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WebMemo #757 on Asia

June 8, 2005

The Bush-Roh Summit: Building a Common Foundation for the U.S.-ROK Alliance

By

On June 10, Seoul and Washington's attention will focus on the White House as President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea arrives to meet with President George W. Bush for their second summit. Attention is likely to be just as focused in Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, and Pyongyang because of the issue at the top of Roh's agenda: reviving the stalled six-party process on the North Korean nuclear issue. There is important fence-mending to be done between South Korea and the United States. If the two leaders manage to bring trust back to the countries' relationship, they will move a step closer towards effectively dealing with North Korea.

 

North Korea seems to have stolen the spotlight this week, in typical fashion, by expressing interest in returning to the talks. But Presidents Bush and Roh should not allow North Korea to distract their focus from the most important purpose of the summit, which is to bring the two allies back to the strong relationship that has served both countries well for the last half-century.

 

Recently, U.S.-Korea watchers on both sides of the Pacific have lamented a crisis in the bilateral relationship; some even argue that it is in the worst condition since the two country's soldiers fought and died together in the Korean War that ended in 1953. While the alliance is at a critical stage today and faces some of the most serious challenges since its inception over 50 years ago, it has weathered many crises over the years. The relationship will likely weather today's challenges, as well, but only if the two leaders are able to rediscover a common ground and build upon it.

 

Thus, the summit should focus on building a stronger relationship between the two allies. Only Roh and Bush can establish the tone of mutual trust and respect that that will drive the policies by their respective governments. Given the critical importance of speaking with one voice to North Korea, reaffirming trust in the alliance is no symbolic exercise, but a necessary step to resolving the issue peacefully.

 

Common Interests

While recent attention has focused on issues of disagreement between the United States and South Korea, the two share many common values and objectives:

 

  • South Korea is the world's eleventh largest economy with a thriving market economy, and the United States is its second largest export market. Bilateral economic ties, cemented over decades, are stronger than ever.
  • South Korea may be the most vibrant democracy in East Asia today, with a well-entrenched respect for the rule of law, a thriving civil society, and a growing respect for individual rights and freedom.
  • South Korea shares with the United States a commitment to winning the war on terror. South Korea sent 3,600 troops to Iraq-the second largest contingent, after Great Britain.
  • Both countries are dedicated to ensuring stability on the Peninsula and in the region through the maintenance of a strong deterrent capability.
  • Both countries have declared that they will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea and have pledged to pursue a diplomatic solution.

Issues of Difference

Despite a strong foundation of common interests between the two allies, sharp differences on a number of issues have recently emerged. Some are a natural outcome of an alliance that is adjusting to a new global security environment after remaining largely unchanged for fifty years. Others derive from changing perceptions of threats in region. These include:

 

  • Washington's efforts to transform the U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK)-currently 32,000 troops-into a presence with "strategic flexibility" would allow the U.S. forces to play a regional role outside of the peninsula. The Roh Administration's response to this proposal has been decidedly negative. It declared that ROK forces would not be embroiled in conflicts in the region, implying that South Korea would not allow facilities and bases in the country to be used for any operations outside of the peninsula. This reaction was premised on the incorrect assumption that such a strategy would mean nothing but sacrifices for Korea to secure American interests. The Roh Administration, however, would reach a different conclusion after a more thorough consideration of the trade-offs and benefits. Most notably, the new policy would allow the United States to quickly deploy additional forces stationed in other regions to an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, strengthening the United States' ability to carry out its security commitments under the U.S.-ROK mutual security treaty.
     
  • Diverging perceptions of the sources of regional instability and threats have led the countries to two distinct North Korea policies. The United States views the North Korean regime as a serious threat primarily due to the strength of its capabilities, such as its pursuit of nuclear weapons, its missile and arms stockpiles, its immense conventional armed forces amassed on the border with South Korea, its illicit activities (including trafficking of drugs and other contraband and counterfeiting), and even its human rights abuses. In contrast, South Korea has come to view the greatest threat from North Korea as emanating from its weakness: the country's economic failure and the widespread deprivation of its people could fuel instability and lead to collapse-a burden most South Koreans believe their country would be unable to shoulder. Thus, South Korea has ardently pursued a policy of engagement, with the hope of gradually transforming the North, while resenting pressure from the United States for fear that an aggressive approach could provoke an unwanted conflict with North Korea. Such confusion about the true source of instability on the Peninsula only benefits the North Korean regime, whose long-held strategy has been to try to divide the alliance.
     
  • South Korea has perpetuated, whether intentionally or not, an ambiguous stance on North Korean nuclear programs. While the Roh Administration has emphatically declared that it will not tolerate a nuclear North Korea, it has also repeatedly stated that war is not the way to this goal. While an aversion to war is understandable, this admission ultimately undermines the strength of the message to Pyongyang. Furthermore, public admission of official South Korean skepticism regarding the existence of North Korea's enriched uranium weapons program seriously damages the negotiating position of the five parties against North Korea in the six-party process.

Summit Goals

Given the growing differences between the two allies, which have regrettably eclipsed the strengths and common goals shared, the Bush-Roh summit will be a critical opportunity to bridge the gap and rebuild a common foundation for the alliance, based on these agenda items:

 

  • Although North Korea has revived the possibility of resuming the six-party talks, President Bush should urge President Roh to commit his government to developing a common response to North Korea, both in the short- and long-term, should the talks ultimately fail. Discussions should also include a plan of action should North Korea undertake a nuclear weapons test.
     
  • Both leaders should agree to make public diplomacy a priority to correct public misperceptions and media distortions that regrettably create tension and mistrust between South Korea and the United States. This includes the American tendency to exaggerate "anti-American" sentiment in South Korea and the South Korean under-appreciation of its impact in the United States. Lack of trust and growing frustration contribute to a declining commitment to the alliance on both sides, which neither side can afford in the face of North Korea's conventional, missile, and nuclear threats.
     
  • President Bush should encourage President Roh to strengthen South Korea's relationship with Japan and work to overcome areas of tension and dispute. A reinvigoration of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) could be an important and useful forum to facilitate increased cooperation among the three countries on a broad range of issues.
     
  • Both sides should refrain from sending mixed messages to the public, including official criticisms of each other's strategy towards North Korea-such as calls for increased U.S. "flexibility"-which only energizes Pyongyang's position.

The summit may well prove to be one of the most critical for both countries in recent years. But both sides should have realistic expectations because the summit will not produce an immediate solution to the North Korean nuclear issue, nor will it provide a quick-fix for the troubled alliance. Rather, the summit will be a success if both leaders can establish a tone for the future direction of the alliance that is clear, cooperative, and confident. The difficult work of finding common solutions and implementing joint strategies will be left for working-level officials to undertake in the days ahead. In the meantime, the summit should also provide the opportunity for both partners to remind each other of the immeasurably positive role the alliance has played in the last half century, providing the foundation for South Korea to become a prosperous, independent, and justifiably proud country.

 

Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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