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Sino-Korean Relations and the Future of the U.S.-ROK Alliance

Scott Snyder


Although the U.S.–ROK alliance has been a cornerstone for South Korea's security and international relations since the Korean War over one half century ago, the strategic context for the relationship and South Korea's relative position in the world have changed considerably, especially since the end of the Cold War. [1] South Korea's economic development and political liberalization have expanded the basis for a stronger and more comprehensive relationship with the United States that goes well beyond narrow security interests, but it has also lessened South Korea's dependence on the United States in ways that inevitably require adjustments in recognition of South Korea's accomplishments and profile as an OECD economy that is balancing diverse interests within the Asia–Pacific and beyond. A central challenge in the U.S.–ROK relationship is how to manage these changes in ways that recognize South Korea's multi–directional and multi–faceted interests while maintaining the alliance as a positive foundation that continues to provide the stability, balance, and confidence necessary for South Korea to expand its relationships. There is no reason for U.S. policymakers to view Seoul's lessened dependence on the United States in zero–sum terms. Likewise, the South continues to derive important security and economic benefits from its alliance relationship with the United States that should not be taken for granted.

One of the most vigorous and dramatically expanding relationships that South Korea has cultivated since the end of the Cold War has been with the PRC. In particular, the economic relationship between the PRC and South Korea has been highly successful, and it has led to expanded cultural exchange and improved political relationships. A good Sino–South Korean relationship is also important to South Korea's long–term security interests and to assuring China's positive cooperation to support inter–Korean reconciliation, peaceful coexistence, and eventual reunification. South Korean considerations with regard to its expanding relationship with Beijing will inevitably come to affect aspects of the U.S.–ROK security relationship, and it is important for both the United States and South Korea to be aware of the ways in which China's rise—and the expanded future importance of Sino–South Korean relations—may influence the future of the alliance.

It is particularly important for policymakers in both Washington and Seoul to anticipate how the burgeoning significance of the Sino–ROK economic relationship might bind South Korea to China's will in ways that might impinge on potential political and security cooperation between South Korea and the United States...

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[1] The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not represent those of The Asia Foundation. This article benefits from research and analysis conducted for Pacific Forum CSIS’s quarterly e-journal, Comparative Connections, , and Park Kyung Ae, ed., "The Rise of U.S.-China Rivalry and Implications for the Korean Peninsula,” in Korea and Major Power Relations in Northeast Asia, Palgrave, 2001, pp. 119–132.