Yongusil 90: The Carter-Reagan Transition and the US-South Korea Alliance

By | January 18, 2017 | No Comments

The incoming Trump administration has many feeling uneasy about the future of the American-led world order, especially America’s understanding of and commitment to the alliance system it built. It is still unclear in what direction the Trump administration will lead the country, but if it is towards isolation, as Uri Friedman suggests, then it’s worth remembering that this isn’t the first time the US has undergone a serious reconsideration of its role in the world.

Clint Work, Jackson School of International Studies PhD Candidate at the Washington University, reminds us that uncertainty defined the ROK-US alliance during the Carter and early Reagan years. His working paper on the historical subject matter, “Shifting Hierarchy & Subordinate Sovereignty: The Carter-Reagan Transition and the US-South Korea Alliance,” will be presented at the conference “Ronald Reagan and the Transformation of Global Politics in the 1980,” hosted by the University of Texas at Austin, January 19-21.1)Clint Work’s presentation takes place on January 20, from 3:30-5:15pm (Panel: South and East Asia). In this Yongusil, he provides a short summary of the work in progress. — Steven Denney, Managing Editor

The Carter-Reagan Transition and the US-South Korea Alliance

by Clint Work

US national security policy toward the Republic of Korea during the Carter and early Reagan Administrations underwent a process characterized by uncertainty, restructuring, and ultimately reaffirmation of basic patterns in the US-ROK relationship. These patterns include: First, South Korea being subsumed under broader US strategic and political concerns; second, the US maintaining a hierarchical role as the guarantor of South Korea’s external sovereignty, which includes relative control over South Korean actions; and, third, the intersection of the US-ROK alliance with domestic political contestation within South Korea.

Clint Work in Seoul (2016)

These patterns and their several consequent logics are rooted in the foundation and resultant historical process of the US-South Korea relationship. Although evolving as a result of changed external and internal conditions, over time the patterns have been reconstituted rather than fully overturned. The Carter-Reagan transition serves as a period wherein such a reconstitution occurred. In addition to recasting our understanding of the alliance, these patterns provide a novel framework with which to examine contemporary events and potential future trends.

This paper revisits the troop withdrawal plan begun under Carter and eventually reversed by Reagan, in order to construct a focused case study with which to examine the patterns above. It traces the process whereby the plan was devised, implemented, delayed, and fully stopped. The process was marked by several key factors and notable outcomes, including: concern over instability within the ROK and elsewhere; the US desire to maintain a preponderant position and credibility in the international system and East Asia more specifically; restructuring of the US-ROK alliance’s command architecture, which increased South Korean responsibility yet preserved ultimate American control; and, lastly, US legitimation of authoritarian resurgence in South Korea and the growth of intensified anti-Americanism as a result. In sum, although Carter started the process, it was Reagan who definitively reinforced the patterns above, several of which have outlived the end of the Cold War.


1 Clint Work’s presentation takes place on January 20, from 3:30-5:15pm (Panel: South and East Asia).

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