[Overseas View]Nurture alliancesLee Myung-bak won the South Korean presidential election on Dec. 19, raising expectations for Seoul’s relations with Tokyo and Washington. Lee’s victory guarantees a change in tone, but increased cooperation with Japan and the United States will not be automatic. While South Korea readies a new administration, Japan and the United States should also prepare for upgrading ties.
Relations among the three countries struggled under recent combinations of leaders. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi drew criticism from Asian neighbors for his visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Japan-South Korea ties were strained by disputed history texts and competing claims to the Dokdo/Takashima islets. Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe, was a crusader against North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens and led a strong response to Pyongyang’s nuclear test ― efforts that conflicted with Seoul’s softer approach. Abe also gave priority to restoring Japanese national pride and appeared insensitive on historical matters such as the suffering of women under wartime sexual servitude. Yasuo Fukuda, Japan’s new prime minister, has deliberately taken a more conciliatory approach.
Meanwhile, the George W. Bush administration has moved from confrontation with North Korea toward give-and-take diplomacy. The six-party talks have not met Ambassador Christopher Hill’s optimistic schedule for a complete nuclear declaration by Dec. 31. But the Bush administration has succeeded in lowering the heat with North Korea, and its policy will likely continue into the next administration.
Against this backdrop, enter Lee Myung-bak, a pragmatic conservative who stresses the importance of South Korea’s traditional alliances. Lee will likely focus attention where he carries a mandate ― on revitalizing the economy. Ten years of engagement with North Korea under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun had the effect of reshaping threat perceptions in South Korea, so most inter-Korean projects will likely continue under Lee, and there is unlikely to be talk of regime change. But where Roh avoided questioning North Korea on its nuclear programs and human rights abuses, Lee’s administration promises to demand reciprocity and results.
There are, however, a number of wild cards in play before and soon after Lee takes office on Feb. 25. The Roh administration may attempt to cement further deals with North Korea to bind Lee, whose reputation will be under fire by a financial scandal investigation.
There are also internal challenges within Lee’s Grand National Party. While Lee won the presidential election handily, the primary race was hard-fought and factions have yet to reconcile. In April, National Assembly elections will decide whether Lee will enjoy legislative support for his policies.
In Japan, Fukuda appears to be a steady hand on foreign affairs, but his cabinet could fall on government mismanagement of pensions. Also, since the opposition Democratic Party won control of the Upper House, Japan’s legislature has been unable to agree on security policy. Legislation for a U.S.-backed anti-terrorism mission by the Japanese navy expired in November, and a bill to create a Japanese national security council was shelved in December.
Americans will soon be preoccupied with their own presidential election. The Bush administration appears to have set policy for its last year in office, but hawks will point to North Korea’s nuclear delays and South Korea’s election and see both reason and opportunity to campaign for a harder line against North Korea.
It is not clear how the North will respond to mixed signals from the U.S. or the new Lee administration.
To advance relations despite these unknowns, policymakers should prepare an agenda for overcoming history, connecting alliances and coordinating policy on North Korea.
Economic and political trends encourage leaders to delicately address history and emphasize cooperation. South Korea has overcome the legacies of war to achieve democracy and prosperity. Japanese leaders have come to respect South Korea’s importance and appreciate shared values with both American and Korean society. The difference between South Korea’s election last month and that of five years ago suggests that government legitimacy now rests on economic growth and consolidation of democratic institutions, rather than on ethnic nationalism or historical resentment.
South Korea no longer needs a victim’s national narrative as it competes and cooperates at the highest international level
Tokyo can now demonstrate that it deserves South Korea’s trust by being sensitive to historical issues while pursuing the path of Japan’s military normalization and proactive diplomacy. The way toward improving bilateral relations includes resuming annual summits, discussions of exclusive economic zones and a free trade agreement, and increasing civil society exchanges.
Despite being connected by history, geography and strategy, the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea alliances are not sufficiently coordinated for meeting international challenges.
The three militaries could combine certain training exercises, coordinate relief deployment for natural disasters and cooperate on peacekeeping operations. The three governments could deepen contingency planning and develop shared visions of inter-Korean reconciliation, East Asian regional integration and China’s international role. A trilateral security declaration may be desirable, along the lines of the 2007 Japan-Australia Joint Declaration.
In December, Japan and the U.S. successfully renegotiated alliance finances. Burden sharing and basing arrangements are difficult to update, however necessary. It is important that allies negotiate in good faith and promptly implement agreements. Doing so requires political will and clear articulation on the value of alliances. Washington should consult closely with Tokyo and Seoul on the roles and missions each can contribute toward international security. Japan may decide it is willing to cooperate on missile defense beyond its homeland, and South Korea may decide to join the Proliferation Security Initiative.
The six-party talks must avoid backsliding by North Korea during the transition of South Korean leadership. U.S.-Japan-South Korea policy coordination is a necessary condition for holding North Korea accountable for denuclearization. North Korea should not be allowed excuses (such as delays of promised aid) for stalling the six-party agreement.
South Korea and the United States should push North Korea to meet Tokyo’s demands for transparency about the fate of abductees, while Japan’s leaders ensure that this emotive issue does not trump Japan’s national interests in multilaterally addressing Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.
Regular meetings of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group should be resumed so that Seoul, Tokyo and Washington stay on the same page in dealing with North Korea.
If Pyongyang continues down the path of nuclear dismantlement in 2008, economic aid and political recognition will need to be delivered along the way. If it fails to meet its commitments, coordinated pressure will be necessary.
*Despite being connected by history, geography and strategy, the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea alliances are not sufficiently coordinated for meeting international challenges.
by Leif-Eric Easley