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  • Prospects for the U.S.-ROK Alliance:Returning to the Old Days or Marching to the Future?
  • Kang Choi (bio)

In the nine years after the inauguration of the Lee Myung-bak administration in February 2008, the consensus regarding the alliance between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States was that it "couldn't be better." Yet with the inauguration of new administrations in both capitals, despite the reaffirmation of each side's commitment to the alliance, there are some concerns and anxieties over North Korea policy, the implications of China's rise for the regional security architecture, and alliance management. In general, the United States is concerned about the possibility that Moon Jae-in will revive Roh Moo-hyun's Sunshine Policy of engagement with North Korea as well as adopt a pro-Chinese orientation and encourage anti-American sentiment. On the other hand, the ROK has concerns about the Trump administration's protectionism, hostile policy toward North Korea that eschews dialogue, unilateralism in the military sphere, and demand for greater burden-sharing.

To maintain, strengthen, and upgrade the U.S.-ROK alliance, both Seoul and Washington should work very closely to increase trust and mutual respect and to iron out possible differences over the aforementioned issues. The following discussion will examine the two allies' areas of convergence and divergence on North Korea policy, China's rise, and alliance management. It will then conclude by assessing the prospects for the U.S.-ROK alliance in the aftermath of political transitions in both countries.

Consultation and Coordination on North Korea Policy

For both Washington and Seoul, North Korea's nuclear weapons program remains the most urgent and important challenge. The overall situation in and around the Korean Peninsula is very unstable and intense, as North Korea seeks acceptance as a nuclear state and relevant parties try to force the Kim Jong-un regime to give up its nuclear weapons.

At the moment, Washington and Seoul appear to be on the same page in their commitment to a strategy of "maximum pressure and engagement." However, each side seems to have some suspicion about [End Page 19] the other. The United States is concerned about the possibility that the new ROK government will revive Roh's Sunshine Policy, which strongly emphasized engagement and positive incentives. On the other hand, the Moon administration might have anxieties that the Trump administration's policies will be too militant and aggressive, potentially inducing a series of crises and confrontations without the possibility of dialogue and negotiation.1 Nonetheless, given North Korea's ongoing missile tests and threats to stage another nuclear test, both the United States and ROK are in a common stance of mounting more pressure on North Korea until it shows meaningful signs of denuclearization.

At the moment, despite its desire to have some degree of autonomy in dealing with North Korea, South Korea does not have much room to maneuver. It would be difficult for the Moon government to go against the Trump administration's strategy of maximum pressure and engagement and pursue a completely new policy. From the South Korean perspective, the threat posed by North Korea goes beyond nuclear weapons and missiles. Human rights violations, as well as economic and social instability, are among the conventional security issues that must be resolved. Therefore, the United States must not restrict its North Korea policy to the nuclear and missile threats but should adjust its policy to address all of these issues. To gain the support and cooperation of the United States, and to reduce suspicion between the two allies, South Korea should also clarify its vision, strategy, and action plans to handle and solve the North Korea problem.

At the same time, the United States and South Korea should discuss and come to an agreement on the level and scope of pressure to be applied and on the conditions, procedures, and agenda for dialogue. The United States is concerned that the Moon administration will rush into a dialogue with Pyongyang and has reservations about reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Kumgang tours regardless of the [End Page 20] progress toward denuclearization.2 South Korea, by contrast, is concerned that...


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