Where is the U.S./R.O.K. Relationship 10 Years After 9/11?

Norman Levin at the RAND Corporation has been thinking and writing intelligently about East Asia generally and Korea specifically since I was in high school. His insights into US relations with the region are insightful and pithy.

His 2004 monograph Do the Ties Still Bind? The US-ROK Security Relationship After 9/11 is no exception. Levin’s point then, as I suspect it would be today, is that since the Cold War ended, we have casually tossed away a major opportunity by not giving greater attention to South Korea. Little has changed in the US-ROK relationship in the past seven years, so this slim volume is still relevant, especially as we turn to the South Koreans to help defuse the growing threat of a nuclear North Korea in transition.

One of Levin’s points is that we should stop talking so much about the future of the alliance and start attending to the problems that beset it today. He is right, of course, but unfortunately it is no longer practical to examine the US-ROK security relationship in isolation from the rest of the region. By necessity, US policy makers have found it convenient to see Korea as a guaranteed friend as the US grapples with wider regional and global issues. Even leaving aside 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Russia’s aspirations, China’s ambitions, and Japan’s budding defense renaissance set the tone in the region even more than Kim’s nukes.

Nor does it help that South Korea has a complex relationship with the North, a vital relationship with China, and a quiet rivalry with Japan. The security and economic interests of the US and the ROK diverge in a growing number of areas, a fact that is the likely driver of the ROK’s insistence on a more “equal” relationship with the US.

Levin’s book is a welcome window into the growing complexities of what was for five decades America’s most dependable alliance.

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