Never before has North Korea loomed so large in the U.S. imagination. No longer just a problem “over there,” North Korea has emerged as a much more immediate threat, one with the power to unleash nuclear Armageddon on not only East Asian but also North American shores. Months of “fire and fury” exchanges between the leaders of the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have stoked American fears of impending nuclear carnage. Exacerbating these anxieties is widespread U.S. ignorance of the origins and history of seven decades of hostile U.S. relations with North Korea, a country dismissed in the past as a failed state.
In sharp contrast to alarmist views of an erratic and hostile North Korea, the dominant American narrative of South Korea depicts U.S.-South Korea relations as an enduring and equal partnership in the face of a shared enemy. By the grace of U.S. sacrifice during the Korean War, decades of continuing friendship, and a rock-solid U.S.–South Korean mutual defense alliance, the Republic of Korea (ROK) has prospered as a free and independent democracy, or so the narrative goes.
I. North and South Korean Cooperation as a “Wedge”
What belies this comforting bilateral scenario, however, is the cynical U.S. response to recent joint ROK–DPRK initiatives during the upcoming winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Both sides have agreed that North Korean athletes will participate in the games supported by their own cheer squads. They have further agreed to march under a unification flag at the opening ceremonies, to have their ski teams prepare for competition at an alpine facility in the north, and to field a joint women’s hockey team.
Immediately following news that South Korean president Moon Jae-in had accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s proposal for talks on Olympics cooperation, key U.S. officials and prominent news outlets sounded a new specter, the “wedge.” Not to be confused with an NFL football tactic, the “wedge” portrays mutual overtures between the North and South as an ominous sign that Kim Jong-un is trying to sow discord between Seoul and Washington in order to weaken the longstanding U.S.-ROK alliance. Recent headlines have sounded the alarm:
“Kim Jong-un’s Overture Could Drive a Wedge Between South Korea and the U.S.,” Choe Sang-Hun and David Sanger, New York Times, 1/1/2018
“Yes, North Korea could drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea” Oriana Skylar Mastro and Arzan Tarapore, Washington Post, 1/12/2018
“We will not allow North Korea to drive a wedge through our resolve or solidarity, Tillerson said.” Matthew Pennington, Associated Press, 1/16/2018
The most telling of these pronouncements are illustrated by these excerpts from a New York Times article (Mark Landler, 1/3/2018) reporting on prospects for the North-South dialogue on the upcoming Olympics.
“Trump administration officials said on Wednesday that they were not opposed to the idea of talks, provided that they be limited to the Olympics and that the South Koreans not make any concessions to the North that they, and the United States, would later regret.” (italics added)
“Above all, the officials said, the Trump administration will resist efforts by the North to drive a wedge between the United States and its ally.”
“‘It is fine for the South Koreans to take the lead, but if they don’t have the U.S. behind them, they won’t get far with North Korea,’ said Daniel R. Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration. ‘And if the South Koreans are viewed as running off the leash, it will exacerbate tensions within the alliance.’” (Iitalics added)
These warnings in response to inter-Korean attempts to lower tensions on the Korean peninsula speak volumes about the Trump administration’s near-total rejection of diplomacy with regard to North Korea. They also convey the unmistakable presumption that Seoul must walk in lockstep with Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on North Korea through catastrophic sanctions and his threat to launch a so-called surgical strike (the “bloody nose” option) against North Korea. More worrisome to U.S. officials and observers, though, is the possibility that North Korea could drive a wedge between Washington and its South Korean ally and historic junior partner by encouraging the latter to undertake independent initiatives to cooperate during the Olympics. This concern reflects a deeper anxiety that the U.S.–ROK Mutual Defense Treaty, the foundation for seven decades of U.S. military presence in South Korea, may itself be vulnerable. The alliance formalized through this treaty has been lauded by every administration since the hot-fighting days of the Korean War as a model of equal partnership bound by shared vigilance against North Korea. The specter of re-triangulation, with North Korea and South Korea taking steps toward peace at a time when the United States is gunning for war, challenges the notion that U.S.–ROK interests are in fact one and the same.
It also calls into question the premise of equal partnership and shared authority as foundational to the U.S.–South Korean alliance. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others moderate their dismay at Moon’s initiative by framing North Korea as a threat, Russel’s admonition to South Koreans not to “run off the leash” reveals the inequality at the heart of the U.S. relationship with South Korea. It conveys in no uncertain terms the expectation that South Korea, the second most important U.S. ally in Asia, will heel at the command of the United States when called upon. Hardly a metaphor for a mutual alliance a “dog on a leash” ironically aligns with the familiar North Korean denunciation of its southern neighbor as a client of the United States.
II. South Korean Semi-Sovereignty
We should ask: how valid is Russel’s depiction of the subservience at the heart of the U.S.–ROK alliance? The groundwork for formal mechanisms establishing U.S.-South Korean relations ironically began with Korean liberation from 35 years of Japanese colonization in August of 1945. Following the U.S. authored-division of Korea at the 38th parallel, to which the Soviet Union acceded, the United States established an official military government in the south (USMGIK). The formation of a separate southern government flouted incipient local democratic institutions, the People’s Committees that had sprung up throughout the peninsula and the declaration of the Peoples’ Republic of Korea by Korean nationalists. The USMGIK pronounced itself the sole arbiter of state policy in the south until the founding of the Republic of Korea in 1948 under the leadership of Syngman Rhee, a thirty-year expat in the United States who returned to Korea under U.S auspices. Although independence activists and other Korean nationalists waged a blood-shedding struggle to prevent a separate election that would doom the country to permanent division Rhee ruthlessly ascended to power with U.S. backing. Under cover of the United Nations, the United States pushed through elections bringing the pro-U.S. Rhee Government to power.
But South Korea’s taste of independence was all too brief. With the full outbreak of north – south civil war in June, 1950, the United States re-established control of the ROK through its leadership of the United Nations Command, rescued Syngman Rhee’s administration from collapse, prevented unification under North Korean leadership, and forged a permanent “wedge” between the two Koreas. Following the truce in July 1953 that halted the fighting but failed to end the war, the U.S. formalized the U.S.-ROK Mutual Defense Treaty. The treaty ceded continuing authority over South Korean forces to the United States, which also retained control of the UN Command but now charged with policing the Armistice Agreement and directing U.S. and Korean forces in the south.
In 1978, control of U.S. forces stationed in Korea and the South Korean military shifted to the U.S.-ROK Combined Forces Command (USROKCFC) led by a four-star U.S. general with the support of an ROK deputy commander. Notwithstanding the principle of cooperation, the CFC command structure reaffirmed South Korea’s junior status in relation to the United States. In this remarkably candid statement, General Richard Stillwell, the first U.S. officer to lead the CRC, declared the command structure to be “the most remarkable concession of sovereignty in the entire world.”
In 1994, the command of South Korean forces during peacetime reverted to a South Korean general yet the United States retained authority during wartime or in the face of an imminent threat of armed conflict. This concession, however, did not alter the fact that the United States retains ultimate authority over the consummate guarantor of South Korea’s sovereignty, its military forces. Enshrined in the Combined Forces Command structure, this extraordinary concession of independence distinguishes the U.S.-South Korean alliance as unique in the world.
Furthermore, the global status of the United States as an economic and military superpower buttresses its CRC authority over South Korean affairs. In 2000, president Kim Dae Jung defied Washington’s warnings and agreed to a historic summit with North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. Shortly thereafter, George W. Bush declared the DPRK a member of the “axis of evil” and formally withdrew the United States from an earlier Agreed Framework that had frozen North Korea’s incipient nuclear program for eight years. South Korea had virtually no voice in this matter.
The current South Korean president Moon Jae-in, a protégé of earlier liberal leadership, has clearly learned the lesson to tread carefully in the face of conflicting South Korean and U.S. interests. During his summit meeting with Trump shortly after the U.S. presidential election, he appeared to be in lock-step with the U.S. administration’s hard-line stance on North Korea’s nuclear program. But when Trump unleashed his “fire and fury” rhetoric and escalating threats of a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, Moon pushed back by declaring that war on the Korean peninsula was not an option absent South Korean consent. More recently, he has taken bold steps to engage in joint Olympics planning with the North. Almost immediately, however, he gave a nod to Washington by publicly crediting Trump for this opening with the North. Moon’s delicate balancing act within the alliance attests to the ever-present tug of the U.S. leash.
Provoked by the nuclear standoff with North Korea, the sharpening of differences in U.S. and South Korean national interests has both exposed the U.S.–ROK neocolonial relation and made it increasingly untenable. Moreover, the strain in the alliance is likely to intensify in the near future, should the threat of war escalate and recent U.S. efforts to assert its dominance in the wider East Asian region continue. To illustrate:
+ North Korea’s rapid development of its nuclear and missile programs has Washington officials clamoring for a muscular response with some declaring that “collateral damage” from pre-emptive action would happen “over there, not here.” This ill-informed and disturbing belief portends a deepening, likely irreparable chasm between U.S. and South Korean interests should the Trump administration adopt it in practice. .
+ Since Obama’s declaration of a “pivot to Asia,” South Korea has been drawn further and further into efforts to bolster U.S. influence in Northeast Asia. Targeted at China’s rising global influence, the pivot includes expansion and coordination of military capabilities among regional allies. For example, the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea, although aimed at protecting South Korea against North Korean strikes, has limited capacity to intercept close-quarter attacks from the North. It employs a radar system, however, that can be used to monitor China’s nuclear program. Just one illustration of South Korea’s integration into the U.S. regional military structure, this acquiescence to the imposition of THAAD places South Korean citizens in the cross-fire of military conflicts not of their making. It has already provoked Chinese economic and cultural retaliation, damaging South Korea’s relations with its number one trading partner. Further exacerbating this strain on the ROK economy is Trump’s insistence that Seoul renegotiate the U.S.–Korea Free Trade Agreement and his pronouncement that the country will continue to be a market for billions of dollars of U.S. arms sales.
III. The Future Looms Large
For nearly seventy years the U.S.–ROK Mutual Defense Treaty has been touted as preserving the peace in Korea and demonstrating how democratically minded states can co-prosper. Yet the U.S.–ROK alliance as a bulwark against communism in Asia is in point of fact a relic of the Cold War. Recent U.S. warnings to South Korea not to “run off the leash” have opened U.S.–ROK relations to a long overdue examination.
Assuming that North–South cooperation during the Olympics is successful, the Moon administration appears prepared to broker even more far-reaching talks not only between the DPRK and ROK, but also the North Korean and U.S. leadership. Such initiatives have the potential to create openings for a negotiated approach to the nuclear crisis. Vocal advocates in both the United States and South Korea have called for reopening economic and cultural cooperation between the two Koreas, suspending or moderating U.S.–ROK military exercises, freezing arms build-up throughout the Korean peninsula and U.S. holdings in the Pacific, and direct U.S.–DPRK talks.
At the same time these bold actions, especially if taken in partnership with the North, could provoke an even greater outcry from U.S. officials than the “wedge” alarm. It is therefore essential for international solidarity to resist Washington’s march to war but also the anachronistic alliance that usurps South Korean sovereignty. By opposing Trump’s sabre rattling through support of Korean initiatives for dialogue, the work of the growing antiwar consensus to avert this crisis simultaneously affirms a new and more equitable alignment in U.S. – Korea relations. Success on both fronts would constitute a remarkable and historic achievement.
Ramsay Liem is Professor Emeritus and Visiting Scholar, Center for Human Rights and International Justice, Boston College.
 Richard Stillwell, “Challenge and Response in Northeast Asia of the 1980s: The Military Balance,” in Strategy and Security in Northeast Asia, edited by R. Foster et al. (New York: Crane-Russak, 1979), 99, italics added.