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A Comprehensive Vision for the U.S.-ROK Alliance

by Scott A. Snyder
February 1, 2009

South Korean citizens holding pictures of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak rally in support of the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement (FTA) November 10, 2008 (Jo Yong-hak/Courtesy Reuters). South Korean citizens holding pictures of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak rally in support of the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement (FTA) November 10, 2008 (Jo Yong-hak/Courtesy Reuters).

The U.S.-ROK security alliance has been one of the key components of U.S. policy in Asia for over five decades, but the alliance has traditionally been premised on the narrow coldwar task of guaranteeing security on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea’s transformation as a leading economic power and its transition from authoritarianism to democracy has led to the convergence of the two societies, expanding the potential for forms of cooperation that extend well beyond the peninsula. But the U.S.-ROK relationship has traditionally been conceptualized primarily in bilateral terms that focus solely on deterring new conflict on the Korean Peninsula while neglecting the need to establish a basis for cooperation in the service of shared regional and global interests in stability and prosperity.

There is potential to establish a considerably more comprehensive relationship between the United States and South Korea as fellow democracies and market economic systems that share common values, interests, and norms. Compared to the trans-Atlantic relationship or the U.S.-Japan relationship, however, cooperation between the United States and its allies in South Korea is under-institutionalized, does not benefit from the same broad array of cultural programs and policy interaction, and remains quite narrow in its vision and practical application to modern-day global challenges. Moreover, strengthened forms of cooperation with likeminded allies in the Asia Pacific are likely to be at a premium as the center of gravity for global economic and political interactions shifts away from Europe and toward Asia in the twenty-first century.

South Korea has developed the economic, political, and security resources to be considered as a first-tier partner on the international scene, but the development of an expanded U.S.-ROK partnership commensurate to South Korea’s potential ability to join in promoting global and regional stability is only in the early stages of development. The United States can benefit from South Korea’s emergence as a leading economic nation and vibrant democracy in Asia by deepening institutional forms of cooperation and broadening the scope of its partnership with South Korea from a primarily peninsula-focused security alliance to a comprehensive alliance with the capacity to address newly emerging global, regional, and emerging nontraditional security challenges.

The expansion of institutional channels necessary to promote broadened cooperation on the basis of common values, interests, and norms could lay the foundation for deepening and expanding cooperation in Northeast Asia. There is an opportunity to transform the U.S.-ROK alliance relationship to fully realize its contributions to regional and global stability and prosperity, as well as to bolster the respective national interests of both countries in Asia. A policy agenda designed to achieve these objectives would promote the expansion of U.S.-ROK bilateral cooperation in a global, regional, and non-traditional security and economic context while addressing changes in the traditional security and economic relationship between the two countries. The establishment of a Center for U.S.-Korea Policy with the mission of developing such an agenda and identifying practical means by which to institutionalize such cooperation is an important first step toward harnessing the newly expanded potential for the relationship.

Initial program activities include: Agenda Setting in U.S.- ROK Relations, Benchmarking America’s Alliance Partners: Implications for U.S.-ROK Cooperation; U.S.-ROK Cooperation on peacekeeping and international development assistance; U.S.-ROK dialogue on China and architectures for multilateral cooperation in East Asia; U.S.-ROK Cooperation on nuclear and climate change issues; contingency planning for North Korea and Implications of Global/Regional Cooperation for the U.S.-ROK security alliance; the influence of civil society and legislative bodies on the U.S.-ROK alliance.

The Center for U.S.-Korea Policy is a project of The Asia Foundation based in the Foundation’s Washington, DC, office. The main objective of the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy is to broaden the foundations for institutionalized cooperation between the two countries. To fully achieve this objective, the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy will identify and promote cooperation on specific issues and serve as a resource for promoting realization of such cooperation through expanded dialogue with policymakers in Seoul and Washington.

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