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Alliance seeks bigger role in regional, global peace

Over the last six decades, the alliance forged in blood has evolved into comprehensive partnership

This is the first in a series of articles that mark the 60th anniversary of the formation of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. ― Ed.

Through ups and downs over the last six decades, the South Korea-U.S. alliance has evolved into a multifaceted partnership that deals not only with peninsular defense, but also broader challenges facing the Northeast Asian region and the world.

With Seoul’s growing contributions to the international community, the alliance has become a crucial driver of global campaigns to tackle nuclear proliferation, piracy, terrorism and nonmilitary challenges such as climate change.
Presidents Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama hold a press conference after their summit in Washington on May 7. (Yonhap News)
Presidents Park Geun-hye and Barack Obama hold a press conference after their summit in Washington on May 7. (Yonhap News)

Born as a Cold War-era collective defense mechanism after the end of the Korean War in 1953, the alliance is now exploring its new vision for the 21st century with an aim to bring the allies closer together amid continuing military threats from North Korea.

Birth of alliance

The alliance treaty between Seoul and Washington was signed on Oct. 1, 1953, as South Korea’s first President Syngman Rhee strongly demanded U.S. security assurance and its economic support following the signing of the armistice in July of the year.

Concerned about a possible security vacuum that could come from U.S. troop withdrawal, Rhee resorted to brinkmanship tactics to coax the U.S. into signing the Mutual Defense Treaty.

Rhee continued to threaten to push northward to unify with North Korea. On the back of public support for his “northward advance” campaign, Rhee abruptly released some 27,000 prisoners of war amid armistice negotiations and even threatened to withdraw his troops from the U.S.-led U.N. control.

These moves posed a serious headache to the U.S., which wanted to focus on Europe, of greater strategic interest than the Korean Peninsula. Washington thus considered ousting Rhee under the plan, codenamed “Operation Everready.”

But Rhee’s aggressive push paid off as Washington agreed to accept his calls for its support for peninsular security, Korean military buildup and postwar reconstruction in return for him not interfering with the armistice agreement.

The alliance pact was signed about three months after the three-year Korean War ended in a truce. It was Rhee’s long-cherished goal, yet he was not fully satisfied as the pact did not include the wording he pursued ― an “automatic, immediate” intervention by the U.S. military in case of a peninsular contingency.

But America’s troop dispatch near the heavily fortified border tacitly ensured its automatic involvement in another possible armed conflict as the so-called “tripwire.”

After the treaty alliance was forged, one task was still left for Washington: forging a formal agreement to put operational command authority over South Korean troops under the U.S.-led U.N. Command to block Rhee’s “northward” campaign.

In November 1954, Seoul and Washington drew up the “Agreed Minute Relating to Continued Cooperation in Economic and Military Matters,” a document that formally ensured the U.S. had “operational control” over South Korean forces.

Rhee had relinquished “command authority” over Korean forces to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the then-Far East commander who also headed the U.N. forces on the peninsula, some 20 days after the outbreak of the Korean War.

Command authority is a more comprehensive concept compared to operational control. The former covers the entire operational authority except for control over logistics and military administration while the latter refers to more limited authority concerning operational objectives and unit mobilizations.

With the armistice agreement, mutual defense pact and agreed minute as its three pillars, the Korea-U.S. alliance has long served to prevent North Korean aggression and ensure peace in the region.

Cold War era

During the Cold War era, the Korea-U.S. alliance suffered ups and downs with the allies’ different strategic calculations, varying perceptions of threat environments, periodic bouts of anti-American sentiment and other political factors.

The first major challenge to the alliance came in 1971 when the then-President Richard Nixon reduced the number of U.S. troops in Korea by 20,000 to 43,000 under his doctrine calling on U.S. allies to take care of their own military defense.

The so-called Nixon doctrine was put forward amid domestic anti-war sentiment stemming from the costly, unsuccessful war in Vietnam and worsening economic conditions coupled with high unemployment.

The U.S. troop reduction continued as a reconciliatory mood was forged amid Sino-U.S. detente. Washington also sought to warm ties with the Soviet Union as the two signed deals to limit their arms race.

After President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, the alliance faltered again as his human rights-based foreign policy led to friction in relations with Korea’s general-turned-president, Park Chung-hee.

The previous year, Carter made his election pledge to withdraw troops in Korea. At the time, public sentiment against Korea deteriorated due to Park’s dictatorial rule and a high-profile lobbying scandal, dubbed “Koreagate.”

Park’s pursuit of nuclear weapons in the early 1970s also undermined ties with the U.S. As Washington improved ties with Beijing and scaled back its troops, Park felt the need for nuclear arms.

The allies’ relationship got back on track as President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981 with a stronger defense policy to keep in check the communist expansion that was highlighted in the Soviet Union’s invasion into Afghanistan in 1979. Reagan did not take issue with the dictatorship of then-President Chun Doo-hwan, and affirmed a steady U.S. military presence on the peninsula.

Post-Cold War evolvement

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. sought to reduce its troop strength in Asia. The U.S. troop number in Korea, which was 43,000 in 1991, currently stands at 28,500.

As Seoul recognized the need to make the alliance a more complementary partnership rather than relying wholly on the U.S., it also took steps toward self-reliance for its national defense. Seoul took peacetime operational control from Washington in 1994 and pursued military modernization.

Following the unprecedented terrorist attack on the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. reorganized its military strategy to better cope with new types of security threats posed by unpredictable actors including terrorists. This also affected the U.S. forces in Korea.

Washington pushed for “strategic mobility” to make its troops more rapid and effective in handling regional and global conflicts. Amid the U.S. troop realignment, the allies agreed to relocate the U.S. bases in Seoul and north of the capital down to Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province.

At the time, the Roh Moo-hyun administration sought to enhance its military’s self-reliance and “balance the alliance” with the U.S., and the allies agreed in 2007 to transfer wartime operational control in April 2012.

But amid continuing provocations by North Korea including the sinking of the corvette Cheonan that killed 46 sailors, the leaders of the two countries agreed in 2010 to delay the OPCON transfer to December 2015.

The alliance had focused mostly on maintaining security on the peninsula. But with Seoul’s increased economic and diplomatic profile, the alliance has sought to take greater roles to promote peace and stability in the region and beyond, and deals with a wider range of global challenges including climate change.

By Song Sang-ho (