April 23, 2008

April 23, 2008 | Commentary on Asia

Lee, Bush affirm strong bilateral partnership

The U.S.-South Korean summit meeting successfully emphasized the value of the bilateral relationship in maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Presidents Lee Myung-bak and George W. Bush were able to make significant progress in repairing the cracks in the alliance that arose during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Equally importantly, the two leaders developed a strong personal rapport based on their shared business backgrounds, conservative free-market principles, pragmatic assessments of the North Korean regime, and strong Christian beliefs.

The shared vision and personal relationship will provide a strong foundation for successfully integrating the two countries' security and economic policies. Although policy disagreements between the United States and South Korea will undoubtedly arise in the future, the disputes will be unencumbered by the mutual distrust of the past five years.

Election mandate for Lee Myung-bak

President Lee arrived in Washington buoyed by a landslide victory in the April 9 legislative election, which gave his Grand National Party a majority in the National Assembly. The South Korean electorate again repudiated the progressive parties, rejecting their appeal for sufficient votes to serve as a check on the new president.

The conservatives' overwhelming victory put to rest the misperception that the presidential and legislative elections did not reflect a shift to the right in the South Korean political spectrum. For the first time in 20 years, the presidency and legislative majority are now controlled by the same party. The progressive camp will remain divided and exiled to the political wilderness for the near term as it struggles to find a viable message and a charismatic leader.

President Lee will see the election as a popular mandate to implement his economic reforms, strengthen the U.S. alliance, and implement a more pragmatic policy toward North Korea. But Lee's ability to implement his policies will depend on his ability to heal the rift within Korea's conservative movement. Although policy differences amongst the three conservative factions are minor, personal animosities between Lee, Park Geun-hye, and Lee Hoi-chang could constrain the GNP's legislative achievements.

Pyongyang's temper tantrum

To some degree, the U.S.-South Korean summit was overshadowed by North Korea's recent confrontational behavior. After remaining quiet during the first month of Lee Myung-bak's administration, North Korea returned to its customary brinkmanship tactics in an attempt to scare Seoul into abandoning its new requirements for reciprocity, conditionality, and transparency when engaging Pyongyang.

Given reports of deteriorating economic and food conditions in North Korea, the timing of the regime's belligerent antics is not particularly auspicious. North Korea risks biting the hand that feeds it when its economic and food situations are deteriorating. Good Friends, a South Korean nongovernmental organization, reported in early April that North Korea had suspended food rations to Pyongyang residents for six months. Food prices in North Korea have also risen sharply.

North Korea has relied on foreign humanitarian assistance ever since it suffered an estimated 1 million deaths from starvation and starvation-related diseases in the mid-1990s. The U.N. World Food Program has warned that floods last year ruined 25 percent of the harvest and left 6 million people in need.

International assistance has dwindled because of donor fatigue and Pyongyang's 2005 eviction of NGOs due to their insistence on stringent monitoring requirements to prevent diversion of aid to the military. During the past two years, North Korea has relied on South Korea and China for approximately 500,000 tons of food each. Pyongyang has yet to make its annual request to Seoul, which would be more hesitant to respond following the regime's threats.

President Lee's infusion of backbone and intestinal fortitude into Seoul's foreign policy is in marked contrast to the previous administrations' acquiescence to Pyongyang's demands over the past 10 years. Despite North Korean brinkmanship, Lee should remain resolute in requiring conditionality, reciprocity, and transparency in engagement with Pyongyang, thus setting the proper tone for the next five years of engagement.

Establishing inter-Korean liaison offices

President Lee proposed that North and South Korea open liaison offices in each capital to facilitate greater communication. The initiative may be misinterpreted as a softening of his North Korean policy but it is consistent with earlier statements that he remains open to dialogue with North Korea, but that such dialogue now imposes requirements on Pyongyang's behavior.

Lee will see the liaison offices as a means to achieve his objectives rather than an end in itself as predecessor President Roh Moo-hyun might have. Whether liaison offices improve inter-Korean relations or strengthen peace and stability on the peninsula depends on North Korea's behavior and willingness to moderate its belligerent behavior.

President Lee's comment that inter-Korean relations must take a "back seat to eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons programs" reflects his reprioritization of foreign policy objectives from those of Roh Moo-hyun. President Bush supported the proposal since Lee has vowed to integrate inter-Korean engagement into South Korea's broader foreign policy to ensure that it supports the six-party talks' strategy of multilateralism and conditionality.

A common approach to the six-party talks

Both presidents expressed support during the summit meeting for each other's policies toward North Korea. That said, a U.S.-North Korean tentative agreement to resolve an impasse in the six-party talks' nuclear negotiations was likely viewed warily by the Lee administration, since it lowers the bar for North Korean compliance at a time when Seoul has begun to apply a firmer approach.

The six-party talks are stalled because Pyongyang refuses to abide by its commitment to provide "a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs [by] 31 December 2007." North Korea continues to deny it ever had a covert program to develop uranium-based nuclear weapons and refuses to provide information on nuclear proliferation to other countries, including Syria.

North Korea claims that the six-party talks are stalled because the United States has not removed Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. But the February 2007 joint statement only commits the United States to "begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism." No deadline was provided, unlike the Dec. 31 deadline for North Korea's requirement to make its declaration.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill reached a tentative agreement with North Korean counterpart Kim Gye-gwan during bilateral meetings in Singapore. Leaked details indicate that the agreement would turn previous U.S. arms control strategy on its head by having the United States rather than Pyongyang provide the data on North Korean nuclear programs. Pyongyang would then "acknowledge" Washington's concerns by not challenging the U.S. information rather than admitting to having violated previous international agreements.

Beyond concerns about jeopardizing U.S. sources and methods, it lets North Korea off the hook on the critical uranium enrichment and proliferation issues. In return for this flawed agreement, the United States would remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list and the Trading with the Enemy Act. The Bush administration has recently backed away from previous requirements for removing Pyongyang from the terrorist list, including President Bush's political commitment to Japan that would have required progress on resolving the abductee issue.

The Singapore agreement fits the Bush administration's pattern of the past year and half -- issue bold and resolute declarations; criticize the critics who question the details of the agreement; and then capitulate while vowing to be firm on the next issue of importance.

There has been considerable criticism of the Singapore agreement within the U.S. government, including at senior levels. These serious misgivings appear to have led the Bush administration to request additional meetings with North Korea to strengthen the data declaration procedures. Although U.S. officials have vowed to demand a rigorous verification regime, there is little confidence that they will do so.

Removing the beef ban

During Lee Myung-bak's visit, Seoul agreed to end the ban against importing U.S. beef. Seoul will now resume the import of U.S. beef younger than 30 months and allow beef from older cattle after the United States improves safety standards to reduce the potential of BSE infection. The announcement removed a major impediment to gaining U.S. Congressional ratification for the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement (KORUS FTA).

Settling the beef dispute will have positive ramifications far beyond a single industry. It will trigger the broader U.S. agricultural industry to get off the sidelines and energetically support the FTA now that the concerns of their cattle-raising brethren have been resolved. In addition, other nonagricultural manufacturing and service sectors have indicated they would not actively lobby Congress on behalf of the FTA until the beef issue had been fixed.

At a dinner hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, President Lee emphasized that ratifying the KORUS FTA constitutes an essential part of transnational community building and would anchor the bilateral military alliance on a firm social and economic basis.

That said, the FTA faces stiff opposition from the U.S. Congress due to the Democratic Party leadership's pandering to election-year political constituencies on the Colombia free trade agreement. The Democrats' willingness to alter pre-existing fast-track rules, as well as their commitment to the Bush administration in May 2007, sends a protectionist signal and calls into question the reliability of U.S. negotiating commitments.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's willingness to change the rules on trade agreements undermines a trade negotiation process that has brought unprecedented economic prosperity to the U.S. and our overseas trading partners. Unless reversed, the political posturing of the House leadership does not bode well for the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement or for any future trade negotiations.

Looking ahead

Presidents Lee and Bush established a firm foundation for evolving the bilateral relationship into a broader strategic alliance. But uncertainties remain over President Lee's vision for South Korea's international role and his foreign policy objectives. Although his intent to repair Seoul's strained relations with Washington is clear, he will need to more fully articulate the desired end-state for the rapidly changing military alliance.

U.S. defense officials are eager to define the missions, responsibilities, and force structure of the two militaries in the run-up to the transfer of wartime operational command. President Lee should direct his security team to move quickly on these issues. It is important however, to first define a shared strategic vision and military security strategy prior to being bogged down in debates over procurement requirements.

South Korea and the United States must also work closely to ensure their policies toward North Korea are in sync in order to more effectively leverage North Korean compliance with its denuclearization commitments. President Lee's principled engagement strategy is consistent with U.S. -- as well as Japanese -- values and priorities, thus reducing Pyongyang's ability to play the three allies against each other.

As follow-on measures, the United States and South Korea should underscore a willingness to closely integrate policy toward North Korea and insist on strict verification requirements to ensure that Pyongyang fully complies with its requirement to provide a complete and correct data declaration. The two countries should define a road map for completing the second and third phases of the six-party talks. The document should define the linkages between North Korea's denuclearization steps and benefits that other countries are willing to provide along with a timetable for compliance.

The two leaders must also continue to emphasize the economic and geostrategic benefits of the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement and the downside for U.S. businesses and workers if the accord is not ratified.

President Lee has set South Korea on the right policy path, undoing the damage wrought by five years of former President Roh Moo-hyun's administration. And as the old Korean adage goes, "A journey well begun is already half done."

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

The U.S.-South Korean summit meeting successfully emphasized the value of the bilateral relationship in maintaining peace and stability in Northeast Asia. Presidents Lee Myung-bak and George W. Bush were able to make significant progress in repairing the cracks in the alliance that arose during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Equally importantly, the two leaders developed a strong personal rapport based on their shared business backgrounds, conservative free-market principles, pragmatic assessments of the North Korean regime, and strong Christian beliefs.

The shared vision and personal relationship will provide a strong foundation for successfully integrating the two countries' security and economic policies. Although policy disagreements between the United States and South Korea will undoubtedly arise in the future, the disputes will be unencumbered by the mutual distrust of the past five years.

Election mandate for Lee Myung-bak

President Lee arrived in Washington buoyed by a landslide victory in the April 9 legislative election, which gave his Grand National Party a majority in the National Assembly. The South Korean electorate again repudiated the progressive parties, rejecting their appeal for sufficient votes to serve as a check on the new president.

The conservatives' overwhelming victory put to rest the misperception that the presidential and legislative elections did not reflect a shift to the right in the South Korean political spectrum. For the first time in 20 years, the presidency and legislative majority are now controlled by the same party. The progressive camp will remain divided and exiled to the political wilderness for the near term as it struggles to find a viable message and a charismatic leader.

President Lee will see the election as a popular mandate to implement his economic reforms, strengthen the U.S. alliance, and implement a more pragmatic policy toward North Korea. But Lee's ability to implement his policies will depend on his ability to heal the rift within Korea's conservative movement. Although policy differences amongst the three conservative factions are minor, personal animosities between Lee, Park Geun-hye, and Lee Hoi-chang could constrain the GNP's legislative achievements.

Pyongyang's temper tantrum

To some degree, the U.S.-South Korean summit was overshadowed by North Korea's recent confrontational behavior. After remaining quiet during the first month of Lee Myung-bak's administration, North Korea returned to its customary brinkmanship tactics in an attempt to scare Seoul into abandoning its new requirements for reciprocity, conditionality, and transparency when engaging Pyongyang.

Given reports of deteriorating economic and food conditions in North Korea, the timing of the regime's belligerent antics is not particularly auspicious. North Korea risks biting the hand that feeds it when its economic and food situations are deteriorating. Good Friends, a South Korean nongovernmental organization, reported in early April that North Korea had suspended food rations to Pyongyang residents for six months. Food prices in North Korea have also risen sharply.

North Korea has relied on foreign humanitarian assistance ever since it suffered an estimated 1 million deaths from starvation and starvation-related diseases in the mid-1990s. The U.N. World Food Program has warned that floods last year ruined 25 percent of the harvest and left 6 million people in need.

International assistance has dwindled because of donor fatigue and Pyongyang's 2005 eviction of NGOs due to their insistence on stringent monitoring requirements to prevent diversion of aid to the military. During the past two years, North Korea has relied on South Korea and China for approximately 500,000 tons of food each. Pyongyang has yet to make its annual request to Seoul, which would be more hesitant to respond following the regime's threats.

President Lee's infusion of backbone and intestinal fortitude into Seoul's foreign policy is in marked contrast to the previous administrations' acquiescence to Pyongyang's demands over the past 10 years. Despite North Korean brinkmanship, Lee should remain resolute in requiring conditionality, reciprocity, and transparency in engagement with Pyongyang, thus setting the proper tone for the next five years of engagement.

Establishing inter-Korean liaison offices

President Lee proposed that North and South Korea open liaison offices in each capital to facilitate greater communication. The initiative may be misinterpreted as a softening of his North Korean policy but it is consistent with earlier statements that he remains open to dialogue with North Korea, but that such dialogue now imposes requirements on Pyongyang's behavior.

Lee will see the liaison offices as a means to achieve his objectives rather than an end in itself as predecessor President Roh Moo-hyun might have. Whether liaison offices improve inter-Korean relations or strengthen peace and stability on the peninsula depends on North Korea's behavior and willingness to moderate its belligerent behavior.

President Lee's comment that inter-Korean relations must take a "back seat to eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons programs" reflects his reprioritization of foreign policy objectives from those of Roh Moo-hyun. President Bush supported the proposal since Lee has vowed to integrate inter-Korean engagement into South Korea's broader foreign policy to ensure that it supports the six-party talks' strategy of multilateralism and conditionality.

A common approach to the six-party talks

Both presidents expressed support during the summit meeting for each other's policies toward North Korea. That said, a U.S.-North Korean tentative agreement to resolve an impasse in the six-party talks' nuclear negotiations was likely viewed warily by the Lee administration, since it lowers the bar for North Korean compliance at a time when Seoul has begun to apply a firmer approach.

The six-party talks are stalled because Pyongyang refuses to abide by its commitment to provide "a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs [by] 31 December 2007." North Korea continues to deny it ever had a covert program to develop uranium-based nuclear weapons and refuses to provide information on nuclear proliferation to other countries, including Syria.

North Korea claims that the six-party talks are stalled because the United States has not removed Pyongyang from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. But the February 2007 joint statement only commits the United States to "begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism." No deadline was provided, unlike the Dec. 31 deadline for North Korea's requirement to make its declaration.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill reached a tentative agreement with North Korean counterpart Kim Gye-gwan during bilateral meetings in Singapore. Leaked details indicate that the agreement would turn previous U.S. arms control strategy on its head by having the United States rather than Pyongyang provide the data on North Korean nuclear programs. Pyongyang would then "acknowledge" Washington's concerns by not challenging the U.S. information rather than admitting to having violated previous international agreements.

Beyond concerns about jeopardizing U.S. sources and methods, it lets North Korea off the hook on the critical uranium enrichment and proliferation issues. In return for this flawed agreement, the United States would remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list and the Trading with the Enemy Act. The Bush administration has recently backed away from previous requirements for removing Pyongyang from the terrorist list, including President Bush's political commitment to Japan that would have required progress on resolving the abductee issue.

The Singapore agreement fits the Bush administration's pattern of the past year and half -- issue bold and resolute declarations; criticize the critics who question the details of the agreement; and then capitulate while vowing to be firm on the next issue of importance.

There has been considerable criticism of the Singapore agreement within the U.S. government, including at senior levels. These serious misgivings appear to have led the Bush administration to request additional meetings with North Korea to strengthen the data declaration procedures. Although U.S. officials have vowed to demand a rigorous verification regime, there is little confidence that they will do so.

Removing the beef ban

During Lee Myung-bak's visit, Seoul agreed to end the ban against importing U.S. beef. Seoul will now resume the import of U.S. beef younger than 30 months and allow beef from older cattle after the United States improves safety standards to reduce the potential of BSE infection. The announcement removed a major impediment to gaining U.S. Congressional ratification for the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement (KORUS FTA).

Settling the beef dispute will have positive ramifications far beyond a single industry. It will trigger the broader U.S. agricultural industry to get off the sidelines and energetically support the FTA now that the concerns of their cattle-raising brethren have been resolved. In addition, other nonagricultural manufacturing and service sectors have indicated they would not actively lobby Congress on behalf of the FTA until the beef issue had been fixed.

At a dinner hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, President Lee emphasized that ratifying the KORUS FTA constitutes an essential part of transnational community building and would anchor the bilateral military alliance on a firm social and economic basis.

That said, the FTA faces stiff opposition from the U.S. Congress due to the Democratic Party leadership's pandering to election-year political constituencies on the Colombia free trade agreement. The Democrats' willingness to alter pre-existing fast-track rules, as well as their commitment to the Bush administration in May 2007, sends a protectionist signal and calls into question the reliability of U.S. negotiating commitments.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's willingness to change the rules on trade agreements undermines a trade negotiation process that has brought unprecedented economic prosperity to the U.S. and our overseas trading partners. Unless reversed, the political posturing of the House leadership does not bode well for the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement or for any future trade negotiations.

Looking ahead

Presidents Lee and Bush established a firm foundation for evolving the bilateral relationship into a broader strategic alliance. But uncertainties remain over President Lee's vision for South Korea's international role and his foreign policy objectives. Although his intent to repair Seoul's strained relations with Washington is clear, he will need to more fully articulate the desired end-state for the rapidly changing military alliance.

U.S. defense officials are eager to define the missions, responsibilities, and force structure of the two militaries in the run-up to the transfer of wartime operational command. President Lee should direct his security team to move quickly on these issues. It is important however, to first define a shared strategic vision and military security strategy prior to being bogged down in debates over procurement requirements.

South Korea and the United States must also work closely to ensure their policies toward North Korea are in sync in order to more effectively leverage North Korean compliance with its denuclearization commitments. President Lee's principled engagement strategy is consistent with U.S. -- as well as Japanese -- values and priorities, thus reducing Pyongyang's ability to play the three allies against each other.

As follow-on measures, the United States and South Korea should underscore a willingness to closely integrate policy toward North Korea and insist on strict verification requirements to ensure that Pyongyang fully complies with its requirement to provide a complete and correct data declaration. The two countries should define a road map for completing the second and third phases of the six-party talks. The document should define the linkages between North Korea's denuclearization steps and benefits that other countries are willing to provide along with a timetable for compliance.

The two leaders must also continue to emphasize the economic and geostrategic benefits of the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement and the downside for U.S. businesses and workers if the accord is not ratified.

President Lee has set South Korea on the right policy path, undoing the damage wrought by five years of former President Roh Moo-hyun's administration. And as the old Korean adage goes, "A journey well begun is already half done."

Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in Korean Herald