The South Korean Alliance Improves Under Biden, But Issues Remain

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The South Korean Alliance Improves Under Biden, But Issues Remain

South Korea should not neglect its defense infrastructure and Washington and Seoul need to complete the OPCON transfer.

Moon Jae-in may be too careful and diplomatic to say it, but it’s hard not to believe the South Korean President wasn’t jumping for joy when he learned about Donald Trump’s defeat last November. While the U.S.-South Korea alliance stayed intact throughout Trump’s four-year term, it was consistently hobbled by a cost-sharing dispute that dragged on like a long New York City winter. Whereas previous U.S. presidents took care to ensure the alliance was functioning, Trump seemed to relish his role in shaking it up. What should have been a routine and relatively pain-free negotiation over who pays what for the 28,000-strong U.S. troop presence in the South instead turned into a clash of wills, with the U.S. delegation putting forth ridiculous proposals that no South Korean politician in his or her right mind would accept.

Joe Biden came into office promising a return to business as usual. The former senator and vice president is squarely in the establishment camp—and to be a card-carrying member of the establishment means boasting about the centrality of alliances and the utility of multilateralism. Biden promised as much on the campaign trail, committing himself to resurrecting America’s system of alliances around the world and delivering the message to old friends like Germany, Japan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and South Korea that “America is back.” The fact that America never left—notwithstanding his loud, obnoxious, and sometimes nonsensical demeanor, Trump didn’t break a single U.S. alliance—was frequently lost in the campaign mottos and talking points. 

There is no question, however, that the cost-sharing issue with South Korea was a sore spot in relations between Washington and Seoul. Trump’s refusal to countenance any deal that fell short of his demand that South Korea increase its contributions by 400% left the talks in a desultory state. South Korea’s offer, which hiked Seoul’s share of the payments by 13%, was dismissed by Trump’s negotiators as woefully insufficient, if not insulting. South Koreans working on U.S. bases were forced to go without pay for months until a last-minute arrangement was reached to deal with the problem. Yet the negotiations overall essentially froze to death.   

The Biden administration wants to put this issue to bed. Discussions resumed with the South Koreans quickly. With Trump out of the way, more realistic proposals are reportedly being prepared. Seoul’s 13% offer is suddenly back in contention, a substantial figure when considering the impact the coronavirus has had on the South Korean economy. While discussions are continuing, one South Korean government source says that both sides are seeking to finalize a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) by April 1, when South Korean workers employed by the U.S. military will again be at risk of seeing their pay docked. Given the sense of urgency the Biden administration is showing towards the cost-sharing issue, an April 1 deadline is a reasonable deadline.

The irony of this entire story is that South Korea is actually one of those U.S. allies that takes its defense responsibilities seriously. Since 2011, Seoul’s defense budget has increased by 68%. The budget top-lines have gone up every year for the last decade, an impressive feat when compared to how uninterested some of Washington’s allies in Europe are in padding their own defense budgets despite prodding from every U.S. administration since Dwight Eisenhower. 

This isn’t to say that Seoul is doing everything properly on the defense front. The South Korean government has devoted a significant portion of its defense budget on procurement, buying big-ticket items like dozens of F-35 fighters, an assembly line of tanks, anti-missile systems and ballistic missiles at the expense of communications infrastructure, surveillance, and systems integration. While South Korea’s navy and air force are modernizing, its army is getting the short end of the stick. Trump’s fixation on cost-sharing over the last few years has pushed these developments to the back-burner. 

For the Biden administration, striking a new SMA with South Korea is positive news, no doubt. It removes one of the biggest irritants to the relationship and allows officials on both sides to finally move on. But perhaps the biggest benefit of signing a new cost-sharing deal removing a distraction from the even bigger issues in the bilateral alliance: ensuring full Operational Control (OPCON) transfer to South Korea remains on schedule and collaborating on the most effective way to manage the North Korea nuclear problem.   

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at Newsweek

Image: Reuters.