Patron to Partner: Reflections on the US-South Korean Relationship

By Kotch, John Barry | Harvard International Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

Patron to Partner: Reflections on the US-South Korean Relationship


Kotch, John Barry, Harvard International Review


JOHN BARRY KOTCH is Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Hanyang University, South Korea.

Looking back on the past half-century of Korea's turbulent history, the United States can take considerable satisfaction from its accomplishments. While the results are not perfect by any means, there is a pervading sense that the United States "did right by the Korean people," instilling in them a sense of democracy. Now these values are widely accepted and practiced by the Korean populace and government to a degree not fathomable fifty years ago, when Americans first came to Korea in large numbers as liberators from a bitter 40-year Japanese occupation. South Korea has faced the numerous obstacles that threatened it at its birth to emerge as a stunning success story. The United States now stands ready to help transform South Korea's current chaebol-dominated, state-dependent economy into a genuine market economy.

South Korea has overcome the birth pangs attending its Cold War origins and the bitter legacy of political and ideological standoff between the United States and former Soviet Union to emerge as a stunning success story. Its economy now ranks among the world's top dozen, and before last year's financial crisis and economic downturn, its per capita GNP had reached US$10,000 in little more than a single generation from a starting point of US$100, an historically unprecedented turnaround. The challenge for the United States and South Korea in the next century will be to meet the economic and security challenges as full partners in creating an economically vibrant, politically secure Northeast Asia.

The Security Alliance

Unfortunately, the wartime goals of the Cairo Declaration--that "Korea should become free and independent"--have only partially been achieved. The northern half of the Korean peninsula remains in a state of neo-Stalinist terror. This threat has caused US policymakers to forgo any considerations of withdrawal of US forces (now numbering 37,000). In 1993, President Clinton laid down the yardstick: Americans troops would stay "as long as the Korean people want them to," and there is no sign that neither the American government nor the South Korean want them to leave any time soon. More recently, both Secretary of Defense William Cohen and his predecessor William Perry have advocated the continued presence of US forces even after the unification of North and South. Although some believe that the continued presence of US troops perpetuates Korea's division, the weight of evidence suggests that they provide a crucial safety net preventing a resumption of hostilities in what officially remains an unfinished civil war.

The Korean-American security alliance, centered around the UN Command and the US-Korea Security Treaty of 1954, has maintained peace on the Korean peninsula for more than four decades by serving simultaneously as a deterrent and a nexus of defense. Despite the North's numerical superiority in its armed forces, the South Korea of today is militarily more than a match for its neighbor should the North again be tempted to attack. Were the new US policy of constructive engagement with Pyongyang to succeed, the role of the US-Korea alliance could be broadened to include measures to reduce tensions and build confidence. Four-party talks continue in Geneva between the United States, China, and the two Koreas, aimed at reducing tensions and reaching a Korean peace treaty and peace mechanism. Progress in Geneva will be a key indicator that the alliance is paying political dividends.

The crucial test for the alliance came during the 1993-1994 North Korean nuclear crisis that was ultimately resolved by the 1994 Agreed Framework and the creation of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO). Not only did the idea of aiding North Korea by building twin nuclear reactors touch a raw nerve among many members of the US Congress and conservative members of the Korean government and military establishment, but the United States, for the first time since the Korean war, found itself forced to negotiate directly with the North--a regime it does not even recognize--without the South at its side. …

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