Achievements, Celebration and Homework: South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s State Visit to the United States

President Lee Myung-bak of the Republic of Korea will make a state visit to the United States on October 13. President Obama will receive him as his fifth state visitor after the heads of state from India, Mexico, China and Germany. Presidents Obama and Lee are scheduled to hold their sixth summit, complementing several other informal meetings they have held on the sidelines of various multilateral diplomatic events. Their frequent encounters indicate the high degree of closeness and trust between them, and between the two countries they lead.

Many observers in both Washington and Seoul agree that the bilateral relationship has never been better than it is now. Especially in comparison to the cranky relationship between former Presidents Bush and Roh Moo-hyun, the chemistry between the incumbents is notable, and has real-world implications. With encouragement and support from Washington, Seoul has gladly begun to exercise a greater role in the global arena: Seoul’s hosting of global events such as the G-20 summit in 2010 and the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit next year, as well as the Korean Provincial Reconstruction Team’s efforts toward reconstruction in Afghanistan, are only a few examples. Also, the Obama administration has let the Korean government to take the driver’s seat in navigating the difficult challenges posed by North Korea. U.S.-Korea policy coordination has been described as “in lockstep” and showing “no daylight”: adding another metaphor, we can say that it is waterproof.

That high degree of cooperation and trust is certainly a product of deliberate policy choices and efforts on both sides. Right after his inauguration in February 2008, President Lee made it clear that the alliance with the United States should be the basis of Korean foreign policy. Despite some domestic and Chinese complaints about his strong pro-American proclivity, he maintained this posture. With the election of Obama in late 2008, some people in Korea predicted a possible mismatch of leaders, predicting that the conservative Korean president and liberal American president would have different policy priorities, much as the conservative Bush and liberal Roh had before them. This, however, turned out to be a false alarm. From day one, the Obama administration attached great importance to the partnership with Korea and emphasized alliance coordination in a number of issue areas, including the North Korea question in particular. Such efforts to strengthen the alliance deserve the celebratory tone which the upcoming state visit is likely to take.

Of course, as with all other summits, this visit will not be just for celebration. There are substantial strategic, economic and political issues that require due attention at the highest level. Undoubtedly, how to deal with questions on those fronts will set the direction of the future evolution (or devolution) of the alliance.

First, and foremost, the two presidents have to coordinate policy toward North Korea. In 2009, the Six-Party Talks came to a halt as Pyongyang walked away from the talks and conducted its second nuclear test. After the sinking of ROK navy vessel Cheonan in March 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, virtually all dialogues with Pyongyang ceased. Recently, however, there are signs that diplomatic efforts are being made to jumpstart the Six-Party Talks. Beijing has consistently argued for the continuation of talks. Though Washington continues to emphasize that inter-Korean talks are a precondition for it to engage in dialogue with Pyongyang, recently it has cautiously begun to explore ways to resume the Talks. Seoul seems to be following suit, albeit awkwardly.

There is nothing wrong with returning to talks per se. Formal communication is necessary for the management of tensions surrounding the Korean peninsula. It is not a good idea, however, if returning simply means repeats the past pattern of policy shifts from a hard-line to a conciliatory policy and vice versa. If the two presidents agree to resume the Six-Party Talks with North Korea, they would have to present clear answers to critical questions about the exact tactical or strategic purpose of the negotiations:

  • What could we expect to achieve from the talks realistically?
  • Are they for eventual denuclearization, or just for freezing the North Korean nuclear program?
  • Or are they to persuade North Koreans away from provocative action against the south?

An important bedrock question is, what are the up-to-date intelligence assessments of the two governments on the current status of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities?

The two heads of state also have to confirm continuing cooperation for deterrence against every possible type of North Korean threat. Additional North Korean provocations on par with the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents remain likely, driven in part by the continuing power succession in Pyongyang from Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un. Given this probability, therefore, the resumption of talks with Pyongyang should not impair the alliance’s strong military deterrence posture. The maintenance of the combined U.S.-ROK forces that are well prepared for various types of North Korean provocations is the only basis on which diplomatic efforts can succeed.

This confirmation will also serve as a sign of the U.S. security commitment to Korea and the Northeast Asian region in general. In a time when American economic difficulties evoke certain concerns in Korea about the long-term staying power of the U.S. in the region, a timely confirmation of the American determination to maintain a strong presence in the region will dispel any doubts. For its part, of course, the ROK must be more willing to bear financial burdens for its own security.

Looking beyond the hard security threat posed by North Korea, President Lee’s visit should serve as a good opportunity to restate the new vision for the ROK-U.S. alliance that was announced when President Lee visited Washington in June 2009. Since the 1950s, the alliance has existed quintessentially as a security mechanism against threats from North Korea and from the larger Communist forces during the Cold War. In contrast, the 2009 “Joint Vision Statement” sketched out an alliance for common goods and values in the region and the world including, among others, peacekeeping, post-conflict stabilization and development, and multilateral mechanisms to facilitate economic recovery from the recent recession. In view of Chinese suspicion that the ROK-U.S. alliance is part of an encirclement of rising China, a restatement of this vision would be of certain use to ease Chinese concerns.

Second, on the economic front, the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) is an important agenda item for this visit. After the signature of the agreement by both sides in 2007, momentum has been stalled for more than four years neither side’s legislature has ratified it. From an economic point of view, the enormous overall benefits of the KORUS FTA for the two countries are well recognized. In a time of a global economic slowdown, in particular, the FTA will boost the vitality of the two economies by enhancing their respective competitive edges and increased market accesses. For the American economy, in particular, an FTA with one of the most vibrant Asian economies has many benefits including the creation of jobs at home and more investment profits abroad.

President Lee is scheduled to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on October 13 following the presumed passage of the FTA on October 12 – this may well be the highlight of the state visit. The Obama administration is showing a strong political will to pass the agreement. Korea’s foreign minister reportedly has said that the Obama administration requested this visit in the first place and it has been postponed twice, first from June to September and once again to October, probably reflecting the U.S. Congressional schedule.

It should be reminded, however, the upcoming political battle for ratification in Seoul will be no less difficult than it has been in Washington. Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party demands re-renegotiation, while the Korean public’s support for the KORUS FTA is tepid at best, as they are less clear about the benefits of the deal for them. Korean critics of the FTA look at and want to cite the American lack of determination (the four-year delay was caused mainly by American politics) as one of reasons their country should not hurry on ratification. Criticism of hastiness can hardly be justified, of course, given the fact that the KORUS FTA has been discussed well over many years. This time any such excuse to disrupt the mutually beneficial deal should not be given a hearing.

Last, but not least, there are political dimensions of the visit. As discussed above, major stumbling blocks of the KORUS FTA are actually more about politics than economics. Short-term and partisan interests often prevail in political games. Given the importance of the issues at stake, political leaders of the two countries should rise above the partisan and short-term political gains. In addition to the economic benefits, the successful passage of the FTA would enhance the social and political infrastructure of the alliance over the long-term. The more the two economies are integrated, the more interactions the two peoples will have and the broader their shared interests will be.

On top of the FTA, it is worthwhile for the top leaders to consider additional ways to enhance the societal infrastructure of the alliance. In the past, the Korea-U.S. bilateral relationship has been a matter of concern largely for foreign policy and economic elites only. As a result, fluctuations in Korean public perception of the United States often make the alliance unstable, while American public interest and awareness of the relationship with Korea is far behind what is desired. This gap needs to be addressed by introducing various programs to promote people-to-people exchanges at the civil society level. Of course, various cultural exchange programs already exist, including Korea’s recent entry into the U.S. visa waiver program and the WEST (Work, English Study, Travel) program. The existing programs, however, are more focused on bringing Koreans to America. Perhaps now the time has come to facilitate exchange in the other direction and to design programs that will increase American interest in and travel to Korea. These programs may be less contentious politically than other issues, and by thickening and broadening cultural infrastructure of the alliance, they could have beneficial and far-reaching consequences over the long run.