SEOUL, South Korea—A top adviser to South Korea’s president says he would eventually like to see the U.S.–South Korea alliance end. In language that sounded almost Trump-like, Chung In Moon, a special adviser to President Moon Jae In for foreign affairs and national security, said in an interview that alliances in general are a “very unnatural state of international relations” and said that, “for me, the best thing is to really get rid of alliance.” In the meantime, he says, he “strongly” supports “the continued presence of American forces” in Korea, despite hoping for an arrangement that he thinks would better serve his nation’s interests.
It was a remarkable statement coming from a South Korean official who is playing a prominent advisory role in current negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. South Korea has relied on its U.S. alliance since the 1950s to deter threats from its north—and the fate of that partnership, which North Korea has long sought to end, has been a contentious question as a summit between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump approaches. U.S. and South Korean officials have repeatedly insisted that the alliance is not a bargaining chip with North Korea. And Moon, who presented his ideas as his personal views, was discussing the future of the alliance as a theoretical question about Asia’s security architecture, not as a matter to be determined in nuclear talks. But his comments nevertheless suggested that if those talks succeed and overhaul geopolitics on the Korean peninsula, the alliance could come due for a reckoning.
“In the short to medium term, it might be inevitable for us to rely on the alliance,” said Moon, who is also a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, when I met him recently at his office in the capital. The remarks came before the drama of this week, when North Korea threatened to back out of the summit altogether over Washington’s denuclearization demands. “But in the longer term, I personally hope that we can make a transformation from an alliance system into some form of a multilateral security cooperation regime. Why should we treat each other as quasi or potential enemies?”
The implications are potentially stark from the perspective of the United States, which maintains a system of alliances in Asia in part as a counterweight to China. In the event that South Korea helps construct a new “security community in Northeast Asia,” Moon told me, “we don’t have to take sides either [with] China, either [with] the United States. We can maintain very friendly relationships with both great nations … [and] maintain peace, stability, and prosperity.”
Moon, just as Trump has, noted the burdens of alliances. If a shift away from the alliance system were to occur, “the Korean peninsula can be freed from the geopolitical yoke, the geopolitical trap,” he said. I had just asked him about comments he’d made years earlier regarding the need for South Korea to take the lead in resolving the Korean conflict and thus reduce its dependence on U.S. military protection. Moon has in the past lamented that South Korea—with America as its main security partner, China as its main trading partner, and North Korea as its main security threat—is like a “shrimp among big whales and one bad shark.”
Typically, it’s Trump who is described as a disruptor of traditional U.S. alliances in Asia, Europe, and North America. His efforts to pressure South Korea into renegotiating its trade deal with the United States, paying more to maintain American troops in the country, and setting aside its objections to U.S. military threats against North Korea all rattled relations with Seoul. But Moon’s comments indicate that some within the South Korean president’s inner circle are also raising questions about the contemporary utility of the alliance, particularly in the aftermath of a deal—however unlikely—in which North Korea agrees in the coming months or years to dismantle its nuclear weapons in return for a peace treaty with South Korea and the United States.
The fate of the alliance is such a sensitive issue that even broaching the subject has repeatedly caused uproar in the United States and South Korea in recent days. Earlier this month, when The New York Times reported that Trump had asked the Defense Department to develop options for drawing down at least some of the 28,500 American soldiers in South Korea—something Defense Secretary James Mattis had indicated could come up in talks with U.S. allies and North Korea—National-Security Adviser John Bolton quickly dismissed the news as “utter nonsense” and the South Korean government urgently relayed that message to its people. (As of 2016, 70 percent of Americans supported maintaining long-term U.S. military bases in South Korea; a 2018 survey found that a staggering 96 percent of South Koreans felt the U.S.–South Korea alliance was necessary.)
North Korea “has not demanded” that U.S. forces leave the peninsula, a senior South Korean official, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of negotiations with North Korea, recently told me. South Korea, the official added, views the United States as a “balancing power” in East Asia and the “backbone for the security and prosperity of the peninsula.”
When I met Moon, a progressive architect of the pro-engagement “Sunshine Policy” with North Korea, he had been under fire for days from South Korean conservatives, who tend to view the U.S. alliance as essential to the country’s security. What had offended them was his observation, in a Foreign Affairs article, that it would be “difficult to justify” the ongoing presence of U.S. forces in South Korea after the adoption of a peace accord. Moon Jae In’s administration had distanced itself from Moon (“an adviser on one hand, but on the other hand … a professor who enjoys the freedom of thoughts”) and denied any link between a peace treaty and the status of U.S. armed forces in Korea.
But Moon imagined a long-term scenario—without specifying a timeline—in which South and North Korea become unified. “Then we’ll go through a very difficult period of choice—whether you take sides with the United States and join the balancing bloc against China or we could bandwagon with China and leave our ties with the United States. [Or] we can stand alone,” he noted. His preference is that, “if there’s no common enemy such as North Korea, then we can take a more proactive role in building new [multilateral] security architecture in Northeast Asia.” (Polling suggests that the United States is much more popular than China in South Korea and that most South Koreans believe that China could emerge as the most threatening country to Korea after South and North Korea are unified.)
His critics were wrong in claiming that he was calling for the withdrawal of American troops in his Foreign Affairs article, Moon told me. He was simply making an analytical point: While Kim Jong Un has yet to demand an end to the U.S. military presence in Korea as part of a peace treaty, “the problem will come afterwards.” When “the old hostilities are gone,” Americans in particular will be raising the question: “‘Why the hell are we maintaining American forces in South Korea?’” Moon explained. “Some progressives in South Korea will be also raising the same question: ‘Why do we need foreign forces in South Korea?’ [If] Trump gets reelected, even before he gets reelected, he will be arguing that, ‘Look. Now there’s peace but we have American forces in South Korea. Then South Korea should pay more—you’ve got to cover the entire burden to maintain American forces in South Korea.’ All these things will trigger new public debate in South Korea: What should be the status of American forces in South Korea?”
“My position is this: If there is no objection coming from North Korea, then let us have American forces here in South Korea even after [a] peace treaty,” both to avoid generating intense political polarization in South Korea and because U.S. forces provide “collective goods and security in Northeast Asia,” Moon explained. But “the mission, role, size of American forces in South Korea” might need to change, involving a shift from defending South Korea against North Korea to preserving regional stability.
And what if North Korea does ultimately object to a continued American military presence? “Then there will be a big problem,” Moon responded. The “peace treaty might not come into existence.”