REVIEW: Article

United States-Republic of Korea Relations: A Confident and Strong Alliance

Recent headlines and commentaries in both countries convey the impression that the relationship between the United States (US) and the Republic of Korea (ROK) is in trouble—or even on the brink of dissolution. But a closer look shows that the US-ROK alliance is confident, strong and moving to a higher level to reflect the developments and changes in our two countries and the world. Indeed, the past few years have seen remarkable growth and achievement. Our two countries have had to deal with some difficult issues, and we sometimes have had different ideas on how to address them—this is normal in relations between democracies. But we also have been extraordinarily successful in finding a common approach. 

A Stronger, More Balanced Military Alliance

Although the US-ROK relationship has become increasingly multi-dimensional, the military alliance still stands at its core. The alliance has kept the peace in a historically unstable region for over 50 years. Over the past few years, our two countries have been working together effectively to modernize the military relationship to take into account the enormous changes in the post-Cold War, post-September 11 era.

In 2002, the United States and Korea began the Future of the Alliance (FOTA) talks—which have since been replaced by the Security Policy Initiative (SPI)—to examine the state of the alliance and how best to ensure its effectiveness in the future. Together as allies we are examining ways of increasing our joint capacity to defend the ROK while at the same time moving American military bases away from Korean urban centers.  We have had impressive results. With the concurrence of the Korean government, the US has developed plans to redeploy 12,500 US troops out of Korea by the end of 2008, relocate US troops out of the Army’s main garrison in downtown Seoul, consolidate the remaining 25,000 troops into two hubs south of Seoul by the end of 2009, and transfer certain key military missions to the ROK military.  Meanwhile, the US will invest $11 billion over the next few years to upgrade our capabilities in Northeast Asia. 

These initiatives not only enhance US strategic flexibility to deal with any contingency in the region; they also reflect Korea’s growing capability and desire to play an increased role in the defense of its borders, in international peacekeeping, in responding to natural disasters and in meeting new global challenges such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, by broadening the mission of the alliance to encompass these tasks, we will ensure that the US-ROK alliance remains strong, effective and relevant to the security environment of the 21st century.

A More Global Partnership

Korea’s growing activism and stature on the world stage was one of the reasons why Presidents Bush and Roh Moo-hyun, at their summit meeting in Gyeongju in November 2005, agreed to launch a ministerial-level strategic dialogue between our two countries. Officially called the US-ROK Strategic Consultation on Allied Partnership (SCAP), the first meeting took place in Washington on January 19, 2006, when ROK Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The SCAP will enable the US and Korea to use a longer-term perspective to guide our cooperation on a number of issues. For example, Korea is a committed partner that supports Afghanistan’s struggle to establish a democratic government, and it has joined the international effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq, providing the third-largest military contingent to the coalition after the US and the United Kingdom. A member of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors, the ROK is an important partner on Iran. Korea also supports peacekeeping operations in Africa and has participated in bringing democracy to East Timor and elsewhere. And, of course, we are working closely together to achieve the vision of a denuclearized, peaceful Korean peninsula that was embodied in the September 19, 2005 Joint Statement of the participants in the Six Party Talks.

A Foundation of Shared Political Values

Our success in achieving consensus on these military and global issues reflects the shared values between the United States and the Republic of Korea. South Korea is now an established democracy, electing its leaders in free and fair elections. South Koreans have access to a full spectrum of media representing all points of view. There are well over 5,000 civic groups officially registered in the ROK and thousands more unofficial ones.  Freedom of speech is alive and well in Korea. In fact, there are daily demonstrations in downtown Seoul and throughout the country. Some protest against the US, but far more involve taxes, land use, education, labor, or the myriad of other issues that are vigorously debated in a modern democratic society.  When I see a demonstration in Seoul, I am often reminded of similar scenes from Lafayette Park in Washington, DC. I may agree or disagree with that particular demonstration, but I always walk away encouraged that, when it comes to fundamental political values, the US and the ROK are closer than ever before.

Taking Economic Relations Even Higher

But the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea goes beyond the military and political dimensions. It also encompasses a vibrant economic relationship, a relationship that is ripe for us to raise it to the next level. 

Two-way trade between the United States and the ROK now tops $72 billion a year.  The US is Korea’s second largest trading partner, and Korea is America’s seventh-largest.  With the two countries’ commitment to the principles of market-oriented reform and free and fair trade, we can leverage our economic interdependence to generate greater synergies between our economies. To that end, on February 2, the US and ROK trade ministers announced that our countries would begin negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).  As President Bush said on the occasion of the launch of the FTA, “a Free Trade Agreement with the Republic of Korea will provide important economic, political and strategic benefits to both countries and build on America’s engagement in Asia.”

The potential gains of this FTA are significant. For instance, the Korean Institute for International Economic Policy predicts that two-way trade will increase by as much as $20 billion as a result of this agreement. An FTA also will significantly boost investment in both directions, with a concomitant increase in jobs, new technology and overall competitiveness. In short, if realized, a US-Korea FTA would represent an historic achievement in our economic relationship.

New Consular Opportunities

Just as our economic relationship continues to thrive, so do the ties between our two peoples. During fiscal year 2005, the US embassy adjudicated over 400,000 visa applications (approving more than 95 percent); we expect to process as many as 500,000 this year. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information Service (SEVIS), there are more than 75,000 Koreans studying in the United States, making Korea the largest source of foreign students. And just as we hope to lay the basis for our economic relationship in the 21st century by concluding a Free Trade Agreement, so we hope to lay the basis for expanded people-to-people ties by helping the ROK in meeting the requirements for membership in the US Visa Waiver Program.

North Korea

Of all the areas in which the United States and the ROK cooperate closely, the North Korea issue, especially the nuclear issue, presents the greatest challenge.  It is in this area where there has been the greatest speculation about perceived differences in the US and Korean approaches. The reality is far less exciting, because there is no gap between Washington and Seoul on the fundamental goals.

Our two governments continue to work very closely in the Six Party Talks, which achieved a significant breakthrough on September 19, 2005, when the North Koreans “committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.” Unfortunately, subsequent statements and actions by North Korea have called into question the seriousness of Pyongyang’s commitment to abandoning its nuclear programs. Since the talks recessed in November 2005, North Korea has refused to return to the negotiating table, claiming as a reason US measures to defend against North Korean illicit activities. 

Nonetheless, the US and South Korean governments remain committed to the Six Party Talks, and we both want to see the commitments contained in the September 19 Joint Statement implemented soon. Those commitments include not only denuclearization, but negotiation of a permanent peace regime, normalization of diplomatic relations and economic integration—in short, a path toward ending North Korea’s self-imposed isolation.  Given the possibilities under the September 19 Joint Statement, there is no good reason for North Korea to continue to boycott the negotiations.

Future of the US-ROK Alliance

Let me conclude by expressing optimism about the future of the US-ROK relationship writ large.  I am optimistic because this is a relationship that is alive, dynamic and strong.  Born to counter the threat of Communist aggression, our alliance now stands for much more. It keeps peace and stability in the region. It promotes trade, investment and prosperity. Most of all, our alliance represents the fundamental values we share: democracy, freedom and market economics. Like many Americans, I look forward to the next 50 years of our alliance with confident expectation that there will be many more achievements to come.

Issue Date


United States Ambassador to the Republic of Korea;
United States Ambassador to the Russian Federation, 2001-2005;
United States Ambassador to NATO, 1998-2001