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Korea and US: A Roadmap for Two New Administrations

January 16, 2008

The January 25th inauguration in South Korea marks the beginning of a transition to a potentially new era in US/Korea relations. According to conventional wisdom, the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance has been on shaky ground. Five years ago, amidst a wave of anti-American sentiment following a traffic accident in which a U.S. military vehicle killed two Korean middle-school girls, South Koreans elected a new president. The election platform of left-leaning President Roh Moo Hyun directly challenged the policy preferences of the Bush administration on the eve of war with Iraq.

It is true that the last five years have been difficult for the U.S.-ROK alliance. President Roh Moo-hyun’s supporters highlighted differences whenever the two governments’ positions on key issues clashed. Summits have been characterized by forced smiles and statements that politely paper over serious differences in how to deal with North Korea. Although the Roh administration has cooperated on some issues, the process has been sufficiently unpleasant to inspire some Americans to simply write off the alliance.

That would be a grave mistake. In many interviews and discussions we conducted in Seoul last fall, we uncovered a surprising consensus across the political spectrum on the continuing need for the U.S.-South Korea security alliance. And today’s political landscape — in both Seoul and Washington — is starkly different. Conservative candidates led throughout the South Korean election campaign, while popular presidential candidates in the U.S. are touting more moderate foreign policies. In his initial statements president-elect Lee Myung-bak has prioritized the relationship with the United States over other relationships, including inter-Korean relations. There is a broad base of support for this course of action.

Korean security thinkers across the political divide are emphasizing the need for a revitalized alliance with the United States. The Roh government’s actions had already demonstrated as much by negotiating a Free Trade Agreement and to extend the ROK troop presence in Iraq, even while other allies are pulling out. This shift is likely to provide the foundation for a rejuvenated alliance next month when the next government takes power in Seoul and a new president moves into the White House.

The newest generation of Korean voters is profoundly pragmatic. Following a generation that perceived America as having betrayed Korean public desires for democracy during a military coup and oppression of civil protest in Kwangju in 1980, this generation”whose defining experience was the Korean financial crisis a decade ago–wants stability. It is Washington’s potential to undermine stability on the Korean Peninsula”and America’s failure to live up to its most cherished ideals in implementing foreign policy”that troubles most South Koreans.

The emergence of both a vibrant democracy and a dynamic economy have fueled Korean pride and stimulated demands for a more equal partnership with the U.S. This process is underway with the transformation talks, the redeployment of U.S. forces in Korea, and the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. The U.S. needs to recognize this evolution as a broadening of the foundation for cooperation, not as signs or steps toward a severing of the relationship.

Given the perceived divergences between Washington and Seoul in priorities and outlook toward North Korea, a major task and potential opportunity for new leaders in each country will be to reaffirm the alliance and provide it with a new direction. Sentiment among South Korean opinion leaders suggests widespread support for such a course, as the alliance allows South Korea’s foreign policy initiatives to gain broader support than would be the case if the security partnership did not exist.

But statements of support are not enough. Koreans must articulate a vision of their own for the security partnership with the U.S. They must find their own place in the region and the world. With that understanding ” that ambition “new leaders in Seoul and Washington should work together to realize their vision, using the alliance as a cornerstone.

Brad Glosserman is the Executive Director of the Pacific Forum at CSIS. Scott Snyder is a Senior Associate at The Asia Foundation.

This piece is first in a series highlighting foreign policy issues US candidates will face leading up to the election. The Asia Foundation is currently conducting working groups across Asia and in Washington convening key experts in Asian affairs to help craft foreign policy recommendations for the incoming US administration, which will culminate with a published report called America’s Role in Asia.

View all posts by Brad Glosserman

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