US Politics Dominate Summit
By Andy Jackson
It's easy to feel that the Korean leg of U.S. President Barack Obama's Asian tour was added almost as an afterthought.
The American leader landed at Osan Air Base, a sprawling U.S. Air Force facility south of Seoul, rather than Seoul Airport, where foreign leaders normally land when visiting Korea.
He spent the night on the American military outpost rather than at a hotel or diplomatic facility in Seoul, something that was politely but disappointedly noted by a foreign ministry official who suggested that President Obama ``must be tired" from his earlier travels in Japan, Singapore and China.
It is a sign of the strength of the Obama brand that there was not more open criticism of the U.S. president for not spending more time in the part of Korea not administrated by the U.S. military.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak did not seem to mind the minor slights. In fact, Obama's reception in Korea was the warmest he received anywhere on his Asian tour. Despite that, there was remarkably little of substance accomplished during the brief summit.
The two leaders continued to agree on the best approach toward North Korea, with the U.S. restarting official bilateral meetings with Pyongyang but limiting the subject of those talks primarily to getting the North back into the six-party process.
The two leaders pledged to ``cooperate" on global issues but there were no specific agreements on trade, climate change or defense. In one surprise, there was also no statement on Korea sending troops to Afghanistan.
The one area where the leaders did seem to engage in serious discussions was trade, especially the stalled Korean-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) and American concerns about the automobile trade previsions in the agreement.
Lee sounded an accommodating note, saying, ``If there is a problem in the auto sector, I think we can discuss this issue again."
There has been much discussion about what Lee meant by that comment. Was he agreeing to a substantive renegotiation of the KORUS FTA?
Most likely, he was not. Lee took a major political hit in the spring of 2008 over an agreement to allow the importation of American beef to Korea. Faced with protests in the streets and plunging poll numbers, Lee asked to revise the agreement.
The Americans, not wanting to set a precedent of having to go back and change an agreement that had already been finalized, refused but did agree to a series of meetings to address Korea's concerns, a format of ``additional negotiations" rather than ``renegotiations."
Regarding the KORUS FTA, Lee would certainly rather have additional discussions, perhaps leading to a side agreement or a statement of mutual understanding, than any substantial change in the text of the agreement itself.
A renegotiation of the FTA would be seen by much of the Korean public as a humiliation after the American refusal to renegotiate the beef agreement.
Lee's simply hinting at the possibly of revising part of the trade agreement has led to criticism. The Hankyoreh, Korea's leading progressive newspaper, said that ``the Lee administration went out for wool and came home shorn."
Sensitive to such criticism, the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae was quick to point out that Lee's statement was in no way a sign that Korea is ready to renegotiate the agreement itself.
Presidential spokeswoman Kim Eun-hye clarified Lee's remark, stating, ``There is no shift in the position that the agreement, already signed by both parties, will not be changed." She went on to say that Lee meant that the Korean side was willing to listen to American concerns.
Obama has his own domestic concerns regarding the KORUS FTA.
The American auto industry has strong backing within Obama's Democratic Party. While campaigning for the Democratic nomination in 2007 and 2008, Obama earned support from the party faithful by pledging to oppose ``unfair" trade deals.
Although Obama has moderated that position somewhat, he still says that there are aspects of the FTA that need to be revisited, especially regarding automobiles.
However, the two most important barriers toward American auto sales in Korea, an 8 percent duty on auto imports to Korea and taxes on engine displacement, would both be removed under the trade agreement.
The real concern on the American side is to protect Detroit from the further Korean encroachments on the American domestic auto market that would likely occur once the FTA went into effect.
While approving the KORUS FTA would be good for Korea-U.S. relations and, almost certainly, a good deal for the United States economically, it is too dangerous politically for the Obama administration to support right now.
Which brings us back to the White House decision to have Obama spend most of his time in Korea on an American military base.
While it is nice for the American public to see their president talking with world leaders, there are few photo ops better than having him speak to a group of enthusiastic American troops like he did at Osan Air Base.
If they were not already spirited enough at the beginning of Obama's speech, his announcement that he was going to raise military pay certainly got them in the right mood.
Obama would have never gotten that level of enthusiasm by proclaiming his support of the KORUS FTA.
Andy Jackson has taught courses on American government and has been writing on Korean politics and other issues for four years. He is the chairman of Republicans Abroad-Korea. He can be reached at email@example.com.