The Korea Herald


[Wang Son-taek] Korea-US alliance 70 years: Opportunities and challenges

By Korea Herald

Published : Oct. 5, 2023 - 05:31

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The South Korea-US alliance celebrated its 70th anniversary on October 1. Exactly 70 years have passed since Korea and the United States signed the Mutual Defense Treaty on Oct. 1, 1953.

The Korea-US alliance can be evaluated as a successful one for both nations. First, the alliance was a safety valve to ensure peace and stability while preventing a second Korean War on the Korean Peninsula. The Korean War was a tragedy in which about 3 million people were killed. The war was a huge hell that should never happen again. Second, afterwards, South Korea achieved miraculous national development. At the end of the war in 1953, South Korea's per capita income was less than $100, but by 2020, it had grown to more than $30,000. Such development resulted from Koreans' efforts, but it is also true that it was achieved based on the peace and stability provided by the alliance. For the US, the alliance is also a success because Korea contributes in various forms to maintaining and managing the international order led by the United States. South Korea serves as a faithful partner of the US in several types of global initiatives led by the latter.

The alliance is currently at its highest level, but there is also great potential for further development. This is because there are opportunities for the partnership. However, such opportunities are accompanied by challenging aspects that hinder the development of the alliance as well.

One of conditions favorable to the Korea-US alliance is the fact that the trend of liberal democracy continues to spread. The more liberal democracy spreads, the more likely the alliance will become valuable. This is because the United States leads the world in freedom, democracy and human rights issues, and Korea is also based on free democracy. The scope of cooperation in the alliance will expand as freedom and democracy spread.

Another factor favorable to the development of the Korea-US alliance is that the "fourth industrial revolution" will unfold widely and deeply. There is a lot of anxiety and discomfort about this revolution. Still, depending on how it is used, it can be an opportunity to bring peace and prosperity to the entire global community. Therefore, developed countries leading this revolution should strive to help the international community, not just conduct research and development efforts for their own interests. As leaders of it, Korea and the United States can cooperate to drive the direction of the revolution in a positive direction. In the process, the alliance will develop dramatically.

Another factor that gives expectations for the future of the Korea-US alliance is that globalization -- or interdependence -- is still spreading. Globalization has been a device for the United States to manage the international order and guarantee US interests as a hegemonic state since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Korea has also dramatically upgraded its trade volume and technology level by capitalizing on the trend of globalization. In the short term, supply chain restructuring is underway in the strategic competition between the US and China, and globalization is slowing down. However, since side effects and problems have been revealed during over 30 years of globalization, the readjustment of US and China relations is likely to be a painful cost in the continued spread of globalization.

While the Korea-US alliance finds itself amid these favorable conditions, there are also unfavorable ones. Political polarization, for example, can be one of the structural vulnerabilities accompanying liberal democracy. Polarization becomes a factor that hinders rational judgment while operating national policy. This is especially true in the field of foreign affairs and security. Rationally judged, the Korea-US alliance benefits both countries, but some candidates might argue against the alliance to distinguish themselves from competitors in the election process. Former US President George W. Bush, who took power in January 2001, shocked his predecessor, former President Bill Clinton, by applying what some called an "anything but Clinton" approach to foreign policy. Former President Donald Trump, who took power in January 2017, also pursued conflict with the US' historical allies.

Second, excessive selfishness derived from neoliberalism could push the Korea-US alliance into crisis. Neoliberalism, which emerged the dominant direction of capitalism after the end of the Cold War, emphasizes free markets of goods, capital and labor. In the process, selfishness also expanded to the extreme. The background of far-right populism seen in many parts of the world permeates as a side effect and evil of neoliberalism. If selfishness becomes excessive, the Korea-US alliance could come to be based on monetary transactions. The US might try to increase Korea's share in defense costs dramatically, and Korea might have to imagine a scenario without US troops stationed in Korea.

The "strategic competition" between the US and China is also a dangerous factor. If the US fails to manage its relationship with China as a "strategic competitor," the global community will become confused, and the future of the Korea-US alliance will be unclear. Korea achieved national development by actively participating in globalization. Large-scale trade cooperation with China was also possible in the context of globalization. The failure of the two countries to readjust could lead to a head-on conflict as well as a situation in which South Korea has to cut ties with one of the two. In that case, Korea will face severe internal divisions and consider moving to a third neutral zone.

If Korea and the United States can strengthen their diplomatic efforts to manage these opportunities and challenges positively, the two allies will be able to hold grand centennial celebrations in Seoul and Washington on Oct. 1, 2053.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.