November 16, 2020

Renew, Elevate, Modernize: A Blueprint for a 21st-Century U.S.-ROK Alliance Strategy


Ambassador Mark Lippert (Ret.)

In 2023, during the next presidential term in the United States, the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea will celebrate its 70th anniversary. Born in the wake of the Korean War, the alliance has evolved into a true partnership in the decades since, expanding to meet new challenges and proving resolute in the face of new threats.

Despite some dire predictions made at the outset of the Trump presidency based largely on rhetoric from the 2016 campaign, the alliance continues to be resilient in 2020. The defense relationship is providing effective deterrence against an evolving North Korean military challenge. Commercial and economic integration increased under a revised Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS-FTA). Medical and scientific exchanges have increased in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The people-to-people relationship is closer than ever, with the Korean film Parasite winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, the K-pop band BTS topping the U.S. Billboard charts, and ESPN broadcasting Korean Baseball Organization games almost daily.

Nevertheless, there is a powerful argument that the alliance has not entirely fulfilled its vast potential during the past four years. It could and should be doing more. For example, analysts have pointed out that governments in Washington and Seoul have become overly focused on important yet at times more tactical issues such as defense burden-sharing, unilateral 232 trade actions by the United States, and the machinations—or lack thereof—associated with a single bilateral working group on North Korea. As a result, the bilateral relationship resembles what my colleague Dr. Victor Cha often calls an “upside-down pyramid” with a disproportionate amount of energy placed on a small set of thorny issues.

This comes at an inopportune time. The geopolitical and economic issues facing the alliance—the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of China, enduring tensions between Tokyo and Seoul, and challenges to the rules-based international system—are rapidly growing in strength and complexity. This landscape demands a high-performing, global alliance that is deeply involved on issue sets that will shape the 21st century and bring new “constituencies” into the relationship.

The good news is that the United States and Republic of Korea can recapture the initiative. There are ample reasons that this “upside-down pyramid” can be quickly flipped, rightsized, and expanded.

First, there is, of course, the election of Joseph R. Biden as president of the United States. President-elect Biden has made reinvigorating global alliances a critical part of his foreign policy platform. Moreover, Biden’s election also means that both presidents (South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Biden) have deep experience in U.S.-ROK alliance management and support in their respective legislatures who also support the bilateral relationship. There has also been progress on diverse policy issues during this period during this period from acquisition of military capabilities to energy initiatives, and additionally, an extremely talented cadre of “alliance managers” remains active in both capitals. Finally, critical to policymaking in two democracies, there is strong popular support for the alliance among the American and Korean people.

To effectively seize this opportunity and recapture the momentum, officials on both sides of the Pacific should commit to three broad lines of effort:

  1. Reduce the irritants, find more common ground, and effectively manage the legitimate disagreements in areas such as burden-sharing, unilateral trade actions, and commercial issues across a range of sectors;
  2. Aggressively engage in traditional alliance issues such as security and economics, addressing underserved areas while adapting, updating, and modernizing alliance thinking and mechanisms to ensure closer alignment on topics such as North Korea policy, trade issues, and Indo-Pacific strategies;
  3. Broaden the aperture and cement progress into “new frontiers” such as cyber, space, the fourth industrial revolution, public health, energy, and the environment.

As in decades past, the journey ahead will not be without obstacles. There are points of potential tension moving forward that require skillful management on both sides of the Pacific. Policymakers in Washington and Seoul will need to draw upon the best possible expertise in order to seize this window for significant progress. This report by Kristine Lee, Joshua Fitt, and Coby Goldberg, who represent the next generation of research scholars and analysts is full of the kind of fresh ideas and creative insights that will help leaders succeed.

The authors in this paper argue that by broadening the focus of the alliance, the two allies will be better equipped to address enduring geopolitical risks in Northeast Asia, including those associated with a nuclear-armed North Korea and an ascendant China. The detailed options and policy recommendations they lay out across three broad lines of effort—ranging from cooperating on clean energy programs to managing Japan–South Korea tensions—provide a valuable framework for the next presidential administration to renew the U.S.-ROK alliance and to address long-standing regional challenges.

While this is not a formal endorsement of all of the contents of the report in its entirety, it is an important contribution to the alliance discussions that will help shape its direction—at a critical juncture—in the weeks, months and years ahead. The entire CNAS team is to be applauded for these contributions. I look forward to the analysis, debate, and policymaking that will flow from this insightful set of observations and recommendations. The quality of thinking in the alliance today and our track record in the face of challenges provide reasons for strong optimism about the road ahead.

Ambassador Mark Lippert had a distinguished career in the United States government that spanned approximately two decades and included a series of senior-level positions across multiple agencies. From 2014 to 2017, he served as the United States Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Korea, based in Seoul. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of CNAS or any other organization.

Executive Summary

The U.S.–South Korea alliance is a primary deterrent to the threat North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal poses. But the alliance’s nearly singular functional focus on managing the North Korea threat, despite South Korea’s broadly integral role in advancing a rules-based order in the region, has introduced volatility in the bilateral relationship. Washington’s halting and inconsistent approach to Pyongyang and its failure to reach a timely agreement on its military cost-sharing framework with Seoul have nudged the alliance toward a new inflection point.

Beyond the North Korea challenge, South Korea has the potential to play a consequential role in advancing the United States’ broader vision for a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. As Seoul adopts globally oriented policies, buoyed by its position at the leading edge of certain technology areas and its successful COVID-19 pandemic response, the United States should parlay these efforts into a more concrete role for South Korea as a partner on the world stage. Collaborating on global public health issues, combating climate change, and jointly developing norms around critical emerging technologies would position the alliance to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

By widening the aperture of the alliance and positioning Seoul to play an integral role in the United States’ vision for the future of the Indo-Pacific, the two allies will be better equipped to address enduring geopolitical risks in Northeast Asia, including those associated with a nuclear-armed North Korea. This paper, therefore, charts a new path forward for the alliance to ensure Washington can harness Seoul’s unique capabilities, beginning with the following six policy pillars:

  1. Advance cooperation on “new frontier” policy areas, such as renewable energy development, civil space dialogues, 5G deployment, smart cities, and next-generation telecommunications security.
  2. Reinvigorate the U.S.South Korea trade relationship by reducing barriers to the flow of capital, data, and talent between the two countries, working together on World Trade Organization (WTO) reform, and joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
  3. Coordinate on values-based diplomacy, with an emphasis on combating foreign influence operations, developing norms in cybersecurity, and finding areas of intersectionality between South Korea’s New Southern Policy and the United States’ Indo-Pacific vision.
  4. Galvanize new areas of security cooperation, focusing on asymmetric capabilities and leveraging South Korea’s Defense Reform 2.0 to jointly invest in unmanned systems and other advanced military technologies.
  5. Prioritize managing Japan–South Korea tensions through active, behind-the-scenes facilitation and advancement of trilateral initiatives, such as building an alliance innovation base.
  6. Realign approaches to the North Korea challenge by advancing a more complementary division of labor to restrict Pyongyang’s ability to exploit rifts in the allies’ priorities.


This report was made possible by the generous funding of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The authors are grateful to the many U.S. officials and experts who shared their perspectives during the course of the project through participation in virtual workshops with CNAS. We are deliberately omitting the names of senior U.S. officials from whom we have also benefited. Finally, this paper would not have been possible without assistance from a variety of CNAS colleagues, including Melody Cook, Allison Francis, Daniel Kliman, Maura McCarthy, Jake Penders, Ely Ratner, and Emma Swislow. The views presented here do not represent those of CNAS or any other organization, and the authors are solely responsible for any errors in fact, analysis, or omission.

As a research and policy institution committed to the highest standards of organizational, intellectual, and personal integrity, CNAS maintains strict intellectual independence and sole editorial direction and control over its ideas, projects, publications, events, and other research activities. CNAS does not take institutional positions on ​policy issues and the content of CNAS publications reflects the views of their authors alone. In keeping with its mission and values, CNAS does not engage in lobbying activity and complies fully with all applicable federal, state, and local laws. CNAS will not engage in any representational activities or advocacy on behalf of any entities or interests and, to the extent that the Center accepts funding from non-U.S. sources, its activities will be limited to bona fide scholastic, academic, and research-related activities, consistent with applicable federal law. The Center publicly acknowledges on its website annually all donors who contribute.

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  • Kristine Lee

    Former Associate Fellow

    Kristine Lee is a former Associate Fellow with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where she focuses on U.S. alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, ...

  • Joshua Fitt

    Former Associate Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Joshua Fitt is a former Associate Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at CNAS. He focuses on U.S. East Asian security strategy and specializes in Japanese and Korean ...

  • ​Coby Goldberg

    Former Intern, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Coby Goldberg is a former Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Intern for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)....

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