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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

U.S.-South Korea Relations

Mark E. Manyin, Coordinator
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Emma Chanlett-Avery
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Mary Beth Nikitin
Analyst in Nonproliferation

Mi Ae Taylor
Research Associate in Asian Affairs

Since late 2008, relations between the United States and South Korea (known officially as the Republic of Korea, or ROK) have been arguably at their best state in decades. By the middle of 2010, in the view of many in the Obama Administration, South Korea had emerged as the United States’ closest ally in East Asia.

Of all the issues on the bilateral agenda, Congress has the most direct role to play in the proposed Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA). Congressional approval is necessary for the agreement to go into effect. Presidents Obama and Lee Myung-bak have announced their desire to resolve U.S. concerns over market access for autos and beef by the time they meet again in Seoul during the November 2010 Group of 20 (G-20) meeting. Obama said that he intends “in the few months” after the November meeting to present Congress with the KORUS FTA’s implementing legislation. If approved, the agreement would be the second largest FTA market in which the United States participates, after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The two countries’ coordination over policy towards North Korea has been particularly close. The Obama and Lee Administrations have adopted a medium-to-longer-term policy of “strategic patience” that involves three main elements: refusing to return to the Six-Party Talks without an assurance from North Korea that it would take “irreversible steps” to denuclearize; gradually attempting to alter China’s strategic assessment of North Korea; and using Pyongyang’s provocations as opportunities to tighten sanctions against North Korean entities.

Additionally, the Obama Administration has said that an improvement in inter-Korean relations is a prerequisite for the United States to enter into meaningful negotiations with North Korea. Lee, in turn, has linked progress in most areas of North-South relations to progress in denuclearizing North Korea. South Korea halted almost all remaining forms of inter-Korean projects after the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the Cheonan, an event the United States and South Korea have blamed on North Korea. Even before the sinking, most inter-Korean cooperation projects already were shrinking due to rising tensions between the two Koreas. The sinking further eroded the loose consensus that had prevailed in South Korea against openly discussing and planning for reunification in the short- or medium-term. While few South Koreans advocate actively trying to topple the Kim Jong-il regime, the Cheonan sinking has led many in the Lee government to view North Korea as much more of an immediate danger than previously thought.

The United States maintains about 28,500 troops in the ROK. Since 2009, the two sides have accelerated steps to transform the 56-year U.S.-ROK alliance’s primary purpose from one of defending against a North Korean attack to a regional and even global partnership, in which Washington and Seoul cooperate on a myriad of issues beyond the Korean Peninsula. The two sides have announced a “Strategic Alliance 2015” plan to relocate U.S. troops on the Peninsula and boost ROK defense capabilities. By 2015, the two allies plan to separate wartime operational control (OPCON) of the countries’ forces on the Peninsula into two national commands.

Much of the current closeness between Seoul and Washington is due to President Lee. It is unclear how sustainable many of his policies will be, particularly into 2012, when South Koreans will elect a new president and a new legislature. Bilateral coordination will be particularly tested if South Korea’s left-of-center groups, which bitterly oppose much of Lee’s agenda, retake the presidency and/or the National Assembly.

Date of Report: November 3, 2010
Number of Pages: 31
Order Number: R41481
Price: $29.95

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