Washington votes for no surprisesAmericans are preoccupied with their own presidential election, which has become more exciting in the wake of Mitt Romney’s thumping of President Obama in their first televised debate. Still, a group of Asia watchers in government, think tanks and media is also keeping one eye on the presidential campaign in Korea.
This column offers a snapshot of the emerging views toward the Korean presidential candidates in Washington. It is hardly a scientific survey or reflective of U.S. government positions or those of the Romney campaign. Of course, President Obama or President-elect Romney would rightly welcome the opportunity to work on bilateral, regional and global issues with whomever becomes the next president of Korea. Indeed, one bottom-line view appears to be that Washington does not have a “favorite” candidate or serious neuralgia about any candidate.
Nonetheless, there are questions, concerns and expectations.
Park Geun-hye is well known to Washington insiders, as are her veteran foreign policy advisers. It is generally understood in Washington that Madame Park is likely to adjust the Lee government’s approach to the North-South dialogue, and there is an appreciation that this would not be inherently counter to U.S. interests.
The key issue for Washington is that Korea not surprise or undercut U.S. diplomacy with material rewards to the North that are not part of a well-coordinated plan for denuclearization and advancing peace and security. There is fairly high confidence that a Park administration would not surprise Washington as the Roh Moo-hyun government sometimes did.
There are more questions regarding a future Park administration’s stance toward China. Neither an Obama nor Romney administration would pursue “containment” of China or view positive Chinese relations with Korea or other U.S. allies as negative or zero sum. However, the United States is trying to manage a delicate strategic game in Asia in which the aim is to incentivize Beijing to play by international norms and not seek to divide democracies against one another. In that context, the recent Korea-Japan tensions are a major diplomatic headache for Washington.
Madame Park’s signal that she would improve relations with Beijing would be positive, unless it is used intentionally or misinterpreted by Beijing as a distancing from the United States or Japan. Some Korea watchers have speculated whether a Park administration might feel compelled or free to send such a signal precisely because of the expectation that she would be pro-U.S.
Moon Jae-in is perhaps not as well known in Washington, in part because he is based in Busan and sees fewer visitors to Korea. However, veterans of the Bush-Roh era remember Moon as a steady and pragmatic presence in the Blue House at a time when many members of the president’s inner circle were actively seeking ways to antagonize the United States.
There is also an expectation that Mr. Moon learned valuable political and strategic lessons from the volatility in the U.S.-Korea alliance at the beginning of the Roh administration. What leaves some Korea watchers nervous is the Moon camp’s cavalier talk of economic confederation and a peace treaty with the North. If these are aspirational goals that are properly caveated in practice, then no problem. But no one is certain how ambitious a Moon administration would actually be toward the North.
Ahn Cheol-soo is both the most intimately familiar with American society and the most unknown to American officials and scholars. Few American officials have had access to him and his advisers come in different stripes and carrying different levels of authority to explain their candidate’s positions.
Ahn’s call for inter-Korean reconciliation, a peace regime and resolution of the nuclear issue sound vaguely like a midway point between the positions of Moon and Park. There is no expectation that he is anti-United States, but some concern about whether his complete lack of experience in policy and politics might lead to surprises or coordination difficulties.
It is not so easy for political leaders to turn from campaigns of inspiration to the process of governing - as Obama himself has admitted. On the other hand, Ahn’s pragmatic business experience brings a dimension that could produce a pragmatic workmanlike relationship with the American president.
All three political leaders are intriguing personalities and would capture the attention of the American president. It is significant that the United States and Korea will be going through a transition process (even if Obama wins re-election, there will be a new secretary of state).
It will be critical that advisers in Seoul and Washington connect early in that transition process. There should be no surprises. If there are apparent divergences on engagement strategies toward the North, then both Washington and Seoul should adopt the principle that they will not reject the other’s proposal, but will instead seek complementary efforts.
It is understandable that candidates may not yet be ready to spell out policy specifics, but it is never too soon to start exchanging views.
* The author is a senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
by Michael Green