Mark E. Manyin, Coordinator Specialist in Asian Affairs
Emma Chanlett-Avery Specialist in Asian Affairs
Mary Beth Nikitin Specialist in Nonproliferation
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 had the most direct role to play in the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), the United States’ second-largest FTA after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Approval by both countries’ legislatures is necessary for the agreement to go into effect. The agreement was signed in 2007, but both the Bush and Obama Administrations delayed its submission to Congress, in part due to opposition to the deal. In early December 2010, the United States and South Korea announced they had agreed on modifications to the original agreement. South Korea accepted a range of U.S. demands designed to help the U.S. auto industry and received some concessions in return. In the United States, the supplementary deal appears to have changed the minds of many groups and Members of Congress who previously had opposed the FTA. On October 12, 2011, both chambers of Congress voted to approve legislation (H.R. 3080/P.L. 112-41) to implement the KORUS FTA. In November, after a contentious battle, the Korean National Assembly passed the agreement, which is expected to enter into effect in early 2012.
The day after Congress passed the KORUS FTA, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak addressed a joint session of Congress. Lee was in Washington for a State Visit to the White House, the fifth since Barack Obama’s inauguration. Various aspects of his trip symbolized the close relationship between the two leaders, as well as the close policy coordination the two governments have forged, particularly over how to handle North Korea. The Obama and Lee Administrations have adopted a medium-to-longer-term policy of “strategic patience” that involves four 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; using Pyongyang’s provocations as opportunities to tighten sanctions against North Korean entities; and insisting that significant multilateral and U.S. talks with North Korea must be preceded by improvements in North-South Korean relations. Lee, in turn, has linked progress in many areas of North-South relations to progress in denuclearizing North Korea.
The United States maintains about 28,500 troops in the ROK. Since 2009, the two sides have accelerated steps to transform the U.S.-ROK alliance’s primary purpose from one of defending against a North Korean attack to a regional and even global partnership. Washington and Seoul have announced a “Strategic Alliance 2015” plan to relocate U.S. troops on the Peninsula and boost ROK defense capabilities. Some Members of Congress have criticized the relocation plans.
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 gained significant momentum in 2011 and which bitterly oppose much of Lee’s agenda, retake the presidency and/or the National Assembly.
Date of Report: November 28, 2011
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