[Viewpoint]Time for unprecedented changeAn unprecedented change is coming to the United States. It could remind us of a similar change that swept America during the Depression of the 1930s. It would bring about an unprecedented shift in the White House, a Democrat-controlled Congress and could eventually transform the Supreme Court. Basically the balance of power would be fundamentally altered.
This does not necessarily bode well. The similarly Democratic majority periods of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson were accompanied by some problems for the United States.
There are several basic factors affecting the election. They are bread and butter, war and peace, and black and white. Race has an entirely different meaning in the 2008 election.
The economy is certainly the most critical issue. Related to the overall economic picture are the current global financial crisis, an intolerably high unemployment rate (nearing 7 percent), the energy crisis, a health care crisis, and undocumented immigrant issues.
Protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are other nagging problems that the new president will inherit. Continuing instability in neighboring Pakistan is an equally serious problem for the new president. How to handle the nagging problem with Iran, and how to manage North Korea’s nuclear issue remain no less serious. How to proceed with North Korea even after removing it from the U.S. terrorism list remains a critical question for Washington.
The 2008 elections would also bring about major changes in the U.S. Congress. It is now more than certain that the Democrats would completely control the Senate and the House of Representatives, making the Congress solidly Democratic and able to override any presidential veto. A Democratic president, on the other hand, would not necessarily be able to control a Democratic Congress. Both Democratic presidents Roosevelt and Johnson had very difficult times with a Democratic controlled Congress. The 2008 elections would bring about major changes totally unprecedented in U.S. history and much more fundamentally than in the 1930s Franklin Roosevelt era.
What kinds of changes can we anticipate in Korea-U.S. relations? How should Seoul anticipate and prepare for such changes?
Any international relationship is bound to change with the passage of time. Even the stable American-Korean relations is no exception. It is often said, “There is no permanent friend or permanent enemy, only national interests remain permanent.” Historically the Seoul–Washington relationship has been very enduring. Yet there were noticeable frictions from time to time. For instance, the U.S. signed the 1953 armistice agreement with North Korea against the wishes of Seoul. This caused a lot of bad blood between Seoul and Washington. But on the whole, the connection between the two nations has been very close and friendly, now even allowing visa-free travel both ways.
Sometimes, each appeared to have been tempted to interfere in internal affairs, particularly during close elections. President Kim Young-sam and President Kim Dae-jung provided examples of such behavior. In the 2008 election Seoul appears to be favoring the Republicans, hoping Washington will continue Bush’s hard-line policies. Such a hope often produces unfortunate results. It would be better not to interfere in each other’s domestic affairs.
Trade could cause major obstacles. A free trade agreement has been already concluded. Beef is insignificant in the overall package of the FTA. The total volume of trade is more important for Seoul than for Washington in the overall global balance of trade.
The overwhelming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives may mount serious opposition to the FTA with Seoul as the U.S. faces high levels of unemployment, close to 7 percent throughout the country, by early spring 2009. Some economists fear there may be a period of protectionism coupled with gradual isolation in U.S. foreign policy.
What could Seoul do? It faces a major economic dilemma, much more serious than the painful IMF period. It should consider diversifying its global trade as much as possible. As rich as the U.S. market has been, there are other emerging markets.
American foreign policy may bring about unprecedented changes globally. One particular area that may directly affect Seoul could be matters with North Korea. Pyongyang is no longer part of an “axis of evil.” Washington has already removed it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Pyongyang is likely serious about its pledge to dismantle its nuclear program under the six-party talks.
What could the next step be? The new U.S. administration may be expected to negotiate with North Korea on several issues. Pyongyang will likely demand a total non-nuclear Korean Peninsula. The U.S. may be pressed to pledge to remove its nuclear umbrella from the South.
Gradually, Pyongyang and Washington would proceed to normalize relations.
How would Tokyo react? Japan has objected to the U.S. delisting of the North. Its priority is resolving the issue of Japanese kidnapped by the North. But Washington ignored Tokyo’s demand. The new U.S. administration is more than likely to proceed with a policy to normalize relations with Pyongyang irrespective of Tokyo.
What about Seoul? What could Seoul possibly do when Washington normalizes relations with Pyongyang?
Seoul reportedly supported Washington’s removal of Pyongyang from the terrorism list.
Gradually, Seoul may be marginalized in the normalization process. While it is still a member of the six-party talks, it would simply follow Washington’s lead.
But this is nothing more than mendicant diplomacy.
What would Pyongyang make of Seoul simply following Washington’s lead?
When the U.S. unilaterally signed the 1953 armistice agreement with Pyongyang, Seoul expressed its anger by unilaterally releasing a large number of prisoners of war. What kind of leverage does Seoul have today? Or would Seoul be simply a bystander? This could be the most serious and challenging test in the Korea-U.S. relationship.
Pyongyang was angry when Moscow recognized Seoul. North Korea demanded the Soviet foreign minister leave Pyongyang immediately when he informed the North’s leadership of Moscow’s plan to recognize Seoul. Seoul made a huge loan to Moscow to obtain its recognition — a loan that is still unpaid to date. Pyongyang’s relationship with Moscow was never the same since.
The Republic of Korea is now an internationally recognized independent power. It does not need to exercise mendicant diplomacy anymore. Its diplomatic position is globally recognized, with the UN secretary general a Korean. Seoul is fully capable of exercising creative diplomacy. Within six months of coming to power, the new government in Seoul has already strengthened its relationship with the surrounding four major powers.
Now is a golden opportunity for Seoul to exercise creative diplomacy. The time is too precious to ponder for long.
Without question, the best approach is to directly reach out to Pyongyang. It may not be too early to prepare for a face to face meeting on the first of March next year, either at Kaesong or Mount Kumgang.
*The writer is a visiting professor of economics at Soongsil University and a professor of international political economy at Drexel University.
by Roy Kim