Posted : 2008-09-28 19:22
Updated : 2008-09-28 19:22

S. Korea-US Alliance Hinges on US Election: Experts

Edwin J. Feulner, president of
Heritage Foundation
By Jung Sung-ki
Staff Reporter

Whether or not to transform the Korea-U.S. alliance into a broader global partnership will depend largely on the results of the forthcoming U.S. presidential election in which the Republican and Democratic candidates differ over a bilateral free trade deal and approach toward North Korea's nuclear issue, American experts said Saturday.

Former U.S. Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost said after a ``period of friction'' in the Korea-U.S. relations under the rules of liberal South Korean leadership for the past decade and corresponding adjustments in U.S. policies, the inauguration of the Lee Myung-bak administration ushered in a new era for expanding the half-century-long Korea-U.S. relationship.

``Capitalizing on that opportunity will depend heavily on the results of the United States elections this fall,'' Armacost, who currently serves as a fellow at Stanford University's Asia-Pacific Research Center, said during a session Saturday at the three-day Korea Forum.

The forum was sponsored by the U.K.-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and the ASAN Institute for Policy Studies.

``The positions of American presidential candidates promise further adjustments in U.S.-ROK ties. The election outcome could help ameliorate current difficulties, or signal new problems,'' said Armacost, a former ambassador to Japan and the Philippines.

Though both John McCain of the Republican Party and Barack Obama of the Democratic Party have expressed commitment to the U.S.-Korea alliance, the Democratic Party reflects anxieties about globalization and renewed doubts about trade liberalization, which could jeopardize the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) that has yet to be ratified, he said.

``The U.S. presidential election system is itself unique, and we must bear several cautionary notes in mind if the U.S.-ROK relationship is to be sustained and augmented while Washington goes through yet another of its periodic `regime changes,''' he added.

Edwin J. Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank, said, ``The greatest difference between the two candidates is over KORUS FTA, with McCain firmly in favor and Obama fiercely opposed.''

McCain highlights the fact that Seoul and Washington would benefit economically from lowering trade barriers, including a $20 billion increase in annual bilateral trade, citing the Korea-U.S. trade deal as an example of the rewards of free trade in an era of growing economic globalization, said Feulner.

``Obama opposes the KORUS FTA as `badly flawed,' claiming it wouldn't do enough to increase U.S. auto sales. His criticism echoes the auto labor unions, which are fighting to defeat a trade bill that redresses the very problems they have complained of for years,'' he said.

Feulner added either candidate would probably have to contend with a more protectionist Democratic-led Congress that is increasingly hostile to free trade.

Both McCain and Obama favor engaging rather than isolating North Korea, he noted. However, McCain has expressed greater skepticism of diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang amid a stalemate over the establishment of a protocol to verify North Korea's declaration of nuclear programs made in June.

``He opposes President Bush's current negotiating methods, which only provide incentives. More so than Obama, McCain would rely on pressure, including applying U.N. resolution 1718, to augment diplomacy with North Korea,'' said the expert.

On the other hand, he said, Obama emphasizes ``sustained, direct, and aggressive'' engagement with North Korea.

Feulner said it is important both countries begin the evolution from a singularly focused mission of the Korea-U.S. alliance of deterring North Korean aggression to a more robust values-based relationship that looks beyond the Korean Peninsula.

To that end, he suggested, both countries initiate a public-diplomacy effort to secure extended public and legislate support for the new alliance framework.

``Failure to provide a sufficiently clear strategic vision as justification for the enduring need for the alliance could lead to an erosion of public and legislation support and calls for a reduction or withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea,'' he said. ``Without substantial and sustained involvement by the senior political and military leadership, the alliance may not be sufficiently adapted to the new threat environment, including as a hedge against Chinese military modernization.''
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