On foreign policy, progressives in the United States and South Korea often diverge. Despite the fact that the two countries are allies, their interests do not perfectly overlap. Many foreign policy practitioners in the United States, whether they are progressive or not, are concerned about the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, as well as broader threats radiating from North Korea. These threats include North Korea’s possession of ballistic missiles and nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons of mass destruction; and cyberattacks against the United States, South Korea, and others.2 In addition, the United States sees South Korea as an ally capable of playing a larger role in regional and global affairs. South Korea has embraced this role in certain ways, such as when it provides development assistance abroad, but its overwhelming foreign policy focus is understandably on North Korea. This dynamic can lead to differing expectations between the two countries,3 with the United States encouraging South Korea to do more on regional and global issues as South Korea prioritizes North Korea policy.
Historically, conservative parties in South Korea have emphasized the importance of military deterrence against North Korea over engagement, and they have tended to favor more hard-line policies. Progressive parties, meanwhile, have supported attempts to improve inter-Korea relations and engage with Pyongyang.4 North Korea policy is a politically divisive issue in South Korea, but there is broad bipartisan support in the United States for maintaining an American military presence in South Korea, as well as deep concern about the threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and cyberattacks, among other activities.5 The U.S. foreign policy consensus on North Korea—supported by many U.S. progressives—is closer to the views held by South Korean conservatives than it is to the views held by South Korean progressives.
South Korean progressives’ uneasiness with aspects of the alliance comes in part from the legacy of human rights and pro-democracy advocacy in South Korea. While the U.S. government supported the South Korean military dictatorships of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan as part of its Cold War containment strategy, current President Moon Jae-in and his progressive predecessors Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung were activists and dissidents against those same governments.6 Progressive members of the current political generation have been accused of being pro-North Korean communists by their political opponents, and many were jailed for their views.7
Because of this history, there is a deep-rooted and understandable level of skepticism of America among some progressives in South Korea. While contemporary South Korean progressives are not necessarily anti-American, many of them are perceived as not as wholeheartedly supportive of Washington as are their conservative colleagues. This dynamic can cause friction on alliance-related issues, including how to handle North Korea and China.
Negotiating with North Korea
The U.S.-South Korean alliance is predicated on the existential threat that North Korea poses toward its southern neighbor. Both North and South Korea claim sovereignty over the entirety of the Korean peninsula, and the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the U.S. military presence in South Korea help deter North Korea from attempting to invade the South. Understanding how the United States and South Korea view the North Korea challenge is crucial to understanding the alliance.
Historically, there has been only one time period during which more progressive parties held the executive branch simultaneously in the United States and in South Korea. Kim Dae-jung became the first progressive president of South Korea in 1998, overlapping with the second term of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Over the following few years, Kim and Clinton were relatively aligned in engaging diplomatically with North Korea. Kim pursued his Sunshine Policy with North Korea—which saw engagement with North Korea as the best path to reduce tensions—while the United States continued negotiating with North Korea over the implementation of the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear capabilities.8 Clinton was willing to lean in to diplomacy; his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the most senior sitting U.S. official to meet with a North Korean leader as she sought to lay the groundwork for a potential Clinton visit to Pyongyang—which ultimately did not happen while he was president.9
Since 2001, however, U.S. and South Korean policy and politics have been considerably less aligned. After Clinton left office, his conservative successor, George W. Bush, quickly withdrew from bilateral negotiations with North Korea and named the country part of the “axis of evil.”10 Kim Dae-jung’s successor, the progressive Roh Moo-hyun, campaigned on putting distance between Seoul and Washington while continuing the Sunshine Policy.11 The two leaders disagreed on North Korea policy: While Bush later supported multilateral talks with North Korea, he initially pursued economic sanctions while Roh continued a reconciliation and cooperation strategy.
This period also coincided with North Korea conducting its first successful nuclear test in 2006.12 Following revelations that North Korea had been pursuing secret nuclear capabilities, political opinion in the United States generally cemented around the narrative that North Korea had been hoodwinking the international community for more than a decade by engaging in sham negotiations. The politics of supporting forward-leaning diplomacy became even more challenging for both progressives and conservatives in the United States.
The conservative Lee Myung-bak was elected president of South Korea in early 2008, and Barack Obama came into office in the United States in early 2009. While Obama was open to engagement with North Korea, eventually reaching a small, short-lived deal with North Korea in 2012, the hallmark of his tenure was “strategic patience”—effectively, trying to wait out the Kim regime while adding economic pressure when warranted.13 He and former President Lee saw eye to eye on holding a harder line on Pyongyang, with Obama asserting in 2012 that “there will be no rewards for provocations.”14 In 2013, the conservative Park Geun-hye took office in South Korea, and Park and Obama found themselves largely aligned in not wanting to engage with North Korea unless North Korea demonstrated sincerity about denuclearization.15 U.S. and South Korean progressives found themselves moving apart on how to approach North Korea, only for the stars to realign in favor of engagement in 2017, when both the progressive Moon Jae-in and the conservative U.S. President Donald Trump came into office.
President Trump’s decision to pursue leader-to-leader engagement with Kim Jong Un has exacerbated tensions between U.S. and South Korean progressives. While many U.S. progressives tend to be pro-diplomacy and have supported Trump’s turn toward diplomatic efforts, they also are critical of how Trump is executing those efforts.16 Many progressives believe that Trump has no strategy for the diplomatic process; that Trump rushes into summit meetings with Kim Jong Un without a sense of how to advance U.S. interests; and that the ways in which Trump approaches diplomacy could overall undermine chances for progress by squandering U.S. leverage.
Generally speaking, progressives in Washington are often attacked as “weak” or “soft” if they advocate for engagement with hostile countries.17 Conservative leaders, however, are politically freer to engage with adversarial countries because they are viewed as “tougher,” and therefore less susceptible to being deemed “weak” in the context of American politics, in what is known as the “Nixon goes to China” phenomenon.18 For instance, former President Obama was politically eviscerated for negotiating with Iran, despite forging the successful Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which prevented Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. President Trump withdrew the United States from this deal in 2018,19 yet he has been applauded by his political supporters for meeting numerous times with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un—even though he has yet to secure any substantive results.20
There is a commonly accepted—yet overly simplistic—narrative in the United States that North Korea is inherently untrustworthy because it has violated its previous commitments to denuclearize.21 Because of this, many Americans have expressed skepticism of Kim Jong Un’s sincerity in the current round of negotiations. Why would Kim give up what he sees as a key component of regime security? And if North Korea will not denuclearize, should the United States continue to negotiate? 22 Even if some U.S. progressives believe that a North Korea that has accepted some arms control measures in exchange for economic relief is preferable to the status quo, it can be politically tricky to thread that needle. Few policymakers want to advocate for accepting North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
Another reason that U.S. progressives are often wary of diplomacy with North Korea without preconditions is, as typically strong supporters of international norms, they worry that engaging with North Korea could be perceived as normalizing and legitimizing a government that commits gross human rights abuses and flouts international law in pursuit of its nuclear program.23 If the Kim regime were treated as a more normal nation in its economic and political relationships without having to give up its nuclear weapons, would other countries feel encouraged to pursue illicit weapons of mass destruction programs? If the Kim regime were given economic incentives to denuclearize, would that strengthen the North Korean government’s ability to further oppress its people and continue to deny them political and civil rights? Would the mere act of engaging in diplomacy with North Korea with a focus on nuclear issues send the message that the United States does not care about human rights? This latter fear in particular seems to be confirmed every time Trump praises Kim Jong Un and explicitly downplays human rights concerns.24 U.S. progressives tend to support diplomacy but believe that it must be conducted thoughtfully so as to not undermine human rights and other goals.
Many South Korean progressive policymakers, however, approach North Korea differently. First, many South Korean progressives believe that Kim Jong Un could be different enough from his father and grandfather that they can engage with him in good faith.25 Second, the recent trends of increased information flows into North Korea and the development of market economies in parts of the country suggest that Kim must do more to serve his citizens because markets increase the demands people have of their economy.26 Progressives interpret this necessity as giving Kim an incentive to engage,27 with Kim declaring “economic construction” as a central strategic objective for the nation.28 Third, if relations improve among North Korea and the powers it considers hostile, North Korea will be more likely to denuclearize in the long run29—which is one reason why South Korean progressives are promoting inter-Korea economic projects.30 While U.S. progressives tend to focus on the civil and political aspects of human rights, South Korean progressives emphasize that the economic rights of the North Korean people will improve through inter-Korean engagement coupled with lowered tensions on the peninsula.
There is some frustration among the South Korean progressive community with U.S. progressives, particularly with some of the United States’ elected leaders. For example, they believe that while former President Obama spent his political capital negotiating with Iran and improving relations with Cuba and Myanmar, his legacy on the Korean peninsula consisted merely of waiting for the Kim regime to collapse under his policy of strategic patience.
Currently, South Korean progressives see some elected Democratic leaders as trying to derail the current U.S.-North Korea diplomatic process through their criticisms of President Trump’s relationship with Kim and their opposition to Trump more broadly.31 Some South Korean progressives fear that if a Democrat is elected to the U.S. presidency in 2020, the new administration will scrap whatever deal Trump has reached with North Korea or end diplomacy. They see some elected Democratic leaders as being more aligned on North Korea policy with conservatives in South Korea rather than with their progressive brethren. They also believe that U.S. Democrats have undervalued North Korea’s offer to dismantle its nuclear facility at Yongbyon and have set the bar too high for diplomacy.32
The role of China in the U.S.-South Korean alliance
While North Korea is the priority issue in the U.S.-South Korean alliance, China’s rise, its support for North Korea, and its bullying behavior toward South Korea in recent years have made dealing with China an issue of growing importance. From the perspective of many policymakers in the United States, the U.S.-South Korean alliance is not only about deterring North Korea, but also about balancing China.
There is currently a vigorous debate in the United States about how to approach a rising China. For decades, the United States has operated under the theory that by integrating China economically and diplomatically into the broader international community, China would become more open and connected with international institutions and regimes that promote liberal norms, and the United States could encourage China to play a responsible role in the international system. Instead, China has exploited the international system in recent years. China has blatantly ignored the rules of the World Trade Organization; used its economic and military might to pressure countries from the Philippines to Japan to Vietnam over territorial sovereignty claims; and exported its model of technological authoritarianism to other autocracies, all while becoming more repressive at home.33 As China continues to use its power to shape the regional and global order, many progressive and conservative policymakers in the United States are becoming more hawkish on China.
Naturally, the United States and South Korea view China differently. China is South Korea’s neighbor and its largest trading partner, which means it could be more costly for South Korea to push back against China.34 While the United States has a huge stake in maintaining its bilateral economic relationship with China, its geographic distance from China and its larger economy and greater global power insulate it more from Chinese pressure.
A key element of U.S. strategy toward China is the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea, Japan, and Guam. This military presence is a symbol that the United States is invested in the region and contributes to efforts to deter military aggression from China. Yet it also leads to another point of disagreement between U.S. and South Korean progressives: Although there is a general consensus in the United States on the importance of U.S. alliances in Asia to deter China, South Korean progressives are less interested in maintaining an anti-China posture.
The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system provides a clear example of this disagreement. In 2016, the Obama and Park administrations agreed to deploy the U.S. THAAD missile defense system in South Korea after North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test.35 China was angry about the deployment, believing that THAAD served a dual purpose of targeting Beijing, and retaliated economically against Seoul, costing South Korea at least $6.8 billion.36 Before becoming president, Moon Jae-in was critical of the system’s deployment and the decision-making process.37 After taking office, he delayed the deployment of four THAAD launchers.38 In November 2017, the Moon administration reaffirmed its policy of “three no’s”—no joining the U.S. anti-missile system, no tripartite military alliance with the United States and Japan, and no additional THAAD deployments.39 Some in the United States and in South Korea largely interpreted this policy as appeasing China. However, Moon kept the THAAD battery deployed, despite ongoing objections from Beijing.40
This returns to the central point of tension in the alliance: North Korea. If a deal with North Korea were to lead to a substantial change in the U.S. military presence in South Korea, the United States’ ability to deter China could decrease, raising concerns among U.S. policymakers across the political spectrum about indirectly emboldening China. South Korean policymakers, meanwhile, must deftly balance pressure from both Washington and Beijing. As Speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly Moon Hee-sang said in April 2019, “We cannot abandon economy for the sake of security, and we cannot abandon security for the sake of economy.”41 Moreover, South Korean progressives are generally more open to the idea of a reduced or altered U.S. military presence if such a change were part of achieving progress with North Korea.42