Alternative Futures for the US-ROK Alliance: Will Things Fall Apart?

Executive Summary

Over the last several months, 38 North held discussions with a broad range of former high-level US and ROK political, diplomatic and military officials as well as various analysts and academics. The following key points emerged from our discussions:

  • The US-ROK alliance faces several challenges to its continued cohesion, raising serious questions about its capacity to adapt to structural and strategic shifts buffeting the relationship.
  • Major changes in the alliance’s command structure, the possibility of US force withdrawals, the erosion of the US extended deterrence commitment and divergent perspectives about how to approach the DPRK and the ROK’s role in the US-China strategic competition will all stress alliance solidarity.
  • To maintain extended deterrence, Washington and Seoul need to deepen their consultations. Some ROK officials argued for going beyond the type of nuclear consultations held in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while others advocated more regular and transparent discussion between the Trump and Moon administrations.
  • There was a palpable concern about the alliance’s future direction. The general consensus was that both governments need to reassess the value and direction of the alliance as well as the costs and consequences should it fall apart.
  • Many US policymakers do not fully appreciate divergent US and ROK perspectives on fundamental bilateral and regional issues. A rupture in the alliance is unlikely, but institutional inertia alone will not sustain it in the face of the centrifugal forces pulling it apart. Transforming the relationship might be a bridge too far, but intelligent and diligent alliance management can keep the relationship from going off the rails.


“Alternative Futures for the US-ROK Alliance: Will Things Fall Apart?” by Clint Work

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