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ROK-US Alliance: Main Issues and Implications for Future Military Relations

ROK-US Alliance: Main Issues and Implications for Future Military Relations

BAHNG Tae-Seop

Oct. 24, 2008

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Originally released on August 19, 2008


The ROK-US alliance is now entering a new phase with the inauguration of the Lee Myung-Bak administration. Unlike the Roh Mu-Hyun administration, which pursued an independent foreign policy centering on North Korea (NK) over the past five years, the new administration is focusing its strength on building a multilateral cooperative system centered on resource diplomacy. The foundation of Lee's foreign policy is creative pragmatism, a new principle that places top priority on national interests, rather than a pro-China or pro-US policy.

With this as a backdrop, the United States and the Republic of South Korea (ROK) held a summit meeting in April 2008 in which they reached an agreement to deepen relations as global partners in a strategic alliance of the 21 st century, veering away from the security-focused military alliance of the past. Accordingly, the ROK-US alliance is expected to evolve toward an all-round cooperative partnership covering a diverse range of areas, including energy, human rights, and environmental issues.

Over the past 10 years, the two countries have had numerous conflicts over issues concerning NK and thus failed to develop a bond based on sympathy for the establishment of a future-oriented ROK-US alliance. There have been a string of unnecessary disputes over the shift of wartime operational control and the relocation of US Forces Korea (USFK). There has also been a lack of understanding regarding the US' strategic flexibility. The two countries may face challenges in advancing the alliance if they are unable to resolve pending military issues. A joint effort must be made to transform the ROK-US alliance into a global military partnership that goes beyond simply defending the Korean peninsula.

This paper aims to analyze in-depth the major issues between the two sides, including 1) the relationship between the repositioning of the USFK and the repositioning of other US overseas bases led by the US military's revision initiatives, and the significance of US strategic flexibility following the repositioning process; 2) the shift of wartime operational control and what effect it will have on the ROK-US alliance in the future. Although there are some voices in the ROK calling for a renegotiation of the shift schedule, the US maintains its stance against renegotiation. The Lee administration needs to prevent the US' support role from weakening during the process of shifting wartime operational control, and must ensure that the scheduled abolition of the ROK-US Combined Forces Command does not create a security vacuum on the Korean peninsula.

To transform the ROK into a mature, global country, (one of Lee's five basic principles for the administration of state affairs) a new approach to the ROK-US military cooperation issue is needed. Its future strategy must go beyond the local strategy of simple prevention of war, and encompass a more global strategy that protects the ROK's economic interests as well.

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