROK ambassador to Washington, Lee Soo-hyuck, recently issued a major diplomatic statement about relations between the two countries, for example, which included the warning that 'just because South Korea chose the US 70 years ago, it doesn't mean it has to choose the US for the next 70 years, too!' (12)

With the issue of control of the ROK’s armed forces being achieved by 2022 still on the Moon Jae-in presidential political agenda, it has been noted 'South Korean progressives believe the US army has been uncooperative and obstructed completion of the OPCON transfer … and ... Washington's stance … about … wartime OPCON transfer runs counter to its strategy to contain China'. (13)

ROK-US diplomatic relations are, therefore, set to cool still further during the remaining two years of the presidential administration; the Moon Jae-in presidential administration has taken a highly principled stance and has no wish to be part of US-led military planning for real-war scenarios, if it is not in their national interest.

1.     Why doesn't South Korea have full control over its military? Carnegie, EIP., 21 August 2019.
2.     Wikipedia: ROK Military Reserve, 4 March 2021.
3.     The Two Koreas, Don Oberdorfer, (New York, 2001), page 67.
4.     Wikipedia: ROK Armed Forces, 7 March 2021.
5.     Seoul angles for US to keep command, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 11 October 2013.
6.     See: Two Koreas, op.cit., Chapter 7, pp. 161-178, which has provided a detailed study of political opposition to pro-US ROK presidential administrations and protests by students together with industrial workers.
7.     Two Koreas, ibid., page 164.
8.     Uneasy Korea braced for America's big squeeze, The Guardian Weekly (U.K.), 10-16 December 2004.
9.     The reasons behind Washington's push for GSOMIA, Hankyoreh, 12 November 2019.
10.   Ibid.
11.   Two Koreas, op.cit., page 240; and, Relations between China and South Korea, The Diplomat, 27 November 2020.
12.   South Korea doesn't have to remain allied to US, ambassador warns, The Examiner, 10 December 2020.
13.   The US – South Korea alliance and the China factor, The Diplomat, 26 August 2020.


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