December 11, 2008
By Bruce Klingner
Barack Obama will assume the U.S. presidency amidst exceedingly
high expectations. Perceptions that direct U.S. engagement with
Pyongyang will secure an accelerated North Korean denuclearization,
and that Washington will more readily incorporate the wishes of
foreign nations, will eventually clash with reality.
As the vagaries of campaign promises are fleshed out with more
detailed policy blueprints, differences between the new Obama
administration and its Asian allies could arise. U.S. demands for
Korean and Japanese ground troops in Afghanistan will not end with
the Bush administration. Washington will continue to press Seoul
and Tokyo to assume larger regional and global security roles even
as the U.S. looks beyond traditional bilateral alliances to resolve
Ideological differences between liberal President Obama and
conservative President Lee Myung-bak could cause frictions in the
bilateral relationship. This will be most acute in trade relations
as a result of a more protectionist U.S. president and Congress.
The South Korea-U.S. (KORUS) free trade agreement faces an
increasingly hostile environment in Washington. Korean proponents
will be faced with the Hobson's choice of accepting more intrusive
measures to increase U.S. auto sales or watch the FTA wither and
Perhaps most troubling for Seoul may be that Northeast Asian
issues do not figure as prominently on the new president's agenda
as it would hope. Economic issues will occupy the lion's share of
the new U.S. administration's attention during its first year.
There will also be pressure for the Democratic Party-controlled
Congress to implement legislation in response to a pent-up demand
for an expansive social agenda.
The foreign policy discussion will be dominated by Iraq,
Afghanistan, and Iran. Yet, North Korea has historically shown an
aversion to being ignored. If Pyongyang feels the Six Party Talks
or direct talks with Washington are not achieving its objectives,
look for Kim Jong-il to return to provocative brinksmanship.
Affirming a stronger and more comprehensive U.S.
During the presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama
emphasized the importance of South Korea as a military ally, a
strong economic partner, and a nation that shares the values of
freedom and democracy with the United States. Obama commented on
the need for strong alliances with South Korea and Japan to achieve
U.S. security objectives, including maintaining peace and stability
in northeast Asia. He described the U.S.-South Korean alliance as a
"remarkably strong and successful one 'that' remains central to
U.S. security policy in East Asia."
Senator Obama affirmed President George W. Bush's objective to
transform the existing military relationship into a 21st century
strategic alliance that goes beyond deterring North Korean
aggression and achieving denuclearization of the peninsula to
address transnational threats such as terrorism, non-proliferation,
energy security, trafficking in persons and pandemics.
With a greater role comes greater responsibilities. In adopting a
"more collaborative approach on terrorism" that shifts the primary
zone of conflict from Iraq to Afghanistan, the Obama administration
will "seek greater contributions (in Afghanistan) - with fewer
restrictions - from NATO allies as well as our friends and allies
in Asia." Washington will continue to look for Seoul and Tokyo to
deploy ground units into Afghanistan as part of a renewed effort
against extremist groups. South Korea and Japan will find such a
request to be problematic due to declining domestic support for
these missions. Seoul removed its troops in Afghanistan this year.
An Obama administration decision to press its Asian allies on
supporting counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan could lead
to friction and even demonstrations if Washington requests combat
units rather than combat support units.
Inheriting a lethargic North Korean denuclearization
The most difficult bilateral security challenge the United
States and South Korea will face is achieving a complete
denuclearization of North Korea. Yet, there is near euphoria in
South Korea that Barack Obama's election will bring about a
breakthrough in the long-troubled negotiations. Senator Obama has
blamed the Bush administration's initial hardline policy for North
Korea's nuclear breakout, neglecting North Korea's role in
instigating the crisis.
Pyongyang began violating its international denuclearization
commitments during the 1990s in the benign threat environment of
the Bill Clinton and Kim Dae-jung administrations. The timing
belies Pyongyang's assertions that the program was born of an
inherent fear of foreign threat and in response to President George
W. Bush's foreign policy.
Maintaining the current Bush approach
President Obama's policy toward North Korea will largely
maintain Bush's recent "half a loaf is better than none" strategy
which accepts partial North Korean compliance as sufficient
justification for maintaining negotiations and providing benefits
Proponents argue that this approach focuses on the greatest
threat to regional security, namely the plutonium-based nuclear
weapons program. This strategy, however, has resulted in important
principles, such as the enforcement of international law and
attaining sufficient verification measures, being abandoned.
Obama will be more willing than President Bush to engage in
senior-level diplomatic engagement, including a potential summit
with Kim Jong-il. But it is far from certain that such tactical
changes will achieve verifiable North Korean denuclearization. Kim
Jong-il has shown a great reluctance to make concessions or an
inclination to achieve real progress on diplomatic agreements with
the United States or his neighbors. Pyongyang has repeatedly dashed
the hopes of those advocating engagement. Perceived progress is
habitually followed by threats, cancellations and demands.
Although there will be a perception of a major shift in U.S.
policy, Obama will face the same constraints in achieving tangible
progress with Pyongyang. During the past two years, the Bush
administration has already engaged in the direct, bilateral
diplomacy with Pyongyang that Obama advocates. Yet there has been
continued North Korean intransigence, non-compliance, and
brinksmanship. Nor have diplomats yet begun the real negotiations
to discuss the actual elimination of nuclear weapons three years
after Pyongyang agreed to do so.
Will actions match the rhetoric?
Obama has asserted the need for "sustained, direct, and
aggressive diplomacy" with North Korea. He pledged to be "firm and
unyielding in our commitment to a non-nuclear Korean peninsula, and
vowed not to "take the military option off the table" in order to
achieve "the complete and verifiable elimination of all of North
Korea's nuclear weapons programs, as well as its past proliferation
activities, including with Syria."
But President Obama may be reticent to resort to any pressure
tactics when confronted with North Korean intransigence or
brinksmanship. The tendency during the past two years of the Bush
administration has been to repeatedly acquiesce to Pyongyang's
demands and lower the bar for compliance in return for a semblance
of "progress" in the negotiations. How willing would Obama be to
declare that diplomacy has failed to achieve U.S. objectives or
that North Korea has not fulfilled its obligations? How long would
he be willing to wait and what criteria would he use to determine
diplomacy had been exhausted?
With regards to North Korea's requirement to provide a data
declaration, Senator Obama stated that "sanctions are a critical
part of our leverage to pressure North Korea to act. They should
only be lifted based on performance. If the North Koreans do not
meet their obligations, we should move quickly to re-impose
sanctions that have been waived, and consider new restrictions
going forward." And yet, when Pyongyang didn't fulfill its
obligation and produced an incomplete and incorrect data
declaration, he did not advocate reimposing sanctions.
Similarly, Obama said a strict verification protocol was an
absolute prerequisite for removing North Korea from the state
sponsors of terrorism list, as well as for making further progress
in the nuclear negotiations. But he accepted Bush's delisting
decision even though the verification protocol has significant
shortcomings and has been publicly criticized by Japan and
privately by South Korea for its verification loopholes.
Strained trade relations ahead
Senator Obama is fiercely opposed to the KORUS free trade
agreement, declaring it "badly flawed" for not doing enough to
increase U.S. auto sales and gain greater market access in South
Korea. During a June 2008 speech in Detroit, Obama stated, "I don't
think an agreement that allows South Korea to import hundreds of
thousands of cars into the U.S., but continues to restrict U.S. car
exports into South Korea to a few thousand, is a smart deal." His
criticisms echo the auto labor unions, which are fighting to defeat
a trade bill that redresses the very problems they have complained
about for years.
He points to the disparity in auto sales, implying a singular
causality of Korean non-tariff barriers for the auto trade
imbalance rather than a more comprehensive assessment including
declining U.S. competitiveness. In May 2007, Obama chastised
Detroit for its problems, pointing out that the spiraling cost of
health care for retired autoworkers currently accounts for $1,500
of every GM car. He commented, "We have to be honest about how we
arrived at this point. For years, while foreign competitors were
investing in more fuel-efficient technology for their vehicles,
American automakers were spending their time investing in bigger,
faster cars ... the auto industry's refusal to act for so long has
left it mired in a predicament for which there is no easy way
Obama and his supporters have repeatedly asserted he supports
free trade and is not a protectionist. Yet he was against the
Central America FTA, he opposes FTAs with Colombia and Korea and
advocates reopening the North America FTA to insert new labor and
It is unlikely, however, that Obama would abandon his opposition
to the FTA at a time when U.S. auto manufacturers are facing a
dismal future. Nor would a Democratic-controlled Congress be
willing to approve an FTA that is perceived as risking greater
exposure to competition when U.S. auto companies are losing
domestic market share to foreign firms.
In order for Obama to support the KORUS FTA, significant changes
would be necessary to alter the disparity in U.S.-South Korean
autos. Neither Obama nor his campaign has identified what measures
he would require. Options include: reopening the KORUS agreement
for additional negotiations; "side sweeteners" to auto
manufacturers, such as a more expansive TAA legislation or U.S.
government absorption of Detroit's legacy costs; or managed trade
such that U.S. tariffs on the import of Korean cars is tied
directly to increased sales of U.S. cars in South Korea.
Even if Obama were to rescind his opposition to the KORUS FTA,
he would face an even more protectionist Democratic-led Congress
that is increasingly hostile to free trade. As a result of the
election, the Democrats gained greater majorities in both houses of
Congress. The Democratic Party has historically been more
protectionist due to its heavy reliance on support from organized
labor. The auto unions, a key Democratic constituency, have
demanded significant changes to the FTA.
Bilateral U.S.-South Korean trade relations are likely to be
strained during an Obama administration given the certainty of more
protectionist policies. Korean proponents of the FTA will have to
reassess their strategy in light of the new trade paradigm that
exists after the U.S. presidential election. A key decision will be
whether to accept intrusive new auto provisions that may not be
WTO-compliant in order to achieve U.S. approval of the trade
However, the Lee Myung-bak administration has signaled that
reopening negotiations on the FTA would be unacceptable. South
Korea's auto manufacturers are also facing significant economic
problems and would oppose government intervention to force enhanced
U.S. sales. South Korea's auto unions are stridently militant and
have frequently resorted to nation-wide strikes and protests to
press their demands. Renegotiating the auto provisions of the FTA
could lead to the same level of demonstrations against the Obama
administration as the anti-U.S. beef demonstrations in early
What should be done
President Obama will enjoy an initial honeymoon period of
enthusiastic South Korean response to his administration. He should
use this time to restore U.S. credibility and prestige in Asia.
Sending senior officials to Seoul for consultative meetings that
underscore shared bilateral objectives and receptivity to South
Korean concerns will garner strong Korean support. President
Obama's representatives will also need to privately emphasize that
the U.S. will continue to pursue its own strategic objectives.
Strengthen the U.S.-South Korean alliance
President Obama should continue military realignment and
progress toward the strategic alliance, ensure close policy
coordination amongst the United States, South Korea and Japan, and
privately emphasize to South Korea that the United States will be
looking for greater involvement in Afghanistan and that it would be
better for Seoul to get ahead of the curve and offer troops prior
to being publicly asked by Washington.
Establish principled engagement with North
North Korean denuclearization is a critically important goal.
But the ways and means in which it is attained are equally as
important. Being excessively eager to compromise not only rewards
abhorrent behavior but also undermines negotiating leverage
necessary to get Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons. The
Obama administration should:
Klingner, is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia
in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Korea Herald
This is the tenth in a series of articles assessing the effect U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will have on Korea-U.S. relations, politically, economically and socially. - Ed. Barack Obama will assume the U.S. presidency amidst exceedingly high expectations. Perceptions that direct U.S. engagement with Pyongyang will secure an accelerated North Korean denuclearization, and that Washington will more readily incorporate the wishes of foreign nations, will eventually clash with reality.
Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
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