South Korea and the US: An Alliance without Allies

President Donald Trump’s recent summit with North Korea only masks deeper problems in the United States-South Korean relationship.

President Donald J. Trump and President Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea at the United Nations General Assembly (Official White House Photo by Stephanie K. Chasez)

President Donald Trump’s recent summit with North Korea has its fair share of critics among domestic national security experts. However, its biggest fan may be the one with the most at stake: South Korean president Moon Jae-in. Immediately after the summit, Moon congratulated Trump and called the summit a “historic event”. After the summit was announced, Moon reportedly said that Trump deserved a Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet for all the praise exchanged between the two leaders, the South Korean-United States alliance may be at a breaking point. Moon is skeptical of South Korea’s historic reliance on the United States. Moon in an interview with Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun says:

I’m pro-U.S., but now South Korea should adopt diplomacy in which it can discuss a U.S. request and say no to the Americans.

More broadly though, the growing progressive movement Moon represents view the United States as, at best, a necessary evil. Young people were not alive for the landing of United States troops and the quick success of their counterattack. Without United States intervention, there would be no democratic South Korea, but the visceral memories of the older generation have not been passed down. The constant threat of North Korean missiles has numbed South Korean youth who yearn for a peaceful solution. Random missile tests are routine to these young people who have grown up hearing North Korea’s bark but never feeling its bite.

Indeed, as American influence in South Korean politics has waned, China’s has increased. More young Koreans attend college in China than the United States. China is now South Korea’s largest trading partner. More trade between the two Asian countries is set to rise in the coming years with South Korea’s entrance into China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the United States continues to trend toward isolationism through Trump’s “America First” slogan turned ideology. Trump has repeatedly shunned international organizations like NATO and the UN for not paying their fair share and has withdrawn the United States from multiple, multilateral agreements from the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He has criticized American interventionism in the Middle East; his calls for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan have only been tempered by top Pentagon generals. For Trump, “America First” means America alone.

“America First” may soon strike again in the Korean Peninsula. In a concession that both alarmed and surprised top American and South Korean military officials, Trump has publicly ordered the total suspension of the upcoming military exercises with South Korea. Once again, Trump has justified this decision mainly by citing a fiscal conservationism not at all present in his domestic agenda, which has included massive tax cuts without corresponding spending cuts:

I want to get our soldiers out. I want to bring our soldiers back home. We have 32,000 soldiers in South Korea. I would like to be able to bring them back home. That’s not part of the equation. At some point, I hope it would be. We will stop the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money. Unless and until we see the future negotiations is not going along like it should. We will be saving a tremendous amount of money.

Of course, Trump also gave a nuanced analysis of how this concession will advance his diplomatic agenda:

Plus, it is very provocative.

Or not…

This alliance began with brave American troops fighting back the advance of communism. It has stood through threats of nuclear annihilation and the random winds of American politics. The question now: will it last?