The Ultimate Missile Shield: The U.S.-South Korea Alliance?

The SM-3 Block 1B successfully intercepts a target missile that launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii.

North Korea's missile threats may strengthen the U.S.-ROK alliance.

The flurry of news stories about North Korea’s latest salvo of missile tests gives Kim Jong-un the media coverage he craves and diverts attention from enduring strategic realities. Four extended-range Scud missiles are broadly construed to highlight Pyongyang’s inexorable march toward acquiring a long-range nuclear arsenal that will transform the balance of power in Northeast Asia.

The news is all the more jarring when surrounding powers are embroiled in their own domestic issues: impeached South Korean president Park Geun-hye is being implicated in a corruption scandal involving Samsung; the United States is convulsing over a mystery triggered by Russia’s interference in the American electoral process; and China is completing critical political proceedings enroute to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party later this year.

We need to avoid manufacturing a crisis. Headlines tell us the “shocking” news that North Korea is apparently testing missiles aimed at U.S. and allied targets. Indeed, what did we think they were aiming at?

The United States has successfully deterred the major use of force by North Korea in the years following 1950. Rather than jumping to the conclusion that North Korea’s incremental gains in nuclear and missile technology will upset the basic logic of deterrence, we should soberly reflect on the stark reality that North Korea remains weak and isolated and the United States remains strong when working in concert with allies and partners. Accelerating the deployment of an additional layer of missile defense in the form of a Theater High Altitude Area Defense system makes enormous sense and is inherently defensive, despite self-serving complaints from China.

But the ultimate deterrent is not any one technology, but the political will and professional coordination between the United States and South Korea. The main point is to think about the enduring value of the United States alliance with the Republic of Korea, an alliance that President Donald Trump has made clear is “ironclad.”

Ironically, a former U.S. government official told me recently that he thought the U.S.-ROK alliance was on the cusp of ending. This longtime Korean hand was exasperated by the political tumult in both the United States and the ROK. But not only is his dire forecast wildly in error, he also fails to appreciate that a period of uncertainty—especially one punctuated by North Korean provocations—is precisely the time when professionals need to reflect carefully on the history, value and durability of Washington-Seoul relations.

Former British foreign secretary Henry John Temple (Lord Palmerston) once posited that countries have no permanent friends or allies, only permanent interests. Indeed, there is nothing foreordained about the perpetuation of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Certainly, one could imagine scenarios in which the alliance either ends abruptly or slowly withers away.

But resilient alliances are founded on overlapping national interests, and that is the sturdy basis of the U.S.-ROK alliance. Just as communist expansionism provided the cement joining the Western alliance system throughout the Cold War, North Korea has been providing the alliance raison d’etre ever since its 1950 invasion.

Shortly after that surprise attack, my late Uncle Richard Vachon, still in his late teens, parachuted behind the advancing North Korea forces and was one of only two members of his Army platoon to return alive. Forged in blood, with overlapping national-security interests, the U.S.-ROK alliance offers a compelling argument for why this relationship can withstand myriad changes in the political leaders of our two democracies.