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.

The visit this week of South Korea's new president, Lee Myung Bak, offers a rare opportunity to put the American-Korean relationship back on a more solid footing. President Lee, who won a decisive victory in last December's election, has expressed views on the security alliance, a bilateral free trade agreement, and policy toward North Korea that are thoroughly compatible with US interests. And Mr. Lee's authority was bolstered by his party's substantial victory in legislative elections April 9.

The question is whether Washington is poised to take advantage of this convergence of views.

For the past eight years, a major perception gap between Seoul and Washington has been painfully evident. Our governments often worked at cross-purposes in the six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea. Progressive governments in South Korea encouraged peaceful coexistence with the North through a pattern of unreciprocated engagement. For much of that time, the Bush administration sought to isolate and pressure Pyongyang into relinquishing its nuclear ambitions, and it made little effort to conceal its hopes for a regime change in Pyongyang.

When Washington decided to move its military headquarters out of Seoul in 2003, many Korean officials suspected that the Americans were just eager to get troops out of North Korean artillery range. President Roh Moo Hyun at times seemed interested in carving out a role as a balance wheel between the major powers in Northeast Asia. Meanwhile, the US was preoccupied by problems in the Middle East, and some American officials wondered if the US-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance could long survive when one party dismissed the North Korean threat while the other viewed it as increasingly menacing.

Now comes Lee, a former mayor of Seoul and Hyundai construction executive with a reputation for tough-minded, pragmatic conservatism, eager to correct what he described as the misguided priorities of past ROK administrations. In a recent meeting with New Beginnings, a group of American policy experts on Korea, Lee appeared determined to accord priority to the alliance with the United States, exact a measure of reciprocity from the North, forestall major economic concessions to the North until it abandons its nuclear activities, and design a more ambitious global role for his country.

Surely Washington welcomes Lee's priorities. The tougher question is whether it can work effectively with him to translate shared aims into concrete results. This will pose three particular challenges.

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.

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.

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