Difficult US-Korean issues are left hanging

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 November, 2008, 12:00am

In a society that places much emphasis on symbolic gestures, the telephone chit-chat between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and US president-elect Barack Obama was probably not a waste of time. Senator Obama had shown respect by including Mr Lee in the first nine heads of state he called after his victory.

Still, the dialogue did not just leave the difficult issues for later; it completely ignored them.

Why did Mr Lee not ask Senator Obama about his seeming climbdown, during his campaign, from his strenuous opposition to a free-trade agreement? Was Senator Obama now saying he might go along with such a deal, but only if American vehicles had greater access to the South Korean market?

Currently, the gap in motor vehicle sales in each other's markets is so huge that the odds on bringing the figures much closer are probably worse than the chances of North Korea completely abandoning its nuclear weapons programme.

American negotiators, with the full backing of US President George W. Bush, believe the agreement is broad enough to bring about a significant increase in the export of other products to South Korea.

But if Senator Obama sticks to his guns, debate on the free-trade agreement could sour relations between Washington and Seoul.

Nor is the free-trade agreement the only stumbling block. Mr Lee and Senator Obama do not necessarily see eye to eye on North Korea, despite their pledge to co-operate on six-party talks on Pyongyang's nuclear programme.

The concern in Seoul is that Senator Obama will be more likely than Mr Bush to make concessions. Senator Obama's apparent willingness to meet North Korea's Kim Jong-il, among other leaders hostile to the US, raises the question of whether he will agree to the North's demands for withdrawal of US forces and a peace treaty excluding South Korea.

Neither Mr Lee nor Senator Obama raised these uncomfortable issues in their phone conversation. Nor did they talk about North Korea's assault on the human rights of its own people. Mr Lee has outraged North Korea by promising to make it an issue.

In view of the uncertain health of Mr Kim, though, some analysts believe Senator Obama and Mr Lee should be discussing how to respond after he leaves the scene.

Victor Cha, former Asia director of the National Security Council staff in the Bush administration, called for 'quiet but serious discussion about how to prepare for sudden change in North Korea' during a recent visit to Seoul.

For now, however, the economy takes precedence. Verification of North Korea's compliance with the nuclear deal can wait. Votes on the free-trade deal - in the US Congress and South Korea's National Assembly - could happen before Senator Obama takes office. The outcome will set the course for US-Korean relations as surely as have the endless six-party talks on the North's nuclear weapons.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals