Troy Stangarone is the senior director of congressional affairs and trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He was also a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
New administrations have an opportunity for fresh starts. Under presidents Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama, U.S.-South Korea (ROK) relations developed a level of cooperation that was arguably the closest the alliance has ever shared. This was in contrast to the weakening of South Korea’s ties with its neighbors. Relations with China frayed while those with North Korea deteriorated to an historic low. The incoming Park Geun-hye administration hopes to reverse these trends, but North Korea’s successful nuclear and missile tests present near term obstacles to starting anew with Pyongyang and has left regional actors adopting familiar positions.
While the Park administration will work to improve ties with South Korea’s neighbours, the U.S.-ROK alliance will remain central to the country’s foreign policy. However, as the Park and Obama administrations shape the future of U.S.-ROK relations, they will face both the immediate challenges of dealing with North Korea’s weapons programs and a changing geostrategic and economic environment in the years ahead.
“TrustPolitik” and Addressing the Challenge of North Korea
Park campaigned on taking a new “trustpolitik” approach toward North Korea. Based on the idea of taking small steps to build confidence in inter-Korea relations, this approach seeks to avoid the extremes of soft and hardline postures of prior administrations to build a policy that could be sustained across future administrations. However, North Korea’s heated rhetoric and abrogation of the ceasefire agreement have prevented Park from pursing this preferred course of action with Pyongyang.
In light of changing realities on the peninsula the Park and Obama administrations should seek to develop a long term approach to North Korea that is a shared U.S.-ROK alliance policy. The alliance functions best when Seoul and Washington on are on the same page, and one of the most important recent successes in U.S.-ROK relations has been the close coordination of North Korea policy, which had become strained under the Bush and Roh Moo-hyun administrations.
However, any new approach will be subject to public perceptions of its effectiveness. The Sunshine Policy was ultimately undermined by the loss of public support before it could yield tangible results. Strategic patience will likely suffer a similar fate. Perceptions matter in both policy and a relationship. While designing a sustainable North Korea policy will require both sides to maintain clear expectations of each sides’ roles and concerns in terms of the content and pace of policy implementation, it also requires management of public expectations to be sustainable in the face of North Korean provocations.
In the short term, with tensions rising on the peninsula there is unlikely to be political support for engagement. One poll indicates that 55 percent of South Koreans support sanctions in response to North Korea’s nuclear test, while 37 percent support dialogue. A poll by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies similarly found that 38 percent of South Koreans supported negotiations and cooperation with North Korea, identifying such initiatives as the preferred choice among four policy options.
However, Park has indicated that the nuclear test will not significantly alter her approach to Pyongyang as similar actions were anticipated. She will likely seek to separate humanitarian assistance from the broader political circumstances on the peninsula. “Trustpolitik” would also include a range of projects from cultural exchanges to increased inter-Korean economic cooperation and helping North Korea join international financial institutions. Each of these would be designed with the goal of incrementally building trust between the two Koreas.
While Washington would be supportive of efforts designed to improve inter-Korean relations, such as humanitarian programs, Seoul should also be cognizant that Washington faces its own domestic political constraints. Few issues unite Republicans and Democrats like North Korea, and Congress is pushing for additional sanctions on North Korea, specifically in finance. Without progress on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, proposed efforts, such as including North Korea in international financial organizations, might be problematic from Washington’s perspective.
The Future State of U.S.-ROK Relations
While U.S.-ROK relations are at an historic high, the alliance is also evolving in a time of geostrategic and economic shifts in the region. China’s rise, along with the rest of East Asia’s, will shape the region and influence thinking in the alliance in the years ahead.
In recent years, the alliance has transitioned from its traditional role of providing peace and stability on the peninsula into more of a global partnership. With South Korea’s increased capacities and growing domestic support for a larger international role, the prospect exists for Seoul to continue its global contributions.
Traditionally, South Korea’s foreign policy has focused on the peninsula and Northeast Asia. However, the Lee Myung-bak administration raised the ROK’s international profile through its “Global Korea” policy and opened up the possibility of Seoul continuing to play a larger role in international affairs. The Park administration has indicated that it will maintain key planks of the policy such as South Korea’s commitment to development assistance and green growth; however, it is still unclear to what degree the “Global Korea” policy will continue in some form.
The new administrations represent an opportunity to cement global cooperation as a norm in the alliance. However, if Seoul were to pursue a lighter international footprint to refocus its efforts on East Asia, the United States and South Korea may want to revisit the 2009 Joint Vision Statement that laid out potential areas of global cooperation and fashion a vision more in line with the foreign policy objectives of both nations. Doing so could also have the effect of increasing rather than hindering global cooperation by focusing on a smaller set of issues with greater sustainability.
Within the region itself, the prospect for new cooperation exists as well. The Park administration has proposed a strategic dialogue among the United States, China, and South Korea in dealing with North Korea. As Asia pursues greater regional economic integration, the United States and South Korea could work together to promote common norms and rules for economic interaction.
A Cautionary Note on the Alliance
Despite the success of the alliance in recent years, there are reasons to be cautious about the future. While polling by the Asan Institute has shown that the alliance is widely popular, 94 percent of South Koreans supported it in 2012, only 67 and 57 percent respectively support a long-term U.S. military presence and hold a favorable view of the United States.
Polling by the Asan Institute also found that only 40 percent of South Koreans thought the United States took South Korea’s interests into consideration when making international policy decisions. When tensions increased this past fall between South Korea and Japan over territorial disputes, only 19 percent of South Koreans thought the United States had taken a fair position.
The German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends survey also shows that only 41 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of South Korea. This is the same percentage of Americans who view China favorably, indicating that there is potentially a lack of distinction between South Korea and China among the American public.
Perceptions of fairness and equity matter on both sides of a relationship, even when it comes to issues leaders on both sides see as in their respective national interests. A recent example is the South Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA). Perceptions about fairness related to beef and autos stalled the agreement and the resolutions came with political costs. At the same time, a small majority of South Koreans view the KORUS FTA as unfair. If South Koreans had a more favorable view of the KORUS FTA, Seoul’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership might be an easier political lift.
There is a tendency to view events in a linear fashion. The recent financial crisis is a good example. Prior to the crash, there was a perception that the stock markets could only continue rising. After the crash, the opposite perception took hold. Relationships are similar.
With U.S.-ROK relations at an all-time high the same perception is natural. However, maintaining the current close level of cooperation requires both sides to be cognizant of the challenges and opportunities presented by the changes taking place in East Asia. The evolving environment in East Asia presents an opportunity to continue to refocus the alliance as a global partnership. Refashioning the alliance in this direction and finding a sustainable way to address challenges from North Korea will be the biggest opportunities and challenges the new Park and Obama administrations face.