Sharpening of South Korea-US Conflict: Bosom Buddies but Strange Bedfellows


Last month, Nancy Pelosi, the No. 3 political figure in the U.S. and speaker of the House of Representatives, visited East Asia. On arriving in the U.S.-allied country of South Korea, however, she received an unexpectedly frosty reception. Citing a planned summer vacation, President Yoon Suk-yeol declined to meet the speaker of the House, and in fact, this accurately reflects the relationship between South Korea and the U.S.

The U.S. was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with the Republic of Korea, and in the wake of the Korean War, the two sides also signed the U.S.-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty. However, behind the facade of dignified diplomacy, there have been sharp conflicts between the U.S. and South Korea all along.

South Korean Interests Repeatedly Sacrificed by the US

First, South Korea and the U.S. have different security strategies, but the U.S. continuously demands that South Korea unilaterally sacrifice its interests to suit American needs.

As is well known, national security is the highest priority of any country, surpassing other issues such as the economy. And it is on this point that there are irreconcilable differences between South Korea and the U.S. Simply put, there are two main threats to South Korea’s security. One is North Korea, with whom there are intractable differences regarding which side will unify the nation. The second, geopolitically, is Japan, which is the biggest threat to South Korea. Japan has not just been a brutal colonizer of South Korea in the past, it also maintains an ambiguous stance on historical issues and is unwilling to admit its guilt, repeatedly denying involvement in the criminal treatment of “comfort women.” This has led to repeated, large-scale anti-Japanese movements in South Korea, to say nothing of the existing territorial disputes between the two countries.

China’s presence is needed In both of these major security challenges. Not only is China the only country that can influence North Korea, but it also faces geopolitical challenges from Japan. Since the end of the Cold War, though, the U.S. has regarded China as its main security challenge, and this is why it both opposes the friendship between China and South Korea and actively supports Japan. As far as South Korea is concerned, the U.S. is a non-Asian country and will certainly end up withdrawing in future in much the same way Britain, France and Germany did. China, however, is a permanent neighbor, and in the long run, its importance will supersede that of the U.S. American policy has thus seriously harmed South Korean interests.

Second, there is the economic conflict between the two sides, which can be broken down into several parts.

First, China has long been the most important factor in South Korea’s economic growth since diplomatic relations were established between the two countries. In 2003, China overtook the U.S. to become South Korea’s largest export market. Currently, China is South Korea’s No. 1 trading partner, export market and source of imports. More importantly, South Korea’s trade surplus with China is in excess of $60 billion. The China-South Korea Free Trade Agreement came into effect on Dec. 20, 2015, but South Korea’s economy has been harmed by American moves to undermine Chinese-Korean relations along with trade and technology wars against China and in violation of World Trade Organization principles. The U.S. is evidently stirring up trouble in pursuit of its own strategic interests, but South Korea is bearing the consequences.

Secondly, the U.S. has often used its position as a great power to seek undue economic benefits — even at the expense of the health of the Korean people — such as with the infamous U.S.-South Korea beef dispute. In December 2003, South Korea announced a total ban on imports of American beef because of the outbreak of mad cow disease in the U.S. This was a perfectly normal act by a sovereign state in line with international law, but the U.S. used the start of negotiations on a free trade agreement between itself and South Korea in January 2006 as a bargaining chip, forcing South Korea to resume imports of American beef and sparking nationwide protests. On June 10, 2008, millions of candle-bearing South Koreans rallied in the streets of the capital, Seoul, and the result was political turmoil, with then-Prime Minister Han Seung-soo leading a mass resignation of his Cabinet.

Similar incidents concerning such inequality abound. On Jan. 23, 2018, President Donald Trump announced steep protective tariffs on washing machines and solar panels imported from South Korean companies such as Samsung and LG. South Korea, a weak country, had no choice but to submit to the humiliation.

Third, there is the cost of American troops in South Korea, where they have been stationed for 70 years. In order to address the issue of shared military expenses for these troops, South Korea and the U.S. signed Special Measures Agreements, or SMAs, on military cost-sharing beginning in 1991, but Korea’s costs have grown increasingly higher. After Trump took office, he demanded that South Korea shoulder the entire $5 billion military expenditure of the U.S. forces stationed there, an amount equivalent to South Korea’s annual defense budget and completely beyond the country’s capacity. Trump later backed down and asked for a year-on-year increase of 50%, which was likewise unaffordable. The cost of the U.S. military presence in South Korea has become an increasingly heavy burden on the South Korea’s economic development.

Fourth, the U.S. has repeatedly humiliated South Korea and insulted its people. Examples include the frequent atrocities committed by the U.S. military and the ways that the U.S. has favored Japan.

South Korea’s painful colonial history has resulted in pronounced but sensitive nationalist sentiment and a strong sense of national pride. The U.S. military is a foreign, occupying force, and although South Korea has no choice but to accept it, atrocities committed by the U.S. military there often touch a very raw nerve. For example, on June 13, 2002, two female high school students were struck and killed by a U.S. Army armored vehicle. After the incident, not only did the U.S. military refuse to hand the perpetrators over to South Korea’s Ministry of Justice, but the members of the military were both eventually acquitted by a U.S. military tribunal, triggering waves of anti-American protests across South Korea.

Favoring Japan To Thwart Korean North-South Reunification

Another thorn in South Korea’s side is the repeated favoritism the U.S. has shown to Japan. In 2019, for instance, South Korea conducted military drills around the Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan, midway between Japan and South Korea, to guard its sovereignty and territory. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, was openly critical of South Korea. And in 2016, a map was posted to the website of the U.S. embassy in South Korea, titled “My Travel Map in Korea,” which displayed seven places visited by U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert. The map showed the Korean island of Ulleungdo in the upper right corner, but the Liancourt Rocks, which South Korea claims as an intrinsic part of its territory, was omitted. On top of that, the East Sea, where the Liancourt Rocks are located, was labeled the “Sea of Japan.”*

Because of its colonial past, U.S’ favoritism toward Japan in the South Korea-Japan conflict, particularly in matters of sovereignty, is especially unacceptable to Korean society. Such damage accumulates over time and sooner or later will reach an inflection point.

Fifth, the Korean peninsula, suffering under partition, aspires to unification. This is South Korea’s highest national strategic interest as well, but it is not one that enjoys support from the U.S., owing to America’s self-interested demands. If the Korean Peninsula were to be reunified, then the raison d’être behind the United States’ continued military presence in South Korea would evaporate along with the rationale for ordering Japan around, using the so-called North Korean threat as a pretext. This would be tantamount to the U.S. losing its foothold in East Asia. Moreover, the U.S. is acutely aware that a reunified Korean Peninsula may not necessarily be pro-American, owing to the conflict between South Korea and the U.S. The conflict between the peninsula and Japan will become the priority, and Korea may instead join forces with China so it can face up to Japan. With its strong nationalist sentiment, the Korean Peninsula may not be as subservient to the U.S. as it is now, to say nothing of the fact that North Korea still possesses nuclear weapons. A strong, nuclear-armed Korean peninsula that is not pro-American is a prospect that would be utterly unacceptable to the U.S., so the only thing for it is to keep the Korean Peninsula divided.

One might say that for historical and practical reasons, South Korea has no choice but to rely on the U.S. to safeguard its security. But in reality, the asymmetrical relationship between the two is characterized by contradiction and confrontation. The security guarantee from the U.S. is only temporary while the contradictions are constant. It is only a matter of time before the relationship between South Korea and the U.S. reveals its fundamental nature.

The author is a political scientist based in Paris, France, and a researcher with Fudan University’s China Institute in Shanghai.

*Translator’s Note: The Liancourt Rocks are referred to in South Korea as “Dokdo” (the “Solitary Islands”) and in Japan as “Takeshima” (the “Bamboo Islands”). The Sea of Japan is referred to in Japanese by that same name, but in South Korea, it is known as “Donghae” (the “East Sea”). The choice of toponym is a politically sensitive matter, as is any omission or exclusion of disputed territory on maps or charts.

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About Matthew McKay 107 Articles
Matthew is a British citizen who grew up and is based in Switzerland. He received his honors degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford and, after 15 years in the private sector, went on to earn an MA in Chinese Languages, Literature and Civilization from the University of Geneva. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and an associate of both the UK's Institute of Translation and Interpreting and the Swiss Association of Translation, Terminology and Interpreting. Apart from Switzerland, he has lived in the UK, Taiwan and Germany, and his translation specialties include arts & culture, international cooperation, and neurodivergence.

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