[Viewpoint] Ripples in U.S.-South Korea ties

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[Viewpoint] Ripples in U.S.-South Korea ties

Korea watchers in Washington agree that the U.S. and South Korean governments have never been closer in terms of coordination or mutual confidence than in the past two years. Forged in the tragedies of the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong Island and fueled by a close personal relationship between Presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak, the U.S.-South Korea alliance is in its new glory years.

Yet in a recent visit to Seoul and in various discussions with journalists, scholars and officials from both sides this past month, I have detected a real gap opening between Seoul and Washington in their approach to North Korea for the first time in several years.

To be fair, the U.S. and Korean governments are like two huge battleships. And because of our vibrant democracies, there is more than one bridge steering each ship. It is inevitable that these behemoths will sometimes scrape against each other or go off course even as we head in the same general direction. If anything, the tight coordination of the last two years was probably the exception rather than the rule.

So now a gap is becoming evident. The proximate issue is when and how to provide food aid to North Korea. With U.S. human rights envoy Robert King in Pyongyang to investigate requirements for food and test the North’s readiness to provide proper monitoring, the Blue House feels under pressure from the progressive camp at home and China and the U.S. to begin considering new food aid.

Of course, this is about much more than food. There is now a consensus among the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, that resumption of the six-party talks should go through three stages: first, a resumption of North-South dialogue; then a resumption of U.S.-North Korea dialogue; and finally a meeting of the six parties. The first hurdle is food aid, and some parties, especially China, are desperate to get past that to resume the diplomatic process.

The gap in U.S. and Korean approaches is becoming evident with the food aid question, but it has five sources.

First, the Blue House faces different domestic expectations. After North Korea’s Cheonan and Yeongpyeong attacks, a majority of the South Korean people rightly expected a sign of contrition from the North and some indication that Pyongyang will not attempt further acts of aggression. The Lee government has stuck to its principle that the North must express such contrition and also be willing to address the nuclear issue, but has not been unrealistic in terms of insisting on specific formulas. Some liberals in Korea and the U.S. are frustrated with the Blue House approach, but I think it is just and appropriate.

Second, while the Obama administration respects the Blue House position and does not want to cause any damage to the U.S.-Korea alliance, there is nevertheless a feeling among many senior U.S. officials that a lack of engagement with the North is inherently dangerous.

I have argued that this correlation does not prove causality, particularly since the North can control when it is in or out of engagement mode. Still, there is apprehension - particularly in the State Department - about leaving the North too isolated even as pressure is placed on the regime. This creates different tactical assessments between Washington and Seoul on the value of talks.

Third, the U.S. and South Korean policies on food aid are different in important respects. The United States has never held that food aid should be linked to political issues. The key question for Washington has always been whether there is a real requirement and whether the aid can be monitored effectively to ensure it goes to the people in the North who need it. In contrast, Seoul has frequently linked food assistance to political issues.

While I am personally more sympathetic with Seoul on points one and two, I do believe it is important for South Korean observers to recognize that there is a genuine humanitarian impulse behind the U.S. approach to food aid.

That said, leading Republican and Democratic senators wrote this week to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing deep skepticism about whether the North really needs food aid at this juncture, or whether it is simply stockpiling to prepare for the 2012 celebrations and possibly further tests or provocations. These concerns mirror exactly the issues raised by virtually every senior official I recently saw in Seoul.

The fourth cause of the U.S.-ROK gap is pre-election year politics in the United States. While no U.S. official would acknowledge or even recognize it, there is a strong aversion to creating foreign policy complications in an election year. If a breakthrough were possible, the president might want to try something bold with North Korea. But no breakthrough seems close to likely at this point and so the White House political instinct will be to support policies that keep the North Korea front quiet going into the 2012 election.

If that means engaging North Korea on slightly less favorable terms than the year before, that might be worth it rather than risk North Korean bellicosity that forces presidential action, distracts from the president’s major re-election themes, or worse - makes the president look weak. This frankly is the way that incumbents have tended to think going into their re-election campaign mode.

Fifth and finally, there is the election year factor in South Korea, and a quiet concern that President Lee Myung-bak might spring a “surprise” on Washington by agreeing to go to Pyongyang for a summit with Kim Jong-il to enhance his legacy before leaving office.

*The writer is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

By Michael Green
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