[Viewpoint] A new strategic framework

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[Viewpoint] A new strategic framework

In my last column, I wrote about how the presidential elections in the U.S. and Korea are not likely to have a dramatic impact on the alliance. In general, public support of the relationship is strong in both countries. Moreover, both new presidents will want a strong anchor in the alliance as they each tackle the preeminent issue of how to fashion a vision for “compassionate growth” in their respective economies, one that leaves no one behind.

But what is missing today from the alliance 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. During a recent trip to Seoul, senior Korean officials, as well as presidential candidates, incessantly pressed their points on specific issues including missile range guidelines and the 1-2-3 negotiations. These are difficult negotiations. They have been out of the public eye here in the United States. Up until recently, the same had held true in Korea.

However, after the North’s April 2012 missile launch, President Lee Myung-bak publicly stated that South Korea needs its own longer-range missiles. National Assembly members have called for the same, as well as the reintroduction of tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. According to a recent Asan Institute poll, a surprising 63 percent of South Koreans support the indigenous development of nuclear weapons in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons status.

The missile guidelines and 1-2-3 negotiations have the potential to inflame anti-American sentiments in South Korea, particularly if they are framed by wily politicians as “sovereignty” issues in which the U.S. is portrayed as heavily trying to stop South Korea from acting in its own self-defense.

Yet trying to bulldoze through such negotiations will meet with strong resistance on both sides as working-level U.S. and South Korean officials stand nose-to-nose refusing to yield an inch and essentially waiting for the other’s time in office to run out. Meanwhile, resentments on both sides grow and leave the governments to be elected in November and December 2012 respectively with a depleted reservoir of good will upon which to build.

One cannot make progress on these or other issues unless we embed them in a broader strategic framework designed to take the U.S.-South Korea alliance to the next level. Some on the South Korean side argue that Seoul has been a good ally of the U.S. on everything from Afghanistan to climate change, and therefore is deserving of some reciprocal treatment. Some on the U.S. side argue that these negotiations are of such global consequence that they cannot be simply traded as chips for one ally’s good behavior, and instead must be treated with the strictest objective guidelines. The gap will not narrow unless we conceive of a broad strategic framework in which to think about the future U.S.-South Korean alliance.

The first proposition to take the alliance to the next level would be to conceive of it as having a global role. What this means is that the U.S. and South Korea must continue to expand the scope of this relationship by joining forces as public-goods providers in the international system. Whether the issue is overseas development assistance, peacekeeping, climate change, G-20, nuclear security, PSI or missile defense, the U.S.-South Korea alliance plays or could play prominently in all of these issue-areas.

On more issues than not, Seoul stands squarely with Washington, and is a critical Asian player operating with the U.S. on a global stage. Seoul has been an extremely relevant, active and ambitious actor that rivals any of America’s other partners in the world.

What does this do for South Korea and the United States? It suggests that South Korea and the United States can help to ensure compliance with existing international norms as well as to create new ones concordant with our national interests.

One example of this might be in civil nuclear energy. As CSIS President John Hamre has argued, the U.S. increasingly will recede as a global player in the nuclear energy field. The cheap price of shale gas and its abundant supply ensures this outcome. As we reduce our footprint in this area, China, Russia and other countries in Asia are likely to become dominant actors.

The danger of more countries developing civilian nuclear energy programs is safety and nuclear proliferation. If the U.S. is to have any impact on the rules governing safeguards, transparency and nonproliferation in the future commercial nuclear energy regime, then it is in our interest to find partners to work with like South Korea. Japan was one of those partners, but after Fukushima, its future role in global nuclear energy will dissipate.

One way to accomplish this might be to have countries like South Korea stand as shining examples of full-nuclear fuel cycle states that meet the highest nonproliferation standards of international transparency and compliance. Otherwise, the future of nuclear energy will be left to suppliers like China and Russia.

While this would be a controversial decision on the U.S.-side, it would require a decisional framework that steps out of the reflexive counter-proliferation mode, and looks to partner with South Korea to define the rules of the future civil nuclear regime.

On South Korea’s part, this would require a more realistic negotiating position, rather than the current demands for unconditional reprocessing and enrichment rights. It would require much greater international transparency from the nuclear agencies in South Korea. It would also require a willingness by South Korea to consider some creative and collaborative solutions that do not necessarily require all elements of a nuclear fuel cycle to be on South Korean soil.

The details of such a deal must be left to the negotiators. But for the alliance, the 1-2-3 negotiation is an opportunity to take the alliance to the next level by embedding it in a new global vision of U.S.-South Korea cooperation. This would be one in which the United States would truly need South Korea’s support in helping to define the best terms for the global civil nuclear energy regime. This would be one of several areas of U.S.-South Korea global collaboration including overseas development assistance, health and peace-building.

*The author is D.S. Song-Korea Foundation professor of government at Georgetown University and the Korea chair at CSIS in Washington.
By Victor Cha
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