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Thursday, February 21, 2013

U.S.-South Korea Relations

Mark E. Manyin
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Mary Beth Nikitin
Specialist in Nonproliferation

Emma Chanlett-Avery
Specialist in Asian Affairs

Ian E. Rinehart
Analyst in Asian Affairs

William H. Cooper
Specialist in International Trade and Finance


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. Much of the current closeness between Seoul and Washington is due to the policies undertaken by President Lee Myung-bak, who will leave office at the end of February 2013. His successor, Park Geunhye, is another conservative leader who is expected to maintain strong ties to the United States. However, while the overall U.S.-South Korean relationship is expected to remain healthy under Park, she also has hinted at policy moves—particularly with respect to North Korea and civilian nuclear cooperation—that could strain bilateral ties. Members of Congress tend to be interested in South Korea-related issues because of bilateral cooperation over North Korea, the U.S.-South Korea alliance, South Korea’s growing importance in various global issues, deep bilateral economic ties, and the interests of many Korean-Americans. The 112
th Congress held over 15 hearings directly related to South and North Korea. 

Strategic Cooperation and the U.S.-ROK Alliance 

Dealing with North Korea is the dominant strategic element of the U.S.-South Korean relationship. South Korea’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military power has given Seoul a more direct and prominent role in Washington’s planning and thinking about how to deal with Pyongyang. The Obama and Lee Administrations have essentially adopted a joint approach that some labeled “strategic patience” and includes four main elements: refusing to return to nuclear talks with North Korea unless Pyongyang demonstrates that it is taking “irreversible steps” to denuclearize; gradually attempting to alter China’s strategic assessment of North Korea; tightening sanctions against North Korean entities in response to Pyongyang’s provocations; and insisting that significant multilateral and U.S. talks with North Korea be preceded by improvements in North-South Korean relations.

It remains to be seen how U.S.-South Korea cooperation on North Korea will shift under President-elect Park, who has called for a new combination of toughness and flexibility toward Pyongyang. Perhaps most notably, Park has proposed a number of confidence-building measures with Pyongyang in order to create a “new era” on the Korean Peninsula. Two key questions will be the extent to which her government will link these initiatives to progress on denuclearization, which is the United States’ top concern, and how much emphasis she will give to North Korea’s human rights record. Likewise, an issue for the Obama Administration and Members of Congress is to what extent they will support—or, not oppose—initiatives by Park to expand inter-Korean relations.

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, and Congress has cut funds for a related initiative that would “normalize” the tours of U.S. troops in South Korea by lengthening their stays and allowing family members to accompany them. In the first half of 2013, the U.S. and South Korea are expected to negotiate a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that includes always-contentious discussions over how much South Korea should pay to offset the cost of stationing U.S. forces in Korea. Currently, South Korea pays for around 40%-45% of the total non-personnel stationing costs for the U.S. troop presence. 

Nuclear Cooperation Agreement 

For months, bilateral talks over a new civilian nuclear cooperation agreement have stalled. The Obama Administration would likely need to submit a new agreement for the mandatory congressional review period in late spring 2013 for it to take effect before the current agreement expires in March 2014. South Korea reportedly has requested that the new agreement include a provision that would give permission in advance for U.S.-controlled spent nuclear fuel to be reprocessed. This poses challenges for U.S. non-proliferation policy. 

Bilateral Economic Ties 

In October 2011, both chambers of Congress voted to approve legislation (H.R. 3080/P.L. 112-41) to implement the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), the United States’ secondlargest FTA after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In 2011, two-way trade between the two countries totaled over $95 billion, making South Korea the United States’ seventh-largest trading partner. In 2011, the United States was South Korea’s third-largest trading partner, second-largest export market, and the third-largest source of imports. It was among South Korea’s largest suppliers of foreign direct investment (FDI). To date, South Korea has not shown a desire to join the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) FTA talks, despite calls for it to do so from many U.S. analysts.

Date of Report: February 5, 2013
Number of Pages: 37
Order Number: R41481
Price: $29.95

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