Looking Back and Looking Forward: North Korea, Northeast Asia and the ROK-U.S. Alliance

Hyeong Jung Park
Hyeong Jung Park Senior Research Fellow, Korea Institute for National Unification, Republic of Korea

December 17, 2007


Following the inauguration of the Bush administration in 2001, South Korea and the United States entered into a period of dissonance and even mutual repugnance. It began with differences in North Korea policy in 2001, and expanded into other areas. The Bush administration’s mismanagement ignited a surge of anti-Americanism in South Korea, which in turn led to a round of Korea-bashing in the United States.

Amid mutual distrust and pique, the ROK-U.S. military alliance underwent a major redefinition. The United States was also disgruntled with South Korea’s apparent accommodation with China, as well as South Korea’s desire to be a “balancer” in Northeast Asia. Some believed that the alarming gaps in North Korea policy, threat perceptions, not to mention geostrategic mistrust, might lead to the dissolution of the ROK-U.S. alliance.

From 2005 to 2006, both incumbent presidents had historically low approval ratings. American neo-cons and hard-line nationalists struggled with their South Korean counterparts – a group known as the “386 Generation” (young officials who were mainly in their 30s, who attended college during the 1980s, and were born in the 1960s), contributing to the deterioration of relations between the two countries. The climate changed starting in 2005 until early 2007, when the two governments agreed on principles of re-defined military alliance and started the implementation process. Seoul and Washington also narrowed gaps in North Korea policy, and produced documents of policy principles bilaterally, as well as with other countries.

In 2007, after the February 13 agreement in the Six Party Talks, Presidents Roh and Bush became cooperative. Their governments even concluded the KORUS FTA [free trade agreement] in April 2007. The denuclearization process will pose unquestionably daunting challenges to be coped with, before it enters a “bridge of no return.” On a positive note, the major principles and blueprints for denuclearization have been agreed upon by all participants in the Six Party Talks. In the September 19 and February 13 joint statements, North Korea’s denuclearization was clearly related to a new order in Northeast Asia that is to include North Korea’s diplomatic normalization with the United States and Japan, a permanent peace regime on the Korean peninsula, and a multilateral Northeast Asian security mechanism.

With those milestones ahead, both countries are confronted with challenges which will affect mutual relations and their status in a “new” Northeast Asia in the future. In the short term, the incoming Korean and American presidents (in early 2008 and early 2009, respectively) may see an urgent need to reestablish his or her country’s reputation as a wise and reliable strategic player. For the United States, as the only country which can manage conflicts in strategic calculations of other countries in Northeast Asia, the challenge will be how to show leadership and imagination must be dedicated toward realizing the mentioned objectives. For South Korea, whose interests will be strongly influenced by North Korea’s denuclearization process, the challenge will be how to effectively find ways to increase its strategic importance and influence in its favor. Whether it is successful or not, the denuclearization process will give birth to a new reality both on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia, and the challenges for both countries will be how to maintain convergent understandings and cooperative relations along the road to the future.

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the background of ROK-U.S. dissonances during the years from 2001 to 2006, and to explore the possibility of forging a joint ROK-U.S. strategy on North Korea. It has two main chapters: the first will review competing paradigms for how to explain the dissonances from 2001 to 2006, and will differentiate three dimensions of contention: North Korea policy, the ROK-U.S. military alliance, and the two countries’ foreign and security policy options in Northeast Asia. The second begins with an examination of ROK-U.S. agreements regarding the purpose of North Korea policy, as expressed in the documents from the ROK-U.S. summits and from the Six Party Talks. It will be denoted that the process of denuclearization can only be successful when the strategic distrust among countries in Northeast is reduced. I will also discuss the challenges facing the United States and South Korea, while investigating possibilities for strategic cooperation between the two countries.