Academic journal article North Korean Review

A Cautionary Report: Resilience of the U.S.–roK Alliance during the Pro–North Korea Engagement Era of Progressive Rule in South Korea

Academic journal article North Korean Review

A Cautionary Report: Resilience of the U.S.–roK Alliance during the Pro–North Korea Engagement Era of Progressive Rule in South Korea

Article excerpt


After Park Geun-hye was impeached by South Korea's Constitutional Court in March 2017,11 anticipated the progressive Moon Jae-in would be elected as the new president in May 2017.2 I also realized it was likely to result in the polarization of South Korea's (or the Republic of Korea [ROK]) domestic politics similar to what I observed in March 2004, when the conservatives unsuccessfully attempted to impeach Roh Moo-hyun,3 while I was serving as an Assistant Army Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul from 2001 to 2004. One of the key questions then, as now, is whether-and to what degree-the more progressive approach of the South undermines the U.S.-ROK relationship. To address this question, it is axiomatic to focus on the U.S.-ROK relationship, but it was also evident at the time that the bilateral relationship did not, and does not, exist in a vacuum. The alliance relationship is affected by how both engage with others in Northeast Asia, especially North Korea, China, and Japan. I continued to be involved in alliance issues and conducted research after I left Seoul to serve as an Army Research Fellow in Hawaii (20042005) and as Korea Desk Officer on the Joint Staff (2005-2007). Based on this experience, I argued in 2005 that five major factors dominated the debate about the "health" of the U.S.-ROK alliance: (1) democratization and questioning of the alliance; (2) future of the U.S.-ROK alliance; (3) the North Korea threat perception gap; (4) the China factor; and (5) the U.S.-ROK-Japan relationship.4 That said, the aim of this study is to examine these issues in order to determine the degree of continuity and/or change from the first progressive era to the present and to evaluate the claim that South Korea's progressives undermine the U.S.-ROK alliance relationship.5

Using Qualitative Methods to Assess the Health of the U.S.-ROK Alliance

As a research method, I used personal observation as well as informal interviews, which are described by Catherine Marshall and Gretchen Rossman as the two "fun- damental techniques relied on by qualitative researchers," to collect the information regarding the health of the alliance from 2001 to 2005. They described five dimensions of variations to observations: (1) observer's role; (2) how the observer portrayed his/her role to others; (3) how the observer portrayed the purpose of his/her observation to others; (4) duration of the observation; and (5) degree of focus of the observation. As a U.S. military officer, I applied these five dimensions for observation to my own approaches as a military attaché: my observer role was an "onlooker" from the outside; I declared my status as a military attaché; I revealed the purpose of my observation to my counterparts (subjects knew my job was to observe and report); the period of observation was lengthy (several years); and the observation had a narrow focus on political-military issues.6 The last point acknowledges that other issues concerning the progressive-conservative debate were beyond the scope of my role, such as the environment, education, and Chaebols, and thus are not addressed in this paper.7

My observations as a military attaché were supplemented by informal interviews with many South Korean officials and scholars in November 2004 when I was a senior U.S. Army Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS). These interviews were "much more like conversations than formal, structured interviews," so that the subjects of the interviews could frame and structure their responses in their own way. In other words, I tried to put the interviewees at ease and elicit the responses as the subjects viewed the state of the alliance.8 As a result, the five major factors I noted above were determined to be the basis for assessing whether alliance relations were "good" or "bad," and this could be by answering the following five questions.

First, does progressive rule in South Korea mean an anti-American policy agenda? …

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