[Viewpoint] Unbreakable bond at its strongest

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[Viewpoint] Unbreakable bond at its strongest

The governments of Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama can probably claim with some justification that the U.S.-South Korea alliance is now stronger under their stewardship than it has ever been before.

Viewed from Washington, the closeness of the bilateral relationship is evident in the enormous confidence that the Obama administration has demonstrated toward the Blue House on four issues: the Korus free trade agreement, where Obama went against his own domestic political advisers and announced he would try to introduce it to Congress by the end of the year; wartime operations, where Obama went against the initial advice of the Pentagon based on a judgment that Lee understood how best to handle the issue; the U.S. decision to request that the next nuclear summit be held in Korea; and Washington’s obvious confidence in Seoul’s handling of the Cheonan sinking. On the Cheonan issue, one can easily imagine how the U.S. side would have worried about previous conservative governments escalating against the North too quickly, and previous progressive governments backing down too soon.

When Obama called the U.S.-Korea alliance the “lynchpin” of Asian security, he really meant it.

Still, this period of relationship between the U.S. and South Korea does bring to mind what happened after former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the U.S.-Japan alliance was in its “Golden Age” in 2006. His statement was followed almost immediately by a bilateral crisis over North Korea policy and then controversy over the Futenma base located in Okinawa, Japan.

In the case of the U.S.-ROK alliance, it is important not to tempt the gods with similar overconfidence and complacency. It therefore is better to objectively analyze the drivers for the close relationship and to identify any potential problem spots ahead.

Experts in international relations often begin their analysis of bilateral relationships at the level of the international system.

Viewed in this structural context, there are some obvious external drivers for the current close ties between the United States and South Korea. North Korea’s nuclear program and the sinking of the Cheonan have demonstrated the limits of accommodation with Pyongyang and the necessity of deterrence and pressure.

The uncertainties over a post-Kim Jong-il succession in the North have also put Washington and Seoul in generally the same frame of mind about the future of the peninsula - neither the Obama government nor the Lee administration seeks to exploit instability in the North to force regime change. But both recognize the need to prepare for the increasing possibility that regime change will be thrust upon us.

In contrast, China’s attitude toward the Cheonan sinking has exposed a real strategic divergence with Seoul, as Beijing uses its power to support stability and an independent buffer zone in the North, rather than trying to pressure Kim Jong-il to cease his dangerous provocations.

While structural factors - or the distribution of power and threats in the international system - help to explain the relative strength of alliances, values also matter. The U.S.-ROK alliance has always been based on the shared value of democracy, but for many decades this “glue” in the alliance was weakened by the fact that Korean democracy was incomplete.

Many progressives in the past actually saw the United States and the alliance as an obstacle to unification and democratization.

The progressive government under Roh Moo-hyun had both positive and negative aspects, but one of its most important legacies is how the practical experience of governing helped to reduce illusions about the United States and the North, and to broaden the understanding in South Korea that the U.S. and Korea truly are bonded by common values. That glue has never been stronger than it is today.

Finally, leadership can be critical in bilateral relationships, and President Lee has done more to build his nation’s credibility in the United States than any other leader in Asia. In fact, White House and State Department officials make no secret of the fact that Lee Myung-bak is Obama’s closest counterpart in Asia.

It certainly helped that Yukio Hatoyama was so ineffective and unpredictable in Japan, and that tough trade and security issues with China made it difficult to warm to the highly bureaucratic Hu Jintao. But even still, it is remarkable that Obama has developed such respect for and closeness with Lee. Clinton and Bush made close friends with world leaders (Clinton famously with former British leader Tony Blair and Bush with Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi), but Obama has a well-earned reputation for being more like a cool and aloof professor or lawyer than a backslapping politician with his own favorite counterparts.

Somehow Lee Myung-bak broke through that aloofness and established a real bond with the American president. Perhaps it is because Lee himself is not a politician by training and comes across as genuine. Whatever the exact reason, it is a real asset for Korea and the U.S.-Korea alliance.

Of these factors, how many will last beyond the current moment? In all likelihood, North Korea will continue testing both Seoul and Washington, yet there has never been a closer alignment between the U.S. and South Korea in terms of how to handle instability toward to the North.

The China factor is somewhat less predictable. The past tension between Seoul and Washington over the U.S. request for “strategic flexibility” for U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula demonstrates that even though Chinese hubris may increase Korean appreciation of the alliance with the United States, it does not automatically translate into common operating assumptions about how the alliance should work in the context of security problems related to China.

Leadership is also a double-edged sword. Obama is committed to moving the FTA forward, but does he have the clout with a protectionist Democratic Congress to succeed in winning enough votes? And while President Lee has personally committed himself to a strong alliance relationship with the United States and has won the confidence of Obama, will that be true for the next South Korean leader? The only way to build alliance continuity in democracies is through bipartisanship.

Obama will have more support for the Korus FTA if the Republicans win the House in mid-term elections this November. But if the progressive camp makes a comeback in Korea, how committed will they be to the alliance? As important as Lee’s leadership has been with Washington, it is crucial that he also increase efforts to build bipartisan support for a strong U.S.-ROK alliance at home as well.

One area where there does appear to be a high degree of future continuity between the United States and Korea is our shared commitment to democratic values, and this may ultimately be what proves to be the most important glue in the relationship. And that is because it is based on the will of the people, who always rule in democratic states.

*The writer is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

by Michael J. Green
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