Gregg A. Brazinsky: South Korea: The Unappreciated Ally

Gregg A. Brazinsky, photo by David M. Scavone
Photo credit: David M. Scavone

Today we welcome a guest post from Gregg A. Brazinsky, author of Nation Building in South Korea:  Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy, and more recently,  Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War.

Here, Professor Brazinsky discusses the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and that nation’s fraught relationship with the United States.


South Korea: The Unappreciated Ally

When the Olympic flame was lit in Pyeongchang last week, it underscored South Korea’s emergence as a global economic and political leader. Unfortunately, it is not always treated as one by the United States. Washington has never completely abandoned the patron state mentality that was born decades ago when the country was completely dependent on American assistance. It unfairly expects South Korea to follow America’s lead on matters related to security even when Seoul has more knowledge and experience. It is time for the United States to stop making South Korea an unappreciated ally.

President Trump has frequently criticized South Korea for not paying its fair share of security costs with the United States. Before running for president, he tweeted: “South Korea must in some form pay for our help-the U.S. must stop being stupid!” In reality, few countries have been more supportive of Washington’s international agenda and received less credit for it.

During the 1960s when the United States called for Free World support in the Vietnam War, the ROK sent a larger contingent than any other ally. Between 1964 and 1973 more than 300,000 South Korean troops were dispatched to the bloody quagmire that was Vietnam and 5,000 lost their lives. Thirty years later during the Iraq War, South Korea again dispatched forces to aid the United States. The 3,600 troop Zaytun Division represented the third largest contingent in the U.S. led coalition after American and British forces. Washington did not show much gratitude for either of these contributions, however. Tensions flared between Washington and Seoul over other issues even as South Korean forces risked their lives to serve U.S. interests.

If military conflict erupts on the Korean peninsula, it will inevitably be devastating for South Korea. With Seoul, a city of 10 million people, in easy range of North Korean artillery, the country could easily sustain hundreds of thousands of casualties and billions of dollars in economic damage. Yet the Trump administration often acts as if South Korea doesn’t exist when it makes policy pronouncements about the Korean peninsula. Threats and strategic shifts that can potentially bring war and other horrific consequences to the ROK are often issued unilaterally, sometimes through tweets or other impromptu statements.

Washington’s tendency to consult with other countries about Korean issues while bypassing Seoul has been another source of frustration in South Korea. The Trump administration’s initial efforts to resolve the North Korean crisis by working out a deal with China not only proved misguided buy also heightened Seoul’s anxieties about having its fate decided by other countries. Media and policy circles in South Korea have felt so demoralized by the way Seoul has been marginalized in discussions of the Korean peninsula that they have coined the term “Korea passing” to describe their exclusion.

American officials often demonstrate a similar disregard for South Korea’s viewpoint when it comes to relations between Seoul and Tokyo. American officials expect Koreans to put aside legitimate grievances against Japan’s historical revisionism for the sake of U.S. security interests. The Obama administration pressured Seoul to conclude a “Comfort Women” agreement with Tokyo in 2015 and accept what many Koreans considered inadequate compensation for the sexual enslavement of tens of thousands of Korean women during the 1930s and 1940s. Unsurprisingly, the current ROK president Moon Jae In has labeled the deal “defective” and demanded a more sincere apology from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Washington can never seem to understand that for Seoul, a revisionist Japan that is unrepentant for its past misdeeds can seem almost as menacing as a nuclear North Korea.

If the United States continues to make South Korea an unappreciated ally it will only benefit America’s rivals. American officials don’t like it when Seoul tries to strike a diplomatic balance between Beijing and Washington instead of siding forthrightly with the United States. But when the U.S. makes important decisions about Korea issues without South Korean input, it leaves Seoul with the difficult choice of either moving closer to an increasingly assertive China or staking its national security on an alliance in which it is treated as a junior partner.

In recent weeks, Moon Jae In’s government has seized on the opportunity of the Olympics to seek an opening to North Korea. These efforts have produced modest but promising results including agreements for the two Koreas to march under a unified flag during the games and hold future talks to deescalate tensions. These policies are not without their drawbacks and critics but they have a far better chance of leading to a peaceful resolution of the Korea crisis than the constant cycle of empty threats and ineffective sanctions now employed by Washington.

In an unusual show of restraint, the Trump administration has thus far chosen to encourage rather than criticize or disrupt South Korea’s diplomatic initiatives. Yet broader changes in how Washington manages its alliance with Seoul are still critical. For starters, the U.S. needs to consult with the ROK more closely on North Korea and realize that it cannot resolve the issue without South Korean input. The United States could also encourage a more genuine reconciliation between South Korea and Japan that does not treat Korea’s historical grievances as an inconvenience.

The Pyeongchang games should remind us that South Korea is the best example in the world of how a poor country can remake itself into a wealthy democracy. Today, its products, culture, and technological innovation all have an important impact around the globe. It is time for American policy to catch up with this reality.


Gregg A. Brazinsky is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. He is author of Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War (2017) and Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy (2007). Follow him on Twitter @gbrazinsky.