[Viewpoint] The diplomatic dance picks up

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[Viewpoint] The diplomatic dance picks up

Koreans and Americans go to the polls later this year to elect new presidents. Tight, heated races are expected in both countries. There is even a chance of both countries experiencing a shift in ruling parties, which will have vital implications for the Korea-U.S. alliance.

Election talk has been dominating international meetings to discuss the Korean Peninsula and foreign affairs and security policies can be held hostage by talk of who’s-beating-whom and what will it all mean. There won’t be much to fret about in the case of a landslide election, of course, as the winner will have the overwhelming backing of the people for his or her policies, including on foreign affairs.

But a narrow win places a new leader in a position that will be vulnerable to the partisan tug-of-war on the foreign affairs front. Policy making on foreign affairs and security may languish over differing opinions about such tricky issues as adjusting ties with the U.S. and China, as well as North Korea.

Few argue about the need to safeguard the fundamental pillar of Korea’s foreign and security policy: the Korea-U.S. alliance. But strong ties with the U.S. cannot ensure the status quo with the rise of Chinese power and strained inter-Korean relations. The presidential candidates will have to be ready to answer both critics of overreliance on the U.S. and proponents of more balance in the diplomatic relationship.

From the look of the political climate in both Seoul and Washington, many have reason to be apprehensive about the sustainability of the Korea-U.S. alliance. Political rivalry has reached unfortunate extremes in both countries. Instead of aiming their pitch at the middle, the political players are rallying diehard, loyalist conservative or liberals to support them.

The antagonism and division is likely to widen as the heat rises on the campaign trail, which could put partisan interests ahead of national ones in foreign and security realms. A Republican president in the U.S. could turn hawkish toward North Korea and a liberal president from the opposition in Korea may pursue an equidistant diplomacy with the U.S. and China accompanied by engagement policies toward North Korea, putting the Seoul-Washington ties at risk as in the last two administrations in Korea.

At a seminar discussing the future of South Korea-U.S. ties last month, American participants were mostly concerned with the post-election foreign policy of the Seoul government. There are many pending issues between the two countries, including renegotiations of the Korea-U.S. nuclear power pact that expires in 2014. Regardless of the election outcome, the new governments will likely turn uncomfortable if they fail to agree on Korea’s demand on lifting the ban on reprocessing spent fuel here.

But what can mostly affect future Korea-U.S. relations is how Seoul behaves toward the U.S and China amid their escalating rivalry over power in the Asia-Pacific. Many believe Seoul won’t risk jeopardizing its alliance with Washington and will likely sustain the traditional, cozy relationship under the new administration. But skeptics warn of legislative challenge as at least 30 new members of the National Assembly are from the anti-American liberal camp.

Korean voters chose a conservative candidate in the last presidential election, having seen fallout from a frustrating standoff with Washington under liberal President Roh Moo-hyun. Presidential candidate Lee Myung-bak promised a restoration of the Korea-U.S. alliance. The overwhelming victory of Lee shifted foreign policy back to traditional allies. But the approval rating of the incumbent president has slipped below 20 percent. He is on the same lame-duck slide out of office experienced by his predecessor. Public opinion may be swept up in a knee-jerk resistance to policies of the past government.

It is too early to jump to the conclusion that an “anything-but-Lee” syndrome could lead to realigning ties with China and North Korea as well as a rethinking of the traditional staunch partnership with the U.S. But we have to closely watch how public opinion shapes foreign policies during and after the campaign.

Expressions on the faces of former ambassadors to Seoul and generals attending a meeting in Washington were serious and apprehensive. They may have been sensing the precariousness of the Korea-U.S. alliance. Finding the right distance with international friends and foes may be one of the biggest challenges to the incoming president.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

* The author is a political science professor at Seoul National University.

by Chang Dal-joong
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