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US-ROK Alliance at 70: Revitalizing An Ironclad Partnership with Titanium

Anirudh Prakash


US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol met in May 2022 at the Presidential Office in Yongsan, South Korea.


On April 27th, 2023, governments of the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) commemorate the 70th anniversary of the US-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty. The Biden-Yoon summit, along with the signing of the Washington Declaration, gave Americans and South Koreans a reminder of some of the greatest national security achievements earned by this new push within the alliance. For seven decades, the US-ROK alliance has been a linchpin towards enhancing prosperity in East Asia as well as deterring provocations from North Korea. However, regardless of how powerful this security partnership has been, issues ranging from transfer of wartime operational control to public opinion on basing US military personnel have been the barriers responsible for faltering the alliance. During this milestone, the Biden administration should revisit their current policies in preserving the alliance and consider weighing in the Pentagon’s Third Offset strategy as a possible option in elevating the partnership to another level.


The two countries’ relationship is one of the most successful defense partnerships in post-World War II history. Formed after the Korean War in 1953, it provided a guarantee of security to a weak South Korea completely dependent on the US for its defense. This enabled the US armed forces to maintain a strong military presence, until now. South Korea is garrisoned with more than 28,000 troops, part of United States Forces-Korea. Following the end of the Cold War, South Korea became an industrialized economy while North Korea remained as an isolated military threat, developing their own nuclear weapons program. Despite these revolutionary changes, the United States is primarily responsible for South Korea’s defenses.


The alliance continues to be a mainstay in strengthening cooperation between the US and ROK, both through political measures and military means. Under the Trump administration, military exercises scaled back due to Covid-19 and President Trump’s engagement with the neighboring North Korea. In May 2022, President Biden and President Yoon Suk-yeol reached an agreement to expand combined military exercises amid growing nuclear threats from North Korea. From March 2023, the South Korean and US militaries held their annual springtime combined exercise, named Freedom Shield. This was the largest combination of maneuver drills held by both countries for years and as a result, they successfully strengthened their defense and response capabilities.


Despite the enhancements, three challenges have impeded the solidity of the partnership. First, the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON). Under the Park Geun-hye administration, both sides agreed to move forward with the transition of operational control to the ROK Armed Forces under three conditions: 1) that military capabilities would lead allied defense; 2) allied comprehensive response capabilities would be set against North Korean missile threats; 3) the Korean peninsula and surrounding areas would maintain security. This has led to staunch opposition from South Korean residents and since then, efforts to push for the transfer are delaying. The second is the end-of-war declaration, where experts worry this peace agreement could cause the strength of the US-ROK alliance to disintegrate rather than promote denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Third, public opinion on American military presence. In 2018, US Forces-Korea headquarters relocated from Yongsan, Seoul to Pyeongtaek but more than 50% of respondents dissaproved of the changes; contemporary issues on crime, noise pollution, and sexual violence have risen, potentially souring the trust between both governments.


The Biden Administration has one ambitious project to accomplish, and that involves incorporating the Pentagon’s Third Offset Strategy: emerging military technologies. In order for this to succeed, routine diplomacy between President Biden and President Yoon is a must. Here, both the US and ROK governments can facilitate constructive dialogues in either Washington or Seoul to focus on matters of strategic engagement that the two parties should find common ground over. Close interagency cooperation between the National Security Council, Department of Defense, and the Intelligence Community is the administration’s next step. With the US-ROK alliance advocating for emerging technologies, strong encouragement on the research, development, and incorporation of artificial intelligence and quantum technology weapon systems will not only kickstart a third revolution in Korean military affairs but enable both militaries to continue revitalizing this post-war security partnership. Idled hands gives way to staleness, and giving the alliance a task will detach themselves from any potential barriers.


Although this feels like an encouraging effort, the alliance is concerned with an ongoing espionage unfolding in the back rooms of the Department of Defense. A leaked Pentagon document revealed a sensitive conversation between the United States and high-level ROK government officials on whether South Korea could sell weapons to Ukraine. This was a poor time for the incident to occur since President Yoon is expected to make his first state visit to Washington to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the US-ROK Alliance. Military and defense analyst Yang Uk from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies mentioned the official ties between both countries will not be gravely affected by this incident, but the idea of espionage may hurt South Koreans’ opinion on the United States. With this bombshell story being disseminated, Washington and Seoul worry that if more loose lips are found on our historic ally, the ‘ironclad’ security partnership may be on the verge of melting.


Optimistically, the mentioned recommendations are a good bet in revitalizing the US-ROK alliance during this platinum jubilee moment. Despite previous public opinion polls demonstrating resentment on American forward basing, South Koreans currently demonstrate strong feelings of support for the alliance and feel that the partnership is vital in maintaining security and stability within the Korean peninsula. Bound solely by mutual trust, if no further progress in the alliance is enacted, not only will the Korean peninsula be left insecure, but North Korea can take advantage of the vulnerabilities and use its military to provoke US and South Korean forces. Although the recommendation has its costs, it is still a vital asset for both sides as it may enable the alliance to function under mutual trust and accelerate its defenses to greater lengths.


2023 is a momentous year for the US-ROK historic defense and security partnership. The Biden-Yoon Summit marks their platinum jubilee together, giving both governments an opportunity to commemorate their accomplishments in preserving this ‘ironclad’ alliance and galvanize their defense pact. For a 같이 갑시다 (let’s move forward) initiative to bear fruit, this 70th anniversary encourages President Biden and President Yoon Suk-yeol to keep the US-ROK alliance “smooth like butter.”


References

Emerging Military Technologies: Background and Issues for Congress. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R46458/7.


“Excerpt: The US–South Korea Alliance.” Council on Foreign Relations, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/excerpt-us-south-korea-alliance.

“Fact Sheet: United States – Republic of Korea Partnership.” The White House, The United States Government, 22 May 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/05/21/fact-sheet-united-states-republic-of-korea-partnership/.

Haye-ah, Lee. “Yoon, Biden agreed to expand joint military exercises to cope with N.K. threats.” Yonhap News Agency. https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220520008755315.


Lee, Chung Min, and Kathryn Botto. Korea Net Assessment 2020: Politicized Security and Unchanging. https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/03/18/korea-net-assessment-2020-politicized-security-and-unchanging-strategic-realities-pub-81230.


“South Korea, US to hold Freedom Shield exercise from March 13 to 23.” Korea JoongAng Daily. https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2023/03/03/national/defense/combined-training-combined-exercise-ccpt/20230303112440920.html.


Stangarone, Troy. “Five Challenges for the US-South Korea Alliance.” The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2023/04/five-challenges-for-the-u-s-korea-alliance/.

“The Troubled ROK-U.S. Alliance.” The Asan Institute for Policy Studies, https://en.asaninst.org/contents/the-troubled-rok-u-s-alliance/.

Whyte, Leon. “The Evolution of the US-South Korea Alliance.” The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2015/06/the-evolution-of-the-u-s-south-korea-alliance/.

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