[Viewpoint] U.S.-South alliance after the elections

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[Viewpoint] U.S.-South alliance after the elections

The recent 2+2 meetings between the foreign and defense ministers of Korea and the U.S. in Washington only further attest to how strong the Korea-U.S. ties is today. On the personal level, the chemistry between the two leaders - U.S. President Barack Obama and President Lee Myung-bak - is very good. One can never underestimate the influence this has on the overall tone of the relationship.

When I worked at the White House, President George W. Bush and President Roh Moo-hyun did not share the same chemistry, and while we probably reached more agreements during that period than any other in the history of the alliance - Iraq-Afghanistan deployments, FTA, Visa Waiver, WEST program, NATO Plus Three - the tone of the relationship was always a bit discordant as the two leaders had differing ideologies and incompatible personalities.

But it is not only personalities that have contributed to the relationship. The Lee Myung-bak government’s globally oriented outlook has mattered greatly to the Obama administration that has been looking for allies to step up and share the burden. Whether it is in Afghanistan, Copenhagen, G-20, Nuclear Security Summit or international development, Korea has been a major global player, putting Europeans and the Japanese to shame.

Like the United States, Korea has created Peace Corps of more than 4000 young men and women serving everywhere from Central Asia to Southeast Asia. The platitudes go on. A White House reporter once told me she wanted to write a story about how Obama’s constant references to the country in his domestic policy speeches meant that he secretly wanted Americans to adopt the Korean work ethic (I do not know if this reporter ever managed to get this published).

Other external factors have contributed to the strength of the U.S.-Korea ties. North Korea’s belligerence has helped to bring the two allies closer. Japan’s inward turn as a result of domestic political changes and the March 2011 triple disaster constituted the biggest strategic surprise for the U.S. in Asia, and this unforeseen stepback by the traditionally key U.S. ally in Asia has also helped upgrade the relationship.

Contrary to popular expectations, I do not think the presidential elections in South Korea (or in the U.S. for that matter) will have a dramatic impact on the Korea-U.S. alliance. Whether Koreans elect a conservative or progressive to occupy the Blue House, we can expect to see three trends with regard to the alliance.

First, the tone of the relationship, while positive, will “normalize” to an extent, absent the string of superlatives used to describe the relationship today. This is the natural course of politics as the successor in Seoul will want to show a degree of distance from the predecessor’s policies. A little more talk about a balanced relationship. Perhaps a little more outreach to China, but not a major turn in strategy that we saw, for example, under Roh Moo-hyun.

Even progressives in Korea are aware of the public’s general affinity for the alliance. Recent polls by the Asan Institute show seven out of 10 Koreans holding a favorable view of the United States and 75 percent believing the alliance must remain even after reunification. Moreover, they have learned from the examples of Roh in Korea and Hatoyama in Japan to strike a more centrist course. Thus, we may see a change more in tone, than in strategy.

Second, a new administration in Korea is likely to attempt a bit more outreach to North Korea than the perceived hardline position of the Lee government. This is not a return to unconditional engagement of the “Sunshine Policy,” but even the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, has evinced a shade more flexibility, a so-called “alignment approach” in her dealing with the North. But these sorts of changes are manageable as long as there is adequate consultation between Washington and Seoul immediately after the elections and through the transition periods in both capitols.

Third, while maintenance of the alliance will be important for both new leaderships in Seoul and Washingon (even if this is a second Obama administration), the key priority in both the Blue House and the White House will be the domestic agenda. In the U.S. case, the priority will be to create more jobs in a country that is suffering the highest unemployment rates in memory.

While Koreans do not have the same unemployment problems as the rest of the world, there is a social and economic malaise and discontent that the next Korean leader will have to address by fashioning a new vision for “compassionate growth,” that grows the country while leaving no one behind. In both cases, these are very challenging agendas, and in this regard, neither new leader can afford to have bad relations with such an important ally as the other. But what is missing today from the alliance today despite the successful 2+2 meeting is a broader strategic framework. This is understandable because when one reaches the end of an administration, as we have in both Seoul and Washington, the relationship boils down to issues and tactics, not strategy.

These days, Korean senior government officials, as well as presidential candidates, incessantly press their points on specific issues including missile-range guidelines and the 1-2-3 negotiations. But one cannot make progress on these or other issues unless we embed them in a broader strategic framework designed to take the Korea-U.S. alliance to the next level. My next column will attempt to devise what such a strategic framework might look like.

*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and Korea chair at the CSIS in Washington.
By Victor Cha
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