Milestones and Momentum: A Banner 2023 for the US-ROK Alliance and the Path Forward

The US-ROK alliance has experienced a banner year in 2023. The year has been marked not only by commemorative milestones that underscore the durability of the alliance, such as the 70th anniversary of the US-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty and the 45th anniversary of the establishment of the Combined Forces Command, but also by unprecedented progress that has substantively strengthened and upgraded the alliance. Progress has unfolded throughout the year, driven largely by the combination of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s vision for the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) as a “global pivotal state,” and the United States’ clear commitment to extended deterrence, resulting in striking developments at the geopolitical, regional and inter-Korean levels.

Reflecting on the geopolitical landscape of 2023, Seoul ended years of ambiguity over its stance with Beijing by overtly aligning with the principles of “like-minded democracies“ within the international rules-based order. Regionally, the year marked a significant intensification point where the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK or North Korea)’ offensive tactical nuclear doctrine intersected with an unprecedented display of US extended deterrence. This was exemplified by the deployment of US air and naval nuclear-capable assets to South Korea, the first of their kind in decades. At the inter-Korean level, steps were taken in 2023 to reinvigorate the issue over North Korean human rights.

The upgrade to the alliance and its resulting developments are good news, but they come at a time when the international order is showing signs of considerable stress. Amid great power competition between the US and China, regional security alignments are now forming in Northeast Asia. While South Korea pursues its role as a global pivotal state in an international rules-based order among like-minded democracies, North Korea has aligned with like-minded nuclear autocracies in the region. Russia and China, meanwhile, have teamed to render the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) ineffective in enforcing sanctions against North Korea even as its nuclear capabilities increase. On the domestic front in South Korea ahead of the 2024 national assembly elections, opposition politics are set to make red meat out of President Yoon’s policies as the cause of deteriorating relations with North Korea. Over in the US, depending on the outcome of the presidential election in November 2024, dramatic changes in foreign policy could occur that would disrupt gains made by the alliance in 2023.

Moving forward into 2024, it is crucial for the US-ROK alliance to solidify and institutionalize the achievements of the previous year at the most granular operational levels, all while maintaining flexibility in response to potential changes in both ROK and US foreign policy. As the global order experiences substantial shifts and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities continue to evolve, the sustained success of the US-ROK alliance hinges on its capacity to adjust and uphold the positive momentum forged in 2023.

Standing up to China

Due to its geopolitical implications, the primary development that occurred in 2023 was President Yoon’s strategic decision to stand up to China. The 2022 year-end release of South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy set the stage for the roll-out of Yoon’s vision throughout 2023. Although carefully worded so as not to antagonize Beijing, the document gets its point across with a strong message to China to reset its relations with South Korea based on mutual respect and reciprocity within a rules-based order. This no doubt alarmed Beijing because it ended years of strategic ambiguity over China and planted South Korea on the side of “like-minded” democracies” in the broader game of great power competition.

In April, Seoul continued to square up to Beijing. Presidents Yoon and Biden met in Washington and produced a Joint Statement accompanying the Washington Declaration. Together, these two deliverables operationalized President Yoon’s Indo-Pacific Strategy with specific language calling for: 1) maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific; 2) preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait; and 3) deepening trilateral US-ROK-Japan cooperation on regional and economic security.

By June, the Yoon administration risked backlash from China by approving the permanent stationing of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province. While the ROK government was prudent to mention there were no plans for additional THAAD batteries, the move left the door open to fully reversing Moon Jae-in’s “Three No’s” vow to China made in 2017, which promised as follows: (1) no additional THAAD deployment, (2) no South Korean integration into a US-led regional missile defense system and (3) no trilateral alliance with the US and Japan.

Following the “normalization” of THAAD in August, the Yoon administration appeared to partially abrogate the “Three No’s” when the ROK, US and Japan formalized a strategic trilateral alignment on several issues, including deterrence, missile defense, North Korea’s denuclearization, North Korean human rights, and perhaps most importantly, economic security. Alarmed, China quickly announced its “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition“ to the trilateral formation of like-minded democracies.

The Yoon administration continued its pushback in October when the Ministry of Unification publicly rebuked China over the forced repatriation of North Korean escapees. Referring to China’s forced repatriation as a “violation of international norms,” the ministry officially placed China on the side of those countries that violate the international rules-based order.

Whether or not Yoon completely crossed the Rubicon with China in 2023 over his strategic decision to openly side with the international rules-based order where the ROK, US and Japan are on the “like-minded democracy” side of the power competition equation in Northeast Asia, the issue leaves an opening for there to be a potential misunderstanding between Seoul and a China-focused Washington.

Washington should work hard to manage its expectations with South Korea in the Indo-Pacific as the ROK continues to manage relations with its largest trade partner. With North Korea’s nuclear threat accelerating, it is premature to expect Seoul to jump headlong into contentious issues over the East and South China Seas and the Taiwan Strait.

For South Korea, the time is ripe to continue increasing its range of options through an aggressive exploration of alternatives to China as part of its decoupling strategy. One item for the Yoon administration to consider is branding its mercurial, yet highly successful, democratic model using the same playbook it has perfected with other Korean wave market models. If told right, South Korea’s story of democracy—maybe call it “K-democracy”—could find a welcome market in countries caught on the fence contemplating a future choice between democracy and autocracy.

Strengthened US-ROK Deterrence

At the regional level, steps taken by the US-ROK alliance to strengthen conventional and extended deterrence comprise the second major development of 2023. After his US state visit in April, President Yoon flew back from Washington with a huge deliverable from the Biden administration. For his part, Yoon also delivered to Biden and the rules-based order.

The Washington Declaration not only reinforced a credible commitment to extended deterrence from the US, but also strengthened international nonproliferation thanks to President Yoon’s recommitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The declaration also committed real machinery for implementing strengthened deterrence, most notably the establishment of a Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) and the visible deployment of US strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula. During a Memorial Day speech at Seoul National Cemetery in June, Yoon proclaimed that relations with the US had been upgraded to a “nuclear-based alliance.”

In July, a high-level inaugural meeting of the NCG was held in Seoul, where both sides agreed to advance several lines of effort, including information sharing, planning, simulations, training, and, most importantly, investment. This was followed by the Trilateral Leaders’ Summit at Camp David in August, where the US affirmed its extended deterrence commitment to the trilateral arrangement, and all three countries committed to participating in trilateral missile defense exercises. Finally, in November, the Military Committee and Security Consultative meetings were held in South Korea at a more granular level to discuss ways to operationalize and institutionalize bilateral and trilateral deterrence measures.

While great strides were made in 2023 to strengthen deterrence, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities continue to surge, and the overall security atmosphere is deteriorating. Last month’s successful satellite launch by the North, possibly helped along by Russian technology, led to the South’s suspension of part of its commitment to the Comprehensive Military Agreement (CMA) signed in 2018, and the North has already vowed to redeploy forces along the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). In this deteriorating atmosphere, North Korea is rapidly fielding a dual nuclear concept where it will pose a coercive tactical dilemma against South Korea while keeping the US at bay with the threat of an ICBM strike.

If the alliance intends to keep up with the DPRK’s nuclear strategy in 2024, it must move beyond reliance on “deterrence by punishment” by showcasing strategic assets and, through the NCG, develop concepts that also incorporate “deterrence by denial“ strategies that consider resiliency measures, positioning, and the integration of missile defense and command and control technologies.

The alliance should also consider a more pivotal role for the United Nations Command (UNC). Not only is there a need for the UNC to intensify monitoring of the Armistice agreement due to the breakdown of the CMA and the redeployment of North Korean forces along the MDL, but also to facilitate military-to-military dialogue with the DPRK and further galvanize the trilateral partnership to shore up the rear area and the UN’s sending state support.

Progress on North Korean Human Rights

At the inter-Korean level, 2023 saw considerable progress over the dormant issue of North Korean human rights. The Yoon administration prominently included human rights as a core line of effort in its Indo-Pacific Strategy, which set the stage for policy direction throughout the year. In March, the Ministry of Unification released for the first time to the South Korean public a nearly 600-page report documenting 1,600 human rights violation cases committed by the Kim regime, as testified by 508 North Korean defectors. Then, in September, South Korea’s Supreme Court struck down the 2020 anti-leaflet law that criminalized NGOs for sending information via balloons into North Korea.

In the US, Ambassador Julie Turner was finally sworn in as the US Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues in October, completing a diplomatic triumvirate that includes Lee Shin-hwa, whom Yoon reappointed as South Korea’s North Korean human rights ambassador in July, and Elizabeth Salmon, who was appointed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as Special Rapporteur on DPRK human rights in August 2022.

With Ambassador Turner in place, Congress should move quickly to pass the North Korean Human Rights Act for reauthorization. While the US Senate passed a bill in December 2022 and the House introduced its version in April, reauthorization, which is essential for promoting accountability, providing humanitarian support, and sustaining efforts to address human rights issues in North Korea, has remained in limbo.

With the anti-leaflet law found to be unconstitutional, NGOs and other civic groups in South Korea will ramp up balloon campaigns to fly content into North Korea. Whether the actual law gets amended or repealed in full, groups should consider sending useful information about the outside world, such as concepts on freedom, “K-democracy,” and even entertainment content, over unnecessarily lewd, regime-threatening, or other inflammatory material that risks offending even those North Koreans who are opposed to the Kim regime.

In the meantime, the UN-US-ROK envoy triumvirate should align to block attempts by North Korea to frame criticism over its human rights abuses as an attack on its sovereignty. As alignment materializes on North Korean Human Rights, the US-ROK alliance can expect North Korea to lash out, which further underscores the need for doubling down on deterrence and supporting President Yoon’s message to China.

Looking Ahead to 2024

The year 2023 witnessed a remarkable upgrade to the US-ROK alliance marked by President Yoon’s strategic vision and Washington’s steadfast commitment to extended deterrence. The geopolitical landscape saw Seoul assertively aligning itself with like-minded democracies and dispensing with its stance of ambiguity toward Beijing.

Regionally, a visible showcasing of US extended deterrence converged with North Korea’s nuclear doctrine, thereby keeping pace with the threat and adding a new dimension to the security dynamic in Northeast Asia. At the inter-Korean level, a renewed focus on DPRK human rights issues signaled a renewed commitment to addressing the plight of North Koreans.

However, these positive developments unfold against a backdrop of unpredictable global challenges. Domestically, President Yoon’s policies will face increasing scrutiny in the lead-up to South Korea’s 2024 national assembly elections. In the US, the outcome of the 2024 presidential election could introduce radical foreign policy shifts that would impact the gains achieved in 2023.

Looking ahead, the key imperatives for the US-ROK alliance in 2024 are to consolidate and institutionalize the gains made in the previous year down to the deepest actionable levels while remaining agile in the face of potential shifts in both ROK and US foreign policy. As the global order undergoes significant transformation and North Korea’s nuclear capabilities grow, the enduring success of the US-ROK alliance lies in its ability to adapt and sustain the positive momentum established in 2023.

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