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Thursday, September 14, 2006

South Korea/USA politics: A troubled alliance


South Korea's president, Roh Moo-hyun, will meet his American counterpart George W Bush in Washington on September 14th. It could be the least fruitful diplomatic encounter ever by two leaders of nominally close allies; indeed, such are the differences between the two that no joint statement will be issued after the summit. Unsurprisingly, no breakthrough is expected on either of the two major issues at the root of the mutual diplomatic froideur: how to deal with an increasingly belligerent North Korea, and how to manage the evolving US-South Korea military alliance. And even though economic ties are still strong, a groundbreaking bilateral free-trade agreement also looks to be on the rocks.

North Korean divide

Although America and South Korea have been close allies throughout the post-second world war period, in recent years relations have become increasingly strained over how to deal with the very threat that led to their alliance—North Korea. Serious policy divergence began in 1998 with the introduction of Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine" policy of engagement with the North. Roh Moo-hyun's administration has retained the policy in all but name, promoting greater economic and diplomatic contact with the primary aim of preventing the collapse of the current regime in Pyongyang (which would impose an enormous economic and physical burden on the South). Minor disruptions aside, this policy has survived intact regardless of North Korea's actions, giving the impression to Washington that Roh Moo-hyun is happy to reward Pyongyang for bad behaviour.

The Bush administration views North Korea as a threat—if not directly to its territory (though this is increasingly a possibility) then to its allies' interests in Asia. Moreover, the Bush administration, despite declaring its willingness to participate in multilateral talks with the North, has taken punitive action each time the North has amplified its threat. The Roh government regards US punishment as a destabilising factor, undercutting the North's willingness to participate in further six-nation talks on its nuclear programme, for example, and making it more likely to lash out—for instance by pressing on with its nuclear-weapons programme or test-launching ballistic missiles, as it did in early July.

It therefore seems unlikely that presidents Roh and Bush will reach an agreement on how to get North Korea back to the negotiating table. In as much as the issue is discussed at all (the two reportedly quarrelled vigorously over the matter during their last meeting, on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Busan last November), Roh Moo-hyun is likely to continue to insist that the US drops the threat of further sanctions, while Mr Bush is likely to insist that the South Korean president stops acting as an apologist for Kim Jong-il's regime. Tensions over the issue have escalated since US intelligence officials claimed the North is preparing for an underground nuclear test—although Roh Moo-hyun has said there is no evidence to support this.

Complicating factors

If North Korea does test a nuclear weapon, the US and South Korea would respond with superficial unity, but this would not change the deep underlying differences in perception that inform their respective stances towards Pyongyang. (After the missile tests on July 5th, South Korea endorsed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the launches and even suspended food aid. However, Roh Moo-hyun later dismissed the military threat implied by the tests, describing them as a "political" action, and food aid was quickly reinstated under the guise of relief for floods that hit the North over the summer.) There are complicating factors, too, in particular the increasingly close political and security relations between the US and Japan, with which South Korea has frosty relations. Japan's newly proactive foreign policy stance—it pushed for the UNSC resolution—and tacit US support for this mean South Korea's suspicions will get worse rather than better.

Added to this is a potent brand of anti-US nationalism that Roh Moo-hyun used first to drum up support for his election in 2002 and has employed recently to reinforce his flagging popularity—which hit a record low of any South Korean president of under 15% in a recent opinion poll. The president has sought to exploit anti-US sentiment most conspicuously over two contentious issues regarding the military alliance: the relocation of American troops from their Yongsan base in downtown Seoul, and the issue of whether and when the US should transfer control over the South Korean military in wartime back to South Korea—depicting both matters in terms of national sovereignty.

The future of the military alliance has been the subject of heated discussion for some years; indeed the US has proceeded with the reduction of its troop strength in South Korea, from 37,000 in 2003 to under 30,000 now, in line with an overall realignment of its military deployment in Asia. But the "US out" contingent in South Korea is still a tiny minority (even though the younger generation in particular is more likely to support this stance). When Roh Moo-hyun called recently for the transfer of wartime military control back to Seoul by 2012, the US responded by saying it could do so by 2009—heightening fears among the broad section of the population that sees the value of the US deterrent that this may be a prelude to a more rapid than planned downscaling by the US of its military capability on the peninsula.

Saving grace?

The two presidents might at least have good news regarding bilateral economic relations: Roh Moo-hyun is expected to reassure Mr Bush about the South's determination to conclude a bilateral free-trade agreement (FTA) in the near future. This would be a groundbreaking move for both sides. It would be the most significant trade deal the US has concluded since NAFTA (in 1993). South Korea remains a vital trading partner—bilateral trade was worth US$72bn in 2005, according to US data, with South Korea ranking 7th both in terms of supplying American imports and buying its exports. The US was South Korea's most important export market until 2002, and is now second only to China.

However, the timeframe for concluding an FTA is short, as after June next year Mr Bush's "trade promotion authority" expires, meaning any trade deal will then be dissected by Congress before being approved (or, more probably, rejected). And the omens for a swift conclusion to negotiations are not good. The third round of talks, which took place in Seattle from September 6th-9th, were characterised as "disappointing" by an American representative, who complained about South Korea's reluctance to open up its agricultural markets. The agricultural and pharmaceutical sectors in South Korea, in particular, are expected to continue to put up the fiercest resistance to an FTA with the US, the former because they fear an influx of cheap US goods, and the latter because many of the small companies in the fragmented pharmaceutical sector are concerned that they may be taken over by, and unable to compete with, larger US firms.

An enduring partnership

If the presidents had decided to issue a joint statement, it would have been short. Nevertheless, in many respects the US-South Korean alliance remains strong. Despite differences in perception, the two remain united by the unpredictable nature of the regime in Pyongyang. This seems unlikely to change in the near future. In addition, supporters of Roh Moo-hyun's brand of nationalism are countered by, variously, older generations, conservatives, veterans and Christian activists, all of whom insist on the importance of maintaining a close military alliance with the US. Moreover, given the exceedingly low popularity of Roh Moo-hyun and the ruling Uri party, it is more likely that someone with a conservative, pro-US background—perhaps Park Geun-hye or Lee Myung-bak of the opposition Grand National Party—will succeed Roh Moo-hyun when he steps down in 2008. The alliance has several years left in it yet.
Source: ViewsWire Asia
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