Take charge of U.S.-Korea relations

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Take charge of U.S.-Korea relations

In electing Park Geun-hye, Korea has arrived at a watershed moment. Not only is she the first female president, but she appears to come to the Blue House not beholden to any special interests or political patrons. Consequently, many expect changes in Korea when she takes office on Feb. 25. I hope some of these changes include Korea’s relationship with the United States.

In the past decade, Korea has made great strides on the global stage. Not only has Korea transformed itself from a country that relied on economic aid to one that now provides aid to others, it has also grown its economy to become the twelfth-largest in the world. Korea also participates in a number of important international missions and international bodies, not the least of which is the United Nations, chaired by Ban Ki-moon. Simultaneously, the personal chemistry between Presidents Lee and Obama has drawn the two nations closer than ever, elevating Korea’s clout as Obama administration officials, mindful of that friendship, have shown greater deference to their Korean counterparts and have taken fuller account of their views in formulating policy regarding Korea.

Yet, in other areas, much remains the same between Korea and its most important ally: lack of understanding of the Washington subculture; a base of support largely devoid of top-tier allies; an insufficient lobbying presence; and a persistent subservient attitude. A combination of these four interrelated factors has negatively impacted Korea’s ability to elevate its standing and be more able to attain its goals with the United States.

Korea’s lack of understanding of the Washington subculture has made Korea less effective in advocating its positions in the United States. The 2008 beef crisis is one good example of this. When the crisis involving the safety of imported beef from cattle aged 30 months or older erupted and escalated in 2008, officials in the Bush administration understood the gravity of the situation and were resigned to make concessions to Korea. Yet, Korea did not fully recognize that opportunity for change at the policy level and instead continued to negotiate largely with the U.S. trade representative, requesting technical-minded officials there for a waiver to the beef agreement.

This back-and-forth continued for many weeks and prolonged the crisis. What Korea should have done was invoke something akin to force majeure, a well-known international contract principle that allows one party to change an agreement due to unforeseen circumstances beyond one’s control. The Lee government was almost paralyzed during the crisis and that would have provided sufficient basis to argue that it could change the beef protocol regarding older beef.

Specifically, instead of making repeated requests to the U.S., Korea should have just given the U.S. notice that it has decided to temporarily stop importing beef from cattle aged 30 months or older for reasons of public safety. The beef crisis would then have been over sooner. Korea needs to take heed of this episode and make efforts to enhance its understanding of Washington’s subculture so that opportunities can be identified and utilized to their best effect.

Another area that needs improvement is Korea’s base of support in the United States. It is said that a person’s reputation is shaped by the friends he keeps; if that is so, Korea’s reputation in Washington is that of a mid-level power. Currently, Korea’s strongest supporters in Washington are not top-tier players with the power to shape policy.

At conferences and seminars on bilateral issues, it is impossible not to notice a glaring imbalance in the seniority of individuals present. Korea sends top-level representatives, while the Americans who are considered Korea’s top supporters are relatively mid-level or at times even junior. This creates a self-fulfilling perception that Korea does not have the requisite clout or high-level contacts in Washington. Needless to say, this makes Korea less effective as Korea is not treated with respect. The incoming Park administration should make efforts to upgrade the ranks of Korea supporters in Washington.

An insufficient lobbying presence is the third hindrance to Korea’s effectiveness. Korea has under-invested in building a lobbying presence in Washington, and the price of this disengagement is lost ground relative to other countries that understand the necessity and tactics of such outreach. As other nations have, Korea should focus its advocacy efforts toward Congress, as Korea’s ability to lobby U.S. administrations is limited. Unlike federal officials, Members of the U.S. House and Senate have diverse constituencies whose interests may align with those of Korea on specific bilateral issues (e.g., exporters who depend on doing business with Korea).

By identifying shared goals and then mobilizing interested constituencies, Korea will have a much easier time influencing individual members of Congress, who in turn can be effective advocates for Korea’s positions across the federal government. As witnessed during the effort to pass the Korus FTA, Korea can achieve considerable success when its coalition includes both majority and minority party legislators, not to mention businesses, NGO groups and other constituencies. Korea should make efforts to continue to work with these like-minded groups in the U.S. and establish an effective lobbying presence in Washington.

A final change I hope to see is for Koreans to cease their deeply engrained posture of servility to the United States. Such deference is understandable to an extent, given America’s power, but it is time for Korea’s self-perception to catch up to the new reality of Korea’s increased stature. To overcome this, Korea must strive for a more symmetrical approach in engaging the United States. For instance, no excessive government reactions to, and media coverage of, relatively minor actions by American officials, no begging for meetings, and no more deploying top-ranked officials (e.g., former prime ministers) as ambassadors to Washington who will be dealing mostly with officials at the assistant secretary level as their counterpart. Such self-degrading actions only cause U.S. officials to treat Korean officials lightly and condescendingly, thereby undermining Korea’s effectiveness in dealing with the U.S. Indeed, the way Korea perceives itself - and thus, the way it is perceived in the United States - must change for Korea to become more effective in the bilateral relationship.


*The author is a senior partner at the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington, DC.
By Sukhan Kim
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