Editor’s Note

With the November 2020 presidential election in the United States, it is important to analyze the current status of the ROK-U.S. alliance so that the two countries could discuss and collaborate on a shared vision moving forward. This report is the outcome of a year-long research by Chaesung Chun (EAI; Seoul National University), Patrick Cronin (Hudson Institute), Sang Hyun Lee (Sejong Institute), and Scott Snyder (Council on Foreign Relations). It aims to provide an overall vision for the ROK-U.S. alliance in the following aspects, in hopes that the two countries could fortify and build on the existing bilateral relations and uphold regional security goals:


I.    Introduction: The Future Role of the Alliance

II.   Asia and the World Through 2030

III.  Status of the ROK-U.S. Alliance

IV.   The ROK-U.S. Alliance: The Vision and Agenda

·     Harmonizing China Policy

·     Partnering with Other Allies in the Region

·     Resolving Overdue North Korea Problem

·     Designing Security Cooperation

·     Sustaining the Alliance Domestically

·     Enhancing Economic Cooperation and Rebuilding a Liberal Order

·     Expanding the Alliance to New Frontiers

·     Collaborating for Technological Competence and Security

V.   Recommendations for a Complex Network Alliance


Executive Summary

The ROK-U.S. alliance should aspire not just to deliver peace and security on the Korean Peninsula but also to help usher in tomorrow’s liberal world order. South Korea has experienced remarkable growth under the U.S.-led international order, and the ROK-U.S. alliance has contributed both to South Korea's security, economic prosperity, and democratization as well as to the U.S. mission to preserve the liberal world order. Now, the ROK-U.S. alliance faces many challenges amid the rapidly changing international environment and rising Sino-U.S. geopolitical rivalry.

Since the establishment of the ROK-U.S. alliance, South Korea has grown into a middle-power country that ranks among the top ten wealthiest democracies in the world, and can now contribute to the stabilization of regional order and resolution of problems at the global level. The ROK-U.S. alliance must now evolve into a complex network alliance coping with geopolitical challenges on the Peninsula and in Asia, as well as future-oriented frontier issues.

The two techno-democracies should double their efforts to forge a knowledge alliance—one committed to tackling complex challenges such climate change and issues related to energy, resource scarcity, and the environment, as well as pandemics, including the possible threat of bioterrorism. Furthermore, the two nations should elevate democracy, human rights, and good governance as shared alliance concerns for improving regional and world order. By contributing to new constellations of like-minded states, such as a D-10 summit of democracies, as well as building on existing institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), the South Korea-U.S. relationship should increasingly focus on how to preserve and adapt democratic governance and market economies in the face of the digital age and major-power competition over technology and innovation.

As the initial rationale for establishing the alliance based on shared sacrifices during the Korean War is fading, the United States and South Korea should establish a new and binding rationale for cooperation to sustain the alliance. A future-oriented rationale for the alliance might be rooted in shared values, but a forward-looking ROK-U.S. alliance would embrace technological cooperation as the glue for alliance-based partnership. A wide range of areas, from fighting pandemics to space exploration to development and application of new 5G standards in technology, constitute new opportunities for collaboration that could sustain the alliance going forward.

A vision for the ROK-U.S. alliance should be comprehensive, address an array of short-to-medium-term issues, and seek to align the two countries for the long-term. A resilient, forward-looking alliance will be based on close consultation, effective cooperation on meaningful issues for both countries, and diplomatic agility to adjust to shifts within the two democracies.


1. The Biden and Moon administrations should swiftly announce their commitment to strengthening and broadening the ROK-U.S. alliance. Seoul and Washington should consider a declaratory policy of moving from cost-sharing to value-sharing and responsibility-sharing alliances. The United States and South Korea should conclude an interim Special Measures Agreement, bolster support for a capabilities-driven OPCON transition, augment existing discussions on extended deterrence, establish a regular training and exercise schedule, expand naval and maritime cooperation, and initiate a strategic dialogue on the environment and challenges facing the alliance after the North Korea threat recedes.


2. South Korea should pursue a strategic agreement with the United States in negotiations regarding North Korean denuclearization, while maintaining the consistency of South Korea's policy toward North Korea, to attain peace on the Korean Peninsula. It is necessary to harmonize South Korea’s diplomatic efforts with surrounding countries’ North Korea policy so that the Sino-U.S. strategic competition does not become an obstacle to solving the North Korean problem. The United States should continue to support South Korean efforts to build on existing tension-reduction and confidence-building efforts with North Korea. The United States should discuss the future of missile defense and extended deterrence with South Korea and Japan in light of North Korea’s continued missile development.


3. The United States and South Korea should establish a normative framework for maintaining peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and the broader international system. Adopting a rules-based approach to managing major power competition would buffer the allies and the region from malign, unilateral action, without posing a direct challenge to any country. The United States and South Korea should design and institute a collective response system to cope with Chinese retaliation, especially its use of coercive economic statecraft. While the United States currently enjoys some military advantage over China, a framework for cooperation between the United States and South Korea with the aim of maintaining the current balance of power will help prevent China from undermining norms and promote mid- to long-term Sino-U.S. cooperation in possible areas such as non-proliferation and climate change.


4. The Hub-and-Spoke system has worked fairly well, and upon further consultation the allies may choose to supplement it with additional collective or mini-lateral networks. It is important for the U.S. to cooperate with Asian allies to formulate the roles of each allies and partners, and to consult closely with allies and partners when pursuing China-related strategies. The Biden administration's regional strategy is expected to focus on linking allies and friends in a network-based partnership. ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral security cooperation is very important, and the normalization of Korea-Japan relations is a prerequisite for it.


5. The two countries should upgrade their economic cooperation from the traditional fields of trade and investment to new arenas for cooperation, including the digital economy, energy, the environment, and development cooperation. The United States and South Korea should also work together closely to drive regional cooperation forward, and build linkages between the Indo-Pacific strategy and New Southern Policy in order to do so. The United States and South Korea should exercise greater influence on extant and nascent international institutions to harness knowledge for solving complex problems like climate change, establishing norms and a code of conduct for the use of advance technologies in the digital age, and creating the best-educated scientists and scholars to meet tomorrow’s needs. Both countries should strengthen and the expand the scope of their global health security partnership. Eco-friendly energy cooperation needs to be strengthened, including restrictions on the use of fossil fuels, carbon-reducing economies, expanding renewable energy and utilizing advanced nuclear power.



Chaesung Chun is the Director of National Security Center of East Asia Institute, and a Professor at the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Seoul National University, teaching international relations theory and security studies. Dr. Chun received his PhD in international relations at Northwestern University in the United States, and he is a member of the advisory committee for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Unification.Major books include Sovereignty and International Relations: Northeast Asian International Relations Theory: Politics among Incomplete Sovereign States(2020), Sovereignty and International Relations: Modern Sovereign States System and the Evolution of the Empire(2019), Is Politics Moral: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Transcendental Realism(2012), East Asian International Relations(2011).


Patrick M. Cronin is the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at Hudson Institute. He received his DPhil from the University of Oxford. Dr. Cronin served as the director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and senior vice president and director of research at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). His research program analyzes the challenges and opportunities confronting the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, including China’s total competition campaign, the future of the Korean Peninsula, and strengthening U.S. alliances and partnerships. His recent publications include “All the Japanese Prime Minister’s Course Corrections” (2020).


Sang Hyun Lee is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Security Strategy Studies of the Sejong Institute. Dr. Lee received his PhD in Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He served as a Director-General for Policy Planning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, researcher at the Korea Institute of International Relations and researcher at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. The main areas of research are international security, South Korea-U.S. relations, war and conflict theory, regional conflicts and military security. His major publications include The U.S.-China Hegemonic Rivalry and the Korean Peninsula (2020), The Trump Administration’s Nuclear Policy: International Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime and its Implications on the North Korean Nuclear Issue (2019), and Understanding Modern Korea-U.S. Relations (2019).


Scott A. Snyder is a senior fellow for Korea Studies and director of the program on U.S. policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Mr. Snyder received his MA from the regional studies East Asia program at Harvard University and was a Thomas G. Watson fellow at Yonsei University. He previously served as a senior associate in the international relations program of the Asia Foundation, where he founded and directed the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy and served as the Asia Foundation’s representative in Korea. His major publications include South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers (2018), and The Japan-South Korea Identity Clash: East Asian Security and the United States (2015).




■ Typeset by Sea Young Kim, Research Associate

            For inquiries: 82 2 2277 1683 (ext. 208)  |  sykim@eai.or.kr


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