COURTESY BILL SHARP
As an innovative and popular mayor of Seoul, Lee Myung-bak, now the president of South Korea, developed Cheonggye Stream into a pedestrian friendly downtown attraction.
South Korea's new president seeks a broadened alliance with the U.S.
SEOUL » Meeting with various representatives of the Republic of Korea government, scholars and media types has left me optimistic about growing improvement in ROK-U.S. relations.
Korean-American relations have been poor during the last 10 years. The United States was unenthusiastic about former President Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy, which sought engagement with North Korea by offering more carrots than sticks. Kim's five-year term expired in 2003. The Sunshine Policy was carried on by President Roh Moo-hyun, who rode a wave of anti-Americanism into office.
The new government of Lee Myung-bak, who many call "MB" or "bulldozer" for his aggressive CEO style, promises to be the antithesis of both previous governments. Kim and Roh were both highly nationalistic. Lee, a popular former mayor of Seoul and Hyundai Engineering and Construction CEO who worked in the Middle East, is far more internationally focused. He wants to halt the Sunshine Policy, questioning what concrete advantage it has yielded for the ROK. As he sees it, North Korea must stop nuclear experimentation and weapons development to continue benefiting from South Korean largesse.
Lee wants Korean-American relations to be the foundation of Korean foreign policy and for Korea and the United States to upgrade their relationship to a "strategic alliance." Speaking at a recent U.S.-Korea Business Council dinner, he said that an alliance should deepen and broaden cooperation on global and other issues. A strategic alliance commits both nations to play active roles in U.N. peacekeeping missions, fight the war on terrorism, address climate change and spread democracy, said U.S. Ambassador to Korea Alexander Vershbow in the Korea Herald. He added, "There's great opportunity to expand the scope of the alliance on security issues and on political and economic issues as well."
Does having a strategic alliance mean that Korean and American foreign policies act in tandem regardless of the problem or situation, wherever in the world? In other words, does Lee aspire for a relationship that might be called "Pax Americana-Koreana?" Or does he want a relationship that is characterized by a high degree of mutual intermeshing of goals with a more regional, Northeast Asia focus where Korea has been actively involved in the Six-Party Talks and promoting regional economic cooperation?
Specific policy questions remain: Would a strategic alliance assure the ROK's participation in the U.S.-created Proliferation Security Initiative, which seeks to halt the proliferation of North Korean nuclear weaponry and technology on the high seas by boarding North Korean vessels? The Roh administration was adamantly against the PSI since it contradicted the Sunshine Policy and might militarily provoke Pyongyang to retaliate against Seoul.
Another litmus test of a strategic alliance involves the unhampered deployment of American troops in Korea to other parts of Northeast Asia and beyond. Roh was firmly opposed to the use of U.S. Forces Korea in any defense of Taiwan.
From Washington's perspective, Korea's security volte-face is clearly a welcomed change. Yet it should not be forgotten that Lee's Grand National Party holds only a razor thin majority of 153 seats in the 299-seat National Assembly where he is confronted with vociferous domestic critics who still support the Sunshine Policy. And while Lee is promoting a strategic alliance, he is just as vigorously campaigning for passage by the U.S. Congress of the Korean-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Just how a strategic alliance might be affected if the Grand National Party should split, as Korean political parties often do, or the trade agreement falls victim to U.S. presidential politics remains to be seen.
Happy that 28,500 U.S. troops will remain in Korea and overlooking no way to cajole congressional passage of free trade, it might seem that South Korea is exclusively dependent on the United States. In fact, the traditional bilateral security and economic basis of U.S.-Korean relations is beginning to operate in tandem with a more multilateral security and economic focus.
Situated in the center of Northeast Asia, Korea is surrounded by large, powerful neighbors that controlled Korea (China) or occupied Korea (Japan) or sought to subjugate Korea (Russia). From time to time, there is doubt about America's defense commitment to Korea which has made the ROK seek additional measures to ensure its security. Consequently, the ROK is the most dedicated advocate of multilateral security or a new balance of power system in Northeast Asia that is backed by those countries (South and North Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States) that have participated in the Six-Party Talks. In such a system each nation plays a balancing role, not just the United States.
It has taken the United States some time to accept the multilateral security approach. However, in the Korean Herald, former White House Asian expert Michael Green reminds readers that all three presidential candidates support the attitude, indicating that the new U.S. approach is growing roots. Economically, Korea participates in various organizations such as the Honolulu-based Northeast Asian Economic Forum that advocates multilateral economic cooperation.
To enhance its global image, Korea needs to further promote its growing developmental assistance programs. Korea has gained broad experience in economic development to share with the developing world. Such experience is taught to officials from developing countries at the Korea Development Institute and in Korea International Cooperation Agency training programs. At an annual budget of $744 million in 2005, officials acknowledge that Korea's official development assistance program is small, but there are plans to increase it every year. It remains to be seen how Korean and U.S. developmental assistance might be coordinated in a Korean-American strategic alliance.
ROK-U.S. relations are on an upswing. However, the strategic alliance notion needs time to evolve and to let the United States become more acquainted with the Lee administration, which only took office in February. The ROK would do well to remember there will be a new U.S. president in January 2009.