South Korea

The missing link

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 February, 2008, 12:00am


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The inauguration on Monday of Lee Myung-bak as South Korea's new president opens the door for a revitalisation of the country's alliance with the United States. This relationship has been severely tested and strained in recent years, as a result of policy differences and more fundamental 'vision' differences between Washington and Seoul.

An increasingly pragmatic approach towards the Korean Peninsula on the part of Washington, and the advent of a more conservative, pro-alliance government in Seoul, makes improved relations more likely and perhaps even somewhat easier to achieve, but by no means assured. If the alliance relationship is to be truly revitalised, both sides need to take some decisive steps, sooner rather than later.

Mr Lee has already said that he plans to place increased importance on alliance maintenance and that he understands the centrality of the relationship to the security of the peninsula.

But what is missing, in both Seoul and Washington, has been a clear articulation of the continued rationale and vision for the alliance both today and after eventual North-South reconciliation or reunification. Such a vision existed, and was clearly articulated, during the Kim Dae-jung and Clinton administrations, but has not really been spelled out since then.

The last time that presidents Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush held a summit meeting, they did not even issue a joint statement. The time before that, they issued a vague statement that focused more on multilateral co-operation than on the future relevance of the bilateral relationship. One would hope that Mr Lee, shortly after his election, would issue a broad vision statement about South Korea's desired future role in Asia, and the world, and how the US alliance fits into this vision.

Mr Kim used to argue publicly and persuasively that South Korea had to maintain good relations simultaneously with its four giant neighbours - China, Japan, Russia and the United States. He said that the best, perhaps the only, way this could be accomplished was through the continued viability of the alliance with the US, which provided Seoul with the necessary security assurances to deal with its other three, more immediate, neighbours. The US, in effect, was the 'outside balancer' that made Northeast Asian harmony possible. This was true in the near term, when faced with uncertainty regarding North Korea's future direction and behaviour; it would be equally, if not more, true were North Korea to either disappear or become somehow incorporated into a greater Korean confederation or unified nation under the political, economic and social system existing today in the South.

Does Mr Lee see the future in similar terms? If so, he needs to articulate his vision at any summit meeting with Mr Bush. This would then set the stage for a joint statement articulating a common vision for the alliance and its future role and relevance.

Mr Lee appears to have already reconsidered his earlier plan to dismantle the Unification Ministry and incorporate it into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is regrettable but understandable, for political reasons. But it was not the existence of the Unification Ministry that caused so many problems over the past five years. It was the tendency of its various ministers to make statements that undercut the Foreign Ministry's many attempts to speak with one voice with Washington in dealing with North Korea.

The Bush administration had an equally difficult time speaking with one voice on Korea during its first four years, as the Vice-President's Office continually undercut the State Department's efforts to reach accommodation with North Korea. Fortunately, Mr Bush has exercised long-overdue leadership in placing his faith and support behind Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her top North Korea negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill. One of Mr Lee's most important early tasks will be to ensure that his foreign and unification ministers speak from the same page.

Mr Lee has already said the right things: that his government will remain committed to North-South engagement - indeed, he has even pledged to raise the North's gross domestic product sixfold (to US$3,000) within 10 years - but only if Pyongyang honours its denuclearisation pledges. This dovetails nicely with Washington's stated position that stresses the potential pot of gold that awaits the North at the end of the denuclearisation rainbow.

There are many other issues to be addressed. Many Lee supporters want to revisit the decision to switch wartime operational control of South Korean forces from the Combined Forces Command (led by a US general) to South Korea by 2012. There is a need for contingency planning in the event of a North Korean collapse or rejection of the denuclearisation pact. The two sides also need to craft a consistent policy on North Korean human rights.

Moving forward on the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement will also have implications for the health of the alliance. Here, Mr Lee has an easier task than Mr Bush, given the politicisation of FTAs.

The essential first step is to craft a unified joint vision of how the alliance fits into Mr Lee's broader vision of where he wants to take South Korea.

Ralph Cossa is president of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based non-profit research institute affiliated with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Distributed by Pacific Forum CSIS