Is South Korea America's new best friend in Asia?

A new trade pact with South Korea and a state dinner for President Lee Myung-bak highlights the growth of the US-South Korea alliance, which some say has never been stronger.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama (r.) and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak hold a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House on Thursday.

President Obama is fond of saying that if Americans are driving Hyundais and Kias, then South Koreans ought to be driving Chevys, Fords, and Chryslers as well.

South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak is in the US this week for a White House state visit, and on Friday the two leaders will visit a General Motors plant in Detroit, where Mr. Obama will invite his guest to try out one of the “Made in America” vehicles that should soon be easier to find on the streets of Seoul and Busan.

That’s because after four years of delays, Congress ratified the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on Wednesday, a day before President Lee attends a White House state dinner in his honor. Also on Thursday, Lee is to address a joint session of Congress.

Trade is likely to be the high-profile, feel-good topic of Lee’s visit, boosted by the just-out-of-the-oven trade pact that proponents in the US say will mean $11 billion in new US exports and thousands of new jobs. Opponents counter that the Korea FTA, along with two smaller trade deals with Colombia and Panama, will send US jobs overseas.

The other items on the Obama-Lee agenda – from North Korea and nuclear issues to rousing the military giant that is China – are unlikely to cause any waves in a relationship that some regional analysts say has never been stronger.

The US-South Korea relationship is “probably … at one of its highest points, if not the highest point in history,” says Victor Cha, Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Under Lee, South Korea has become one of the US’s closest allies, in terms of its efforts in Afghanistan, in the G20 economic forum, and even on green initiatives, Mr. Cha adds.

All these things add up to “President Lee, on what is likely his last visit to the US as the president of South Korea, … being awarded this honor” of a state visit.

A Washington 'bromance'

“To use a Hollywood term, it’s going to come across a bit like a bromance,” says Bruce Klingner, a North Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“That’s quite a change,” he adds, “from the way things were under Lee’s predecessor,” Roh Moo-hyun, who maintained prickly relations with the US.

Relations between Obama and Lee, and between Washington and Seoul more broadly, are so strong that some Asia analysts now put South Korea ahead of Japan on the list of Washington’s closest Asian allies.

Even the Obama administration’s recent overtures to reclusive North Korea have not caused serious bumps in relations. The US initiated talks with the North in New York at the official level, and recently approved a modest amount of humanitarian aid for the country, which is beset by hunger.

But the US has been clear with South Korea both publicly and privately, US officials say, that the openings do not suggest any softening of US demands on the North for real negotiations to resume.

The US and South Korea are in total agreement on the path forward with Pyongyang, said Assistant Secretary of State for Asia Kurt Campbell, after a recent visit to Seoul.

“We have orchestrated and cooperated in every aspect of our diplomacy with respect to North Korea,” Secretary Campbell said. “And we share a very clear determination that we are only interested in serious efforts on the part” of the North.

“We will not resume a diplomatic path that has failed in the past,” he said.

Free trade and more

The US overtures to Pyongyang were never a sign of any change in US policy, Mr. Klingner says. Instead, they were part of a US effort to dissuade the North from resuming the kinds of dangerous actions it has taken since it broke off international talks on its nuclear program in 2009.

Those actions included torpedoing a South Korean naval vessel – and act the North never acknowledged – and firing rockets at a South Korean island.

“There is no change in strategy here,” Klingner says, “but [the engagement] reflects the thinking that if the US doesn’t talk to North Korea, it may induce Pyongyang to commit another provocation, and everyone wants to avoid that.”

Passage of the Korea FTA casts the pro-trade Lee in the role of a victor, at least for the duration of his Washington visit. But the Korean leader still faces the task of getting the accord through the Korean parliament.

Another issue starting to bubble in Korea is the agreement governing the 28,500 US troops stationed there. Recent cases of rapes allegedly committed by US soldiers have caused protests to sprout over the soldiers’ legal status. At the same time, some Korean political factions are sounding a different worry: that America’s economic troubles will push it to draw down the forces that have helped keep peace on an unstable peninsula.

But Klingner says such discordant notes are likely to remain well out of public view during Lee’s visit – especially with Obama extending to the South Korean leader the prestige not only of a state dinner, but of a presidential road trip.

Even if Obama coaxes Lee to smile for photographers from the wheel of a Chevrolet, the image should go over well in Seoul, he says. “Lee knows that Korean cars are already selling so well here,” Klingner says, “that the sight of him in a Chevy isn’t going to cause any problems.”

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