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V. Cha: Challenges Facing US-Korea Relations

The alliance between the US and the Republic of Korea (ROK) remains one of the most underrated alliances in the history of international relations today. When the alliance was first formed in 1953, there was no preceding history of interaction (aside from minor commercial exchanges and missionary activities in the 1800s) and no common values as a frame of reference. In fact, the US knew virtually nothing about the country when it received the Japanese surrender in the southern half in 1945, and it knew only marginally more when it committed to defend the South in 1950 as a bulwark against communism and a front line of defense for Japan. Korea’s value to the US was never intrinsic and always strategic (i.e., keeping it out of the adversary’s camp).

After a war that took over 54,000 American lives, Washington found itself with a poor, war-torn ally that US Agency for International Development officials estimated would not advance beyond an agrarian economy. Its leaders, though rabidly anti-communist, trampled upon the rights of their citizens in ways that embarrassed Washington, sometimes compelling the US to intervene quietly to save political dissident leaders from execution. Even after Korea democratized in 1987, the growth of anti-American sentiment, attacks on American soldiers in Seoul, and the burning of the American flag by radical Korean students angered many Americans who believed the Koreans were ungrateful and that the alliance’s days were numbered.

The alliance, however, has always managed to surprise its critics. An agrarian economy with a post-Korean war income per capita of $100 morphed into the 12th largest economy with an income per capita over $20,000 in a matter of decades. The country saw a peaceful democratic transition sweep out decades of military dictatorship that became a model for the developing world. The South Korean armed forces, trained and equipped by the US, grew to stand with its ally in wars stretching from Vietnam in the 1970s — where the ROK military constituted the largest contingent next to the US — to Iraq in 2007 — where the ROK once constituted the third-largest ground contingent. South Koreans are participating in UN peacekeeping operations missions in Lebanon and in East Timor. They are expanding overseas development assistance and fitting a profile as a standup global citizen. And in 2007 the two countries inked a free trade agreement second in size only to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

I want to draw your attention to the most important challenges I see in the near future.

Ratification of the US-ROK free trade agreement (KORUS)

Signed on June 30, 2007, the KORUS Free Trade Agreement is the most commercially significant free trade agreement in over two decades. Korea is the United States’ seventh-largest trading partner and the US is Korea’s second-largest market.

KORUS constitutes the single largest bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) negotiated by the United States, and the second largest FTA next to the North American Free Trade Agreement. The agreement has clear economic benefits for both sides. Nearly 95 percent of bilateral trade in consumer and industrial products will become duty-free within three years of the Agreement.

The economic benefits of the FTA’s ratification are clear, but perhaps more important, the agreement represents the elevation of the US-ROK relationship to a higher plane of interaction. Koreans are always looking for ways to improve bilateral ties and increase “trust” in the relationship — there could be no more important way of doing this than through the FTA.

An inability to ratify this agreement would be seen as an undeniable setback in the evolution and growth of the alliance. Moreover, people underestimate how important the KORUS FTA is to the vision of a larger free trade area of the Asia-Pacific. With the breakdown of multilateral trade forums such as the Doha Round of talks, one scenario for advancing free trade is the cobbling together of bilateral FTAs into a pluri-lateral arrangement. In this regard, the KORUS FTA is seen as a high-quality agreement that could offer a model for other major economies agreements, unlike the superficial FTAs negotiated by China.

Perhaps more important, however, the implications of non-ratification could extend more broadly to the American position in Asia. Protectionist rhetoric out of the US Congress over the last two years is high, and Asians are nervously watching what this all means. America’s support of free trade is undeniably one of the components of its leadership and preeminent position in Asia.

A new US administration that opposed free trade and did not act on the KORUS FTA would be recorded in history as being the administration that effectively walked away from free trade, and with this, yielded its leadership position in Asia to China. No FTA is perfect, and the KORUS FTA may have flaws that need to be reviewed, but ratification of this agreement needs to be treated not just as an alliance issue, but as a larger strategic issue for the promotion of free trade in Asia and for the strength of the US position in Asia.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons

The US has worked with China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to create a denuclearization roadmap, known as the September 2005 Joint Statement of the Six Party Talks. The first implementation step was taken with the July 2007 shutdown of the Yongbyon nuclear facility from which the DPRK made plutonium for nuclear bombs, and the reintroduction of the International Atomic Energy Agency for the first time in five years. In accordance with the February 13, 2007 Initial Actions agreement and the October 2007 “Second Phase” agreement, the Six Parties sought to achieve a full declaration (including highly enriched uranium, plutonium, and nuclear devices) and permanent disablement of all DPRK nuclear facilities and activities.

Despite delays, on June 26, 2008, North Korea destroyed the cooling tower at the Yongbyon reactor, and provided a nuclear declaration, effectively taking the world further in denuclearizing the DPRK than ever before.

The Clinton administration ended its two terms in office having achieved a freeze-for-compensation formula with international monitoring of Yongbyon in exchange for supplies of heavy fuel oil. The Bush administration leaves to the next administration a status quo that has advanced beyond a freeze of the DPRK nuclear program to a permanent disablement of the plutonium-based facilities at Yongbyon.

As long as the next American president pursues diplomacy (positive and, if necessary, coercive) through the Six Party talks to denuclearize North Korea, this will help to minimize the room for differences with Seoul. A good indicator of this was Seoul’s positive response to the Bush administration’s October 2008 decision to remove North Korea from the terrorism blacklist in exchange for Pyongyang’s agreement on a verification protocol for its June 2008 nuclear declaration.

Many in Washington characterized Bush’s decision to prematurely de-list a country he once put in the axis of evil as a move by an administration desperate for good news. The de-listing came after North Korean missile tests, the ejection of international inspectors from previously locked-down nuclear facilities, and good doses of fiery rhetoric against Seoul.

The ROK, however, viewed it as a positive step that put in place a verification scheme that can facilitate the continued disabling and degrading of the North’s nuclear capabilities.

In the end, the capacity for Washington and Seoul to stay on the same page regarding North Korea and the Six Party talks will depend on their relative patience in managing the “dilemma of DPRK unreasonableness.” What this means is that Washington and Seoul engage in a Six Party process in which every agreement is negotiated with painstaking care; parties hammer out specific quid pro quos, timelines and the synchronization of steps, with concomitant rewards and penalties. Yet sooner or later, Pyongyang demands more than it was promised or does less than it should. While everyone accepts that North Korea is being unreasonable, they also realize that a failure of the agreement could mean the failure of the talks and the precipitation of another crisis.

At the core of the fall 2008 impasse, for example, was the North's spurious claim that its June nuclear declaration was sufficient for it to be taken off the US terrorism blacklist and that verification of the declaration was not part of the deal. As former deputy negotiator for the US delegation to the Six Party talks, I can attest that the North Koreans fully understood our need for verification as far back as the September 2005 joint statement and the February 2007 "first phase" and October 2007 "second phase" implementation agreements, as did Seoul and the other participants.

Yet while all express outrage at Pyongyang's petulance when it reneges on agreements, the parties, including South Korea, end up pressing the United States — knowing full well that the North is at fault and is traversing the bounds of fairness and good faith but certain that the only chance of progress lies in American reasonableness. The result is that any additional American flexibility is widely perceived in the region as evidence of American leadership but is viewed in Washington as some combination of desperation and weakness. How well Seoul and Washington manage this balance will be important.

Human rights

Human rights is one aspect of the DPRK problem on which the US and ROK have hardly been on the same page. During the Kim Young Sam presidency, the ROK took a fairly tough line on human rights abuses by the DPRK, demanding among other things that Pyongyang return South Korean prisoners of war. Kim also criticized the Clinton administration for moving forward with its nuclear and political talks with Pyongyang in spite of ROK concerns.

Some ten years later, George W. Bush made North Korea human rights abuses a major part of his policy, appointing the first-ever special envoy for DPRK human rights abuses, overseeing the creation of programs for the first-ever resettlement of DPRK refugees in the United States, and inviting North Korean defectors into the Oval Office.

Having seen President Bush interact with these individuals, I believe his concerns for the people of North Korea were truly heartfelt. Yet in terms of alliance relations, Bush’s emphasis on human rights did not sit well with the Kim Dae Jung or Roh Moo Hyun governments, who perceived many of these US actions as code for a neoconservative desire to collapse the regime. Seoul categorically refused to make critical statements about DPRK human rights abuses, refused to vote for UN resolutions, and only with great difficulty agreed to language in US-ROK joint statements discussing the dire conditions of the North Korean people.

A new US administration and the current Lee government in South Korea have the opportunity to reboot and realign their relative positions on human rights. Bush and Lee, both deeply religious men, took a step in this direction, agreeing to include a specific reference to DPRK human rights problems in their 2008 joint statement. And the ROK under Lee has voted for the annual UN resolution on North Korean human rights abuses (previous ROK governments did not). But there is clearly room for more coordination here. Seoul could appoint its own special envoy for DPRK human rights, who could host the first international conference on the issue. Washington and Seoul could explore ways to integrate the relief of the North Korean people’s suffering more into the otherwise sterile nuclear negotiations.

Whatever the specific measures, the benchmark for United States and the ROK should be to move beyond an agreement in words to achieving measurable steps that improve the lives of the people in the North.

Preparation for change in North Korea

Kim Jong Il is not well. While it is difficult to confirm anything, it is fairly clear that the 66-year-old dictator’s physical well-being has reached a tipping point. He underwent at least one heart procedure in 2007 and likely another in 2008, based on foreign press reports. Already partially paralyzed, another stroke could be fatal. Unlike the last leadership transition, there is no clear line of succession to any of his three sons.

The upshot for the US-ROK alliance is the need to begin quiet but serious discussions about how to prepare for sudden change in North Korea. While there are well-laid plans to deal with a second North Korean invasion, there is only a less well-developed discussion on how to contend with a collapse or implosion of the regime. During the Roh Moo Hyun government, moreover, coordination between the two allies on this issue was stopped by Seoul. The concern at the time by Roh was that such planning could be interpreted by the North as an active plan to collapse the regime, which would negatively impact Seoul’s much-desired North-South engagement and could impact Pyongyang’s cooperation in Six Party talks.

Such planning needs to be restarted in earnest and in depth. A whole host of questions about metrics and the division of responsibilities would have to be on the table. Here is just a sampling: How does one determine whether the loss of political control in the North is severe enough to warrant intervention by outside powers? Upon what authority should such an intervention take place: US-ROK alliance, Six Party talks, United Nations? What would be the division of labor in an intervention?

The primary forum for this coordination should begin with the US-ROK alliance. Once agreement is reached, the circle should expand to a trilateral consultation including Japan. Following this, coordination should begin among the US, ROK, and China. The commodity sought through such US-ROK-China planning discussions is not trust (an over-used term in Asian diplomacy); instead, it is transparency. Transparency — knowing what the other side is doing in a contingency and why they are doing it — is the most valuable commodity in a crisis. South Korea might balk at involving so many parties in what Koreans believe to be their national destiny. However, a collapse of the North is simply too significant an event not to warrant international attention, and Koreans would be best advised to actively engage in such multilateral planning in order to shape such a plan to its own interests and expertise.

One can appreciate the political sensitivity of such discussions. Planning in the event of a collapse in the North could easily be misinterpreted as planning to collapse the North. But such talks need to take place quietly. Whatever “plan” that emerges could easily be rendered moot on the first day of the crisis; however, the process of planning helps to create dialogue and some sense of familiarity with each other’s intentions and priorities. The value of such transparency cannot be overestimated.


Koreans have long believed their national division is a historical aberration, and have long sought unification albeit at some distant time in the future. However, their wishes may be fulfilled sooner than they think. Multilateral planning for such an event among the United States, Korea, and China would be both wise and expedient. Otherwise, what is always seen as “tomorrow’s dream,” could soon become “today’s problem.”