A New Look at the Korea-U.S. Alliance

"It will take at least 100 years for South Korea to recover from the war." U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of the Allied forces, once said after the Korean War was over. Even one of the representatives dispatched to the UNKRA – United Nations Korean Reconstruction Agency created by the General Assembly to administer relief and reconstruction immediately after the Korean War – was also pessimistic, saying that “expecting the economy to be rebuilt in South Korea is like hoping for a rose to blossom in a garbage can.” Despite all these despairing views, however, it took less than 50 years for South Korea, the land of ruins, to emerge as a global economic powerhouse. 

From 1953 to 1961, South Korea received as much as $2.3 billion in aid from countries such as the United States. Then, 57 years after the end of the Korean War, South Korea joined the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), an international committee acting under the auspices of OECD, and it now has the 15th highest Official Development Assistance (ODA)/GNI ratio among DAC members. It became the first and only country that turned from an aid beneficiary to an aid donor.

In 1961, South Korea's per capita national income was only $93.8, ranking it 91st in the world and U.S. aid played a big role in it. According to 2020 OECD statistics, however, South Korea's nominal GDP now stands at $1.545 trillion, ranking 9th in the world. In addition, Bloomberg, citing World Bank data, predicts that South Korea is likely to overtake Italy in GNI per capita and reach G7 level in 2020. This is probably because South Korea recorded a relatively solid growth rate among OECD member countries despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Moreover, South Korea is already one of the seven countries around the world to be in the so-called “30-50 club,” referring to countries with a per capita GNI of more than $30,000 and a population of more than 50 million – two figures that can be interpreted as indicators of developed countries.

Even the IMF gave an outlook that South Korea’s GDP per capita at purchasing power parity rates is expected to rise to $41,362, surpassing that of Japan. In addition, The Centre for Economics and Business Research in the UK (CEBR) predicts that South Korea’s economic ranking will rise to 11th in the world by 2035. 

In short, the size of South Korea's economy has increased nearly 400 times since 1960. None of the great powers that became dominant through colonization, maritime trade, and industrial revolution have achieved such rapid economic growth in the history of the world. South Korea is also the world’s 6th largest exporter according to the WTO and the 9th largest holder of foreign reserves in the world.

As South Korea became more competitive, its national brand value has also risen markedly. According to a report released in 2018 by Brand Finance, a British brand valuation consultancy, South Korea is ranked 10th in the world with a brand value of $2 trillion.

Today, South Korea has made a remarkable achievement not only in its economy, but also in democracy and military capability. There have been many ups and downs over the past 50 years, but South Korea now has a stable and high-standard democratic system in place. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the research and analysis division of the Economist Group in the UK, assesses democratic progress of each country in the world every year based on five criteria: (1) electoral process and pluralism; (2) functionality of government; (3) political participation; (4) political culture; and (5) civil liberties. In 2018, South Korea was ranked 21st among 167 countries, outperforming Japan (22nd) and the United States (25th). In the 2020 assessment conducted by the same organization, South Korea scored 8.01 out of 10 - higher than that of the United States and Japan - and was classified as a “full democracy.”

South Korea has now reached a point in time where checks on power and the condemnation of corruption are held to high standards. High democratic standards and awareness by South Korean people are also strong fortes of South Korea as proven in the 2017 candlelight rally that led to the resignation and impeachment of the former president. It was a peaceful demonstration of the century in the democratic history of the world that involved 10 million participants a year but resulted in no violence, injuries, or arrests.

In terms of military power, South Korea has maintained the world's 6th – 7th place for several years. If you look at the rankings published by the U.S. Global FirePower (GFP), which compares the military power of each country in the world, South Korea is ranked 6th in 2020, surpassing Britain, France, and Germany. Three of the five countries that ranked higher than South Korea are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Two of the permanent members of the UN Security Council ranked lower than South Korea. In other words, it can be said that the military power of South Korea is already on par with those of big powers. South Korea has also ranked 7th and 10th in military strength and defense expenditure respectively, putting it at the top of the ranks.

Few countries that have experienced colonial rule and war were able to catch two hares at once as South Korea did by successfully and firmly establishing the economic prosperity and democratic system within a short period of time. South Korea achieved success in much of the areas including security, market economy, and democratic system thanks to the support of the United States and the alliance between the two countries from the time of the post-war reconstruction period. This is like a beautiful journey of a strong South Korea-U.S. alliance and a great victory for democracy. No one would deny the role the United States played in South Korea’s remarkable development and growth. Without the courage and sacrifice of UN forces led by the United States in the Korean War, the miraculous development and growth of South Korea would not have been possible at all.

It is no exaggeration to say that the freedom that South Koreans now enjoy started with U.S. participation in the Korean War and its protection for freedom, as well as a journey towards freedom through a strong national security system built on the South Korea-U.S. alliance. The starting point of the prosperity that South Koreans enjoy at the moment (although the prosperity is most attributed to the hard work of the South Korean people) lies in the economic aid of the United States after the Korean War and a joint journey towards a market economy that is built on economic cooperation and a free trade order. These two are very important factors that need to be accounted for.

Since World War I, the United States has participated in multiple wars around the world and has led reconstruction and prosperity of the free world with its provision of post-war support to countries affected by war. However, it is not an exaggeration to say that among the countries that the United States fought along and supported post-war reconstruction for, South Korea is the only country that successfully rebuilt itself with equal balance of 1) economic prosperity, 2) stable and advanced democratic system, and 3) strong security capabilities. The United States paid a hefty price with the blood of its own people in its efforts to implement the values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and prosperity, and the U.S. should feel infinite pride that its act of sacrifice has manifested itself in the most rewarding fashion in South Korea. 

The South Korea-U.S. alliance has strengthened further in the common battle fronts where they shed blood together. Starting with the Korean War, the two countries are allies forged by blood that fought side by side in the U.S. wars on multiple occasions including the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. The South Korean forces participated in the U.S. war in Vietnam, which resulted in 5,099 Korean casualties, about one tenth of the U.S. casualties (58,220 people). South Korea to date also dispatched 57,000 troops to 30 countries including Iraq, at the request of the United States or the United Nations. There are only a few allies that fought together on battle grounds as much as these countries have since World War II.

Now, in the face of a new era, the two countries are faced with many challenges and issues that need to be resolved. They can start with the United States looking at South Korea with a new perspective that befits the pride the U.S. feels towards South Korea. South Koreans felt offended in the South Korea-U.S. defense cost-sharing negotiations during the Trump administration because they felt that the values of alliance and partnership were converted into money. One of the key things the ‘returned America’ should be different in is that an alliance must begin faithfully from values that both sides must respect as allies.

No one would object that the biggest issue between the two countries at this moment is the North Korean nuclear issue. It is an undeniable fact that the two countries have shown subtle differences in their points of views regarding the issue. This seems to be resulting from the difference in 1) how they feel about North Korea’s nuclear program and all-out war, and 2) their attitudes towards war. 

Whenever the North Korean nuclear issue arises, South Koreans living in the United States are said to receive the following question most frequently from their American friends: “They say that South Korea may be going to war soon, are you guys okay?” U.S. citizens may find it puzzling to see foreign media reports sketching and conveying the calm and peaceful atmosphere of Seoul city when the North Korean nuclear crisis is dominating the news. They may say, “Aren’t Koreans too calm? Aren’t they too insensitive to war?” There is even a joke in South Korea on this matter. “The number of gun-related deaths in the United States is about 30,000 a year, but no South Koreans have died from North Korean nuclear weapons in the past 20 years, so South Korea is yet safer than the United States.” Of course, it is a joke shared only by some South Koreans.

For the first factor underlying subtly different perspectives of the two countries about North Korea's nuclear program, it is necessary to examine how they analyze North Korea. It has been 20 years since the North Korean nuclear crisis began on the Korean Peninsula. The opinions seem to be split between a) North Korea is more likely to use its nuclear program as a means to launch a full invasion on South Korea and to communize the whole Korean peninsula and b) North Korea’s nuclear program is a desperate measure on its side to secure leverage in negotiations. These views have elements of truth in them and can coexist with one another. What is important is that we do not over-interpret the situation as such that North Korea may possibly use its nuclear weapons to launch an all-out invasion and occupation of South Korea as doing so may lead us to make wrong judgments.

Of course, the North Korean military power should never be taken lightly, given the recent emphasis North Korea has put on the development of missiles and nuclear weapons. However, such asymmetrical military power held by North Korea must be distinguished from its ability to conduct long-term all-out warfare. Moreover, to cope with North Korean nuclear threats, the U.S. and South Korea are closely consulting with one another on the expansionary deterrence the U.S., a nuclear power, is providing to non-nuclear countries, and they are also maintaining a cooperative response. This means that South Korea and the U.S. are working closely with one another to devise a preparedness response to North Korean nuclear threats.

To get to the nature of the problem, it would be wise to analyze North Korea for its ability to single handedly launch an all-out war. That North Korea can start a war but is not capable of sustaining it on a full scale, would probably be the correct judgment here. In other words, it may be possible for North Korea to engage in local provocations, but anything bigger than this scale, say an all-out war, may be realistically difficult.

We can calculate the North Korean military’s war capability based on its fuel supply and demand capability in the event of an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula. Although the data is a bit outdated, the U.S. security research institute, Nautilus Research Institute, which has been observing and analyzing North Korea's energy use for a long time, has produced an interesting simulation: should a war start on the Korean peninsula, the North Korean military will fall into a state of incapacity for air operations within 24 hours of the onset of the war, battleships will be suspended within 5 days, and two-thirds of its major defense equipment such as tanks will be rendered useless. 

North Korea's energy shortage is still known to pose a great risk to society. There are many analyses that argue the training time involving major North Korean military equipment such as fighter tanks has been reduced drastically as compared to the past. It is also unlikely that North Korea’s oil crisis will be improved dramatically. Unless there is a guarantee that China or Russia will continue to provide war supplies such as oil, North Korea will not dare to engage in an all-out attack. At this point, it is very skeptical whether China or Russia can support North Korea's blitz invasion and an all-out war.

Of course, North Korea's ability to launch a surprise attack should not be underestimated, but unless it can occupy South Korea in a short period, such an attack is meaningless. It will be difficult for a surprise attack to determine the outcome of the war. 

Rather, it is obvious that North Korea will suffer a devastating blow from a massive retaliatory attack by South Korea-U.S. combined forces. Even if - a scenario that is only remotely possible - North Korea successfully occupies South Korea in a short period of time, it is not equipped to rule South Korea. Currently, South Korea's military expenditure is more than 20 times that of North Korea and its economic power, which serves as the basis of military power, is 33 times that of North Korea. If the total economic power of the two Koreas is 100, South Korea would be 97, and North Korea only 3. No matter how irrational North Korea is in its thinking, it is almost insane to plan an invasion on South Korea when there is such a marked difference in their national powers. From the mid-1970s, when the economic power gap between the two Koreas began to widen significantly, North Korea started to focus on securing an asymmetric deterrent power to deter attacks from the outside rather than on building military power assuming an all-out war. These two facts may not be un-related to each another.

In addition, the number of Chinese residents in South Korea exceeds 1 million and there are also over 50,000 Russians in Korea. Therefore, it would be difficult to assume that North Korea will launch a surprise provocation and start a war.

For the second factor underlying the subtle difference in the perspectives between the two countries towards North Korea's nuclear weapons, it is necessary to look at their attitudes towards war. The United States has never had its mainland attacked since its independence, but both Koreas suffered great human loss and their land and industrial facilities were destroyed completely in the Korean War. They experienced horrible deaths, horror, and ruins as a result. South Korea managed to recover from the ashes of the Korean War. The civil war in the United States is a story from a long time ago, but the civil war on the Korean Peninsula is a present-day story whose wounds of annihilation and flames have not healed yet (it is still in a state of armistice). When it comes to war deterrence, Koreans are more desperate than the U.S. public given that they are the ones directly involved in the matter. The war that is an option for the United States is a matter of life and death for Koreans.

Getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons would be the top priority for the United States. However, for South Korea, getting North Korea to denuclearize and stopping it from launching an attack and carrying out provocations, as well as easing tensions on the Korean peninsula, are all equally important.

The United States must acknowledge that the fear and wariness of war is greater in South Korea and understand the reality that South Korea has no choice but to adopt methods of patience, dialogues, and peace along with persuasion and pressure.

It has already been 20 years since the North Korean nuclear crisis began. In the meantime, five administrations from Clinton to Biden in the United States and six administrations in South Korea have treated this issue as a top priority. However, no administrations from either country have succeeded in denuclearizing North Korea.

During that period, the U.S. and South Korea have mobilized varied approaches either in agreement or disagreement, but they have not yet achieved their goal. In other words, the fact that the two countries failed to come up with the best and unique solution to denuclearize North Korea is a cold reality that we must all recognize. That does not mean we should go to war. Ultimately, North Korea’s denuclearization is an issue that must be handled in phases and with patience.

To give an analogy, it is my opinion that the North Korean nuclear crisis resembles the climate crisis in many ways in that 1) both crises have been festering for a long time and will become a serious disaster if left unattended; 2) they may appear as regional problems but indeed they are world-wide problems; and 3) they cannot be resolved through the efforts of a single country. They are also similar in that even if it takes a long time, we have no choice but to handle them one at a time through solidarity, cooperation, patience, and constant efforts.

The United States has seen many disagreements arising between states, and between states and federal government, but it handled them in the spirit of federalism and pursued coexistence and prosperity all the while. That is all happening within the walls of the same country; hence, it is only natural for allies to have differences in their opinions and positions on issues that arise. The problem is that there is a movement in both countries to intentionally inflate and amplify such conflicts and make profits from them. It is important for the leaders and policy makers of both countries to not get swept away by such ill-intended movements and resolve conflicts objectively and calmly by engaging in close dialogues, concessions, and adjustments with one another, and wisely persuading public opinion within their countries. 

In addition to the North Korean nuclear issue, there are several pending issues in Northeast Asia that are holding back the governments of both countries. One of them is the U.S.-China conflict. Asking South Korea whose side it is on is a very fragmentary and superficial question. South Korea and the United States are allies by blood. Meanwhile, China is the largest trading partner to South Korea. From South Korea’s standpoint, the U.S. needs to understand that South Korea has to take two-track approaches to the matter: one to address security issues based on the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and the other to deal with the economy under the principle of multilateral cooperation.

U.S.-China relations have also repeatedly experienced good times and bad times since the normalization of diplomatic relations in the Nixon era. South Korea's general strategy is no different from the U.S. taking a complex approach to China rather than a single-line approach. Moreover, it is worth noting that from the United States’ long-term standpoint, for South Korea to not engage in a confrontational relationship with China but to act as a buffer between the two countries will bring forth positive effects to peace in Northeast Asia.

Next is a concern for the strained relationship between South Korea and Japan. Every situation has a cause and an effect. It should be noted that the recent deterioration in relations between South Korea and Japan was not caused by South Korea, but by Japan who failed to break with its wrong past in a series of events.

South Korea and Japan’s past problems are not for the United States to intervene in. If the U.S. must intervene, it should do so only to the extent of playing the role of a fair mediator. However, if the U.S. uses the situation to seek immediate conveniences for itself, it will lead to a situation where it may seriously lose the trust of the Korean people.

The South Korea-U.S.-Japan security alliance is very important, but the alliance between allies, especially regional security cooperation, is not consolidated solely on the military aspect. Understanding and cooperation in cultural, diplomatic, and historical backgrounds should be the basis of the alliance.

In particular, the quad problem makes us feel the irony of history. As is well known, Japan's constitution is a pacifist constitution which is unprecedented in world history. This pacifist constitution prevents Japan from having a military and using a military to settle disputes with other countries. The constitution was designed to help Japan to move towards a peaceful state rather than a militaristic state in the post-war period, but it should be remembered that it was the United States that requested the enactment of such a constitution.

This year, South Korea and the U.S. celebrate 139 years of diplomatic relations. Despite difficulties of various sorts and conflicts that were large and small, the South Korea-U.S. alliance made historical achievements and progress through trust, solidarity, cooperation, and companionship over the past 70 years, and the results are firmly shared by both countries. There are signs of tensions and anxieties in Northeast Asia, but it is important to believe that the two countries will be able to cope with these problems wisely and sensibly based on the alliance forged through blood, as they have done until now.

Mr. Yang Jung Chul has held a Visiting Senior Fellow position at CSIS during Spring 2021.

Yang Jung Chul

Visiting Senior Fellow at CSIS during Spring 2021