Shadow Government

Five Issues That Will Decide the Future of the U.S.-Korean Relationship

South Korean President Park Geun-hye and President Barack Obama are scheduled to meet at the White House on Friday. With the relationship on solid ground, the two leaders can begin to formulate long-term plans that address how the alliance fits into a larger U.S. and allied strategic vision for Asia. In addition, Washington should re-examine ...

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South Korean President Park Geun-hye and President Barack Obama are scheduled to meet at the White House on Friday. With the relationship on solid ground, the two leaders can begin to formulate long-term plans that address how the alliance fits into a larger U.S. and allied strategic vision for Asia. In addition, Washington should re-examine the policies that have contributed to the stunning success of South Korea and how they might apply universally.

Here are five items they each should consider:

1) The visit is a chance for President Obama to reflect on how long-term U.S. strategy toward Seoul applies to contemporary strategic decisions. In Korea, President Dwight Eisenhower inherited a war from his predecessor that was poorly prosecuted. However, he knew that long-term U.S. interests were served by fighting it as best as possible and then maintaining a substantial U.S. presence on the peninsula. It may not have been “his war,” but he had the foresight to decide that maintaining a military presence would not only help contain communism but also allow the South Koreans to build their country.

South Korea did so in an impressive manner: the democratic-capitalist nation over which Park presides was made possible in no small measure by a continued U.S. military force in her country. President Obama should study this example as he makes decisions about what type of U.S. military presence should remain in the Middle East and South Asia over the long haul. Indeed, it is rare for the U.S. to pull out of countries after it has fought wars; the more common outcome is that Washington decides that a long-term military presence is needed in the “host country” after the war (e.g., Korea, Japan, Germany, and Italy). In most cases, this has both served U.S. strategic interests and benefitted the country where U.S. troops are stationed.

2) Twenty-one years after the Agreed Framework was signed, North Korea has 10 to 16 nuclear weapons, as well as 200 Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles and up to 50 Taepodong and Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The two presidents should take a sober look at why the North Korea denuclearization policy failed. In addition, U.S. presidential candidates and the Congress should closely examine the North Korean case as Washington embarks on an eerily similar deal with Iran. There is little doubt that Tehran will have studied the successes of North Korea at the negotiating table — how Pyongyang whittled away at sanctions and terrorist designations through false promises and outright extortion. The key question remains: are denuclearization deals ever successful with regimes who view these weapons as essential to their survival?

3) Now that North Korea is a nuclear state, the only policy options in the short-term are containment and deterrence, as I argued in the John Hay Initiative’s recent volume, Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World. The two presidents can begin the process of enhancing containment by strengthening strategic nuclear talks and the U.S. nuclear force posture, by jointly developing new sanctions regimes and cracking down on illicit North Korean businesses worldwide, as well as by continuing progress on matters such as integrated ballistic missile defense on the peninsula. This process requires Japan’s buy-in and contributions. President Obama must persuade President Park that, while he understands the painful history Korea has suffered, on strategic matters it is time to look to the future. Strong U.S.-Japan-ROK strategic cooperation is necessary to bring about the outcomes that both Washington and Seoul desire.

4) Ultimately, the optimal policy to both improve the lot of North Koreans and rollback Kim’s nuclear weapons program is unification under ROK rule. President Park has moved preparation for reunification to the center of her DPRK policy. President Obama should consider how the United States can work with the South Korean leadership on these plans, and coordinate planning among interested parties such as Japan.

5) The two presidents should engage in a larger strategic discussion about China’s increasing attempts to dominate Asia and the U.S. alternative strategic vision for the region. Washington and Seoul may seek tactical assistance from China in pressuring North Korea, but neither country wants a long-term role for Beijing on the peninsula (it was not just Japan that once exerted hegemonic control over Korea).

As a major maritime trading nation Seoul has an interest in keeping sea-lanes and trading routes open from the Yellow Sea to the South China Sea. It is more than capable of contributing to U.S. and allied efforts at pushing back against China’s aggression. The era of the allied hub-and-spokes model of security is coming to an end in Asia as Japan, Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines and India all engage in closer security cooperation. The U.S. should encourage South Korea to join in these attempts at greater alliance and partner cohesion.

Song Kyung-Seok – Pool/Getty Images

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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