By HA Chae Kyoun (CK), Research Assistant

On 13 June 2024, the Centre for Geopolitics hosted Mr Scott Snyder (President and Chief Executive Officer, Korea Economic Institute of America) for a roundtable discussion on the US-Korea alliance. Mr Snyder has recently published a book of the same title and discussed the latest developments in the US-Korea relationship, the inter-Korea relations, and the wider Indo-Pacific region. The event was chaired by Dr John Nilsson-Wright (Head of the Japan and Koreas Programme). 

Mr Snyder began his talk by introducing his latest publication which primarily examines the US-Korea alliance. His book project began during the period of the Trump administration when US allies, in both Asia and Europe, were challenged by the then Republican President’s transactional approach to alliance management. Against such a backdrop, the book project considered the factors that allows alliances to endure, and those that could damage the relationships. For the US-Korea context where domestic political polarisation has become increasingly apparent, the focal point was how the alliance is being managed between two countries when signs of nationalist narratives have begun to feature more dominantly in their foreign policies. 

Strong Interest Convergence Sustaining US-Korea Alliance 

Mr Snyder suggested that this is one of the best times for the US-Korea relationship given increased level of cooperation and deep institutionalisation of the alliance that has emerged in the recent years. He argued that this was the result of a convergence of views between Washington and Seoul on how to manage issues related to the rise of China. In particular, Mr Snyder referred to the challenges in South Korean-China relations regarding Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) system in 2017 which led to a significant dispute between Beijing and Seoul. This impacted not only the economic relationship between the two countries, but also Korea’s domestic perceptions of China. 

Mr Snyder claimed that the dispute led to South Korean business communities to seek alternative markets, namely the US, after facing the difficulties of retaining their presence in the Chinese market. In political circles, the South Korean liberal camp represented by the former Moon Jae-in administration had sought to align with the US while signalling its hedging behaviour in the midst of growing Sino-US great power rivalry. After the political change of administration in South Korea in 2022 when President Yoon Suk Yeol assumed office, Seoul’s approach changed as the conservative government embraced alignment with the US and centred its foreign policy on the alliance. On this shift, Mr Snyder pointed out that the emphasis of the alliance has also changed from one that characterised the partnership with the US as an “alliance forged in blood” to an “alliance powered by chips, batteries and clean technology,” as well as the shift from a one-way relationship which focused on the US security commitment to South Korea to a two-way relationship supported by large Korean investments in the US. 

Challenges facing the Alliance 

Mr Snyder also raised some key geopolitical challenges the alliance faces in addition to the rise of China. First, he noted the development of Russia-North Korea relations, which comes at a time when inter-Korean relations have deteriorated significantly since the inauguration of the Yoon administration in Seoul. Mr Snyder assessed that Moscow’s re-engagement with Pyongyang is benefiting North Korea politically, financially, and strategically. Although their relationship appears to be transactional at this stage, the key question is how long the convergence of their transactional relationship will continue, particularly given the ongoing war in Ukraine. The development of Moscow-Pyongyang ties could lead to significant military developments and technical advances for North Korea which poses a security risk to South Korea. 

Another challenge to the US-ROK alliance rises from within, associated with domestic political developments in the two countries. The first Trump administration’s transactional approach to its alliances created dissonance in its partnerships and if Trump were to return to the White House and double down on a longstanding America First policy, it could possibly generate a Korea First response from Seoul. Moreover, there has been growing domestic political debates in Korea over the credibility of the US commitment to maintaining its nuclear umbrella in the Indo-pacific, prompting in turn the possibility of Seoul pursuing nuclear (re)armament. These debates are further fuelled by public statements made by Trump’s putative spokespeople who have suggested that South Korea should step up its defence capabilities for its own security which is generating further questions about the security dilemma in US-Korea alliance. 

Discussions 

Mr Snyder’s talk was followed by engaging discussions with the roundtable participants on Korea’s Global Pivotal State ambitions and its implications for the alliance; the unevenness between Washington’s reception of Yoon’s foreign policy and his domestic popularity; and the perennial historical challenges in Korea-Japan relations. Questions from the participants opened a more detailed discussion on the impact of domestic politics on foreign policies in Seoul and Washington, on the challenges of inter-Korean reconciliations, Korea-China relations and possible contingencies in the Taiwan Strait, the future of the alliance under the second Trump administration and American public perception of the US alliance with Korea, and the implications of the conflict in the Middle East for Korea’s relationship with Europe and the United States. 

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