Webcast Recap

On Thursday, 6 March 2008, the Wilson Center's North Korea International Documentation Project hosted "Power, Interest, and Identity in Military Alliances," a discussion of Jae Jung Suh's recently published book of the same name.

Following introductory remarks by NKIDP coordinator James Person, Jae Jung Suh, associate professor and director of Korean studies at Johns Hopkins University SAIS, said that his book was intended as an explanation of the long-term durability of the US-ROK military alliance. As recently as 2006, prominent analysts predicted that the US-ROK military alliance was bound to unravel for a variety of reasons. These included growing anti-US sentiments in South Korea, former Korean President Roh Moo Hyun's critical view of the US, and the decline in the threat posed by North Korea. The question that Suh intended to address in his book was why, in spite of these factors, the US-ROK relationship did not continue its pre-1990s decline, but in fact has grown stronger throughout the 1990s and up to the present day.

Suh argued that the balance of power on the peninsula necessitated the formation of the US-ROK alliance in the 1950s. Since then, the alliance has taken on a life of its own. According to his argument, US-ROK military cooperation led to asset specificity between the allies – durable investments in support of the alliance which would become less useful outside the context of the alliance. Suh outlined four types of asset specificity:

-Equipment specificity, which refers to the interoperability and mutual integration of military systems;
-Process specificity, which deals with standardization of the "software" of the alliance – standard operating procedures, contingency plans, and support structures;
-Human specificity, pertaining to issues such as language training;
-Location specificity, dealing with bases, command posts and other facilities.

While all of these types of asset specificity generally led to more efficient alliance cooperation, they also led to the creation of alliance constituencies – army bureaucrats, military officers, politicians – and drove up the cost of the retooling that would be needed to ensure South Korea's defense in the absence of the alliance. Both of these factors helped to make the alliance self-perpetuating.

Dr. Suh went on to describe how the alliance influences the discourse, behavior and institutions of both allies. Joint committees, intelligence assessments, and reports lead to a shared "Us vs. Them" mindset, with the DPRK playing the role of the common enemy. This colors allied perceptions of DPRK actions – a North Korean proposal for a non-aggression pact is inherently viewed with skepticism, and overtures for a peace treaty are seen as an effort to drive a wedge between the US and the ROK.

In the 1990s, the US and the ROK realized that theirs was an alliance in search of a mission. Suh referenced reports released on the 1992 Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) and by the RAND Corporation and KIDA in 1995, both of which discussed the need to redefine and reinvigorate the alliance. He argued that the logic of the threat had been turned on its head: the threat posed by the DPRK led to the formation of the alliance in the 1950s. Today, the economic and human costs associated with dissolving the alliance necessitate its continuation. In response, the alliance's mission has broadened from defending the ROK to ensuring security and stability throughout Northeast Asia.

Following Suh's presentation, Katharine H.S. Moon, Jane Bishop Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College, shared her impressions of Suh's book. While Moon was impressed with the book's scope within the field of political science, she expressed concern that its geographic and temporal scopes were too narrow to draw far-reaching conclusions. One of the book's strengths, she argued, was its ability to view the US-ROK alliance through three 'lenses' in political science thought – liberalism, realism and constructivism. The book therefore can be used as a theoretical look at political science methodology by using the US-ROK alliance as a case study.

Moon wondered whether the book was wide-ranging enough to be used as a means of understanding other military alliances. The US-ROK alliance, she argued, does not exist in a vacuum, but is influenced by other bilateral alliances, such as that between the US and Japan, as well as multi-lateral institutions such as NATO. Therefore, Dr. Moon thought that it might be useful to look at the US-ROK alliance in comparison with others in order to asses just how deep the ties between the US and ROK are relative to other military alliances.

Moon also pointed out that the 1990s were a dynamic decade both globally, and in South Korea. The end of the Cold War saw a massive geo-political realignment, and democratization was still an ongoing process for the ROK. Because of these factors, the time period from 1990 to the present day may be too short to draw solid conclusions about an alliance which has existed for over 50 years.

In conclusion, Dr. Moon asked what changes were occurring in the ROK during the 1990s in terms of political, military, and general identity which allowed them to consider moving beyond the alliance, and what shifts in identity caused the pendulum to swing back in the direction of supporting the alliance.

Gregg A. Brazinsky, professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University commented that Dr. Suh's book is a clear, compelling model of social science scholarship which ignores some items which have traditionally been emphasized by historians and instead focuses on new perspectives which are generally given less attention.

In his comments, Brazinsky concentrated mainly on Dr. Suh's conception of identity and its relationship to public policy. Though Suh pointed to the most salient events and individuals in the formation of a pro-American identity in Korea, his book, Brazinsky argued, does not clearly define which actors had agency in its construction. He also stated that he felt that Suh's book goes too far in blaming "socially constituted realities" over "material realities" in the construction of identity. An example that Brazinsky cited was the fact that the DPRK did in fact engage in highly provocative actions such as refusal of nuclear inspections, infiltration of agents and aggressive rhetoric and that therefore the allies' identification of it as the enemy was not solely based on "socially constituted realities." Finally, Brazinsky commented that while Suh's book gave examples of specific ROK and US policies and decisions, it did not go into the thinking that was behind them. Without this consideration, it is difficult to show whether decision-makers were influenced by either identity or interests.

Drafted by Daniel Lim and NKIDP Coordinator James Person,
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, History and Public Policy Program