Challenges Ahead for the US-South Korea Alliance

On May 9, 2017, South Korean voters elected liberal candidate Moon Jae-in as their next President amid increased provocations from North Korea and growing uncertainty about the future of the US-ROK alliance. The former human rights lawyer defeated two rival candidates—the conservative Hong Joon-pyo and the centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, winning roughly 41 percent of the vote. Moon ran on a platform that promised engagement with North Korea, enhanced human rights and civil liberties, and social, economic and political reforms.

This is not the first time South Koreans have expressed their preference for these liberal values, electing past Presidents Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008). However, since then, South Korea has been under conservative rule with Presidents Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017), during which time, inter-Korean relations have especially deteriorated. Their “tough” approaches toward Pyongyang have culminated in high tensions on the peninsula and a more provocative North Korea. Moreover, the far-reaching corruption scandal that led to Park’s impeachment in March resulted in a souring of public support for the conservative agenda.

A woman holds to flags of South Korea and the United States against the backdrop of a tall building.
(Photo: Chung Sung-Jun)

Moon’s landslide victory creates some mandate for a return to a liberal agenda, but in the current political environment, the road ahead for inter-Korean and US-ROK relations will not be easy to navigate. As the Moon-Trump summit quickly approaches, continued provocations from North Korea and growing cleavages on US-ROK security matters will test the strength of the alliance in the near future.

Moon’s Early Foreign Policy Overtures

After nearly ten years of strained inter-Korean relations under conservative governments in South Korea, President Moon stated in his inaugural address: “I am willing to go anywhere for the peace of the Korean peninsula—if needed, I will fly immediately to Washington. I will go to Beijing and I will go to Tokyo. If the conditions shape up, I will go to Pyongyang.” The optimism is evident in liberal foreign policy circles in Seoul: a Moon-Kim summit meeting would be a historic turning point in inter-Korean relations. The last inter-Korean summit meeting took place in 2007, between Kim Jong Il and Roh Moo-hyun, President Moon’s closest friend.

Yet despite Korean optimism, there is ample American pessimism about Moon’s agenda, as pundits in Washington express concerns that Moon’s pro-engagement stance toward Pyongyang is at odds with Washington’s preferred pace and policy, and is unlikely to succeed given continued North Korean provocations. With North Korea likely to continue testing missiles or conducting a sixth nuclear test, Moon’s remarks in favor of an inter-Korean presidential summit may put the sanctions-driven Trump administration on a collision course with leadership in Seoul.

Moon’s Foreign Policy Team

Suh Hoon, Director of the National Intelligence Service

Director of the National Intelligence Service Suh Hoon (Photo: Reuters/Jung Yeon-Je)
Director of the National Intelligence Service Suh Hoon (Photo: Reuters/Jung Yeon-Je)

The appointment of Suh Hoon as the new director of the National Intelligence Service (NIS) clearly shows where the Moon government’s North Korea policy is headed. Suh, who holds a Ph.D. in North Korean Studies, is a seasoned intelligence official who clandestinely arranged the two inter-Korean summit meetings (in 2000 and 2007) and is a strong advocate of the Sunshine Policy.[1] In fact, Suh resided in North Korea for two years beginning in 1997 as a member of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), which began constructing two light water reactors (LWRs) at Kumho as a part of the 1994 denuclearization deal with North Korea.

Moreover, Suh is one of President Moon’s most trusted aides and has been at his side since before the 2012 campaign. He knows instinctively whom the President does and does not want to hear from in the field of North Korean affairs. In a press briefing after Suh’s appointment, the veteran of inter-Korean talks reiterated Moon’s call for a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, although he also acknowledged it would be difficult for such a meeting to take place while tensions were high over the North’s nuclear threats. That being said, Suh has been asked to look into a way of achieving the denuclearization of North Korea through the summit meeting.

Dr. Suh will likely focus upon strengthening overseas intelligence activities as Moon vowed to stop NIS meddling in domestic politics and turn the politically tainted spy organization into a ‘pure’ intelligence body. Moon’s administration is looking to change the current NIS to orient itself toward that of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and work more closely with the United States.

Kang Kyung-hwa, Foreign Minister (Appointed)

Foreign Minister nominee Kang Kyung-hwa (Photo: Hankyoreh)
Foreign Minister nominee Kang Kyung-hwa (Photo: Hankyoreh)

Kang Kyung-hwa, a United Nations senior adviser on policy, was named as President Moon’s appointee for Foreign Minister. As the former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s close aide, Ms. Kang has extensive experience working with foreign leaders, but questions have been raised as to whether she has a foreign policy strategy and how she will deal with North Korean nuclear issues. Additionally, questions about personal conduct and ethics have surfaced recently and will come under particular scrutiny during the confirmation hearing at the National Assembly.

Chung Eui-yong, National Security Council

South Korea`s National Security Office chief Chung Eui-yong. (Photo: Yonhap)
South Korea’s National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong. (Photo: Yonhap)

In the meantime, what has troubled Moon the most has been his choice for head of the National Security Council. When Moon appointed Chung Eui-yong, former ambassador to Geneva, as his top national security adviser, many expected that the Moon government would tackle its security challenges through diplomatic means. Leading Moon’s foreign policy advisory group on the campaign trail, the widely respected diplomat is thought to be ‘cautious and considerate.’ With regard to inter-Korean talks, Chung revealed that “We will have to try and gradually resume dialogue, starting with working-level talks.”[2] But since Chung has no national security or unification policy background, some wonder if he really has the know-how to lead on complex matters of nuclear negotiations or proactively navigate the security alliance.

Special Advisors

Recently, President Moon appointed Hong Seok-hyun, chairman of the Korean Peninsula Forum and former ambassador to Washington, and Moon Chung-in, professor emeritus at Yonsei University, as special advisors for unification, diplomacy and security affairs. Both advisors are well known in Washington policy circles and their moderate views, based on a blend of realism and pragmatism, will likely help the Moon government to quickly address confrontational issues between Seoul and Washington. In tandem with Jeong Se-hyun, a former minister of unification affairs, who has been informally advising President Moon on North Korea issues, the three advisors are influential voices helping to formulate Moon’s foreign policy and unification strategies.

In short, this mix of moderate diplomats and experts reflects the way decisions will be made under the Moon government, as well as the growing influence of a small number of the president’s close aides who may increasingly dominate security-related ministries.

Challenges Ahead for the US-ROK Alliance

The Trump administration’s policy toward North Korea seems to remain adrift. No coherent policy has been formally published to date, although broad outlines have been provided through interviews and speeches. Moving away from the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” in name, the Trump administration has set forth a policy of ‘maximum pressure and engagement.” While Trump surely wants to differentiate himself from his predecessor, who showed little interest in direct diplomacy with Pyongyang, his policy so far has emphasized pressure with little clarity on what the conditions for engagement are or how those might differ from Moon’s thinking in Seoul.

Complicating this factor, early missteps in Trump’s presidency have sparked tensions with South Korea that will likely test Seoul’s diplomatic maturity. In April, Trump’s unexpected threats to cancel the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement and demand for South Korea to pay for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system caused much anger in Korea.[3] Many South Korean liberals already see the controversial THAAD system as irrelevant or unresponsive to threats from North Korea and resent China’s imposition of ‘multi-layered sanctions’ on South Korea in protest of what Beijing regards a subset of US missile defenses aimed at neutralizing China’s strategic arsenals.

Just last week, President Moon suspended the installation of the remaining components of the THAAD system until an assessment of the system’s impact on the environment could be done. The US has, in response, reiterated the importance of completing the THAAD deployment as soon as possible, given North Korea’s continued missile testing, and underscored US commitment to the alliance. While no fundamental changes to the THAAD deployment are expected as a result of the environmental assessment, the continued controversy over this matter can be an indication of how difficult core alliance and security discussions may be at the upcoming Moon-Trump summit, especially when dealing with the growing North Korean WMD threat.

To be president in a divided nation means to face the inescapable dilemma of alliance and self-reliance.[4] In any alliance, friction on one or both sides will arise and tough choices will be necessary. The inconvenient truths for the US-ROK alliance are still too deep and wide for any quick fix. However, while many expect tensions between the conservative government in the United States and the liberal government in Seoul, in fact, it was during the progressive Roh presidency that South Korea successfully negotiated a free trade deal with the conservative Bush administration in the US and dispatched its own troops to fight alongside the US in Iraq.

Obviously, past events influence current perceptions. The long memory of the US-ROK alliance offers some good examples for how the two allies can weather the storm. As John Fairbank once put it, Americans tend to use history as a “grab-bag from which each advocate pulls out of a ‘lesson’ to prove his point.”[5] So when they meet in Washington later this month, President Moon needs to tell President Trump the lessons he wants Trump to learn from more than sixty years of alliance relations.


  1. [1]
    The Sunshine Policy established by Kim Dae-jung, is often summarized as sixteen Chinese characters meaning: Easy tasks first, difficult tasks later; Private channel first, government channel later; Economy first, politics later; Give first, take later.
  2. [2]
    “Moon’s top security advisor points to need for dialogue with N. Korea,” Yonhap News Agency, May 22, 2017, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2017/05/22/0301000000AEN20170522010551315.html.
  3. [3]
    James Pearson, “South Korea paying for THAAD 'impossible': presidential frontrunner's aide,” Reuters, April 28, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-thaad-advisor-idUSKBN17U09Y.
  4. [4]
    In-taek Hyun, “‘Self-reliace’ vs. ‘Alliance’ Foreign Policy,” Korea Focus, Chosun Ilbo, January 19, 2004,  http://www.koreafocus.or.kr/design1/layout/content_print.asp?group_id=488.
  5. [5]
    John K. Fairbank, “How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution,” New York Review of Books, 6, no. 2 (1966), http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1966/02/17/how-to-deal-with-the-chinese-revolution.

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