New hope for U.S.-South Korea ties
From free trade to North Korea's nuclear threat, both sides must move past years of missteps.
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First, on the nuclear issue, undeniably, bilateral talks with Pyongyang can facilitate diplomatic progress. There are dangers as well. Disconnects with the Japanese have deepened, and their officials occasionally complain about American "betrayals" in the discussions with Pyongyang. The North has consistently sought to use the negotiations to split the US and its allies. Success in the talks requires coordinated diplomacy between the US and the North's neighbors – especially with South Korea. In the past it often appeared that South Korean presidents worried less about Pyongyang's nuclear activities than Washington's possible reactions to them.Skip to next paragraph
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Today, there is the danger that South Korean conservatives may fear that Washington will ultimately acquiesce in North Korea's nascent nuclear status. No attempt to contain, let alone eliminate, the North Korean nuclear program can succeed unless the US and ROK governments work closely together. This will require a higher standard of candor and mutual trust in bilateral consultations than has been typical in recent years.
Second, the ratification of the Korea-US free-trade agreement (FTA) is a vital piece of unfinished business. Lee appears prepared to resume imports of US beef (halted due to mad cow disease concerns), essential to moving the FTA forward in Congress. Unfortunately, the Democratic presidential contenders are pandering to special interests on trade issues in a way they will probably later regret. Both sides have strategic and commercial interests at stake. The US stands to gain much more in increased exports from the FTA, while the Koreans hope that liberalizing foreign access to their economy will make them more competitive. So there is much to gain by nailing down this deal. A failure to complete it would be a significant strategic setback for our partnership.
Third, there is the question as to whether our political cycles will again diverge. For the past eight years, the US has been led by one of its most conservative administrations, while South Korea was headed by its most liberal president. Missteps were, perhaps, inevitable. And they have persisted, even though some effective work was done behind the scenes to forge cooperative arrangements on trade and force-deployment issues.
Lee's election signifies a conservative swing in South Korea's politics, while polls suggest the US may be moving in the opposite direction. Thus, a felicitous convergence of US and ROK official perspectives could prove fleeting. Yet the interests we share in expanded commerce, in modernizing our alliance, and in approaching the North with a joint strategy for "denuclearization" are compelling. They transcend partisan politics. They serve our respective national interests. The time to capitalize on them is now.
• Michael Armacost, the Shorenstein Distinguished Fellow at Stanford's Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, served as undersecretary of State for political affairs and as ambassador to Japan and the Philippines.