It is now pretty widely accepted that the United States and South Korea are drifting apart on the central security issues of Northeast Asia. Much of this is motivated by the unique leadership configuration of the two countries – an unconventional U.S. president prone to see U.S. allies as free-riders, coupled with a South Korean president deeply ambivalent about the U.S. role in South Korea.
Their varying initiatives - sometimes coincidentally aligned, other times at cross-purposes – are pushing toward a reckoning.
I keep hearing at conferences in East Asia, that the big break may occur if U.S. President Donald Trump is re-elected. He may then feel free to go where he seems to wish to go: a U.S. retrenchment from South Korea. And South Korean President Moon Jae-In, unable to gather much alliance enthusiasm among his own leftist electoral coalition, may offer little resistance. The U.S. structure in South Korea may end more with a whimper than a bang.
The key to this scenario is Trump’s re-election. It is hard to imagine any of the Democratic contenders, should one become president, pushing for this. The Democratic party has no obvious animosity or policy problem with the U.S. alliance with South Korea. Indeed, it is not clear that this is even an issue at all on the U.S. left, unlike with Trump. Former President Barack Obama was supportive of the alliance and put middling efforts into Korean issues such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. There is no reason to expect any of the Democratic contenders to wander far from the script, and they have not to date.
On the Republican side, it is Trump, of course, who has made the South Korean alliance a major issue. Were any other traditional Republican, like Mitt Romney or Mike Pence, the president, alliance antagonism with South Korea would likely not occupy much policy space. The traditional Reaganite GOP was supportive of U.S. forward basing.
So Trump effectively stands alone in official Washington in his harsh criticisms of South Korea – such as calling Moon an ‘appeaser’ in 2017, demanding a revision of the Korea-U.S. free trade deal, and repeatedly insisting that South Korea is ripping off the US on defense support. The notion that US allies generally – not just South Korea – are bilking the U.S. is one of Trump’s deepest held beliefs. He comes back to this idea repeatedly.
Coupled with this is Trump’s much-touted ‘friendship’ with North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un. It is highly unlikely that Kim thinks the same way beyond the shallowest opportunism. But ‘friendship’ with dictators, especially Kim, is also a theme Trump comes back to again and again. The consequence of that friendship would be, in full, the unnecessity of U.S. troops in South Korea. If the North is an American friend, at peace with South Korea, and a normalized state participating in the world economy, the U.S. need not remain in South Korea. If Trump pulls a normalization deal out of Kim on his nuclear weapons and missiles, perhaps in desperation for a foreign policy ‘win’ for the 2020 presidential race, that could give Trump the political cover to next suggest a U.S. withdrawal.
On the South Korean side, the relatively rare occurrence of a leftist president – for only the third time in South Korean history – opens a similar policy door. South Korea’s conservatives are quite traditional in their foreign policy beliefs – cold warriors opposed to North Korea, pro-American, pro-alliance, pro-trilateral cooperation with Japan, and so on. This is why the U.S., before Trump, generally found it easier to work with South Korean presidents from the right.
The South Korean left though has long been at best ambivalent about the U.S. role. Like leftist parties in Europe during the cold war, there is a long tradition on the Southern left of seeing the U.S. as imperialist, of reading U.S. local bases as a form of neo-colonial imposition, of perceiving the conspiratorial hand of the Central Intelligence Agency at work in local government, of understanding the U.S. alliance as provoking North Korea as much as re-assuring South Korea against it.
South Korea’s leftist foreign policy intellectuals have long dallied with the notion of expelling the Americans to pursue deep détente with the North, perhaps in a two-systems-one-country federation. They have also staunchly opposed U.S. efforts to encourage trilateral cooperation with Japan. When anti-American protests have broken out in the past, their core usually came from the left.
So if Trump moves to withdraw in a second term – because he thinks South Korea is ungrateful or ‘scamming’ the U.S. – he may push against an open door. The South Korean left will read, rightly to mind, U.S. rhetoric about scams, rip-offs, cheap-riding, and so on, as exactly the sort of American hegemonic bullying it has long warned about. If Moon can re-make relations with the North to be those between two brother Korean states, rather than a cold war stand-off, who needs the Americans and their obnoxious, grasping president anyway?
I still think the likelihood of this is under 50%. The bureaucratic resistance among national security elites in both countries would be intense. And if Trump loses, this whole debate will end immediately. But still, this is the most serious debate about the U.S. presence in South Korea since President Jimmy Carter abortively suggested withdrawal in the late 1970s.
Robert E Kelly is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.