A fine balancing act

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A fine balancing act

Korea and the United States forged an “even stronger alliance” after the U.S. Congress ratified a landmark free trade agreement to coincide with President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Washington. If the deal wins endorsement from the Korean legislature, the two countries will remove about 80 percent of trade tariffs to give their long-standing partnership an economic boost. The two sides first signed a mutual defense treaty in 1953, then expanded this strategic partnership to all fields from politics and defense to economics and culture.

Lee and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama agreed at a summit meeting that their bilateral alliance stands as a pillar to security in the Korean Peninsula and the Pacific region. They emphasized that the FTA has further cemented and upgraded this alliance, and Obama reconfirmed the U.S.’ defense commitment to South Korea.

He reiterated that the two countries are “entirely united” on the North Korean issue and vowed to work closely on international actions to resolve related nuclear issues. Seoul’s lopsided relations with Washington are evening out on, not only a bilateral, but also a regional and global level. In his address to Congress, Lee expressed appreciation and confidence in the unwavering bilateral relationship and received seemingly endless rounds of applause from those in attendance.

South Korea is not only dealing with a nuclear-armed North, but also China, with its growing military and economic might. China presents both an opportunity and a challenge for the South, geopolitically and economically. The country must try to ride the wave of China’s success while staying alert for any potential risks and maintaining its advantages in the regional market.

Washington has been stressing its close relationship with Seoul on the global stage as it realizes its Asian partner’s strategic usefulness in moving to contain China. Meanwhile, the South must resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis, retain its strong national defensive capabilities and eventually pursue reunification. As such, the country needs the U.S., and vice versa.

However, the government cannot afford to choose between China and the U.S. It must also maintain friendly ties with its neighboring powerhouse, as China’s cooperation will be indispensable in resolving the North Korea nuclear issue and reunification. This requires sophisticated diplomacy rather than Lee’s tactic of highlighting reinforced Korea-U.S. ties to stave off China’s rising power.
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