Donald Gregg

Korea Policy Review – Harvard University

Inaugural Edition – 2005


The United States and South Korea: An Alliance under Stress
A Reassessment in January 2005


Donald Gregg
Former US Ambassador to Korea

A year ago, in mid-January 2004, I submitted a paper on the U.S.-ROK alliance to a conference at Stanford University. Upon re-reading the paper for the first time in many months, I was struck by how little has changed over the past year.

President Bush’s re-election in November 2004 brought with it a hiatus as personnel at the Department of State, (notably NOT the Department of Defense) were changed and a new team for managing North Korea policy was assembled. The terminology used by the Bush administration in referring to North Korea has changed from “axis of evil” to “outpost of tyranny,” and there appears to be added rhetorical emphasis on dialogue over pressure and coercion, but it is not at all clear whether or not a substantive change in either attitude or policy toward Pyongyang has taken place.

What follows below is essentially what I wrote a year ago, with some trimming and editing to bring it in line with the current time, and to include significant events of the past twelve months.

As an American asked to assess the current status of the U.S.-South Korean alliance, I find myself looking for an appropriate image to begin with. Three come quickly to mind. The first is Humpty-Dumpty, having fallen from a wall and lying in pieces at its foot. That image does not work well because I cannot picture “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” standing around anxiously. The alliance may be in pieces, but few seem to recognize that fact, or, more ominously perhaps, no one seems clear as to how to try to put it back together.

The second image is of an old, traditional Korean house which having suffered lots of wear and tear over the years, has been carefully disassembled and lies on the ground in pieces prior to being put back together by artisans with some new and stronger elements being added to the old parts. This image also does not work. The alliance has not been systematically disassembled; it has at least in part collapsed. And furthermore, I do not yet see policy artisans standing around with any capability of building a new and improved alliance structure.

The third image seems to work best. It is an image of the alliance as an old wooden warship too long at sea, leaky and barnacle-encrusted, but still afloat. That raises the question of who is at the helm, and I’m afraid that I do not see anyone like “master and commander” Jack Aubrey in the vicinity.

During my time as ambassador, 1989-93, President Roh Tae-woo used to express the hope that the U.S.-Korean alliance could play the role in Asia that the U.S.-U.K. alliance has long played in Europe and the Middle East. During the first Gulf War, that seemed to be a viable possibility. Today, it would be impossible for any South Korean to even voice that concept.

The American perception of Korea has been strongly influenced by press reports of what appears to be increasingly hostile views of the U.S. held by Koreans. I would hasten to add that press reports are an inexact measure of anti-U.S. feelings. For example, in the three and one half years that I served as ambassador in Seoul (1989-93), I was never able to make a publicized appearance on a university campus. As soon as it became known that I had been invited to appear as a campus speaker, radical students would threaten to riot, and the invitation would be withdrawn. These non-events were never reported in the press, and so the impression was conveyed that things on the anti American student front were more tranquil than they actually were.

The fact is that there has always been a lot of anti-U.S. feeling in South Korea, and it has been getting worse by leaps and bounds over the past several years. In 1998, for example a poll of 220 university students in Seoul showed that 65% felt that the alliance was deteriorating; 70% felt that there should not be an American military presence in Korea after North-South unification; only 2% felt that the U.S. was favorable to Korea in economic terms, and less than 15% felt that the U.S. was being helpful to Korea in dealing with the so-called “IMF Crisis.”

More recent reporting, by the Pew Global Attitudes Country Profile of South Korea (May 2003) produced some shocking statistics:

  • Only 24% of those polled supported the U.S. war on terrorism, and 58% said they were disappointed that Iraqi armed forces had not put up more of a fight against America and its coalition allies.
  • 46% viewed America favorably, 50% viewed us unfavorably
  • Three in ten said they had considered boycotting U.S. products to protest American foreign policy. (This was by far the largest figure on this issue found in the non-Arab world.)

At a Georgetown University conference on anti-Americanism in Korea also held in 2003, a strong consensus emerged among the participants that official attitudes on the part of both governments mask deep fissures in the relationship that need to be directly addressed. Koreans spoke of the current relationship as being more a façade than a pillar, and stressed that the façade hides a variety of tensions, antagonisms and emotions. (See “Korean Attitudes Toward the United States,” edited by David I. Steinberg, M.E. Sharpe, 2005.)

An opinion leaders seminar on U.S.-Korea relations held in mid 1993 by the Korea Economic Institute found that trust between the two countries had never been lower. The view was strongly expressed by distinguished Korean participants that “9/11 has changed everything in the U.S.,” and that this has badly damaged Seoul’s relations with Washington. By this the Koreans meant that American seemed to be obsessed by the war on terrorism, and that we were mistakenly looking at the situation on the Korean Peninsula through that prism.

Five factors have made major contributions to the deterioration in the alliance.

First has been South Korea’s radically changing view of North Korea. This was largely triggered by the North-South summit meeting of June 2000. Since then, North Korea has metamorphosed in South Korea’s perspective from an implacable enemy to something like a long-lost brother, who has acquired some bad habits and is in need of help and rehabilitation, not punishment. This major shift in the Korean view places U.S. Forces in Korea (U.S.F.K.) in an awkward position. Our force’s long-range utility to Korea is now doubted by many Koreans, particularly those under 40, and toleration of accidents involving U.S.F.K. personnel has been reduced to almost the zero level.

The second factor is the Bush administration itself, particularly the way it is playing its role as the only global superpower. The Clinton administration had had some very difficult days in dealing with Seoul, around the time of the major nuclear crisis of 1994. Toward the end of his term, however, Clinton had appointed a distinguished former secretary of defense, William Perry, to assess our relations with North Korea. Perry did his work so well that by the fall of 2000, a declaration ending hostile relations between North Korea and the U.S. had been signed in Washington, and President Clinton came very close to making a visit to North Korea in the last weeks of his presidency.

It was expected in both Seoul and Pyongyang that the Bush administration would take up where Clinton left off (Secretary of State Powell said as much) but such was not the case. Bush entered office with contempt for anything that President Clinton had achieved, and a seething, ad hominem hostility to Kim Jong Il that he did nothing to hide. The “sunshine policy” of Kim Dae Jung went into eclipse and a bristling new phase of U.S.-North Korean relations opened up.

The third factor is the radical political change in South Korea that followed the election of President Roh Moo-hyun. President Roh has held referenda that have had no previous place in Korean politics, and openly questions America’s hard line policy toward North Korea.

At a conference on Cheju Island, held on 31 October 2003, President Roh showed just how strongly he feels on the North-South issue. In a small Q and A session former defense secretary William Perry asked what could be done to stop the slide in trust and understanding between the U.S. and South Korea, which had taken relations to the lowest point Perry had ever seen.

President Roh replied without hesitation that North Korea is the only issue on which Washington and Seoul disagree, but that in regard to that issue, a wide perception gap exists. Roh stated that half a century ago, Korea had endured a horrible fratricidal war in which millions had died. He said that any repeat of that tragic experience must be avoided at all cost. Roh added that most South Koreans believe that Pyongyang will renounce and abandon its nuclear weapons programs once its security has been guaranteed. He urged both the U.S. and Japan, which were represented at the Cheju conference, to engage North Korea directly in substantive dialogue. Roh ended his response to Perry by asking “why does the U.S. insist on such a hard-line policy, when it puts at risk so many lives?” Roh then asserted flatly that it is the U.S. policy toward North Korea that causes the current high level of anti-American feelings in his country.

The fourth factor is Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s decisions to reposition the 2nd Infantry Division (2ID) from its position close to the DMZ to a more southerly location and to shift some US troops from Korea to Iraq. The first decision is part of the defense secretary’s global program to make US forces more mobile, harder hitting and highly technically competent. Rumsfeld believes that repositioning the 2ID will give it a more flexible role in defending South Korea against a North Korean attack, and would make our forces more easily adapted to a regional defense role. To South Korea’s citizens, already deeply concerned about what an American attack on North Korea might mean for them, the shift of the 2ID away from the DMZ is seen as putting the main bulk of U.S. forces out of range of North Korea’s missiles and artillery so that we would be less constrained in launching a pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities. The shift of troops to Iraq is viewed with concern by the older generation of Koreans who fear US abandonment, but with more acceptance by younger Koreans, many of whom would like to see us withdraw completely.

The fifth factor is that South Korea is rapidly integrating into the larger Asian economy and is seeking to capitalize on that integration by becoming a business hub for Northeast Asia. Although this process began when South Korea normalized relations with Japan in 1965, complete integration was only possible after relations were normalized with China in 1992. China has rapidly become the largest customer for South Korean exports and has displaced the U.S. as South Korea’s major trading partner. Moreover, South Korea was the third largest investor in China during 2003, ranking behind only Hong Kong and Japan. Indeed, the growth in trade with China has played a substantial role in South Korea’s recovery from the 1997 economic crisis. A major disruption in this new relationship—such as might be caused by a conflict with North Korea or even growing instability in the North brought about by sanctions—would have serious negative economic and political ramifications for South Korea. Any U.S. policy that is even perceived as increasing tensions with North Korea is therefore subject to criticism in South Korea as being inimical to important South Korean economic interests.

Given its new but substantial economic interests in China, South Korea’s moves to reinforce stability on the peninsula by strengthening its commercial ties with North Korea and encouraging North Korea to modernize its economy are interlocked with South Korea’s efforts to integrate into the larger Asian economy.

The New York Times on 17 December 2003 quoted the then South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan as follows: “The key of our North Korean policy is helping North Korea adopt market mechanisms. That will help them rebuild their own economy, which will in turn bring about some positive domestic impact and some positive impact in terms of North Korea’s international behavior.”

Asked by the Times whether he thought DPRK Chairman Kim Jong Il could play the reformer’s role in North Korea that Deng Xiaoping had played in China, Minister Yoon replied without hesitation “I think so.”

The same Times article quoted Deputy Unification Minister Park Chan Bong on parallels between Kim Jong Il and Deng. Mr. Park said “In the case of China, reforms were made possible because Deng maintained strong leadership and political stability. In the case of North Korea Kim is in full control of North Korea. If he decides to reform, then I think he can do it.”

With South Korea’s economic presence and influence burgeoning in North Korea, and with roads and railroads being reconnected, any U.S. consideration of coercive options against the North becomes more problematical. The spectrum of realistic American options vis-à-vis North Korea has narrowed to the point where any sort of pre-emptive military action seems completely out of the question. South Korean President Roh put this very bluntly on 18 December 2003 when he spoke to a group of foreign reporters. Roh said that his country “…would not remain idle if the United States tries to resolve the D.P.R.K. nuclear crisis with fists.”

Contrast these Korean views with some thoughts of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, cited in The Washington Post of December 23rd 2003. Wolfowitz, in many ways the intellectual godfather of the Iraq war, was commenting on the removal of Saddam Hussein. He placed Saddam in the same league as Hitler, Stalin and Kim Jong Il. Wolfowitz opined that men of that deeply evil character were never content to inflict their horrors on their own people alone. Sooner or later, he said, their evil work spills out over their borders, making them international security threats that must be dealt with.

President Bush has distanced himself from rhetoric of this sort, and now speaks of diplomacy as being the preferred option in dealing with North Korea. This presidential preference has not yet, however, been clearly translated into a viable policy toward North Korea. The administration, or at least part of it, remains fixated on “not rewarding bad behavior on the part of North Korea,” and “not submitting to North Korean blackmail.”

I personally had the opportunity to see how these rigid policy tenets played out at a “track two” six party meeting held in Qingdao, China in early September 2003. The meeting had been arranged by Susan Shirk of the University of California as one of a long series of unofficial multi-party meetings designed to shed additional light on knotty policy issues affecting Northeast Asia. China was the host of the meeting, and was led by Ambassador Fu Ying. Some of the Russian and Japanese attendees had been at the official six-party talks held a few days previously in Beijing. The same issues were discussed at Qingdao as had been discussed in Beijing.

Fu Ying, one of China’s leading female diplomats, summed up the situation succinctly, based on her participation in the Beijing talks. She said that all six of the countries represented, including North Korea, wanted a nuclear free Korean peninsula to emerge from the six-party talks. All six countries also agreed that the final result of the talks should be a verifiably nuclear free Korean peninsula, with issues arising from North Korea’s legitimate security and economic concerns having been dealt with adequately. The problem, Ambassador Fu Ying asserted, was that no one had any idea how to get from the starting position to the end objective. Who was to make the first move? Could moves be made simultaneously? Should a sequenced series of moves be worked out in advance? She made it clear that US insistence that it “would not reward bad behavior or submit to North Korean blackmail,” made it very difficult to get any negotiating process started. The best that the U.S. representative could say in reply was, “Well, North Korea does not have to do everything before we do anything.”

The core group at the Qingdao meeting was comprised of China, South Korea and Russia, who seemed to be in agreement on all major issues. Three countries were isolated to one degree or another; North Korea because of its WMD programs; Japan because of nagging historic issues, such as the comfort women and other World War II atrocities; and the United States because no one could ascertain what our specific policy toward North Korea was—except that it seemed hostile.

Since that meeting one more six-party session has been held in Beijing, in mid-2004. A somewhat revised US proposal was put forward, after close consultation with Japan and China. No response has come from North Korea, perhaps because they hoped that Senator Kerry would be elected in November 2004. With President Bush re-elected, the North Koreans have told me that they are waiting to see what President Bush says in is 2005 State of the Union address before deciding what their attitude toward a continuation of the six-party process will be.

The difficult position in which we find ourselves has been evolving for years. In 1994, having seized control of both houses of Congress in the off-year elections, the Republicans, under Speaker Newt Gingrich’s strident leadership did little or nothing to fulfill several obligations the U.S. had entered into less than two months earlier as part of the Agreed Framework with North Korea. Diplomatic relations with North Korea were not entered into, North Korea was not removed from the U.S. list of terrorist nations, and we did not start to develop economic relations with North Korea.

In 1998, after North Korea surprised us by firing a multi-stage rocket, a report by Donald Rumsfeld on missile threats to the United States, issued shortly thereafter, made North Korea the poster child for national missile defense. (Comment: A foundation of hostility between the Republican Party and North Korea had been laid and North Korea’s missile threat remains the most often cited reason for continued development of the expensive and so far non-functional national missile defense system.)

The Pyongyang Summit of June 2000 between Kim Dae-jung of the South and Kim Jong Il of the North had a huge impact on South Korea’s perception of the North.  In July of that year, I was asked by a Korean language paper in Seoul to assess the summit meeting from an American perspective.

In my article, which appeared in Korean on 1 August 2000, I cited the Pyongyang summit and the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 as two events that had ushered in new eras by creating paradigm shifts that required the U.S. to re-evaluate its role in the regions concerned. As I put it in the article, “The relevant question is whether the U.S. will do better in dealing with the changed situation in Northeast Asia that the Pyongyang summit is producing than it did in reacting to developments in Southeast Asia in the wake of France’s defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam.”

In mid-2000 warning signs were already quite clear that we were heading for new tensions in the U.S.-South Korean alliance. As I put it: “Initial public Korean reactions to the Pyongyang summit have in some cases included open opposition to a continuing U.S. military presence in the country and anti-American demonstrations have once again erupted. The initial American reaction to the summit was seen by some Koreans as being too negative and skeptical. This had suggested to them that our main concern about the Pyongyang summit was that it might weaken the rationale for a continuing military presence in the region, and the deployment of a national missile defense system.”

My article ended with these words, “In President Kim Dae-jung we have a staunch friend and ally whose creative diplomacy with Korea’s neighbors and with North Korea has released new forces in the region. The next American president, whoever he is, can use President Kim’s final two years in office as a time to create a new posture for the U.S. in Northeast Asia.  How well he does this will largely determine the future pattern of America’s relations with Korea and its neighbors in the era that is now beginning.”

What has eventuated in the four and one-half years since those words were written has been far more negative than positive in terms of U.S.-Korean relations.

  • President Kim’s first meeting with President Bush, held in March 2001, did not go at all well. President Bush made it clear that he did not trust Kim Jong-il, and that an American policy review had to take place before any endorsement of President Kim’s “sunshine policy” could be made.
  • The U.S. policy review was completed in late spring 2001, endorsing a continuation of engagement with North Korea. The review stipulated, however, that some of the most difficult policy issues, such as North Korean troop deployments along the DMZ, had to be dealt with early in any resumption of engagement. This was a marked change from what had been worked out by President Kim with the Clinton administration. This change in priorities did not go over well in either North or South Korea.
  • The terrorist attacks on the U.S. of September 11, 2001 came before any contacts between the U.S. and North Korea had taken place. The U.S. became preoccupied with the war on terror.
  • In his State of the Union Speech in January 2002, President Bush placed North Korea in an “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq. This infuriated the North Koreans, and shocked the South Koreans.
  • In June 2002, during the height of the World Cup tournament, one of South Korea’s most triumphant moments was marred by the accidental death of two young girls, killed by a U.S. armored vehicle as they walked along a narrow country road on their way to a birthday party. As far as South Korea’s younger generation is concerned, the U.S. Government has never properly addressed this tragedy.
  • In October 2002, the Bush administration held its first meeting in Pyongyang with North Korean government officials. The sole purpose of the meeting was to inform North Korea that through intelligence sources, the U.S. had come to believe that North Korea, with the aid of equipment acquired from Pakistan, was developing a highly enriched uranium (HEU) program in direct violation of the 1994 Agreed Framework.
  • Over the next several months, in a series of retaliatory moves, the U.S. and North Korea have moved to a posture of confrontation. The U.S. cut off oil shipments to North Korea required by the Agreed Framework. North Korea evicted IAEA inspectors, withdrew from the NPT and began reprocessing plutonium fuel rods.
  • North Korea asked for a non-aggression pact with the U.S. The U.S. refused to talk directly to North Korea on this or any other issue, as that would have been “rewarding bad behavior” on their part.
  • Taking advantage of its improved relations with China, the U.S. has asked Beijing to convene and manage a series of six-party talks, designed to solve the North Korean nuclear question. The world now awaits the scheduling of the next session in Beijing.

Where does that leave the Korean-American alliance, and U.S. relations with other Northeast Asian countries?

The South Korean government is clearly interested in maintaining the alliance with the U.S. The latest evidence of this is Seoul’s decision to send troops to Iraq. This was not an easy decision to make, and is an admirable extension of support to an ally (the U.S.) dealing with a difficult political/military situation. The U.S. for its part also wants to continue the alliance, although with a different deployment pattern for U.S.F.K. These hopes are held hostage by the widely diverging views of North Korea held by the Roh and Bush administrations. Only a cooperative and ultimately successful joint approach to Pyongyang by Seoul and Washington will allow the alliance to continue in anything like its current form.

Seoul will never acquiesce to the pre-emptive use of force by the U.S. against North Korea. The U.S., so far at least, appears reluctant to enter into direct negotiations with North Korea unless and until North Korea completely, verifiably and irreversibly destroys its nuclear programs. (This is the CVID doctrine, which North Korea abhors.) North Korea for its part feels fundamentally under threat from the U.S., and will not dismantle is WMD programs in advance of a U.S. security guarantee, and extension of economic assistance. With the passage of time, North Korea moves closer and closer to becoming a full-blown nuclear power. This pattern of events brings into clear focus a time when the Bush administration may feel vulnerable to the politically devastating charge that it sat idly by while North Korea joined the “nuclear club.” What, if anything the Bush administration intends to do to avoid such a charge is not at all clear. Sanctions associated with the so-called “proliferation security initiative” will not come close to solving this dilemma for Washington, despite enthusiastic vocal support from neoconservatives in the Bush administration.

The Bush administration scored a significant success in its efforts to convene the six-party talk process. These talks take advantage of the historic fact that for the first time ever, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea are at peace with each other. Intraregional trade is flourishing, and there will never be a better time to draw North Korea out of its isolation and make it part of an economic boom in Northeast Asia. The fundamental problem is that Washington sees North Korea essentially as a proliferation threat that must be disarmed, while China, Russia and South Korea see the North as a neighbor and potential economic partner in regional development.

None of North Korea’s neighbors want it to become a nuclear power. They all believe that direct negotiations involving Pyongyang and Washington can solve the current impasse. If the Bush administration continues its refusal to negotiate, and North Korea declares itself a nuclear power, its neighbors, with the possible exception of Japan, will adjust to that reality through accommodations. The U.S. position in South Korea will be drastically undercut, and the alliance will almost certainly cease to function in any significant way. Beijing and Seoul will move closer in terms of trade and policy coordination.

American influence on the mainland of Asia will be markedly diminished, and we will be forced to place greater reliance on our bases in Japan in order to maintain a significant military presence in the region.

The long-range costs of not talking directly to North Korea now would appear to be so high and so evident as to force Washington to re-think its moralistic policy of stiffing Pyongyang. But as we proved in our catastrophic misreading of the new situation in Southeast Asia that began at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, we are capable of strategic miscalculations of enormous consequence. Will this same pattern repeat itself in Northeast Asia, 50 years later? The answer to that question is now being shaped by debates and discussions within the Bush administration.



Donald P. Gregg is President and Chairman of the Board of The Korea Society in New York City.  Following graduation from Williams College in 1951, he joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and over the next quarter century was assigned to Japan, Burma, Vietnam and Korea. He was seconded to the National Security Council staff in 1979, where he was in charge of intelligence activities and Asian policy affairs.  In 1982, he was asked by the then Vice President George Bush to become his national security advisor. He then retired from the CIA, and was awarded its highest decoration, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal. During his six years with Vice President Bush, Mr. Gregg traveled to 65 countries.  Between 1980-1989, he also served as a professorial lecturer at Georgetown University, where he taught a graduate level workshop entitled “Force and Diplomacy.”  In September 1989, Mr. Gregg began his service as the United States Ambassador to Korea. Prior to his departure from Korea in 1993, Mr. Gregg received the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, an Honorary Degree from Sogang University, and a decoration from the Prime Minister of Korea.  In March 1993, Mr. Gregg retired from a 43-year career in the United States government and assumed his current position. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Recent awards include an honorary degree from Green Mountain College (1996), the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service (2001), Williams College’s Kellogg Award for career achievement (2001), and the 2004 Bartels World Affairs Fellowship from Cornell University.  Bio according to Council of American Ambassadors