February 29, 2008

February 29, 2008 | Commentary on Asia

A New National Strategy for Korea

The United States welcomed the election of Lee Myung-bak, who they expect to improve strained relations with Washington, implement a more pragmatic policy toward North Korea, and establish a more business-friendly environment. The departure of Roh Moo-hyun sets the stage for more agreement on policy and more effective efforts to denuclearize North Korea. The improved atmosphere provides a firm foundation for realizing the full potential of the bilateral relationship.

President Lee will enjoy a honeymoon period of positive U.S. opinion, especially during an early summit meeting with President George W. Bush. However, to maintain U.S. support, Lee will have to avoid political landmines. He must describe his North Korean policy more fully, continue a vigorous outreach to the foreign business community, and deliver on his economic promises.

Implementing a principled engagement policy

Lee Myung-bak's pragmatic demand for conditionality will enhance allied leverage in the six-party talks and reduce Pyongyang's ability to play the U.S. and South Korea against each other. A realistic policy that requires reciprocity and transparency from North Korea will also be more consistent with the six-party talks goals of using coordinated multilateral diplomatic efforts to leverage Pyongyang's implementation of its nuclear commitments.

Under former President Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea pursued a unilateral, uncoordinated policy that undermined the multilateral and conditional approach of the six-party talks. By providing billions of dollars in unconditional aid and promises of yet more largesse, Seoul minimalized its influence over Pyongyang and marginalized its effectiveness in the six-party talks. With a guaranteed pipeline of benefits from South Korea, Kim Jong-il had less need to comply with the "action for action" requirements of the six-party talks.

Lee Myung-bak has promised more conditionality when engaging North Korea but his vague policy toward North Korea allows for diverse and even contradictory interpretations. His policy toward Pyongyang is a Rorschach test that allows analysts to see what they want to see. Progressives in South Korea and the U.S. tend to deny the ideological nature of the presidential election and discount the degree to which Lee may alter the engagement policy. They have focused more on expressing concern over Pyongyang's potential reaction than on welcoming Seoul's new willingness to assert its national interests.

A series of post-election conferences in Washington concluded that Lee's demand for imposing conditionality when engaging North Korea represents everything from mere campaign rhetoric that masked a desire to maintain the status quo to a full embrace of a neo-conservative hard-line strategy.

President Lee, therefore, should more clearly delineate the linkages between South Korea's current and future economic incentives and the concrete steps that North Korea must take toward nuclear compliance. He should condition the planned expansion of Gaeseong to successful completion of Phase II of the six-party talks, including a viable data declaration and rigorous verification regime. His administration should distinguish between those October 2007 Korean summit proposals that provide direct economic benefit to Seoul and those that are politically motivated, linking the latter to defined benchmarks in North Korean economic and political reform. No new projects should be initiated, including those from the summit, without clearly defined linkage.

Lee should downplay outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun's emphasis on peace treaty negotiations and instead insist that they occur no sooner than successful completion of Phase II of the six-party talks. The proposal for a Northeast Asian security forum is also a distracter from the real issue, i.e. North Korean denuclearization. In inter-Korean relations, the new administration should also emphasize that the Northern Limit Line is the inter-Korean maritime boundary and that South Korea's sovereignty will not be abrogated through vague and one-sided "peace zones."

South Korea, the United States, and Japan now have the opportunity to more closely integrate their initiatives toward North Korea in order to enhance negotiating leverage for securing Pyongyang's full denuclearization. A more responsible policy would include Seoul joining the Proliferation Security Initiative, monitoring North Korean airborne and maritime shipments, and interdicting any suspicious shipments. It would also be useful for Seoul to condition its unilateral aid to North Korea with the action-for-action requirements of the multilateral six-party talks process. South Korea should adopt World Food Program monitoring standards to ensure Pyongyang does not divert humanitarian assistance.

Facing challenges from Washington and Pyongyang

The Lee administration may find itself in the uncomfortable position of having to urge the U.S. to remain firm in its policy toward Pyongyang. A Bush administration entering its final year and longing for a foreign policy legacy will be increasingly tempted to accept Pyongyang's half-hearted compliance as sufficient justification to continue negotiations. The U.S. may even claim sufficient progress to justify providing all economic and diplomatic benefits called for in the joint statement and convening a meeting of the foreign ministers.

The Bush administration adopted a firmer line on the data declaration only after its stonewalling on possible North Korean nuclear proliferation to Syria was criticized. And it is unlikely to demand requisite verification measures without outside pressure.

Although Lee Myung-bak will want to focus on domestic economic issues, he will be forced to address North Korea's recalcitrance early in his administration. Kim Jong-il's refusal to abide by the Dec. 31, 2007, data declaration deadline raises serious concerns over his commitment to full denuclearization. The Lee administration should press North Korea for full transparency on its nuclear activities and demand it accept a rigorous verification regime prior to providing additional benefits or allowing the foreign ministers' meeting.

Beyond the data declaration impasse, it is likely that Pyongyang will test the new South Korean administration's resolve. At the same time, it is critical that Lee Myung-bak reject advice for conciliatory measures to defuse the crisis and instead stand firm, thus setting the tone for the next five years of engagement. For the past 10 years, Kim Jong-il has been able to take South Korean acquiescence for granted, to the detriment of the international community's ability to achieve North Korean denuclearization.

Strengthening allied relations

During his January trip to Washington, presidential envoy Chung Mong-joon conveyed Lee Myung-bak's intent to improve the strained relations between South Korean and the United States. Lee should follow through by seeking common ground in transforming the U.S.-ROK military alliance to incorporate enhanced South Korean military capabilities while maintaining an integrated U.S. role.

It would be counterproductive, however, for President Lee to appeal to Washington to formally reverse the decision to transfer wartime operational command to South Korea. The negative effects of the planned 2012 transfer date can be better mitigated by making it contingent on both a sufficient reduction in the North Korean threat and satisfactory progress in improving South Korean military capabilities. In addition, Washington and Seoul should conduct a joint study on South Korean missile defense needs, including potential integration into multilateral ballistic missile-defense system.

In return, Lee Myung-bak should request that Washington affirm its troop deployment commitments, including the continued presence of existing combat, attack helicopter and air-defense units. He should underscore that Washington treat its alliance with South Korea on an equal basis with the U.S. military relationship with Japan, including Seoul's inclusion in the U.S.-led "alliance of values" with Japan, Australia and India.

Lee has already sent the proper signals to improve relations with Japan, an overture welcomed by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. A Lee-Fukuda meeting should be expeditiously scheduled with a pledge to resume the biannual summit schedule that foundered under Roh. Trilateral minister-level security policy meetings with U.S., South Korea and Japan should also be implemented.

Broadening the U.S.-South Korean relationship

The Korea-U.S. free trade agreement provides a range of significant economic and geostrategic benefits for both countries. It would give South Korea a significant regional trade advantage and send a powerful positive signal to foreign and domestic investors. The FTA would serve as a new growth engine for South Korea's economy and improve the country's economic freedom by locking in additional economic reforms. Increasing trade with the United States would diversify South Korea's trading base to decrease its reliance on China.

Yet, the agreement faces obstacles to ratification in both countries. President Lee Myung-bak must, for example, work quickly to resolve the beef issue, which is preventing U.S. congressional ratification. It is a political reality that South Korea must resume unimpeded imports of U.S. beef before Sen. Max Baucus and the U.S. agricultural industry will support the FTA. This issue has become an impediment to far greater geostrategic interests for both countries. In order to maintain a viable timetable for U.S. ratification, South Korea must not only resolve the beef issue but have a free and sustained flow of beef imports by the end of February. South Korea should open its markets in accordance with OIE standards, while the U.S. should accept any reasonable additional health safety standards that Seoul requests.

There is also a very real cost to not ratifying the agreement. Not redressing existing barriers to free trade will only strengthen protectionists on both sides of the Pacific. Locking in the status quo will hobble U.S. and South Korean businesses as they lose additional market share to countries more willing to implement free-trade agreements. A failure to achieve progress towards implementation would also detract from a summit meeting between President George W. Bush and President Lee Myung-bak.

Lee Myung-bak and Roh Moo-hyun should push their parties to ratify the KORUS prior to National Assembly dismissal for the April elections. Although South Korean implementation would not force reciprocal congressional action, it would remove a possible excuse for U.S. inaction. U.S. opponents of the FTA assert that South Korea will continue to use nontariff barriers to impede foreign businesses, especially in the auto sector. Lee Myung-bak should therefore announce unilateral measures that remove potential discriminatory barriers and ensure regulatory transparency. If done in consultation with international investors, it would undermine the U.S. auto manufacturers' false claims.

Seoul should ask Lee to address a joint session of Congress during his U.S. visit to highlight the importance of the KORUS to the strategic interests of both countries. The U.S. auto companies and associated labor unions will never support the FTA, not because they have problems with the details of the text, but because it threatens their interests. As such, they are a lost cause for ratification. The real goal is to convince enough non-auto sector Democratic representatives to play to their own constituents and vote in favor of the agreement.

Producing a strategic blueprint

In the longer-term, Lee Myung-bak should develop a more detailed blueprint for his administration's vision and goals, similar to the U.S. National Security Strategy. This document would define South Korea's national interests, its regional and global role, strategic policy objectives, and how the instruments of national power would be employed to fulfill them.

Given the ongoing debate over the evolving nature of the military alliance with Washington, it is also critical that the Lee administration produce a National Military Strategy. Such a document would not only define the roles and responsibilities for the allies, but also articulate the near- and longer-term threat environment.

The U.S.-South Korean relationship should improve under Lee Myung-bak because he shares common values and policies to a greater degree than did Roh Moo-hyun. Lee's pro-market economic principles, understanding of regional threats, and willingness to impose conditionality in South Korea's engagement policy are more in line with principals shared by U.S. Republican and Democratic leaders. If he effectively implements these values, South Korea will have a strong bond with the United States, regardless of which party occupies the White House.

President Lee must also define the degree to which South Korea's engagement policy will incorporate human rights issues. Seoul should accede to U.N. resolutions condemning North Korean human rights abuses, demand that Pyongyang discuss its continued retention of 500 South Korean prisoners of war and 400 South Korean post-Korean War abductees, and insist upon enhancing the scope and pace of separated family reunions.

Bruce Klingner is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center.

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Asia

First appeared in the Korea Herald