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U.S.-Korea Summit: Are Koreans Interested?

October 12, 2011

On October 13, President Obama will host President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea for a state visit in Washington. President Lee will also address a joint session of the United States Congress. As only the fifth head of state to be given such full honors by President Obama, one would think that Koreans would follow this summit meeting with their closest ally with great interest. So far, however, it seems that the Korean media and the general public are not paying much attention.

Obama with Lee Myung bak

On October 13, President Obama hosts President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea for a state visit in Washington. Photo: Flickr user KOREA.NET

One reason for this apparent low level of interest is that the U.S.-Korea relationship, at least at the official level, is in great shape. The two governments are closely aligned in their policies toward North Korea and other security interests in the region. President Obama has repeatedly praised South Korea for assuming a larger leadership role in the global community – such as hosting a G20 meeting last year and the High Level Forum on Aid in Busan later this year. The one challenging issue that has been linked to this visit is the long-delayed ratification of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Lee and Obama have advocated for the ratification, and Obama submitted the KORUS FTA, along with FTAs with Panama and Colombia, to the U.S. Congress where it was approved today by a bipartisan majority.

However, U.S. ratification of the FTA may be a mixed blessing for President Lee. He has also pressed the Korean National Assembly to follow U.S. action with swift ratification. But the opposition party and civil society are already mobilizing to call for renegotiation or rejection of the pact, or at least to make the political debate very difficult, as Korean parliamentarians and demonstrators are wont to do.

Koreans have not forgotten President Lee’s first official visit to Washington in March 2008, shortly after he assumed office, when he was received by President George W. Bush at Camp David. To pave the way for a successful visit, the new Lee administration quickly inked an agreement to re-open the Korean market to U.S. beef exports, banned here and in other countries since 2003 because of fears over BSE, or mad cow disease. This triggered massive (even by Korean standards) street demonstrations that lasted for several months and almost drove Lee from office. There were genuine concerns about the safety of U.S. beef; but more importantly, the perception that the Lee administration had rushed into an unbalanced agreement without consultation in order to please his American hosts galvanized the progressive opposition to Lee’s election. Recent exposure by WikiLeaks of U.S. Embassy reports to Washington in the period leading up to that debacle have stoked suspicions about the Lee administration’s ability to represent Korean interests to Washington.

Of course, it’s different this time. Or is it? Simmering uneasiness about the close relationship with the United States, and mixed feelings about the need for American troops to be stationed on Korean soil 60 years after the end of the Korean War, are constant, though latent, factors in Korean politics. Although North Korea’s recent aggressive stance has muted these feelings, Korean unease has increased in recent weeks with headline reports of two cases of alleged violent rape of Korean women by U.S. servicemen. This has revived calls by demonstrators and political observers for revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Korea and the United States. Both governments are wary about the possible resurgence of anti-U.S. sentiment that such incidents have triggered in the past. Meanwhile, Koreans’ ambivalence about the role of foreigners in the economy has again been heightened by fears that the U.S. economic slump may be exported to Korea through the FTA and by suspect practices on the part of U.S. companies.

Even if President Lee has a successful high-profile visit to the United States and returns home carrying a U.S.-ratified FTA without sparking a domestic blowup, there is a good chance that Koreans will not give him much notice. The dominant issue in Seoul now – as in the U.S. – is domestic politics. The election season has been moved forward in Korea with the scheduling of a special election on October 26 to fill the seat of Seoul mayor, considered the second most important political post in the country. This will be followed by elections for a completely new National Assembly in April, and then the presidential election in December next year. The Seoul mayoral race will be the topic of another piece, but in brief, the emergence of an independent frontrunner from the civil society sector has upended the political landscape here like no other development in Korean politics in the last 20 years. It will be the top story for the next two weeks and threatens to scramble the contest for selecting the next president. This promises to be much more exciting than the old story of U.S.-Korea relations.

Edward P. Reed is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Korea. He can be reached at ereed@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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