Insights and Analysis

Recovering The Potential of the U.S.-South Korea Relationship

August 7, 2008

By Scott Snyder

President Bush’s stop to Seoul en route to the Beijing Olympics is a reminder that a once-firm security alliance with South Korea faces continuing difficulties over North Korea’s nuclear development, American beef imports to South Korea, and ratification of a Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. But despite these difficulties, there is potential to refashion this relationship into a dramatically expanded partnership in the service of our mutual regional and global interests.

American and South Korean interests have converged and now expand well beyond the narrow focus on security interests that emerged as a result of the Korean War. South Korea’s successful economic modernization and its political consolidation into a vibrant democracy underscore the attraction of South Korea as a key Asian partner. South Korea has developed the economic, political, and security capacity to be considered as a first-tier partner in promoting both regional and global stability”as evidenced by South Korea’s contributions to peace operations in Timor-Leste and Iraq.

The United States will increasingly require strengthened regional partnerships to underwrite regional and global stability and prosperity. Cooperation with like-minded allies in the Asia-Pacific is likely to be at a premium as the center of gravity for global economic and political interactions shifts away from Europe and toward Asia in the twenty-first century. South Korea will be near the top of the list of countries that have the capacity and interest to work together with the United States.

South Korea’s new president Lee Myung-bak has articulated aspirations to play an expanded international role by promoting the phrase “Global Korea.” South Korea’s economic development and its peaceful political transition from authoritarianism to democracy stands as a model to which many developing countries aspire. The South Korean government has committed to doubling its budget for overseas development assistance by 2010 and is seeking ways to enhance its contributions to international peacekeeping.

Contentious domestic politics, the North Korean nuclear stand-off, and its geographical position flanked by China and Japan are major factors that have prevented South Korea from making international contributions commensurate with its capacity to do so. But South Korea’s stature and role in the international community will be heightened if it is possible to overcome these obstacles.

The United States can benefit from South Korea’s emergence as a leading economic nation and vibrant democracy in Asia by deepening institutional forms of cooperation and broadening the scope of its partnership with South Korea from a primarily peninsula-focused security alliance to a comprehensive partnership with the capacity to address newly-emerging global, regional, and non-traditional security challenges. South Korea can benefit because the alliance can serve as a platform from which South Korea may have opportunities to strengthen its leverage and capacity to realize the full potential of its contributions.

In the context of such a partnership, the embattled Korea- US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) must be viewed less as an economic agreement than as an agreement that contains a critical strategic dimension: by enhancing mutual economic cooperation with the United States, South Korea hedges against economic dependency on China as South Korea’s number one trade and investment partner’ while providing the United States with an entry point for protecting its own economic interests as regional trading arrangements are increasingly shaped by the centripetal pull of China’s economic growth.

The ability of the respective legislatures to ratify the KORUS FTA will send a strong signal regarding the willingness of the two countries to recognize a new foundation for building such a strategic partnership.

American and South Korean political leaders and their publics must replace the old, one-way security-focused paradigm of security cooperation with a new partnership derived from common values and built on mutual respect and common interests. The development of such a U.S.-ROK partnership commensurate to South Korea’s capacities and interests is in the early stages of development.

In contrast to President Bush’s omission of South Korea as the only Asian ally of the United States that he did not visit during his trip to Asia in 2005, his visit to Seoul signifies that the U.S.-South Korea relationship is on a positive track. The foundation of the “strategic alliance for the 21st century” espoused by the two presidents at Camp David last April suggests that there is an opportunity for Bush’s successor to develop a comprehensive U.S.-ROK partnership based on converging mutual interests.

Scott Snyder is director of the Center for Korea Policy at The Asia Foundation and a senior associate at Pacific Forum CSIS. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Korea
Related programs: International Cooperation
Related topics: North Korea


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