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Monday, April 1, 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

South Korea is one of the United States’ most important strategic and economic partners in Asia. Members of Congress tend to be interested South Korea-related issues for a number of reasons. First, the United States and South Korea have been allies since the early 1950s. Under their military alliance, the United States is committed to helping South Korea defend itself, particularly against any aggression from North Korea. The United States maintains about 28,500 troops in the ROK and South Korea is included under the U.S. “nuclear umbrella.” Second, Washington and Seoul cooperate over how to deal with the challenges posed by North Korea. Third, South Korea’s emergence as a global player on a number of issues has provided greater opportunities for the two countries’ governments, businesses, and private organizations to interact and cooperate with one another. Fourth, the two countries’ economies are closely entwined and are joined by the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), the United States’ second-largest FTA. South Korea is the United States’ seventh-largest trading partner. The United States is South Korea’s third-largest trading partner.

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 left office at the end of February 2013. However, while the overall U.S.- South Korean relationship is expected to remain healthy under Lee’s successor, Park Geun-hye, she has hinted at policy moves—particularly with respect to North Korea and civilian nuclear cooperation—that could test bilateral ties. 

Strategic Cooperation and the U.S.-ROK Alliance 

Dealing with North Korea is the dominant strategic element of the U.S.-South Korean relationship. The two countries’ coordination over North Korea was exceptionally close under the Lee and Obama Administrations. Bilateral cooperation is expected to work well under President Park, but it remains to be seen whether her calls for a new combination of toughness and flexibility toward Pyongyang will be a challenge for Washington and Seoul. 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.

Since 2009, the United States and South Korea 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. 

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.

Date of Report: March 19, 2013
Number of Pages: 38
Order Number: R41481
Price: $29.95

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