President Lee Myung-bak shakes hands with U.S. President Barack Obama after a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Toronto, June 26. The friendship the two leaders have forged reflects the healthy ties between the two nations, which analysts say are as strong as ever. / Korea Times
By Kim Young-jin
Since taking office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama hasn't been able to say enough about Korea. From its laudable education system to rapid economic development, its green growth initiative to the leadership of his counterpart, Lee Myung-bak, the American president has showered praise on Asia’s fourth-largest economy.
In fact, as The Korea Times reported in August, Obama had name-dropped Korea in over ten percent of his speeches since his inauguration.
The high-level fondness is reciprocal. Lee told reporters earlier this month, “I believe in the leadership of President Obama,” and considers his counterpart as a “personal friend.”
The mutual charm offensive is indicative of more than a genuine fondness shared by the heads of state it reflects a bond between the countries that has deepened under their leadership. Analysts say the bilateral ties, rooted in history, are stronger now than ever. But delicate issues loom on the horizon.
Underpinned by the 1954 South Korea-U.S. Mutual Security Agreement signed in the aftermath of the 1950-53 Korean War the bond has, in fact, always been close.
This was the case even during a time of friction in the early 2000s, when divergences arose on several issues ― in particular, on how to handle the problem of the North Korean nuclear program and a generational divide among South Koreans on the U.S. military presence here.
At the time, the successive liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun advocated a policy of rapprochement with the North. Meanwhile, George W. Bush, upon entering the White House in 2001, cut off diplomatic relations with the communist state, citing violations of a 1994 denuclearization agreement.
By 2007, relations began to mend, with differences on North Korea narrowing and the two countries agreeing to sign the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (KORUS FTA). Even at the height of the friction, however, the ties were never at the risk of unraveling.
“The United States and South Korea agree on many fundamental issues, no matter who is president: global norms such as democracy and human rights, open liberal trading systems, and multilateral approaches to East Asia,” David Kang, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, said. “We tend to overestimate how bad the relationship was in the early 2000s.”
Still, when Lee came in to power in 2008 he did so with a promise to improve relations with Washington. He also brought a tougher line on the North, aligning with that of Obama.
In a summit in June last year, the two leaders adopted a Joint Vision statement to broaden the scope of the alliance beyond military ties to extend to the political, economic and cultural realms.
The bolstered bonds came at a time of flux in Northeast Asia, with ties between Washington and Tokyo strained over the relocation of the Futenma Air Station since the Democratic Party of Japan took power last year. The Obama administration is also dealing with emerging China, and has wrangled with Beijing on a slew of issues.
“South Korea is, hands down, the best friend the United States has in Asia today, given where Japan is and the situation with China,” Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the paper in a recent interview.
Impact of Cheonan incident
That bond grew closer on March 26, when the South Korean warship Cheonan sank in waters near the disputed maritime border with the North, killing 46 seamen. After a Seoul-led international probe of the incident in May blamed a North Korean torpedo attack, Seoul, Washington and their allies pushed for tightened U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang.
The campaign was ultimately blocked by China and Russia, permanent members of the UN Security Council with ties to the North. But Seoul cut off almost all inter-Korean trade and aid, and Washington followed suit with country-specific sanctions aimed at cutting off the stream of illicit funds to the regime.
“The sinking was a wake-up call for the South Korean elite and some in the United State as well,” Oh Kong-dan, an expert with the U.S.-based Institute for Defense Analysis said. “Both governments know the North Korea issue is no joke.”
In response to the sinking, the allies staged war games in the East Sea as a deterrent against North Korean aggression. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Seoul in May in a show of solidarity and again with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in July for the first-ever “2 plus 2” talks between the two nations.
Inter-Korean tensions have since cooled somewhat, and Pyongyang, backed by China, has signaled its willingness to return to the six-party talks on its denuclearization. But Washington maintains that Pyongyang must show its genuine intent to denuclearize and further warm inter-Korean ties before the talks resume, and defers to the South over whether an apology for the sinking is necessary.
“Right now there is the common perception that North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons,” Oh said. “This new strategic environment where North Korea is a virtual nuclear power that also uses occasional aggression towards South Korea raises the common ground for the allies to work together.”
Some analysts, however, warn that the deepening ties could come at the expense of a multilateral approach that includes all regional players, citing the increased tension with the North as well as China.
“Exclusive military ties in the name of common values, that kind of alliance can precipitate strategic uncertainty," Moon Chung-in, a professor of international relations at Yonsei University, said.
“If you put all the eggs in the America basket, then if some kind of tension arises in the region, Korean public opinion of the United States could drop and that would jeopardize U.S. interests,” he said.
Despite the close cooperation, ratification of the FTA remains an elusive missing link. The White House, citing imbalances in auto trade, has yet to present the bill for congressional approval while Seoul is adverse to amend it.
Obama, despite opposition from factions within his Democratic Party who say the pact’s auto provisions do not properly address Korea’s non-tariff barriers to U.S. imports, has pledged to make every effort to finalize the bill by the time Seoul opens the G20 summit on Nov. 11.
Multiple bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill for prompt ratification have stressed both the economic and strategic benefits of the deal, saying it would bolster the U.S. presence in a region where foreign policy is increasingly based on trade.
The two sides failed to reach an agreement on how to address the auto concerns at a meeting in Paris earlier this month.
Korea University professor Kim Sung-han said a ratified pact would solidify the future of the alliance.
“If we think of the relations as a triangle, we already have political and military ties in place,” said Kim, who plays an advisory role to the Lee administration. “The bottom line of the triangle is the economic ties and that would be symbolized by the FTA.”
Ironically, Obama’s KORUS push should be aided by a strong Republican showing in Tuesday’s midterm elections. The GOP, expected to take back the House of Representatives and make major gains in the Senate in the polls, is far more favorable to free trade than Obama’s Democrats.
Professor Kim said two touchy topics remain between the allies that need to be addressed as soon as possible. One issue is South Korean ballistic missiles, which under a 2001 agreement with the United States are restricted to have a maximum range of 300 kilometers.
Washington, fearing an arms race in the region, set the guideline in exchange for supporting Korea’s entrance into the Missile Technology Control Regime, a voluntary club of over 30 countries that seeks to limit missile proliferation.
But after the North test fired an ICBM in April 2009 and conducted a second nuclear test a month later, many in the South called for the need to extend the range to 600-700 kilometers, enough to cover the entire North.
“It’s an issue we need to discuss as soon as possible because South Korea, after the Cheonan incident, has come up with the new task of proactive deterrence,” Kim said, adding that his views do not necessarily reflect those of the government.
The push to do so may be hastened by the North’s increasing military capabilities, the analyst said, citing the ballistic missiles it boasted during a massive military parade earlier this month, which he said have the range to reach as far as Guam.
The other matter is reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, Kim said, because the South, which has no oil reserves and derives 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors, is running out of storage space. The material can be used for energy purposes but also nuclear weapons.
The two sides Monday opened formal talks on renewing a 1974 civilian nuclear pact that currently prohibits the South from reprocessing the material for fuel.
Washington, dealing with the nuclear ambitions of Iran as well as Pyongyang, feels that allowing South Korea the right to reprocess the fuel would set the wrong precedent for other nations.
Cheong Wa Dae has signaled that it wants to reach an accord with the U.S. to allow the recycling by 2012. The current agreement runs through 2014.
Seoul hopes to adopt a technology called “pyroprocessing,” which it says is less conducive to proliferation. The White House, however, favors interim storage of spent nuclear fuel.
The issue could “be contentions because the United States is concerned that allowing the reprocessing could make nuclear negotiations with the North more difficult,” Kim said.
But it will be important to iron out by 2012 when Seoul is slated to host the 2nd Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), Kim said. Seoul, handpicked by Obama to host the event after he hosted the inaugural summit in April, is expected to table the peaceful use of nuclear energy as a main agenda item.
Kim said issues such as spent nuclear fuel “could dominate the agenda and lead to a failure of the NSS. In order to prevent such an occurrence Seoul and Washington will probably deal with it before the summit.”
Despite the delicacy of the issues, Kim expressed confidence in the alliance. “At this juncture the ties are in really good shape,” he said.