Regardless of whether the global novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic is an accelerant of existing global trends or a historical turning point, the pandemic and its consequences have constituted a major stress test for international institutions, including the U.S.-ROK alliance. In addition to grappling with longstanding external challenges such as North Korean aggression, the alliance now faces accelerated Sino-U.S. rivalry, fanned nationalism, and exacerbated economic tensions over cost-sharing in a transformed budget environment. The possibility that the alliance might fail its stress test will stimulate South Korean debates over its strategic options in the event the alliance crumbles from within.
The biggest issue that has drawn South Korean public concern is the growing political animosity and competition between the United States and China that threatens to hobble the World Health Organization at its moment of greatest need. Pandemic-era Sino-U.S. rivalry has accelerated economic decoupling trends by raising costs of U.S. investment in China, sensitized the American public to dependency on a China-based supply chain for provision of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, and catalyzed a global vaccine development race. But the nascent U.S. proposal to form an Economic Prosperity Network among like-minded countries with possible interest in diversifying global supply chains away from China has drawn particular attention because it links economic and security issues, directly challenging South Korea’s choice avoidance strategy between the United States and China.
The internal wedge issues dividing the United States and South Korea are even more poisonous to the future of the alliance. The rise of “America first” right-wing nationalism in the United States is particularly worrisome to the extent that it signals the possibility of alliance fatigue and U.S. retrenchment from international leadership. In combination with the potential emergence of a “Korea first” left-wing nationalism that would seek greater independence and aim to decouple inter-Korean economic cooperation from shared U.S.-ROK denuclearization objectives, nationalist-driven frictions would constitute the most corrosive solvent to the U.S.-ROK alliance.
Against this backdrop, U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s transactional approach to military cost sharing within the alliance appears particularly damaging, particularly in light of the enormous budget pressures facing governments globally as a consequence of pandemic response. Ironically, the transactional approach Trump has taken is self-defeating. A reaffirmation of the intangible values undergirding the alliance would be more likely to induce a generous South Korean response to U.S. burden sharing requests, but Trump’s intimation that the bargain is about money rather than U.S. national interest has fed greater doubts about the credibility of U.S. commitments to the alliance.
I hope that it doesn’t come to this, but if the alliance finds itself failing its pandemic-era stress test, what are South Korea’s most compelling strategic options and priorities that would minimize the risk of victimization resulting from the resurgence of great power politics in Northeast Asia? I believe an ideal-type South Korean foreign policy designed to survive possible alliance failure would need to have the following characteristics:
- Be Omnidirectional—Without a U.S. security guarantor, South Korean foreign policy will have to manage potential threats and develop diplomatic ties in every direction. Threats and opportunities may come from any direction without the alliance as a framework for shaping the regional security theater. If the United States no longer has South Korea’s back, it will be necessary to use diplomatic and military strategies wisely to address and neutralize potential threats and to define safe zones along South Korea’s periphery. A 360-degree combination strategy of diplomacy, defense, and deterrence will be necessary to enhance South Korean national security.
- Be Outward Looking—For South Korea post-alliance, neutralization of the North Korean threat by obtaining peaceful coexistence might be a high priority. But the task of tempering North Korea’s aspirations to take advantage of a South Korea that is no longer under U.S. protection will not be easy. At the same time, a seemingly exclusive preoccupation with North Korea will be a luxury that South Korea may no longer be able to afford. In balancing inter-Korean relations with broader diplomatic and security imperatives, an independent South Korea will have to walk and chew gum at the same time.
- Be Future-Oriented—The U.S.-ROK security alliance framework has inadvertently enabled South Korean polices toward Japan to be defined by the past. But in the absence of a U.S.-led security framework that has helped Japan and South Korea cooperate while preserving and nurturing historical grievances, both countries will no longer have the luxury of allowing history to define the relationship. Instead, both sides will have to take stock of their respective needs and overlapping interests with an eye to future cooperation to reduce risk and manage cooperative relations.
- Be Network-Embedded—South Korea has long aspired to promote cooperative security networks in Northeast Asia to ease major power rivalries in the region and provide a benchmark for promoting adherence to norms among major powers, but the alliance has provided a stronger means by which to gain security assurances than multilateral cooperative security networks, which rely on voluntary participation and peer pressure to manage tensions and encourage restraint. To hedge against continued Sino-U.S. adversarial relations and to balance against domination by major power neighbors, South Korea should look to draw in extra-regional actors including ASEAN and the EU/NATO to be engaged in Northeast Asia.
- Be Unified—Perhaps the most precious, important, and elusive quality likely to define a successful South Korean post-alliance foreign policy will be the imperative for domestic unity behind a coherent South Korean diplomatic strategy. Historically, factionalism-ridden Korean politics has made achievement of such unity elusive, but the complexity of geopolitics in Northeast Asia may make domestic political unity in support of a coherent South Korean diplomatic strategy an essential prerequisite for survival and success.