South Korea–United States relations

Diplomatic relations between South Korea and the United States commenced in 1950, when the United States helped establish the modern state of South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea, and fought on its UN-sponsored side in the Korean War (1950–1953). During the subsequent decades, South Korea experienced tremendous economic, political and military growth.

South Korean–American relations
Map indicating locations of South Korea and United States

South Korea

United States
Diplomatic mission
South Korean Embassy, Washington D.C.United States Embassy, Seoul
Ambassador Cho Tae-yongAmbassador Philip Goldberg
U.S. President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, May 2022.

South Korea has a long military alliance with the United States, aiding the U.S. in every war since the Vietnam War, including the Iraq War.[1] At the 2009 G20 London summit, then-U.S. President Barack Obama called South Korea "one of America's closest allies and greatest friends."[2] In 1987, South Korea was among the first batch of countries to be designated as a major non-NATO ally.[3][4] In June 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said that he had upgraded the country's alliance with the United States to one that is "nuclear-based" in the face of North Korea's growing military threat.[5]

By 2014 several security factors were shaping the alliance:

  1. The challenges posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile program and the potential of weapons proliferation to other states,
  2. The impact of peace and reunification developments on the Korean peninsula on the strategic relationship between the United States and China
  3. The potential impact of events on the Korean peninsula on Japan and Sino-Japanese rivalry.[6]

South Korea is currently one of the most pro-American countries in the world. According to a 2018 Pew survey, 77% of South Koreans had a favorable view of the United States, while 21% had a negative view.[7] According to a 2018 Gallup poll, 77% of Americans had a favorable view of South Koreans, while 22% had a negative view.[8]

However, signs indicate S.K.-U.S. relations may be simultaneously strengthening, as cultural exchange[9] (see also TALK program), developments in media partnership (See Parasite Oscar win),[10] and a strong trade in goods and services[11] continues. South Korea is also a top destination of U.S. military hardware, with a recent deal in August 2019 for Seahawk helicopters topping 800 million dollars.[12]

Country comparison edit

Leaders of South Korea and the United States from 1950

Harry S. TrumanDwight D. EisenhowerJohn F. KennedyLyndon B. JohnsonRichard NixonGerald FordJimmy CarterRonald ReaganGeorge H. W. BushBill ClintonGeorge W. BushBarack ObamaDonald TrumpJoe BidenSyngman RheeYun Po-sunPark Chung HeeChoi Kyu-hahChun Doo-hwanRoh Tae-wooKim Young-samKim Dae-jungRoh Moo-hyunLee Myung-bakPark Geun-hyeMoon Jae-inYoon Suk-yeolUnited StatesSouth Korea

Historical background edit

The Old Korean Legation Museum in Washington, D.C., is where the Korean legation was housed from 1889 to 1905.

Following the United States expedition to Korea in 1871, the United States and Joseon established diplomatic relations under the 1882 Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce, and Navigation. However, Japan assumed direction over Korean foreign affairs in 1905 and in 1910 began a 35-year period of colonial rule over Korea.[13]

In 1945, at the end of World War II, Japan surrendered to the Allies and the Korean Peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel into two occupation zones, with the United States in the South and the Soviet Union in the North. Initial talks in 1945–6 to achieve a unified, independent Korea were not successful, and in 1948 two separate nations were established: the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the North. On January 1, 1949, the United States officially recognized the Republic of Korea as the sole legitimate government of Korea and established diplomatic relations on March 25 of that year.[13][14]

Korean War (6.25 War) edit

Cross-border skirmishes and raids at the 38th Parallel escalated into open warfare when the North Korean forces invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950.[15] In response, 16 member countries of the United Nations, including the United States, came to the defense of South Korea. It was the first significant armed conflict of the Cold War with extensive deployment of U.S. and other troops.[16]

Letter from President of South Korea Lee Myung-bak

… About 37,000 Americans lost their lives. They fought for the freedom of Koreans they did not even know, and thanks to their sacrifices, the peace and democracy of the republic were protected. … On this significant occasion, all Koreans pay tribute to the heroes fallen in defense of freedom and democracy. I firmly believe that future generations in both countries will further advance the strong Republic of Korea–U.S. alliance into one befitting the spirit of the new age.[17]

Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2010

Origins of the South Korea–United States alliance edit

General Douglas MacArthur and Syngman Rhee, Korea's first President

Following the end of World War II, the United States established a bilateral alliance with South Korea instead of establishing a multilateral alliance with South Korea and other East Asian countries.

Moreover, the "U.S. alliance with South Korea would consequently have three functions. First, it would serve as part of a network of alliances and military installations designed to ring the Soviet threat in the Pacific. Second, it would deter a second North Korean attack, with U.S. ground troops serving as the "tripwire" guaranteeing U.S. involvement. Third, it would restrain the South from engaging in adventurism."[18]

The United States and South Korea are allies under the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty. Under the agreement, U.S. military personnel have maintained a continuous presence on the Korean peninsula.

US military in Korea edit

American Soldiers and Korean War veterans honor fallen comrades
President John F. Kennedy greets General Park Chung Hee, November 1961

South Korea and the United States agreed to a military alliance in 1953.[19] They called it "the relationship forged in blood".[20] In addition, roughly 29,000 United States Forces Korea troops are stationed in South Korea. In 2009, South Korea and the United States pledged to develop the alliance's vision for future defense cooperation.[21] Currently, South Korean forces would fall under United States control should the war resume. This war time control is planned to revert to South Korea in 2022.[22]

At the request of the United States, President Park Chung Hee sent troops to Vietnam to assist American troops during the Vietnam War, maintaining the second largest contingent of foreign troops after the United States. In exchange, the United States increased military and economic assistance to South Korea.[citation needed] In 2004, President Roh Moo-hyun authorized dispatching a small contingent of troops to Iraq at the request of U.S. President George W. Bush.[1]

Since 2009, air forces of South Korea and the U.S.A. have conducted annual joint exercises under the name "Max Thunder". In 2018 the drills began on May 11 and continued until May 17.[23]

At a Cabinet meeting in Seoul on 10 July 2018 the government decided not to hold that year's Ulchi drill, scheduled for June 2018. The Government said the decision was made in line with recent political and security improvements on the peninsula and the suspension of South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises.[24]

Former South Korean President Moon Jae-in, elected in May 2017, has said he supports the continuation of sanctions against North Korea if it is aimed at bringing North Korea out of its state of isolation and to the negotiating table. He also argued, at the same time, that he was against a "sanctions-only" approach toward North Korea.[25] His approach to North Korea is similar to Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy, which only continued up to the Roh Mu-hyun's administration.[citation needed]

In 2018 there were several rounds of talks regarding sharing the cost of U.S. forces in South Korea. These reflect Washington's desire for South Korea to share a "greater burden" of the costs of the military deployment.[26]

On 12 June 2018 during the 2018 Trump–Kim summit, US president Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un signed a Joint Statement which reaffirmed the Panmunjom Declaration.[27]

The US Ambassador to South Korea, Harry B. Harris Jr., arrived in Seoul on July 7, 2018. The post had been vacant since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. Harris, a former head of the US military's Pacific Command, has expressed his resolve to work as an ambassador to strengthen the alliance between the United States and South Korea.[28]

On February 10, 2019, South Korea and the United States confirmed that a year long deal for keeping American troops, numbering 28,500, in South Korea had been made. This was in exchange for South Korea paying 925 million dollars to the United States.[29]

In terms of American leadership, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both emphasized the Middle East over North Korea. Clinton had deep emotional ties with Israel but neglected North Korea issues and never built strong personal relations with South Korean leaders. Bush, whose religious fundamentalism led him to divide the world into good and evil, had a personalized hatred for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, but he also had frosty relations with South Korean leaders.[30]

In his 2021 New Year's press conference on January 18, President Moon Jae-in stated that the two Koreas might be able to discuss the U.S.-South Korea military drills through a joint inter-Korean military committee. However, U.S. officials expressed that it is not a topic to be decided by Pyongyang, and that scaling down the exercises was not desirable.[31]

President Joe Biden greets South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, U.S. Army Commander Gen. Paul LaCamera and Lieutenant General Sung Chun Choi at the Air Operations Center of Osan Air Base in Seoul, South Korea on 22 May 2022

In May 2022, President Joe Biden and President Yoon Suk Yeol agreed in talks to begin discussions on restarting and potentially expanding joint military training on and around the Korean Peninsula. The move was a signal that Biden was changing course from former President Donald Trump's positions in Asia.[32]

In April 2023 a visit by Yoon to Washington produced a nuclear deterrence plan aimed at North Korea. Joe Biden said the deal allowed nuclear submarines to dock in South Korea. This capability had not been seen since 1991. Biden said: "A nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies and partners is unacceptable, and will result in the end of whatever regime were to take such an action." The so-called Washington Declaration came after nearly 50 years had passed since Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and gave up its nuclear ambitions.[33][34][35]

Nuclear and missile diplomacy edit

South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, November 1983

Between 1958 and 1991, the United States based a variety of nuclear weapons in South Korea. The number reached a peak of 950 warheads in 1967. Since 1991, when President George H. W. Bush announced the withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons based abroad, the Korean peninsula has seen ongoing efforts by the U.S. to negotiate an end to North Korea's own nuclear and missile development. These efforts have been characterized by "stalemates, crises and tentative progress." Despite the ongoing tensions, the U.S. has not redeployed nuclear weapons, although one recent press report suggests a majority of South Koreans are in favor of developing their own nuclear weapons. South Korea announced the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile defense system at the end of 2017.[36]

Opinion polls edit

According to Pew Research Center, 84% of South Koreans have a favorable view towards the United States and Americans (ranked within top 4 among the countries in the world).[37][38] Also, according to a Gallup Korea poll, South Korea views the U.S. as the most favorable country in the world.[39] On the political side, the United States supported South Korea after 1945 as a "staunch bastion against communism", even when the ROK itself was ruled by a US-backed dictatorship.[40] In a March 2011 Gallup Poll, 74% of South Koreans said that they believe that the U.S. influence in the world is favorable,[41] and in a November 2011 Gallup Poll, 57% of South Koreans approved of U.S. leadership, with 22% disapproving.[42] In a 2011 Gallup poll, a 65% favorability rating, the highest rating to date.[41]

According to a 2014 BBC World Service Poll, 58% of South Koreans view U.S. influence positively, the highest rating for any surveyed Asian country.[43]

As relations with Korea waxed hot and cold under President Donald Trump, American public opinion regarding North Korea likewise fluctuated sharply, and no clear picture emerges.[44]

Issues and recent history edit

US military and the sex trade edit

In 1953, at the end of the Korean War, the number of prostitutes in South Korea was estimated as about 350,000, with about 60 percent working near U.S. military camps.[45] In the post-Korean War period, the U.S. military continued to contribute significantly to the South Korean economy, providing an estimated 1 percent of the South Korean GNP in 1991, including the sex industry.[46] Despite the world-wide growth of women's human rights advocacy since the 1990s, and the shift towards foreign workers providing sex services for U.S. troops, (particularly women trafficked from the Philippines and the former Soviet Union), prostitution via "juicy bars" remains an issue near U.S. bases in South Korea.[47][48]

1992 Yun Geum-i murder edit

In 1992, Yun Geum-i, a 26-year-old woman, was brutally killed by a U.S. serviceman, Private Kenneth L. Markle, in Dongducheon.[49][50] In August 1993, the U.S. government compensated the victim's family with a payment of about US$72,000.[51] Markle was sentenced by a South Korean court to life imprisonment, later reduced to 15 years. Professor Katharine Moon notes that the murder was not unique, and did not spark a national debate about the presence of U.S. forces. However, it did become a "call to action" for some Koreans, and led to the establishment of the "National Campaign for the Eradication of Crimes by U.S. troops."

Environmental degradation edit

In July 2000, the Eighth U.S. Army apologized for an incident where formaldehyde, a toxic fluid, was released into the Han River in February of that year.[52] In a report released in 2017 detailing spill incidents from 1995 to 2015 at the US garrison in Yongsan, South Korean environmentalist groups expressed concern about the lack of transparency and the possibility of continued water contamination, as well as who would take responsibility for cleanup of the site.[53]

Yangju highway incident edit

On 13 June 2002, two 14-year-old South Korean schoolgirls were crushed to death by a 50-ton United States Army vehicle in Yangju. Anti-Americanism was pervasive after the driver and the navigator of the vehicle were both acquitted in U.S. courts-martial on charges of negligent homicide. There was resentment from protesters towards the U.S.–South Korea Status of Forces Agreement, which restricted South Korea from having jurisdiction over alleged crimes that occurred when American soldiers were on official duty. South Korean presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang called on United States President George W. Bush to "apologize to soothe the pain of the Korean people and to prevent any escalation in anti-American sentiment". American ambassador to South Korea Thomas C. Hubbard apologized on behalf of Bush.[54]

2008 beef protests in South Korea edit

The Government of South Korea banned imports of U.S. beef in 2003 in response to a case of mad cow disease in Washington state. In 2008, the protests against U.S. beef recalled the student "pro-democracy" movements of the 1980s. Nevertheless, by 2010 South Korea had become the world's third largest U.S. beef importer. With its strong import growth, South Korea surpassed Japan for the first time to become the largest market for U.S. beef in Asia and in 2016 US beef imports in Korea reached a value of $1 billion.[55][56]

2015 attack on the United States Ambassador edit

At about 7:40 a.m. on March 5, 2015, Mark Lippert, United States Ambassador to South Korea was attacked by a knife-wielding man at a restaurant attached to Sejong Center in downtown Seoul, where he was scheduled to give a speech at a meeting of the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation.[57] The assailant, Kim Ki-jong, is a member of Uri Madang, a progressive cultural organization opposed to the Korean War.[58] He inflicted wounds on Lippert's left arm as well as a four-inch cut on the right side of the ambassador's face, requiring 80 stitches.[57] Lippert underwent surgery at Yonsei University's Severance Hospital in Seoul. While his injuries were not life-threatening, doctors stated that it would take several months for Lippert to regain use of his fingers.[57] A police official said that the knife used in the attack was 10 inches (25 cm) long [57] and Lippert later reported that the blade penetrated to within 2 cm of his carotid artery.[59] ABC News summarized the immediate aftermath of the attack as follows: "Ambassador Lippert, an Iraq war veteran, defended himself from the attack. Lippert was rushed to a hospital where he was treated for deep cuts to his face, his arm, and his hand. ... [He] kept his cool throughout the incident."[60]

During the attack and while being subdued by security, Kim screamed that the rival Koreas should be unified and told reporters that he had attacked Lippert to protest the annual United States–South Korean joint military exercises.[57] Kim has a record of militant Korean nationalist activism; he attacked the Japanese ambassador to South Korea in 2010 and was sentenced to a three-year suspended prison term.[61][62][63][64] On September 11, 2015, Kim was sentenced to twelve years in prison for the attack.[65]

Opposition to THAAD edit

The rollout of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) has been met with domestic opposition in South Korea. The opposition has been on the grounds that the North Korean threat has gone, and on environmental grounds.[66][67][68][69] THAAD was deployed under the administration of ROK President Park Geun-hye. Her opponents accused her of "bow[ing] too readily to America's requests."[69] According to South China Morning Post, when Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn visited Seongju to appease the local backlash against THAAD, demonstrators blocked Hwang's buses and pelted him with eggs and water bottles. The progressive People's Party also opposes the deployment.[69]

Economic relations edit

There remains some major trade disputes between the ROK and the US in the areas including telecommunications, automotive industry, intellectual property rights issues, pharmaceutical industry, and the agricultural industry.[70]

South Korea's export-driven economy and competition with domestic U.S. producers in certain fields of products have led to some trade friction with the United States. For example, imports of certain steel and non-steel products have been subject to U.S. anti-dumping and countervailing duty investigations. A total of 29 U.S. imports from South Korea have been assessed.[71]

Cultural exchange edit

The South Korean government maintains Korean cultural education centers in: Wheeling, Illinois (near Chicago), Houston, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC.[72]

See also edit

References edit

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Further reading edit

  • Baldwin, Frank, ed. Without Parallel: The American-Korean Relationship since 1945 (1973).
  • Berger, Carl. The Korean Knot: A Military-Political History (U of Pennsylvania Press, 1964).
  • Chay, Jongsuk. Diplomacy of Asymmetry: Korea-American Relations to 1910 (U of Hawaii Press, 1990).
  • Chung, Jae Ho. Between Ally and Partner: Korea-China Relations and the United States (2008) excerpt and text search
  • Cumings, Bruce. The Origins of the Korean War: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945–1947 (Princeton UP, 1981).
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