Monday, July 15, 2024
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This Moment Will Determine the Future of the U.S.-South Korea Alliance

Following the heinous terrorist attacks on Israel, the world is watching the United States. Our allies question whether they should trust us and our enemies question whether they should fear us. At this perilous moment, we cannot afford to leave any doubt about American resolve. That means standing not just with Israel but also our closest allies around the world.

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the U.S. and South Korean alliance, which was formalized by the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty. Over seven decades, our partnership has flourished through great challenges, providing great benefits to both countries.

However, we are at a critical turning point for our alliance. As war rages in the Middle East and Europe, the threat of conflict in Asia with North Korea and China looms. The next few years could determine whether the alliance, trilateral relations, and our Indo-Pacific strategy collapses under the weight of toxic politics or flourishes for decades to come.

Fortunately, we have a committed partner in South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol, who campaigned on closer ties with the United States and arguably has staked the success of his tenure on the bet that this approach will deliver results at home.

Just this year, President Yoon is slated to visit the United States four times. President Joe Biden‘s recent trilateral Camp David summit with the leaders of Korea and Japan prove that President Yoon is willing to take the political risk of forging with another key U.S. ally despite long-standing historical grievances between Japan and Korea. Meanwhile, President Yoon has expanded our military alliance and is actively encouraging South Korean companies to invest billions of dollars in the United States.

In key areas such as cyber, space exploration, energy, and pandemic preparedness, cooperation with South Korea is essential for our economic and security future. Not only will increased economic cooperation create jobs and growth here at home while reducing the dependence of our supply chains on our adversaries, but the unity will send a clear message of strength that the United States remains a Pacific power that they should not test.

Despite this positive momentum, there are numerous frustrations on both sides of our relationship that could simmer into a boil. Many of our South Korean partners were apoplectic about protectionist measures in the Inflation Reduction Act that excluded Korean firms from qualifying for electric vehicle tax credits, even as these same companies invest billions building new car production plants in the United States. At a time when the United States Navy is now significantly smaller than China’s, posing an imminent danger to our national security, South Korean companies that can build vessels at far lower costs are excluded from the market. Meanwhile, many Korean companies are unable to get visas for the highly-skilled workers they need to make their American investments successful.

The Koreans also have their work cut out for them in making sure not to alienate important constituencies in the United States. Just like their American counterparts, many Korean companies have significant exposure to China. Korean companies will have to explain to potential American partners how they plan to reduce this dependency and appeal for enough time to get the job done. There’s also the risk that all this increased investment in the United States will spark backlash from their American competitors. As many younger Americans have little memory of the Korean War, we can’t afford to assume they will automatically be aware of why our alliance is so important.

In April of next year, South Korea will hold its legislative elections. If the Korean people do not conclude that President Yoon’s efforts with the United States are bearing fruit, it’s possible he will feel the pain at the ballot box, putting future progress at risk. Then there’s the potential impact of our upcoming elections. During his time in office, former President Donald Trump made his somewhat inexplicable disdain for the South Koreans clear, falsely accusing them of not contributing to the cost of housing American forces. If re-elected, he’s “suggested imposing a universal tariff” on all imports, which would treat South Korea like they were an adversary and greatly set back our relationship.

As a result of my family’s relationship with South Korea, I feel a unique responsibility to help make sure our alliance grows stronger, not weaker. My wife was the first Korean American first lady in U.S. history. Her life is a testament to the enduring friendship between our countries, and I’m proud to often be called the “Hanguk Sawi,” or “Son-in-Law of Korea.” That’s why I will join my Korean friends in celebrating the last 70 years of partnership. If we want to ensure another successful 70 years, we should not ignore the storm clouds on the horizon.

Larry Hogan served as the 62nd governor of Maryland from 2015 to 2023. His wife, Yumi Hogan, is the only Korean American first lady in American history.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.

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