Sung-Yoon Lee on US-Korea Military Relations

Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and Assistant Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. He is also Faculty Associate at the U.S.-Japan Program, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University.

Cory Diamond CMC '20 interviewed Sung-Yoon Lee in Feb 2020.


In mid November the US and South Korea cut short negotiations over shared defense costs, and as of now, a cost sharing agreement between the two nations has not been reached. What is the current status of the negotiations, and what has prevented the two countries from reaching a deal?

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and South Korea have been conducting these negotiations on and off in order for South Korea to cover the costs of US troops stationed in South Korea. Last year in 2019, we saw an impasse again. The two countries were supposed to have reached an agreement on the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) by the end of 2018, but they failed to do that. So, there was talk of thousands of employees at various US military bases being put on furlough by April 2019. What we are witnessing now is a replay of what we saw about a year ago.

Last year the two sides reached a temporary agreement to kick the can down the road and resume negotiations later in the year. In the worst case, if the two sides cannot come to an agreement by April this year, then many employees will be put on furlough and the tension over the monetary sum will continue to grow.

But I don't necessarily see that happening. The Trump administration is pushing South Korea to increase its cost sharing burden by five-fold--nearly 5 billion dollars total--from what it contributes now. South Korea, as Trump says, is a wealthy country that faces an existential threat from North Korea, unlike a country like Germany or another allied NATO country that doesn't face a threatening nuclear neighbor. Indeed, South Korea could do a bit more, but a five-fold increase is extortionist. It's unreasonable. Because many people in America, congressmen and senators included, feel that way, there will be some kind of a compromise deal forthcoming, or so I hope. But as of now, the two sides stand miles apart on what they are willing to concede.

What are the traditional benefits that both the US and South Korea gain from the US military’s presence on the Korean peninsula?

In June of 1950, North Korea staged a very well-prepared and large-scale invasion of South Korea, sparking the Korean War. But since the armistice agreement of July 1953, there has been no war in or around the Korean Peninsula. It's been a shaky, imperfect, and at times dangerous peace, but de facto peace.

The Korean Peninsula, by virtue of its geostrategic location right in the middle of China and Japan, has historically been contested. Yet since 1953, there's been no war, despite North Korea's stated intentions of liberating the South. The single greatest factor in maintaining the de facto peace has been the credible US deterrence effort. The lofty-sounding alliance pact the US and South Korea signed in 1953 helps, but in the end a treaty is just a piece of paper. If either side does not comply with the terms, it's as good as tissue paper. So why has North Korea not started the second Korean War? It is because of the presence of US troops in South Korea.

Since the early 2000s, the US troop presence in South Korea has numbered around 28,500, and it used to be larger with around 37,000 in the 1990s. It was bigger still in the 1960s, until President Nixon withdrew an entire division--20,000 soldiers--in the early 1970s. What matters is not so much how many people there are, but that they are there. In the event of a war started by North Korea, those soldiers will be among the first to be sacrificed, along with the South Korean troops and civilians. With those stationed troops, the US is sending a clear signal to North Korea: if you start a war and kill American soldiers, we will continue to prosecute the war until you surrender. We will march into Pyongyang and end the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. That has been the primary factor in maintaining the shaky, but real, peace in the peninsula since the 1950s.

The US military recently notified nearly 9,000 South Korean employees of the Camp Humphreys US Army Garrison—the largest US overseas military base--that they may be furloughed in April unless the US and South Korea reach a cost sharing agreement for 2020. What damage has this caused to US-South Korean relations, and how do you anticipate negotiations continuing from this point?

The damage done as of now is mostly psychological. No one has been furloughed or laid off, although that's still a possibility. But the two countries have significant common ground and common incentives to manage this mini crisis and iron out a feasible agreement. 

But the psychological damage is real and North Korea is very happy right now. Whenever there is tension between the US and South Korea, especially on the thorny question of the presence of US troops in the South, it is to the benefit of the North. North Korea has always said the full and immediate withdrawal of US troops is necessary for peace on the peninsula, and has said so persistently since 1972. It really wants the US to abandon South Korea, as the US once did in 1949, thus rendering South Korea vulnerable. Therefore, North Korea is watching the negotiations closely and hoping that the lack of agreement between the US and South Korea worsens the situation, which may have negative implications for Japan as well.

But greater than what North Korea imagines it might gain by this ongoing rift is the danger of the Trump administration’s condescending and unreasonable demands on South Korea blowing up into large scale anti-US protests in the South. It's a bit ironic, but outside the Middle East, you see the largest recurrence of anti-US protests in South Korea--a staunch ally of the United States! South Koreans harbor something of an insecurity or inferiority complex. This is a politically powerful tool. As we saw in 2002, you can stoke the flames of Korean ethnic nationalism--the myth of people in North Korea and South Korea being one people, of pure blood and one race--and politically manipulate any misfortune or crime committed by a US soldier. It does wonders for the incumbent party’s ratings. Unfortunately, this is a constant in South Korean politics. If the Trump administration unreasonably continues to paint the South Korean administration into a corner with its 5 billion dollar figure, it is entirely possible that South Koreans will take to the streets. This is not good for the alliance. It’s good only for North Korea.

What are the political or strategic considerations motivating Trump’s emphasis on the cost sharing agreement?

President Trump likely views his hardline stance as ingenious, and his reasons are not entirely illogical. If Trump’s attempts to bully Seoul pay off, that makes Japan nervous since it faces the same pressure. Beyond economics, if the United States were to decrease its military presence in Japan--and there are more US soldiers in Japan than in South Korea--Japan would have to stand alone. When you look around, Japan's neighborhood is not so friendly. South Korea is a tacit ally of Japan by virtue of the US-led alliance structure, but we know there are deep, pervasive anti-Japanese sentiments in the South. And then you have North Korea, China, and Russia. That's a nightmare scenario for Japan. So, Japan's hands are tied, as it has to depend on the United States for its security. The alternative is to go nuclear, but there is obviously an intense taboo against nuclear weapons in Japan.

Trump might be thinking that pressuring South Korea will push Prime Minister Shinzo Abe into putting down more money, which Trump could sell as a political victory. Simultaneously, if the Trump administration were, say, to withdraw 5,000 US troops from South Korea, the deterrence dynamic would still be in place. There would still be over 20,000 US troops in South Korea. But psychologically, that would frighten South Korean conservatives who tend to be pro-US and anti-North Korea. This could push the Moon administration to put down more money out of fear of US abandonment.

At the same time, if Trump were to remove 5,000 US troops, that could, somewhat ironically, scare Kim Jong Un too. He might be happy at first, but any substantial withdrawal of US troops from South Korea would signal to Kim that the US may be more willing to resort to preemptive strikes on North Korea's nuclear installations. This kind of posturing has been done before. Camp Humphreys--the huge US military base that opened a few years ago--is about 70 miles south of the border of North Korea. During the George W. Bush administration, that location was intended to signal that we may be more prone to bombing you, with our troops outside of your conventional artillery range.

This risky scheme to scare South Korea, Japan and North Korea might even make China nervous as well. China certainly doesn't want to see any kind of war in the Korean Peninsula, started by either the United States or North Korea. So, this may drive Xi Jinping to pressure Kim Jong Un not to be as provocative. There are some fantasy elements to this, but it's not unreasonable to think, for somebody like President Trump, that pressuring South Korea and following up with withdrawing US troops is a brilliant move.

You mentioned that you think China might end up pressuring Kim, but do you think that this fracture in the US-South Korea alliance might also embolden him?

North Korea's endgame--stipulated in the North Korean constitution and the far more important official document in North Korea, the Charter of the Workers’ Party of Korea--is to liberate the South and unify the fatherland. That's what North Korea wants and aspires to. It's a long game, with some big obstacles. Notably, how do you get to that happy future when South Korea--the other Korean state--is far richer, more legitimate, and more successful than you? It is even a magnet to your own people. How do you eliminate that existential threat? First, you become a credible nuclear threat to the US mainland. On that score, North Korea is basically there. Second, you use carrots and diplomacy. With fake denuclearization negotiations, you compel the United States to withdraw troops from South Korea. And then you go back to being belligerent, threaten war with a credible nuclear threat on San Francisco or Washington, D.C. This scenario would compel any US president to reconsider US treaty obligations to South Korea, considering hundreds of thousands of American lives are now at risk. It’s not a very realistic scenario now, but that's what North Korea has in mind.

North Korea learned an important lesson from what happened in the Vietnam War. South Vietnam, with US backing, was bigger in population, had more soldiers, more weapons, more firepower, but did not prevail over the North. Why? Because it lacked the will to fight. When the North became an unbearable political factor to the United States, it sued for peace. And when a peace accord was signed in early 1973 and US troops withdrew from the South, what happened? The North rolled in with tanks and unified Vietnam in 1975. Kim Il Sung saw this, and as Saigon was falling, he traveled to Beijing and pleaded with Mao to help him do the same in South Korea. He thought, quite accurately, that the United States would stand by and watch because it had just extracted itself from the quagmire that was Vietnam.

That's what North Korea has in mind, compelling the US to abandon South Korea. On that score, North Korea has made a lot of progress under Kim Jong Un. People tend to patronize and mock North Korea, and assume Kim Jong Un is simply content to muddle through for the next 50 years and just survive. That goes against history and it goes against North Korea's gains in nuclear diplomacy. The other team, “Team America,” has gained a nuclear North Korea in the past 25 years. The North on the other hand has gained billions of dollars in aid, a nuclear arsenal, and international legitimacy. So, clearly, they have a strategy. It's the other side that lacks one.

How does President Trump’s negotiations with Kim Jong Un over nuclear weapons play into the current stalemate between the US and South Korea?

Moon Jae In vigorously sold to both Trump and the world in 2018 that Kim Jong Un could be trusted. Moon, after his first summit meeting with Kim Jong Un at the border in April 2018, said that Chairman Kim was a brave, audacious, polite, courteous, reform-minded person who wants to denuclearize. But the fact that President Trump impulsively agreed to meeting Kim Jong Un when Kim made that proposition through South Koreans back in March 2018 was the first big mistake. Much of that is the result of Trump's hubris, ignorance of North Korea, and condescension. What did Trump think? They're so backward. They need help. The great privilege of meeting with a US president may move this funny looking North Korean dictator to bid farewell to his nuclear weapons. This was an absurd proposition. But that's what Trump was hoping for and South Korea was very happy with this illusion of diplomatic progress.

Many have said that what happened between North Korea and the US and between North Korea and South Korea in 2018 is far more preferable to the animosity, the rhetorical bellicosity, and the continual weapons testing by North Korea in 2017. But the optimistic view that diplomacy is always better than threats does not take into consideration that it was always North Korea's intention to engage the world in a drawn-out and protracted negotiation process. Entrapping Trump and the United States into an open ended, never ending process of negotiations buys North Korea time to advance its nuclear capabilities, and money, in the form of lax sanctions enforcement. North Korea has already done this before, under Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.

Kim Jong Un, for the first six years upon inheriting power, never met with a single world leader. He never traveled outside his country. He met with Dennis Rodman, and acted generally weird. He threatened nuclear war for weeks in 2013 against the US. He was a very strange, weird looking, crazy dictator. But this is an image that Kim Jong Un cultivated. I like to think of it as North Korea's “weaponization of its own weirdness.”

But then all of a sudden, Kim starts meeting with world leaders. He shows up in Beijing in March 2018, meets with Moon in April, and Trump in June. He also visits China two more times that year. In 2019, he visited China again and also met with Trump in Hanoi. There was a setback there for Kim, but he then met Putin in Vladivostok in April 2019. He then received Xi Jinping in North Korea in late June, and met again with Trump at the end of the month for another dramatic photo op.

What Kim gains by doing all this is that he comes across as reform-minded and reasonable. He becomes someone with whom the US can do business. It's not just the cosmetic image makeover. We want to believe that this time it's different, and that Kim really does seek security guarantees--not that the United States has ever even fired back at North Korea since 1953 as North Koreans were killing Americans. This is exactly the same scenario as in the early 2000s.

When Kim Jong Il inherited power in 1994, he remained quiet for the next six years. Never met with a single world leader. He never traveled outside North Korea. Then boom. All of a sudden in May 2000, he showed up in Beijing before an important summit meeting with the South Korean president the next month in June. The following month, in July, he received Vladimir Putin--the first visit to North Korea by a top Russian or Soviet leader--enhancing Kim Jong Il's status. And then in October, for the first time in history, North Korea sent an envoy to the White House carrying an oversized invitation letter to Bill Clinton. What did Clinton do? Just like Trump many years later, he impulsively said yes to the invitation for a summit meeting—in North Korea, at that! The only reason that Clinton's visit to North Korea, which would have been very controversial, did not materialize was because of the vote recount fiasco in the presidential election that year between George W. Bush and Al Gore. Kim Jong Il then visited Putin in August 2001, and he received the Chinese president in September and the Japanese prime minister in 2002.

So, Kim Jong Un simply recycled his father's very good business model, which is to be a credible threat and develop nukes, then in a dramatic mood swing, smile and say, “Hey, let's meet.” Everyone takes that bait because nobody wants to escalate. Nobody wants another war on the Korean Peninsula. The pageantry diplomacy that Trump walked right into by agreeing to the summit has favored only North Korea.

Cory Diamond CMC'20Student Journalist

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