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Imagining South Korea Without America

Above photo: Gen. Paul LaCamera, the commander of the US Forces Korea, greets US President Joe Biden during the latter’s visit to Korea on May 22, 2022. Yonhap.

A new book questions whether the ROK-US alliance has truly served Korea and Koreans.

“The Naked ROK-US Alliance: Reasons for Resolving to Break Up with America” by Kim Sung-hae.

Is the ROK-US alliance unconditionally good?

A new book raises radical questions about the ROK-US alliance on the 70th anniversary of the two countries’ mutual defense treaty, which was signed on Oct. 1, 1953. The book is “The Naked ROK-US Alliance,” written by Daegu University professor Kim Sung-hae, who completed a master’s in international affairs at the University of Georgia and a doctorate in journalism at the University of Pennsylvania.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, this book lists the “reasons for resolving to break up with America” while urging us to imagine what South Korea would be like without the US or their alliance. The author dedicates the 380 pages of the book to justifying that exercise of the imagination.

The first reason the author provides is the cost of the alliance. To maintain the alliance with the US, Korea must lend military bases free of charge, foot part of the bill for stationing US troops on the peninsula and be a major buyer of US-made weapons.

On top of these financial expenses are opportunity costs — the potential value of the numerous options Korea has had to forgo because of the alliance. Perhaps best-known was Korea’s decision to let the US deploy the THAAD missile-defense battery in 2016. That turned China, which had been Korea’s biggest trade surplus country since the two countries normalized their relations 30 years earlier, into a major trade deficit country.

Another reason cited by the author is that Korea’s duties as an ally could entangle it in an undesired conflict. There’s a growing danger of Korea being dragged into a war in Taiwan, should such a war occur.

The most serious issue, however, is that as Korea strengthens its alliance with the US, its enemies are growing more numerous, and stronger, too. It’s the US that defines those enemies, and Korea is left to passively follow its will.

The US may well view its rivals China and Russia as enemies, but Korea’s national interest is different from that of the US. There’s no inherent reason why Korea should be an enemy of China or Russia.

The author goes on to argue that Koreans are misguided in their belief that they owe the US gratitude for its role in defending them during the Korean War. While it’s true that the war began with North Korea’s invasion of the South, US actions strongly suggest it had been quietly hoping a war would break out, too.

In the first phase of the war, the US ignored a UN resolution by pushing north of the 38th parallel, which brought Communist China into the war with devastating consequences for the Korean Peninsula. The US also bears responsibility, either directly or indirectly, for the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent people slaughtered in countless massacres, including the Bodo League massacre, the No Gun Ri massacre, and the Sinchon massacre.

And the Korean War’s impact on the US was not wholly negative. For example, the production of large amounts of military armaments throughout the war enabled the US to overcome the difficulties of an economic recession.

The author also asserts that the US was not the patron of Korean democracy and economic development that many Koreans believe it to have been. All the US wanted from Korea was a low level of modernization. Furthermore, the US was also happy to support dictatorial governments in Korea that butchered their own people so long as they helped block the communist threat. It’s a myth, the author says, that the US paved the way for Korea’s democratization and industrialization.

Another argument made in the book is that Koreans’ experience serving as “loyal subjects” of the Japanese empire during the colonial period prepared them for revering the US after Korea’s liberation.

“A stronger ROK-US alliance implies assimilation. The inviolable belief in the liberal international order resembles that placed in Japan’s imperial system. While the US and UK were once called ‘fiends and savages,’ that label is now placed on Russia and China,” the author wrote.

In other words, Korea is honoring and obeying the US, just as it once did with the Japanese Empire. The fact that Korea has still not regained wartime operational control, or OPCON, of its own military illustrates its lack of autonomy.

While the US would only have control of 40,000 troops in NATO (as of February 2022), US Forces Korea with OPCON would be able to direct the 600,000 troops in the Korean military in the event of a war. Korea can hardly be regarded as having autonomy when it has put its entire military under American control.

For such reasons, the author asserts that Korea would be best served by dismantling its alliance with the US.

What alternatives are there? The author says the best option would be for South and North Korea to jointly adopt neutrality. Cracks in the US-led unipolar order, the international shift toward a multipolar system, and the international financial system’s move away from the US dollar are creating conditions favorable for such a change.

The author’s proposal of joint neutrality by South and North Korea is an unfamiliar path. It’s one that Koreans have never tried before, and getting there wouldn’t be easy.

But setting aside the feasibility of that proposal, it’s worth pondering the author’s argument that if Korea is to achieve true autonomy, it must first wake from the stupor of blind obedience to the US.

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