“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.)