June 9, 2015 | Commentary on Alliances, US-Korea Relations

Washington, Seoul must prepare for a unified Korea

Seoul seems to be in an upcycle of expectations over unification with North Korea -- perhaps because of South Korean President Park Geun-hye's focus on the issue, or perhaps due to speculation over the stability of the Pyongyang regime. It clearly cannot be due to any encouragement from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. He has responded only with ridicule, invective and provocation.

Yet, although the prospects for unification are as difficult to discern as ever, it remains a matter of faith in South Korea that it will happen one day. Nearly as universal is the expectation that whether through collapse or conflict -- or the very unlikely scenario of a negotiated unification -- a unified Korea will be governed under the political/economic system and values nurtured over the past 60 years in the South. In policy circles in Seoul and Washington, there is another expectation that is critical to the future of regional peace and security. Most observers see a unified, democratic Korea continuing a close alliance with the U.S.

If that is to be the case, not enough is being done to prepare. The U.S. and South Korea should start planning now, sending messages to the region about what to expect and developing the necessary frameworks for cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region beyond the Korean peninsula. Southeast Asia, given its strategic importance, would be a good place to start.

America's profile in Southeast Asia is well-known, the story of South Korea's current engagement there much less so. In fact, it is a quiet, burgeoning success story. And its burst of energy begins with former President Lee Myung-bak.

In 2009, Lee visited Jakarta to unveil what he called the New Asia Initiative. The NAI seeks, in the words of South Korea's Foreign Ministry, "to enhance Korea's substantial cooperation with neighboring Asian countries based on the principle of mutual prosperity." It has three components: overseas development assistance, stronger economic relations and cooperation on global issues.

This may be dry, bureaucratic language. But Lee gave it life. After a career at Hyundai Construction, which he embarked on in Thailand and concluded as CEO, Lee brought to the Blue House -- the South Korean president's official residence -- a deep understanding of the region's business culture. He also understands its great potential, and while in office invested his time and the resources of his government accordingly.

Over his five-year term as president, beginning in February 2008, Lee made 11 visits to Southeast Asia. South Korean ODA to the region more than doubled, becoming a source of assistance second only to Japan, while trade with the region increased by 60%. Today, according to Bae Geung-chan, a professor at IFANS, South Korea's foreign ministry think tank, the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations is South Korea's "second largest economic partner worldwide in trade, investment and construction, only after China."

Park may lack Lee's passion for Southeast Asia, but she knows South Korea's interests and has essentially continued Lee's initiative. She has visited Southeast Asia twice since her inauguration in 2013. And in December she reprised a 2009 summit with all 10 ASEAN leaders in Busan, South Korea.

Politically irrelevant

Unlike the U.S. or Japan, South Korea is seen in Southeast Asia as irrelevant to the region's geopolitics. Its economic success story, technology and corporate prowess give it standing. This focus on commercial opportunity, uncomplicated by great power rivalry -- what Park calls "sales diplomacy" -- can be a very lucrative thing in Southeast Asia. Why would South Korea sacrifice its position to coordinate its policy more closely with the U.S. on politically charged security issues?

The answer is that South Korea is not neutral in the real contest for the future of the Asia-Pacific. The country shares America's long-term, enduring vision for peace, stability, prosperity and freedom in the region. And together, the two can do much more on that front.

Cooperation in Southeast Asia should be on the agenda of Park's upcoming visit to Washington. It should be more fully fleshed out in ministerial level talks than it has been to date -- and discussed less in the context of ASEAN, and more in the context of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Washington and Seoul could also coordinate informally. Beyond the value of personal relationships in Southeast Asia that Lee understood so well, it can be difficult to extract useful action from meetings with ASEAN leaders. U.S.-South Korea consultations before such meetings could help.

The two countries could align diplomatic positions on the issues of the day. For example, it would be encouraging to see South Korea become more vocal and direct in support of customary international law with regard to tensions in the South China Sea.

A joint-statement memorializing a meeting last year of the U.S. and South Korean defense and foreign secretaries emphasized the importance of freedom of navigation in the sea and the "need for full and effective implementation" of the declaration on conduct that was signed by China and ASEAN members in 2002. The statement also called for the "early adoption" of a legally binding code of conduct, which has been promised for more than 20 years.

In the future, such statements, including any associated with Park's visit to Washington, should be more direct about the need for China to clarify its claims in keeping with the principle that maritime rights proceed only from legitimate land claims. The lack of clarity on this point is helping to fuel the current dispute over Chinese reclamation activity in the area -- another urgent development that the alliance would do well to be heard on.

Arms sales promising

Arms sales are a particularly promising area of U.S.-South Korea coordination. It is in Washington's interest that friends and allies in Southeast Asia are plausibly armed to deter infringement of the current order. American arms are budget busters for much of the region. South Korea, on the other hand, produces proven systems -- which may actually better fit Southeast Asian requirements -- at affordable prices.

The nations of Southeast Asia are discovering South Korean-made weapons on their own. Indonesia and the Philippines are acquiring fighter aircraft, and South Korean companies are building submarines and ships for Indonesia and Malaysia. Nevertheless, the advice to buy South Korean ought to be readily at hand in America's interaction with the region's defense officials.

As allies, the U.S. and South Korea could strategically prioritize types, destinations and distribution within the market. The Philippines should continue as a No. 1 prospect since it is on the front line of preserving freedom of the seas. Similarly, given South Korea's heavy economic stake in Vietnam, warming U.S.-Vietnam ties and continuing restrictions on American arms exports to Hanoi, Vietnam makes a particularly logical choice for future coordination.

Unification is a perennial preoccupation in Seoul. But it need not be a distraction from thinking about the future. After unification, Korea will be a nation of 75 million people of extraordinary dynamism. A unified, democratic Korea will be a powerful force for peace, stability, prosperity and freedom throughout the region -- even more so if there are no surprises about where it will stand. It is not too soon for the U.S. and South Korea to let the region know. They can start in Southeast Asia.

 - Walter Lohman is director of The Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center in Washington, D.C.

About the Author

Walter Lohman Director, Asian Studies Center
Asian Studies Center

Related Issues: Alliances, US-Korea Relations

Originally appeared in Nikkei Asian Review