Korea Passing and the ROK-U.S. Alliance

Stimson Spotlight

Korea Passing and the ROK-U.S. Alliance

By Hyungu Jeong and Jiwon Park

U.S. President Donald Trump has charged North Korea as a rogue nation and Kim Jong-un as “the rocket man on a suicide mission” in the U.N. General Assembly. His speech once again called North Korea the “axis of evil” and a state to be “totally destroyed” for the sake of international peace, if necessary. In response, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said North Korea interprets Trump’s speech as a declaration of war. While these tensions make the future security of the Korean peninsula unpredictable, South Korea and its pleas for peace have largely been left out of any international dialogue.

“Korea passing” describes a situation in which South Korea is being excluded diplomatically from deciding its own fate. The term has been frequently used by South Korea’s opposition parties to criticize President Moon Jae-in’s foreign policy. This illustrates the weak status of South Korea in the international community and its exclusion from the conversation between North Korea and the United States. However, South Korean officials have strongly denied the notion of Korea passing. The Blue House has asserted that the international community recognizes South Korea as an important actor in dealing with the issue of North Korea and have also emphasized that the Republic of Korea-U.S. alliance is stronger than ever.

The deeper implication is not whether Korea passing is the reality or not, but rather that it has become a major perspective in South Korea for interpreting North Korea issues. To those who look through the lens of Korea passing, Seoul should be deeply concerned about its future because at any moment there could be an outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula despite South Korea’s strong opposition to conflict.

This fear of war and trust issues in the ROK-U.S. alliance are raised because although both Presidents Trump and Moon agreed to apply maximum pressure on North Korea, their voices are not unified regarding the level of commitment and the possibility of preventive war or regime change. Since both administrations do not have a consistent policy, it is difficult to understand what the countries are trying to signal. While high-level U.S. officials emphasized the importance of a strong ROK-U.S. alliance and diplomacy, the White House claims it is fully prepared for military options. President Trump also abandoned the possibility of diplomatic negotiation supported by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Furthermore, after Henry Kissinger’s visit to the White House, the media shed light on the issue of a grand bargain between China and the United States. It raised suspicion that there might be a possibility of U.S. military withdrawal from Korean Peninsula in exchange for China’s support to North Korea’s maximum pressure.

President Trump’s approach to maximum pressure on reckless North Korea can lead to misperception and miscalculation by all parties. His belligerent statements, therefore, threaten not only North Korea but South Korea as well. While President Trump’s caustic language may temporarily dissuade North Korea from attacking, it also risks the death of 80 million people on the Korean peninsula, an eventuality that is of particular concern to President Moon. President Moon has strongly encouraged the international community to actively participate in placing maximum pressure on North Korea. At the same time, he emphasized a humanitarian responsibility towards North Korea and keeping open channels for negotiation. His method has been criticized by many members of the National Assembly in South Korea for not articulating a coherent policy vision towards North Korea. However, Seoul does not have many diplomatic options to overcome this insecure environment. South Korea’s only option is to try to prevent war by managing the situation and mitigating the tension that two hotheaded leaders have created.

Escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, without Seoul’s input, will inevitably weaken the ROK-U.S. alliance, an outcome that North Korea strongly desires. The message from Seoul is clear: as Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said, “There cannot be another outbreak of war on the Korean Peninsula.” The United States need to reconsider the value of ROK-U.S. alliance and its significance to America’s regional role. There is a long way to go to mitigate the sentiment of Korea passing and to rebuild trust between South Korea and the United States.

Hyun Gu Jeong is a research intern with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center and a fellow at the Asan Academy. Jiwon Park is a fellow at the Asan Academy and a student at Korea University.