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Friday, January 29, 2010

Korea-U.S. Relations: Issues for Congress

Larry A. Niksch
Specialist in Asian Affairs

The United States has had a military alliance with South Korea (R.O.K.) and important interests in the Korean peninsula since the Korean War of 1950-1953. Many U.S. interests relate to communist North Korea. Since the early 1990s, the issue of North Korea's development of nuclear weapons has been the dominant U.S. policy concern. Experts in and out of the U.S. government believe that North Korea has produced plutonium for at least six atomic bombs. North Korea tested nuclear devices in October 2006 and May 2009. In 2007, a six party negotiation (among the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia) produced agreements that resulted in a disablement of North Korea's main nuclear reactor and U.S. removal of North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. In April 2009, North Korea rejected six party talks. The Obama Administration began bilateral talks with North Korea in December 2009 aimed at returning North Korea to the six party talks; North Korea demanded first a lifting of U.N. sanctions and negotiation of a U.S.-North Korean peace treaty. 

Other North Korean policies affect U.S. interests. North Korean exports of counterfeit U.S. currency and U.S. products produce upwards of $1 billion annually for the North Korean regime. North Korea earns considerable income from sales of missiles and missile and nuclear technology cooperation with Iran and Syria. It has developed short-range and intermediate-range missiles, but it has so far failed to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile. It is estimated to have sizeable stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Pyongyang's main goal of its nuclear program appears to be the development of nuclear warheads that can be mounted on its missiles. North Korean involvement in international terrorism has included the kidnapping of Japanese citizens, reportedly arms and training to the Hezbollah and Tamil Tigers terrorist groups, and cooperation with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in development of missiles and nuclear weapons. 

U.S. human rights groups are involved in responding to the outflow of tens of thousands of North Korean refugees into China, due to severe food shortages inside North Korea and the repressive policies of the North Korean regime. U.S. and international food aid to North Korea has been provided since 1995, but North Korea rejected South Korean food aid in 2008 and expelled U.S. food aid workers in March 2009. North Korea faces severe food shortages in 2010. 

South Korea followed a conciliation policy toward North Korea under the administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun; but President Lee Myung-bak, elected in December 2007, linked South Korean aid to North Korea, including food aid, to the nuclear and other policy issues. North Korea responded by cutting off most contacts with the Lee government until August 2009. North Korea then made overtures to South Korea, probably because of its worsening food situation. 

The United States signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with South Korea (the seventh-largest U.S. trading partner) in 2007. There is substantial opposition to the FTA in Congress. The Obama Administration has called for renegotiation on the automobile provisions and additional South Korean measures to open the R.O.K. market to imports of U.S. beef. The U.S.-R.O.K. military alliance appears to function well. It is dealing with several issues of change: relocations of 28,500 U.S. forces within South Korea; construction of new bases; the creation of separate U.S. and South Korean military commands in 2012; possible future withdrawals of U.S. ground forces to U.S. conflict areas; an R.O.K. military contribution to Afghanistan; and South Korean financial support for U.S. forces.

Date of Report: January 12, 2010
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: RL33576
Price: $29.95

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