WASHINGTON, Oct 17, 2011 (IPS) – The United States and South Korea maintain a close military alliance. Congress just passed a free trade agreement that will boost economic ties with Seoul. And the leaders of the two countries form a small but very powerful mutual admiration society, which The New York Times has termed a “presidential man-crush”.
It was certainly a love fest when South Korean President Lee Myung- Bak visited Washington last week to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, their sixth confab in three years. The two politicians share a “yes we can” ethos, a faith in “green energy”, and a history of bucking the odds.
With relations between Washington and Tokyo complicated by wrangling over military bases and Japan’s leadership in perpetual shuffle mode, the United States has moved closer to South Korea as its go-to country in East Asia. The relationship extends beyond regional politics. Obama bestowed on his Korean pal the considerable honour of hosting the second nuclear summit in 2012.
This rosy relationship, however, conceals a number of thorns. Indeed, some prominent failures have taken place on their watch.
Both Washington and Seoul, for instance, have adopted a hawkish stance toward Pyongyang that has basically backfired. The momentum achieved by 10 years of South Korean engagement policy toward the North disappeared, as Seoul began to emphasise North Korean human rights issues, conduct provocative military exercises near the maritime borders, and demand uncompromising economic positions.
Inter-Korean relations veered toward heightened conflict, particularly after North Korea’s alleged sinking of a South Korean boat in March 2010 and its subsequent shelling of Yeonpyeong Island across the Northern Limit Line.
The Obama administration has adopted a “strategic patience” approach to North Korea, which has essentially been to largely ignore Pyongyang and back Seoul’s uncompromising strategy. Unlike the George W. Bush administration, which ultimately reassessed its hard-line policy and made a 180-degree turn in its second term, Obama has yet to undertake a reassessment or execute a mid-course adjustment in its North Korea policy.
Faced with few opportunities to talk with Washington, North Korea went ahead and tested a second nuclear weapon in 2009. Deprived of additional economic opportunities from Seoul, North Korea concluded more deals with China and moved closer to Russia.
Lee Myung-bak, recognising the shortcomings of his policy, has tried in the last couple months to revive inter-Korean cooperation. South Korean officials have met with their northern counterparts twice to discuss nuclear issues, and the Lee administration has backed an oil pipeline deal with Russia that would net North Korea an estimated 100 million dollars a year and reduce natural gas prices for South Korea by 30 percent.
Such a win-win approach with the North now has the support of both Lee’s conservative colleagues and his liberal opponents.
Meanwhile, U.S.-South Korean military relations face significant challenges. Two U.S. soldiers stand accused of raping teenage girls last month in South Korea, prompting fresh calls from Korean activists to reassess the rules governing the U.S.-ROK military alliance.
On the island of Jeju, off the southern coast of the country, the Korean government is encountering significant pushback from residents protesting its plan to build a naval base that would figure prominently in U.S. missile defence plans for the region.
The restructuring of U.S. military presence in Korea over the last decade – which included a reduction in personnel, the planned relocation of the huge Yongsan base in the middle of Seoul, and a redeployment of U.S. infantry away from the Demilitarized Zone – has defused some anger among Koreans. But the continued crimes committed by U.S. soldiers and the creation of new facilities like the Jeju naval base erodes Korean support for the alliance.
Finally, despite the hoopla in Washington over the FTA, it’s not a done deal. The South Korean parliament still must ratify the agreement, and the opposition party wants further revision. If South Korea ultimately ratifies the FTA, it will lead to significant economic dislocation in both countries that could be a flashpoint in relations.
Billed as a win-win deal, the FTA is predicted to increase trade by 10 billion dollars a year. But Korean farmers will be hit hard by the influx of U.S. products. And the United States, still struggling with high unemployment, will lose as many 159,000 jobs in the first seven years after implementation, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
The United States has long preferred to deal with Asia on a bilateral basis, playing South Korea and Japan off one another and negotiating separate agreements with China and Taiwan. Every so often, the political cycles in Korea and the U.S. produce like-minded leaders, as with Bill Clinton and Kim Dae-Jung.
But they just as often generate a clash of personalities, as between George W. Bush and Roh Moo-Hyun. Personal connections between the two presidents, whether warm or wary, reflect only a small part of the bilateral relationship.
The love fest between Obama and Lee has come at the expense of regional relations. The situation with North Korea has deteriorated. All the countries in the region have significantly modernised their militaries and, with the exception of Japan, considerably increased their military spending.
The Six Party process, designed to facilitate the denuclearisation of North Korea, promised to become an authentic regional security framework. But the talks have lain dormant since 2007.
With elections in both countries coming up in 2012, the United States and South Korea need to look beyond presidential passions and even the bilateral relationship itself. Northeast Asia is a more dangerous place now than when Lee and Obama took office. Their successors need to focus on spreading the love around.