COVID-19 Crisis and U.S.-R.O.K. Relations

Honorary CSPS Fellow with CSPS Korea, Jin Seong Choi, writes on how COVID-19 and the Trump Presidency have impacted the US-South Korean alliance.

In April, approximately 4,000 Korean employees were furloughed from their workplaces on U.S. military bases in South Korea due to the United States and South Korea failing to reach a consensus on 11th Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which was originally due on the last day of 2019. Following the incident, controversies over the scope of cost sharing of U.S. Forces Korea are on the rise. The main concern remains the delay in reaching an agreement in the SMA talks, as this could ultimately lead to the deterioration of the seven-decade-long alliance between the two countries, but other concerns also remain.

The U.S.-R.O.K. alliance has weakened significantly since President Trump walked into the White House. President Trump stated that Washington gets practically nothing from the U.S. Forces Korea compared to the cost. He further demanded South Korea to pay 4 billion dollars as a defense fee, a 300 percent increase from last year. With President Trump radically increasing the cost and Seoul being reluctant to pay such an amount, the current SMA negotiation seems to be the most difficult in the history of U.S.-R.O.K. alliance.

The decision to furlough Korean workers in U.S. Forces Korea, which was made after the negotiation breakdown, is an unprecedented event, and it would be a potential threat to South Korean national security if continued, as it greatly degrades the spirit of the alliance and joint military readiness to fight.

The COVID-19 crisis is only making things worse, as every military training program and drill has been cancelled. Furthermore, it seems that the pandemic is contributing to the delay in SMA agreements. As face-to-face negotiations are ceased due to the outbreak of the virus, bargaining online and over the phone has made it even more difficult to build relationships and render fruitful outcomes.

In the vortex of the SMA controversy and cancellation of joint military drills, there is the threat of South Korea’s hostile neighbor – North Korea – taking advantage of the fracture in the alliance. 38 North, which provides analysis on North Korea and is owned by the Stimson Center, has detected that North Korea has been showing signs of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) tests, using satellite photos of North Korean Shinpo Shipyard taken on April 5, 2020. North Korea’s SLBM is known to be capable of flying to U.S. territory, and it is speculated that North Korea would continue provocations in the absence of reaction from the South.

Adding to the weakening military alliance between the U.S. and South Korea, the psychological ties between the two countries have also been derailed due to the COVID-19 crisis. The U.S. decision to furlough Korean workers on the U.S. military bases is provoking public resentment against U.S., and there are media outlets, especially leftist media, questioning whether the U.S. is truly into settling peace in the region. If the SMA delay is further protracted, it will harm the bilateral relationship built upon a strong alliance system and accelerate change in the geopolitical landscape. This would be a great loss to both countries’ strategic interests as well as to the Northeast Asian regional security.

Nonetheless, the global health crisis has provided a clue on how to improve interstate relations. Maryland, one of the U.S. states that are devastated by the pandemic, obtained 500,000 COVID-19 testing kits from South Korea after Maryland’s governor Larry Hogan and his Korean-American wife had a videoconference with South Korean President, Moon Jae-in. Moreover, countries that are seeing a significant decrease in the number of COVID-19 confirmed cases, such as South Korea and China, have been providing medical assistance and sanitary supplies to other parts of the world. Such humanitarian interactions between states in the era of pandemic could provide an impetus for establishing mutual trust, which is an essential element for instituting a more sustainable and enduring state-to-state relations.

The COVID-19 crisis has set up a testing ground for U.S.-R.O.K. relations; diplomatic negotiations have become more difficult to reach an agreement as they are held over the phone, and the military alliance are also facing problems such as disruption in military preparedness. At the same time, the crisis also gives an important implication that there definitely is room for improvement. With regard to current situation, the United States lacks available COVID-19 testing kits and experiences skyrocketing numbers of confirmed cases while South Korea has successfully flattened the COVID-19 curve. It now seems to be a perfect time to regain the mutual trust that has been lost between the two countries. It is now in the hands of leaders of the United States and South Korea whether the challenges posed by the COVID-19 crisis could be transformed into opportunities for consolidating the relationship.

Jin Seong Choi is a junior majoring in Global Affairs, BA with a concentration in Global Governance at George Mason University Korea Campus. He is currently serving as a research assistant at the Center for Security Policy Studies – Korea. His research interests includes East Asian regional security as well as inter-Korean relations.

Photo can be found here.