A Not So “Ironclad” Alliance: Key Takeaways From the US-RoK Leadership Meet

Image credit: The White House
Meeting between President Joe Biden and Moon Jae-in

South Korean President Moon Jae-in became the second head of state, after Japan’s Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, to be invited to the White House since US President Biden took office. The two Presidents agreed to cooperate on several issues including denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, healthcare and economic cooperation but recommitment as promised by either side to what they called their “ironclad alliance” seems vague.

Areas of Cooperation

On top of the agenda was the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. President Moon appreciated Biden’s North Korea policy and called for inter-Korea dialogue for the resolution of bilateral issues. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki informed that the Biden administration recognizes the failure of the past four administrations in dealing with Pyongyang and stated that the new policy will focus on a “calibrated, practical approach” towards the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. While diplomacy will be explored, the administration will neither pursue Trump’s grand bargain nor Obama’s strategic patience and will consider partial waiver of sanctions if North Korea commits to total denuclearization. Biden’s appointment of Ambassador Sung Kim as the US Special Envoy for the DPRK too was appreciated by Seoul.

The two sides announced the termination of the revised missile guidelines, which dissolves the 1979 Memorandum of Understanding between the two nations that limited Seoul’s range and payload of its ballistic missile development program in exchange for the US’ technical assistance. In 2001, South Korea signed the Missile Technology Control Regime and in return, managed to expand its missile range. As the threat from North Korea increased, so did the permission for Seoul to expand its military capabilities. Last year, Seoul tested a Hyunmoo-4 solid-fueled missile with a range of 500 miles and a payload of 2 tonnes. While North is doubling its nuclear arsenal, South is busy expanding its conventional weaponry which now has the capacity to destroy both cave and underground based missile systems of Pyongyang and covers the whole of North Korea.

President Moon’s presence at the award ceremony of the Medal of Honor to Korean War veteran Colonel Ralph Puckett Jr. marked, for the first time, the attendance of a head of state of the country where the award was won. This moment was emphasized by both Biden and Moon to highlight the importance of their bonhomie.

Apart from agreeing to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the two nations agreed to fight the coronavirus pandemic through a comprehensive KORUS Global Vaccine Partnership which aims to combine US’ advanced technology with South Korea’s production capabilities. Both nations agreed to scale up global manufacturing of the approved vaccines. Biden promised to supply vaccines to all 550,000 Korean servicemen engaging with the American forces on a regular basis.

On the economic front, the two agreed to cooperate on space exploration, 5G and 6G  networks. South Korean corporate giants like Samsung, LG, Hyundai and SK will be investing more than $25 billion in the US, which will include setting up units in Austin, Texas. Biden claimed that the new investments will not just create “thousands of good-paying jobs” but will also “help fortify and secure supply chains” for commodities like semiconductors and electric batteries.

However, the most anticipated issue remained the two sides’ comments on the status of the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea which were listed among the issues “critical to regional stability“. The two sides affirmed their cooperation on maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and preserving peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. Though it seems like Seoul stands with Washington when it comes to China’s hegemony in the region, the picture appears vague when this statement is read in comparison to the Joint Statement between the US and its Quad partner & Seoul’s neighbor — Japan.

In the US-Japan Joint Leaders’ Statement titled “US-Japan Global Partnership for a New Era”, the two sides objected to what they called “China’s unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea” and called for a free and open Indo-Pacific in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS). The two sides called for a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan Strait issue through cross-Strait dialogue. In a clearly worded message, the two sides expressed “serious concerns” over the human rights situations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. These major concerns, time and again raised by the US in regard to China, were not discussed with its “special ally”, South Korea.

Doubtful Commitments

During his 2017 presidential campaign, Moon raised concerns over the US’ alleged role of meddling in South Korea’s domestic politics. He was one of the most vocal opponents of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, deployed by then-President Park Geun-hye on the US’ insistence as defense against a plausible attack from North Korea. Moon suspended the deployment awaiting a thorough environmental review. The decision was reversed after North Korea’s second long-range missile test on July 28, 2017. Post-deployment of THAAD, for which Former US President Donald Trump initially asked Seoul to pay $1billion casting heavy doubt over the US’ commitment to the alliance, bilateral relations with China quickly deteriorated which felt that THAAD was a way of peering into Beijing’s territory. Though China couldn’t stop the deployment, it soon heavily curtailed economic and cultural ties with South Korea. More than two dozen retail stores of the South’s Lotte Group, which gave its land for deployment, were shut. Major companies were economically hit as the incident took a toll on imports, cultural exchange including Korean television dramas and K-pop music and tourism. As a result, South Korea lost nearly $7.5 billion. After almost a year of standoff, a thaw in the relations came when both sides agreed to chalk out a solution. China agreed to renew a $56 billion currency swap with Seoul and agreed to restore flight routes. South Korea was left alone to work out its issues with China while the US stayed aloof. 

In 2018, The United States invoked Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, imposing 25% of tariff on steel imports. The move came after Trump criticized several of the US’ trade deals including the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) as “horrible“. After heated discussions, South Korea received an exemption quota of 2.68 million tonnes of steel exports which amounts to 70% of the annual average steel exports to the US between 2015-2017.

Moreover, Seoul was left baffled when Trump’s Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper demanded South Korea to increase its contribution to the RoK-US Special Measures Act. South Korean news reports speculated that the Trump administration demanded a five-fold increase in South Korean contributions, amounting to about  $4.7 billion for 2020. The issue was finally put to rest in March 2021 after South Korea agreed to pay a 13.9% increase in its contributions for hosting 28,500 US troops in the country in 2021, the biggest annual rise in nearly two decades. Though the matter is resolved, it has strained ties between the US and South Korea.

On China

Though political relations with Beijing remain strained, the two countries enjoy warm economic ties. The THAAD incident gave South Korea the bitter taste of standing against China. Beijing remains Seoul’s largest trading partner, import source and export destination. The Korean Center for International Finance announced in July 2018 that the ratio of total exports to China rose to 26.7%, higher than the US, EU and Japan combined. Including Hong Kong, Seoul’s dependence on China amounted to 34.4%. In June 2020, South Korean exports to China grew 6.9%. This is primarily the reason why Seoul overlooked the US’ criticism of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and joined the multilateral agreement. 

South Korea has also stayed away from associating with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which China criticizes as an “Asian NATO” built to curtail its interests in Asia-Pacific, in order to avoid a direct confrontation with China.

After China announced to “indefinitely” suspend the China-Australia Strategic Economic Dialogue, alleging Australia of pursuing a “Cold War mentality”, the Australian dollar sank 0.6% soon after the announcement. Learning from Canberra’s example, Seoul is unlikely to risk its economy by spoiling relations with China.

The Election Factor

These developments emerge at an interesting time as South Korea gears to elect a new president next year. The South Korean electoral laws prohibit a re-election for the President which makes this Moon’s last days as the President. As he bids adieu to the Blue House, he would want to leave behind a lasting legacy; if not a glorious one, at least a trouble-free one. For this reason, he prefers to stay away from the US-China tussle and is focusing on his immediate foreign policy concern — North Korea.

Like any Liberal statesman, Moon would have wanted to carve a niche in North-South cooperation. He cannot be blamed for not trying. If only his counterpart in Pyongyang would have been as willing, another Sunshine policy might have been possible.

Even if Conservatives like the People Power Party come to power, little change in the policy towards China is expected. After all, it was the Conservative President Park Geun-hye who attended Xi Jinping’s World War II commemoration in 2015.

The Way ahead

South Korea is delaying, if not avoiding, choosing sides in the US-China tussle. Historical experiences specifically post the Second World War have shown the South Koreans the heavy cost middling powers pay in a power struggle between hegemons. It will try its best not to repeat mistakes of the past.

China and the United States must offer real, mutually beneficial choices in order to bring Seoul on their side. They must treat it as an equal partner. As for South Korea, it must strengthen itself economically by not just focusing on growth rates but also on reducing the gulf between haves and have-nots to gain the ability to make independent foreign policy choices with little external influence.

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.