Insights and Analysis

Korean Hopes for U.S. Leadership under Barack Obama

March 11, 2009

By Lee Hong-koo

History will record November 2008 as the crucial turning point for launching a new global order. No one knows what would exactly be the form of that order, but everyone seems to be in agreement that the existing international order cannot be sustained in light of two stunning developments. First, troubles in the U.S. financial market ignited a global economic crisis of historic magnitude. Second, the election of Barack Obama offered the United States a fresh opportunity to rejuvenate her status as the pre-eminent global leader in shaping a new international order.

These two developments within the United States have given the world cause for both despair and hope. The current economic crisis is so serious that there seems to be no promising way to overcome it in the foreseeable future. Thus it is a cause for despair. Yet President Obama is enjoying widespread support at home and abroad as a leader – perhaps the only leader – who could and should mobilize a global consensus to transform the international order in both economic and political spheres, and thereby put the world back on the path of global development.

As a close ally of the United States, Korean people put their hope for economic recovery as well as emergence of a new international order on the success of the Obama presidency. Koreans have no preference between the two American political parties. In recent years, however, they have been worried about a steady decline in American prestige and influence in the world arena.

For more than a half century, Korea has heavily relied on the strong alliance with the United States for its security and economic development; therefore a speedy recovery of American national strength is considered an essential prerequisite for the protection of the vital national interests of the United States and Korea. Going a step further, Koreans believe that strong American leadership will ensure the inauguration of a constructive new international order, as was the case in 1945 when the United Nations was launched.

For Asia regionally, the election of Barack Obama signifies the beginning of a new era for the United States as a truly global, not regional, power. The United States has the good fortune of being located between two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific. For more than 200 years, however, the American people have considered their nation only as a part of the Atlantic community. This deeply-rooted habit was not shaken even after Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union and California overtook New York as the most populous state.

In recent decades, the economic and cultural weight of Asia has become sufficient to change the global balance of power in many sectors, and the current economic crisis clearly reflects this trend. Many Asians, including Koreans, believe that Barack Obama’s election reflects a new American awareness for the United States as a bona fide Pacific nation. Now the American eagle could fly with two wings, Atlantic and Pacific, which will ensure both steady balance and global vision.

To be a truly effective member and leader of the Asia Pacific community, the United States needs a reliable ally right in the heart of the region. Given the geopolitical setting (mid-point in the China-Japan-Russia triangle) and the legacy of comrade-in-arms with the United States (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), Korea is one of the most obvious candidates for such a partnership. What prevented such a partnership from full maturation was partly the unwillingness and lack of preparedness on the part of the United States to be fully engaged in the Asian neighborhood. But more significant were the obvious limits in the national capacity of Korea in economic and political spheres until recent decades.

Having successfully achieved both industrialization and democratization, Korea has emerged in recent years as a prominent model for developing nations and as an aggressive newcomer among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Korea is finally ready to play a significant global and regional role, and therein lies the importance of the global strategic alliance that the Korean and the United States governments had officially announced last year.

There are a number of outstanding issues and challenges Korea and the United States must address together. The North Korean nuclear issue undoubtedly is the most immediate challenge. There are several dimensions involved in diagnosing the problem and devising a common strategy to deal with it effectively. The North Korean nuclear issue is part of a much larger global problem of nuclear proliferation. It is directly tied to the strategic balance between the two Koreas and among the concerned nations, namely the four powers surrounding the peninsula. Above all, it is a problem emanating from the peculiar nature of the North Korean system which is one of the more glaring exceptions to the global historic trend.

To develop a comprehensive diagnosis of the problem and an effective common strategy to meet the challenge, Korea and the United States should engineer a new type of joint approach in which the North Korean nuclear issue is considered an important part of forging a new global and regional order. It will require fresh confidence and imagination on both sides, in Korea and the United States, and even greater mutual trust than has existed in the past.

Both the exigencies of the current economic crisis and the tremendous expectations attached to the leadership of President Obama could enable Korea and the United States to meet this challenge successfully as partners in a comprehensive alliance. At this critical juncture in world history, a truly effective bilateral alliance has to be an important part of a common effort to build both regional communities and a new global order for peace and prosperity. Korea aspires to live up to the vision of “Global Korea,” and this vision fits into the historic challenge the U.S.-ROK alliance is facing today. With South Korea positioned as a member of the troika guiding the G-20, the G-20 summit in London in April this year should be a great start for this new joint venture.

Lee Hong-koo is former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea (1994-1995), a member of  The Asia Foundation’s Board of Trustees, and Chairman of Friends of The Asia Foundation/Korea.


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