South Korean President Park Geun-hye arrived in Washington on May 6 to meet with President Obama and affirm the bilateral alliance that has kept peace on the Korean Peninsula for 60 years.
At the moment, the U.S.–South Korea military, political, and economic relationships are the strongest they have ever been. But challenges remain. The two leaders will discuss forging common strategies for addressing growing security threats in Asia amidst growing uncertainties over Washington’s ability to deliver on its security commitments.
Presidents Obama and Park will celebrate the alliance forged in the crucible of the Korean War. South Koreans remain grateful for the U.S. coming to its aid after North Korea invaded in 1950. The allied effort provided the shield that saved South Korea and enabled it to eventually develop into a vibrant democracy embracing free-market principles.
Having achieved its place on the world stage, Seoul now seeks to help other nations. Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, vowed to develop a “Global Korea” and transform the bilateral military relationship with the U.S. into a Strategic Alliance. During their meeting, Presidents Obama and Park will discuss ways to build on the foundation laid by their predecessors.
Meanwhile, North Korea has again pushed its way to the top of the two leaders’ agenda. Pyongyang, emboldened by successful long-range missile and nuclear tests, defied U.N. Security Council resolutions and threatened nuclear attacks on Washington and Seoul. Though North Korea’s rhetoric has since cooled, the military threat endures.
President Park will seek U.S. support for her “trustpolitik” policy, which balances strong military capabilities with incremental, reciprocal outreach to the North. Park’s policy is pragmatic and principled, since it eschews the naïve, unconditional-provision-of-benefits policy of her progressive predecessors.
The Obama Administration has affirmed commitment to the U.S.–South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty, pledging all necessary means to defend South Korea. But Asian allies are concerned about declining U.S. military readiness brought on by massive defense budget cuts. Despite Obama Administration pledges to “strengthen our presence” in Asia, the Pentagon recently announced more naval ship deployment cancellations and that the Air Force will ground one-third of its aircraft.
Moreover, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared more eager during his Asian trip to defuse a crisis than to pledge unequivocal support to an ally threatened with military attack. Kerry revealed that, as the recent crisis continued, the Obama Administration changed course and yielded in the face of North Korean threats.
Kerry stated during a press conference in Seoul that “President Obama ordered a number of exercises not to be undertaken. We have lowered our rhetoric significantly.” That is the wrong message to send while Pyongyang threatens U.S. allies.
Despite confluence on most issues, there are a few areas of policy disagreement between Washington and Seoul. The most notable is that South Korea is seeking access to a broader spectrum of civilian nuclear technology, while the U.S. wants to maintain tighter controls. Washington and Seoul postponed until 2015 the deadline for concluding an accord to prevent a deadlock from overshadowing the summit meeting.
A fair agreement would recognize South Korea’s emerging role as an international leader in the global commercial nuclear industry by allowing it access to the technologies it needs, such as proliferation-resistant used-fuel-management technology, while maintaining tighter controls on technologies such as enrichment, which the U.S. correctly understands as carrying a higher proliferation risk.
The U.S. and South Korea should negotiate an updated commercial nuclear trade agreement that allows South Korea access to the technology that it requires while addressing U.S. proliferation concerns. The Obama Administration should clarify that used-fuel processes that do not separate weapons-usable materials are permitted, continue to support reprocessing research and development, and respect South Korea’s right to peacefully enrich uranium but continue to oppose uranium enrichment on the Korean Peninsula for the time being.
The two countries also differ over renewal terms for the Special Measures Agreement, which expires in January 2014. The U.S. is seeking a greater cost-sharing contribution for maintaining U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, which Seoul resists.
These policy differences will, however, be overshadowed by strong agreement between Presidents Obama and Park on a broad spectrum of military and economic policies. While North Korea remains the most imminent threat, Washington and Seoul should also continue efforts to transform the bilateral alliance to enable it to also address regional and global security challenges.