Korea - US Relations
Following the 2020 election of Joe Biden, South Korea looks like it is eager to leave behind the "America first" motto of outgoing President Donald Trump, along with Trump's brinksmanship in confronting North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. Biden emphatically announced "America is back" after the 2020 election was called in his favor. For South Korea, this could me a return of a multilateral diplomatic approach more in keeping with traditional US foreign policy.
On 12 November 2020, President-elect Biden had a 14-minute phone conversation with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. During the call, Biden said the US will "firmly maintain our defense commitment to South Korea and cooperate closely to resolve the North Korea nuclear issue," extolling South Korea as the regional "lynchpin of security and prosperity," according to South Korea's presidential office.
President Moon Jae-in departed the US 22 May 2021 following a four-day working visit for his summit with President Joe Biden. It was his first overseas trip since the start of the pandemic. Via social media, Moon called his U.S. trip and his talks with Biden the "best" and noted that it was the first no-mask summit since the pandemic. He said that the outcome was better than expected and that Washington took into account Seoul's stance on pending issues. Presidents Moon and Biden reaffirmed their commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula based on dialogue and diplomacy.
South Korean and American foreign affairs officials decided in June 2021 to terminate the ROK-U.S. Working Group that had been discussing sanctions and other working-level matters associated with North Korea’s denuclearization. Korean authorities explained that both sides agreed with the criticism that the Working Group was impeding the positive development of inter-Korean relations.
The ROK-U.S. Working Group was launched in November 2018 as a bilateral consultative body on inter-Korean cooperation projects and sanctions against Pyongyang. But the group is on its way out after only two and a half years in operation. While it provided a convenient one-stop platform for discussions on sanctions against the regime, some criticized that it undermined inter-Korean relations. A case in point is the unsuccessful flu medication aid to North Korea. The plan fell apart while they were examining the possibility of Tamiflu-transporting trucks violating sanctions.
As an alternative, authorities mentioned a new consultative body composed of director-general level officials. Unlike the Working Group, which convened only when there was an issue to discuss, the new body is likely to be convened on a regular basis to coordinate comprehensive policies on North Korea. However, there are concerns that discussions by the new body would not be as effective as before since the organization is now downgraded to the director-general level.
One Koeran observer noted that noted that the ROK is like a medium-sized boat that is "maneuvering" to keep from getting blocked in by, or crushed between, other larger vessels operating in the same waters. In that sense, the ROK's Alliance with the United States is akin to that smaller boat following in the wake of an aircraft carrier. The arrangement works to the benefit of the Korean captain so long as he doesn't trail too close or drift too far away, and most important, as long as the aircraft carrier is going in the direction he wants it to go. South Korea is attempting to maneuver among the various powers in the region, and expand its role in the world at large. It cannot be certain whom to trust, or where its interests might run afoul of others in the future.
South Korea's sense of security, or insecurity, largely centers on its alliance with the United States. Although South Koreans want the security provided by a continued US presence on the Korean Peninsula, it comes with the powerful caveat that care be taken not to offend Korean pride in the process. It is precisely because the ROK must rely upon the US as a security guarantor that it is so prickly about acquiescing to "US demands" until a face-saving way can be found to accommodate US needs, while preserving their pride. The United States is usually seen as right, but too often as arrogant. For many Koreans, the mere perception of a demanding tone emanating from Washington harkens back to a time in modern Korean history that is now very fashionable to discredit.
Economic stability decidedly trumps military deterrence, far more than most Americans realize. Many Koreans question whether US intentions are truly aligned with Korean interests. Differences between Washington and Seoul are not just differences of perspective, but real differences of interest. What the ROK wants above all is peace, meaning no conflict with North Korea, and prosperity, meaning no collapse of the North either. According to some, the United States wants peace too, but would welcome a collapse of the North Korean regime. Similarly, preventing the proliferation of WMD is a top national security concern for the United States, but is not really South Korea's primary concern. But other Koreans argue the opposite -- that the United States could decide to "manage" a nuclear-armed North Korea, but that this was completely contrary to South Korea's strategic interests. As long as US interests are in alignment with the needs of South Korea, the Alliance will remain strong. It is thus important to South Koreans to divine the "true intentions" (bonshim) of the US Government.
The United States believes that the question of peace and security on the Korean Peninsula is, first and foremost, a matter for the Korean people to decide. Under the 1953 U.S.-R.O.K. Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States agreed to help the Republic of Korea defend itself against external aggression. In support of this commitment, the United States has maintained military personnel in Korea, including the Army's Second Infantry Division and several Air Force tactical squadrons. To coordinate operations between these units and the over 680,000-strong Korean armed forces, a Combined Forces Command (CFC) was established in 1978. The head of the CFC also serves as Commander of the United Nations Command (UNC) and U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).
Several aspects of the U.S.-R.O.K. security relationship are changing as the U.S. moves from a leading to a supporting role. In 2004 an agreement was reached on the return of the Yongsan base in Seoul--as well as a number of other U.S. bases--to the R.O.K. and the eventual relocation of all U.S. forces to south of the Han River. Those movements are expected to be completed by 2016. In addition, the U.S. and R.O.K. agreed to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Korea to 25,000 by 2008, but a subsequent agreement by the U.S. and R.O.K. presidents in 2008 has now capped that number at 28,500, with no further troop reductions planned. The U.S. and R.O.K. have also agreed to transfer wartime operational control to the R.O.K. military on December 1, 2015.
As Korea's economy has developed, trade and investment ties have become an increasingly important aspect of the U.S.-R.O.K. relationship. Korea is the United States' seventh-largest trading partner (ranking ahead of larger economies such as France, Italy, and India), and there are significant flows of manufactured goods, agricultural products, services and technology between the two countries. Major American firms have long been major investors in Korea, while Korea's leading firms have begun to make significant investments in the United States. The implementation of structural reforms contained in the IMF's 1998 program for Korea improved access to the Korean market and improved trade relations between the United States and Korea.
Building on that improvement, the United States and Korea launched negotiations on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) on February 2, 2006. On June 30, 2007, the United States and Korea signed a comprehensive FTA that would eliminate virtually all barriers to trade and investment between the two countries. Tariffs on 95% of trade between the two countries were to be eliminated within 3 years of implementation, with virtually all the remaining tariffs to be removed within 10 years of implementation; the FTA's chapters addressed non-tariff measures in investment, intellectual property, services, competition policy, and other areas.
In December 2010, President Barack Obama announced the successful resolution of outstanding issues in the agreement, which would eliminate tariffs on over 95% of industrial and consumer goods within 5 years; the agreement is currently awaiting ratification. The KORUS FTA is the largest free trade agreement Korea has ever signed, the largest free trade agreement for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992, and the United States’ first FTA with a major Asian economy. Economists have projected that the FTA will generate billions of dollars in increased trade and investment between the United States and the Republic of Korea, and boost economic growth and job creation in both countries.
During her October 2015 visit to Washington, US President Barack Obama asked South Korean President Park Geun-hye to speak out against China when it failed to abide by international norms and rules. The two leaders discussed their countries' policies on China during a meeting on 16 October 2015 at the White House.
Some Americans raised questions about Park's appearance at a military parade in China in September 2015, along with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Speaking at a joint news conference with Obama, Park explained she had attended the event to seek cooperation from China and Russia on North Korea. She said the North's nuclear program is a large threat to Northeast Asia as well as the world, and requires concerted efforts. She said she discussed the matter with Chinese and Russian leaders.
Obama said the US wants South Korea to have a strong relationship with China, just as the US wishes. He added Washington wants Beijing to cooperate in putting pressure on Pyongyang.
South Korea's rival parties were mixed in their response to the outcome of the summit. The ruling Saenuri Party noted the first adoption of a joint statement exclusively on North Korea. A spokesperson for the party said it showed Seoul and Washington have made North Korea's denuclearization a top priority.
The main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy was critical of the agreement. It said Presidents Park and Obama should have thought of more creative ways to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. The NPAD also said President Park should have done more to push Washington to overturn its refusal to transfer some key technologies needed for South Korea's fighter jet project, code-named KF-X.
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