Searching for a Strategy: The Bush-Roh Summit

On September 14th, the presidents of the United States and the Republic of Korea – George W. Bush and Roh Moo-hyun – will meet at the White House for their latest, and perhaps last, summit. This is President Roh’s third visit to the United States as president and his sixth summit with President Bush. Their meeting occurs at a critical time in Northeast Asia and in the U.S.-ROK alliance.

Leaders can use summits for a variety of reasons: to forge a common strategic vision where none exists; to jump-start negotiations that have stalled because their respective bureaucrats are defending excessively narrow positions; to celebrate joint achievements; and to bolster their domestic political positions. And, of course, leaders may wish to achieve several objectives at one time.

The Bush-Roh summit is no exception. If there was ever a bilateral relationship that needs a strategic vision, it is alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea. The alliance was remarkably successful in meeting the challenge of the second half of the twentieth century: containing communist expansion. But after the transformation of China, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the erosion of the North Korean conventional threat, the U.S.-ROK alliance is still groping for a credible rationale for the twenty-first century. Complicating the search for this new vision is the significant change that has occurred in South Korean society and politics in the last two decades and the shift in U.S. foreign policy since 2000. Korean commentators talk of “an alliance in disarray” and compare the bilateral relationship to a married couple on the brink of a divorce.

So President Roh and President Bush have much that they could talk about in the strategic vision category. The first specific issue is the Six-Party Talks concerning North Korea’s nuclear programs, which are at a critical point. The promise of the talks’ fourth round, which concluded on September 19, 2005 with agreement on a joint statement of principles, quickly vanished when it came to translating principles into real commitments. Moreover, when Washington took action against North Korea’s counterfeiting of American currency, Pyongyang interpreted it as a return to a “hostile policy” and resisted returning to the talks.

At this point, all parties maintain their rhetorical commitment to a Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons, but questions abound as to how badly Washington and Pyongyang really want to achieve that objective. Has Kim Jong Il adopted a strategy of delay, awaiting President Bush’s successor? Would the Bush administration prefer to squeeze Kim and his cohorts rather than engage in creative diplomacy?

If we assume instead that near-term progress is possible in the Six-Party Talks, then Presidents Bush and Roh could have a very useful summit discussion on what mix of incentives and disincentives will induce North Korea to return to the negotiating table – or, at least, make it absolutely clear to all concerned that it is Pyongyang’s recalcitrance that is blocking progress. Concerning Washington’s “financial sanctions” that have blocked North Korean funds in Macau, President Roh might offer an approach that would permit a partial un-blocking of the accounts and a face-saving way for Pyongyang to return to the table (apparently some of the money was earned legally). President Bush might elaborate his view that Seoul’s passivity in the face of provocative behavior (e.g. missile launches) will only invite more provocative behavior that undermines the talks.

North Korea is not the only issue on which the two leaders need to strive toward a strategic consensus. China is gradually regaining great-power status, and it will define the geopolitics of East Asia for the medium and long term. All the countries of the region hope that a strong China will coexist peacefully and constructively with its neighbors. Because all benefit from peace and China’s economic growth, none would like to see a decision by Beijing to challenge the United States for regional hegemony. Thus far, China’s leaders have not yet chosen which course to take, in part because they are uncertain about American intentions. The United States is itself uncertain about China’s intentions. Both powers are hedging their bets. South Korea is caught in the middle but would do well to keep its options open.

Presidents Bush and Roh could have a useful and in-depth discussion on how to encourage a more positive Chinese choice. How each government crafts its policies toward China will affect Beijing’s strategy for good or ill. If Washington and Seoul coordinate their approaches, the prospects for peaceful coexistence will probably improve.

Yet another issue on which it would be useful for the two presidents to hold a strategic discussion is Japan. Obviously, complex issues of history and identity are at play here. Because Korea was a colony of Japan in the first part of the twentieth century, it has particularly bitter memories. But the United States wants to have good relations with both Seoul and Tokyo. It is certainly not in U.S. interests for its two friends to have bad relations or, objectively, in their interests either. With Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi’s time in office coming to an end, there is a moment of opportunity for his successor to put Tokyo’s relations with its neighbors on a new footing. That will be primarily the new prime minister’s responsibility. But Beijing, Seoul, and Washington can help create a proper context.

On all three of these issues, the summit setting is important. If the reports are true that the Blue House requested to have the summit at Crawford and that Washington turned down it down, that is unfortunate. The rustic informality of President Bush’s ranch – or of Camp David – would have been a much better environment for such strategic discussions than the more scripted ambience of the White House.

When it comes to using a presidential summit to energize negotiations, the obvious case is the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA). Considerable progress has already been made, but a number of tough issues still remain: autos, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, services, protection of intellectual property rights, and rules of origin. Rules of origin refers to whether goods produced in South Korean-funded factories in North Korea’s Kaesong industrial park will be considered South Korean or North Korean goods for tariff purposes when imported into the U.S. market. Key Members of Congress have made it very clear that Kaesong-produced products should not be treated as South Korean. Seoul wants them to be considered that way; otherwise the high tariffs would price these goods out of the market.

These difficult substantive problems aside, the two sides are racing against a clock. President Bush’s trade promotion negotiating authority (“fast-track”) expires at the end of June next year and a draft KORUS FTA agreement must be completed months before then to give Congress time to review it. June 2007 is probably not a hard deadline; if agreement with Korea is close, negotiating authority on that agreement could be extended. But it is a deadline all the same. This fall is the time when significant progress must be made, and Presidents Bush and Roh can use the summit to accelerate the negotiations.

The reality is that South Korea wants a KORUS FTA more than the United States does. Achieving one is more important for President Roh’s legacy than it is for President Bush’s. And because the American economy is generally more open than the South Korean economy, if a summit jump-start is to occur it will probably have to be because President Roh decides that his negotiators have to make the greater concessions. This will be a political challenge for him. Within South Korea the active support for a KORUS FTA is tepid and active opposition is already strong. But by proposing a free trade agreement with the United States President Roh has created a historic opportunity to further liberalize the South Korean economy and ensure growth for years to come. He should not abandon that opportunity at this point.

In the celebration category, President Bush and President Roh are likely to point to major progress on President Roh’s initiative concerning who would be in command if South Korean and American troops again had to defend the South against an attack from the North. Currently, an American general would command the armed forces of the two countries in a tightly integrated command structure. President Roh has proposed, and the United States has agreed in principle, that wartime operational command (“OPCON”) should be transferred to a South Korean general. Discussions have already begun to create arrangements to implement the transfer.

President Roh’s proposal is understandable. It stems from a desire to restore full sovereignty to the Republic of Korea and bolster national pride. The problem with the idea is that it may unintentionally reduce the security of South Korea. The reason is that wartime command under an American general is like the keystone of an arch. It is tied to a host of other institutions – war plans, specific command arrangements, allotment of roles and missions – that have been developed over decades. These fit together to create a formidable deterrent against a North Korean attack and an impressive array of war-fighting capabilities should deterrence fail. But try to change the keystone and the arch will crumble. Most or all the elements of deterrence and war-fighting structure will have to be adjusted, some perhaps in a fundamental way.

The urge to transfer wartime OPCON has gotten ahead of a review of all its implications. The keystone is being replaced before we and the South Koreans understand fully what is going to happen to the arch. President Roh’s desire to restore this element of sovereignty has played into the hands of some Americans – including, it seems, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld – who wish to radically reduce the American ground presence on the Korean peninsula. Indeed, Secretary Rumsfeld has reportedly proposed that the transfer occur in 2009, three years ahead of what the ROK was expecting.

Transferring wartime OPCON may not be the worst idea to come along in U.S.-ROK relations. But if it is to be done, it should be done for the right reason. And it should occur at a gradual pace and with full preparation, in order to ensure that the security of the people of South Korea is not put at risk and that the transition strengthens the alliance rather than undermines it.

The temptation to celebrate “achievements” like the wartime OPCON transfer at the summit will be strong. That President Bush and President Roh (especially President Roh) are nearing the ends of their terms will only strengthen the urge. But the priority of this summit should really be on jump-starting the negotiations on the free-trade agreement and on a future rationale for the alliance (to which command arrangements should be connected in due time). The effort required will be substantial, to be sure, but the results, in terms of lasting peace, security, and prosperity in the dynamic region of Northeast Asia, will be well worth it.