What the North Korean Threat Means for the U.S.-South Korea Relationship

By Sophie Fitzgerald

The threat posed by North Korea to the U.S. and its allies has risen markedly in the opening months of 2016. As this threat rises, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is forced yet again to evaluate its alliance with South Korea, the main organ of its North Korea policy. Dramatic change to U.S. policy towards North Korea seems unlikely, largely because the U.S.-South Korea relationship is locked in a stalemate with both allies discouraging major change to the relationship.

On January 6, 2016, North Korea tested its fourth nuclear bomb. Soon afterwards, on February 7, the pariah state successfully launched a second satellite into orbit and stabilized it (the first was launched in December 2012 and never stabilized in orbit). Both events are alarming, because North Korea is widely believed to be developing technology for long-range nuclear weapons through tests such as these. They show that North Korea’s missile-delivery systems are becoming more powerful and reliable. Recent revelations that North Korea is also producing weapons-grade nuclear fuel led the U.S. national intelligence chief James Clapper to announce on February 9 that North Korea now presents the world’s most worrisome nuclear threat. The United States will look to its ally South Korea to cope with this threat.

Some background on U.S. alliances in Asia may be necessary to determine how the U.S. responds. In the past, the U.S. has used bilateral relationships with prominent East Asia allies (namely, South Korea, Japan, and China) to create a security network in that region. This form of bilateral engagement has been called a “hub and spokes” model, where the United States is the “hub” and its East Asian allies the “spokes.” The “hub and spokes” model contrasts with the United States’ defence engagements with Europe and Latin America, which are more multilateral (for example, NATO).

The alliance between South Korea and the U.S. fits easily into the “hub and spokes” narrative, being a bilateral agreement between unequal powers based upon mutual need. The relationship began in a Cold War context, with the U.S. and South Korea signing their first Mutual Defence Treaty in 1953 to counter the communist threat of North Korea and its superpower backers. In 2016, the mutual defence treaty between the U.S. and South Korea remains in place, with the U.S. maintaining a force of 28,500 soldiers in South Korea.

Most importantly, the U.S. has had full operational control of South Korean troops since 1953. Given that South Korea is under the U.S.’s “security umbrella,” the U.S. is able to influence South Korea’s interactions with North Korea. Thus, the two countries have a joint agenda on North Korea which largely reflects the U.S.’s wishes. The agenda includes refusing to restart six-party talks on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program unless North Korea takes “irreversible steps leading to denuclearization”; attempting to alter China’s relationship with North Korea; and tightening sanctions.

The U.S.–South Korea alliance is stable, but not everyone is happy with the deal. Despite being the 13th largest economy in the world, Seoul has spent little on defence and its safety without U.S. protection is not assured. Thus, the alliance is encouraged in South Korea, particularly by politicians on the conservative side of South Korean politics. However, progressive South Korean politicians tend to chafe at the powerful U.S. role in South Korean politics, and studies show that this attitude is shared by South Korea’s young people. Young South Koreans today are less impressed by the North Korean threat and support an independent South Korean line on North Korea.

Koreans also chafe at having to pay for the U.S.’s presence. In the latest cost-sharing agreement signed between South Korea and the U.S. in 2014, the share of the cost paid by South Korea to support U.S. troops in the country increased by six percent to $867 million. South Korea also faces uncertainty as to how strong U.S. commitment to South Korean defence actually is. The need to seek other defence partners or regain control of its military seems pressing if there is a risk the U.S. won’t deliver on its agreement to protect. South Korea remains attached to the alliance, although conflicted.

On the U.S. side, the South Korean alliance is a useful piece in the Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia. However, the United States is caught between the desire to manage North Korea from the base of a reliable ally, South Korea, and the fear of being caught in a war of superpowers should North Korea attack and China or another ally support it. Thus, a stalemate has ensued.

The stalemate of the U.S.–South Korean alliance will continue in 2016 for three reasons:

  • The U.S. and South Korea will cooperate on THAAD: After the February 7 satellite launch, the U.S. and South Korea announced formal talks to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) in South Korea “at the earliest possible date.” THAAD would defend South Korea more capably than its current Patriot 2/3 systems, yet South Korea declined previous U.S. offers to install the defence system due to China’s opposition. Beijing has lodged a formal complaint in response to this announcement, and has argued in the past that THAAD could be used to penetrate Chinese intelligence systems. Russia is also displeased. Despite pressure in South Korea to reduce dependence on the U.S. military, the installation of THAAD would bring the militaries of the two countries closer together.
  • South Korea will fall into line with U.S. policy: The U.S. continues its policy of aggressive sanctions against North Korea, with the U.S. Senate passing new sanctions on North Korea after the the February 7 satellite launch (the House had passed similar measures a month before). The U.S. is also pushing for new international sanctions on North Korea at the UN. South Korea now appears to be falling in line with a more aggressive policy of non-cooperation. Seoul announced on February 10 that it was suspending operations at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the complex jointly operated by North and South Korea that has poured $110 million into North Korea in 2015 alone. This is a large policy turnaround for President Park Geun-hye’s government. The complex formed a part of South Korea’s push for reconciliation with North Korea, championed by President Park and her predecessor.
  • The rise of China: The rise of China and Japan, and increasing multilateralism in the region, will mean that U.S.’s presence in South Korea will become more and more valuable.

The U.S.–South Korea alliance will remain as is. However, there is one way the alliance is shifting: The U.S. is encouraging the “spokes” of its East Asia defence system to interact. U.S pressure was a large motivating factor behind the landmark “comfort women” agreement signed by Japan and South Korea last month. The agreement is not popular in South Korea, but could signal a warming Korean relationship with Japan. Japan itself has signaled a desire to confront the North Korea issue. On February 10, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s office revealed proposed sanctions on North Korea in a response to North Korea’s satellite launch. A growing multilateral Asian response to North Korea would be in the United States’ favour, if it maintains control of all the pieces.

Thus, the U.S. should continue to fill in the gaps between its East Asian “spokes,” as a united front against North Korea is one way to generate internal collapse of the regime. If possible, the U.S. must encourage an alliance between South Korea and Japan against North Korea, and loosen its commitment to defending the region, in a way that does not undermine its power there.


Sophie Fitzgerald holds a BA in Economics and International Relations from the University of Melbourne and Georgetown University. She has lived for 12 years in Asia and speaks Mandarin. Recently she interned at the US-ASEAN Business Council providing business intelligence about South East Asia to Fortune 250 U.S. companies. She currently works at a management consulting firm in Melbourne, Australia.

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