In The News

Awaiting the New Secretary of State in South Korea

February 18, 2009

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Seoul today on her first visit to South Korea in her new post. South Koreans have anticipated her arrival—and the establishment of the Obama administration’s policy toward the Korean peninsula—with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. This mood has been fed by a rapid deterioration in inter-Korean relations, increasingly strident North Korean military threats toward the South, and preparations to launch a long-range missile. The agenda for the visit is broad—suggesting that the U.S.-ROK alliance is now positioned to make contributions beyond the peninsula—but the core preoccupation will remain how to deal with North Korea.

Initial Obama administration pronouncements dealt with North Korea exclusively in the context of non-proliferation. However, many Koreans had (erroneously) interpreted Obama campaign statements as implying that he would pursue an American version of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy toward North Korea. Although Clinton has criticized the Bush administration harshly for abandoning the Agreed Framework, her speech at the Asia Society, prior to her departure, emphasized continuity with the foundations laid by the second Bush administration, with the September 2005 Six Party Joint Statement serving as the foundation for a framework that will combine multilateral and bilateral negotiations. Her speech affirmed that the United States will pursue diplomatic normalization, a peace agreement, and economic development in North Korea, but that such possibilities are linked to North Korea’s denuclearization.

Clinton’s speech, along with public statements warning North Korea that a long-range missile test would have negative consequences for the North and unconfirmed reports that former ambassador to South Korea Stephen Bosworth might be named as the administration’s point person for North Korea, have been welcome news to South Koreans in advance of her visit. But there are still nagging worries in Seoul that the Korean issue will get lost in the shuffle of other pressing issues facing the Obama administration.

Although North Korea’s traditional blustery rhetoric and crisis escalation measures are familiar, they highlight the complexity of the North Korean challenge: North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability is unacceptable, but analysts increasingly suggest that North Korea will not give them up under any circumstances, implying no choice but acceptance of North Korea’s nuclear status. Moreover, North Korea’s internal political situation is fragile, with a defensive and weakening political elite that may find itself less able to steer a consistent path, but unlikely to lose power completely.

Further, North Korea’s policy of engaging the United States while marginalizing South Korea seems designed to ensure the perpetuation of tension on the Korean peninsula. This situation requires extraordinarily close cooperation between Washington and Seoul. Secretary Clinton’s visit establishes the relationships among leaders necessary to address this challenge.

Secretary Clinton has stated that her main objective during her first visit to Asia is to “listen.” This means that what South Korean leaders say and do (whether such actions can win support from the Korean public) will shape the near-term potential of the relationship. This is especially the case with regard to South Korea’s potential contributions to international piracy off the Somalian cost and post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan.

Instead of responding to American requests for assistance in global ‘hot spots,’ South Korea should establish its contributions to the international community based on its own perceived interests, knowing that international perceptions of Korea’s prestige and influence as a global leader will depend on Korea’s capacity and willingness to undertake commensurate responsibilities. The alliance with the United States may be an effective vehicle and platform for enhancing the value and effectiveness of South Korean contributions to such efforts.

Recent opinion polls conducted by the East Asia Institute in Seoul suggest an upswing in South Korean public support for the alliance in early 2009. In this regard, perceptions among South Koreans that a conservative South Korean leadership will be out of synch with the Obama administration’s mantle of change may be unfounded: both leaders say they are pragmatic (although Lee Myung-bak has not reached out to opposition leaders in the ROK National Assembly to the same extent that Obama has tried to win over Republican support in the U.S. Congress). If so, Clinton’s visit could mark the opening of an opportunity to consolidate and deepen alliance cooperation on the basis of a broader range of mutual interests than has existed in the past.

Scott Snyder is Director of the Asia Foundation’s Center for U.S.-Korea Policy and an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Korean Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed are his personal views. He can be reached at ssnyder@asiafound-dc.org.

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