By Hayley Noah, HRNK Research Intern
Edited by Rosa Park, HRNK Director of Programs and Editor
December 2, 2020
The United States has multiple tools at its disposal that it can use to achieve its North Korea policy goals, including diplomatic, economic, and military tools, among others. This article will focus on two specific tools: the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance and the promotion of human rights in North Korea. While seemingly separate, they share the characteristic of representing a U.S. commitment to Korea. Taking these two factors into consideration highlights the importance of the U.S. commitment to Korea in achieving its national and international security goals.
The Importance of the Alliance to U.S. Security Interests
The U.S. relationship with the Korean peninsula dates back to the 19th century, when the United States and Korea signed the 1882 Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation. Nowadays, a major component of the U.S.-Korea relationship is the U.S.-ROK alliance, created with the signing of a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1953 after the armistice that brought a halt to the Korean War. According to the U.S. Department of State:
The United States and the ROK share a long history of cooperation based on mutual trust, shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, common strategic interests, and an enduring friendship. The two countries work together to combat regional and global threats and to strengthen their economies.
However, more recently, tensions within the U.S.-ROK alliance have grown. As late as July of this year, there were reports that the United States was still considering pulling troops out of South Korea. The current administration has proposed that South Korea take on a larger share of the cost of stationing U.S. forces there. While the South Korean government has made offers for cost-sharing plans, President Donald Trump reportedly sees them as insufficient and has continued suggesting that withdrawing troops from South Korea is the way forward. President Trump has also called joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea “very provocative” and suggested calling off those exercises to save money and smooth negotiations with Kim Jong-Un, saying “we will be stopping the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money, unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should. But we’ll be saving a tremendous amount of money, plus I think it’s very provocative.” In response, current and former U.S. officials expressed concern over such a move. According to news reports, one former U.S. defense official claimed that “the decision ‘borders on irresponsible’ and would erode readiness and diminish the credibility of the U.S.-South Korea alliance.”
It would be a mistake to weaken the U.S.-ROK alliance. U.S. commitment to the defense of South Korea sends a powerful signal to North Korea that any military action against South Korea will be met by U.S. military force. The strength of the alliance also sends an important signal to South Korea. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “in public opinion polls a consistent majority of South Koreans support acquiring nuclear weapons in some form, and centrist and conservative political parties have adopted official platforms calling on the United States to re-station nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.” Emphasizing U.S. commitment to the U.S.-ROK alliance would have the beneficial impact of reinforcing South Korea’s position under the U.S. nuclear security umbrella, thus decreasing the desire for South Koreans to develop their own nuclear weapons. As already stated, the joint military exercises are also an important element of demonstrating U.S. commitment to the U.S.-ROK alliance and ensuring that the alliance is ready to counter a North Korean attack at any time. Lastly, should North Korea view the U.S. alliance with South Korea as sufficiently diminished to launch an attack on South Korea, the results, in terms of civilian casualties alone, would be catastrophic as much of the population lives in Seoul and within range of North Korea’s conventional weapons. While it is undeniable that the United States has a far stronger military capability than North Korea, a report from 2017 indicates that there could be up to 20,000 South Korean deaths per day should war resume on the Korean peninsula. In February 2020, the South Korean Ministry of Justice reported that there were also 156,982 Americans in South Korea. Even if the U.S. government were to only take into account U.S. lives, this is still a large number of American citizens that would be in danger should there be a breakout in violence.
Despite tensions in the U.S.-ROK alliance, an ultimate weakening in the strength of and confidence in the alliance is not inevitable. Polls conducted in South Korea show that South Koreans still support the U.S.-ROK alliance despite frustration over burden-sharing disputes. While the probability of each individual concern listed above may be low, the potentially disastrous results and the impact on regional stability emphasize the need for these concerns to be taken into account when evaluating U.S. commitment to Korea through the U.S.-ROK alliance.
The Nexus Between Human Rights and Security
Another component of the U.S. commitment to Korea that could have a significant impact on U.S. security lies in the commitment to human rights in North Korea. In 2004, the North Korea Human Rights Act (NKHRA) was passed, reauthorized in 2008 and 2012, and then subsequently signed by President Trump again in 2018 as the North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017. Ambassador Robert R. King, who was the former Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues, is currently at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and is also an HRNK Board Member. He provides a brief yet comprehensive description of the NKHRA:
To encourage respect for human rights in North Korea by establishing conditions to be met if humanitarian assistance is provided to North Koreans, increasing access to news and information for those living inside North Korea, providing humanitarian or legal aid to individuals who have fled North Korea, and authorizing grants to private nonprofit organizations to promote human rights, democracy, rule or law, and a market economy in the North. The legislation also established the position of special envoy on North Korea human rights issues to coordinate and promote efforts to improve respect for the fundamental human rights of the people of North Korea.
These pieces of legislation create a legal obligation for the U.S. government to promote North Korean human rights. However, rather than being purely idealistic, promoting human rights in North Korea could also have a significant impact on U.S. security goals.
Roberta Cohen, HRNK Co-Chair Emeritus, highlights several reasons why concerns about security are linked to human rights. Among other concerns, repressive tactics in North Korea that drive citizens to flee across the border to China have created an environment conducive to human trafficking, while the Kim regime’s willingness to kidnap foreigners from other countries and mistreat visitors within North Korea’s borders presents security concerns for other states. Another concern is that the regime prioritizes the military, emphasizing funding for military purposes rather than for much needed humanitarian purposes. The use of forced labor and North Korean workers abroad are also linked to military goals, including Kim’s nuclear weapons program.
In its 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, the U.S. Department of Defense states that “the United States and the ROK also remain committed to the final, fully verified denuclearization (FFVD) of North Korea and enduring peace on the Korean Peninsula.” Others have extensively debated the feasibility of this goal. However, considering the connection between human rights and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, any attempt to either halt, slow, or destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons program would be well advised to consider the human rights component. Due to the significant connection between human rights and North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, a connection enshrined in the very Mutual Defense Treaty of 1953, addressing human rights concerns will have substantial security implications.
As the United States ushers in a new administration, there will undoubtedly be many policy changes. A commitment to the Korean peninsula is critical to achieve U.S. security goals. Colonel David Maxwell, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and HRNK board member, said recently in an article that if President-elect Biden wants to push for a denuclearized North Korea, “he must first prioritize reinforcing Washington and Seoul’s rock-solid bond based on shared values and combined military strength.” An obvious component of U.S. commitment is the U.S.-ROK military alliance, but human rights also has a significant role to play. A clear first step for a new administration to improve human rights would be to fully implement the NKHRA and appoint a Special Envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues. Such an appointment is critical, as it provides a point person at the high level of Ambassador to coordinate human rights efforts. New policies on North Korea should be ready to take into account the importance of both security and human rights issues, all under the broader umbrella of U.S. commitment to the security of the Republic of Korea.
Hayley Noah is a second-year student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, pursuing an M.A. in Global Policy Studies. Her specialization is Security, Law, and Diplomacy.
 Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, “U.S. Relations With the Republic of Korea: Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet,” U.S. Department of State, Sept 22, 2020, https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-the-republic-of-korea/.
 Michael R. Gordon and Gordon Lubold, “Trump Administration Weighs Troop Cut in South Korea,” The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-administration-weighs-troop-cut-in-south-korea-11595005050.
 Steve Holland, Soyoung Kim, Jack Kim, “In surprise summit concession, Trump says he will halt Korea war games,” Reuters, June 11, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa/in-surprise-summit-concession-trump-says-he-will-halt-korea-war-games-idUSKBN1J72PM.
 Josh Smith and Phil Stewart, “Trump surprises with pledge to end military exercises in South Korea,” Reuters, June 12, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-usa-military/trump-surprises-with-pledge-to-end-military-exercises-in-south-korea-idUSKBN1J812W.
 Toby Dalton and Ain Han, “Elections, Nukes, and the Future of the South Korea–U.S. Alliance,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Oct 26, 2020, https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/10/26/elections-nukes-and-future-of-south-korea-u.s.-alliance-pub-83044.
 Barbara Demick, “Escalating tension has experts simulating a new Korean War, and the scenarios are sobering,” Los Angeles Times, Sept 25, 2017, https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-korean-war-20170925-story.html.
 “Number of foreign residents in Korea tops 2.5 million,” Yonhap, Feb 17, 2020, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20200217003000315.
 Dalton and Han, “Elections, Nukes, and the Future of the South Korea–U.S. Alliance.”
 “President Donald J. Trump Signs H.R. 770, H.R. 2061, S.J.Res. 60 into Law,” The White House, July 20, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-signs-h-r-770-h-r-2061-s-j-res-60-law/.
 Robert R. King, “Congress Affirms Concern for North Korea Human Rights: Extends Human Rights Act,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 12, 2018, https://www.csis.org/analysis/congress-affirms-concern-north-korea-human-rights-extends-human-rights-act.
 Roberta Cohen, “U.S. Policy toward North Korea: Security and Human Rights Go Hand in Hand,” in The Future of the U.S.-ROK Alliance: Change and Continuity in North Korea Policy, The National Bureau of Asian Research (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2017), 14, https://www.nbr.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/publications/special_report_65_future_of_the_rok-us_alliance_April2017.pdf.
 U.S. Department of Defense, Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2019), 25, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.
 David Maxwell and Matthew Ha, “For Joe Biden, Restoring the ROK-U.S. Alliance is Critical for Any Successful North Korea Policy,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, November 16, 2020, https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2020/11/16/for-biden-restoring-rok-alliance-critical/.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LinK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul this past May, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.