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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.

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.

Korea-US Relations - Trump

During the 2016 US presidential campaign, Donald Trump was very critical of Americas military allies South Korea and Japan, accusing them of not bearing enough of the financial burden for forces stationed in their countries. Trump suggested he would pull troops and allow allies in the region to develop their own nuclear weapons if they did not agree to pay the US more for protection. He also denounced the U.S./South Korea free trade agreement as unfair to American companies and workers.

Trumps surprising election victory shocked and concerned many Koreans who were following the results. Most South Koreans were gravely concerned about Donald Trump becoming the next head of state of the US. A poll conducted by a Chinese daily newspaper shows that 93% percent of South Koreans said they preferred Clinton over Trump, the highest approval rating out of 7 countries surveyed. Based on Trump's controversial comments in the past, his administration may test the waters of the two countries' security cooperation.

Trump's stance on North Korea and its threat to peace and regional stability presents even more ambiguity. During the presidential race, Trump spoke out on North Korea, saying that he was willing to sit down for talks with the regime's leader Kim Jong-un. However, many analysts doubt he had a substantive policy line on Pyongyang. The chances of denuclearization on North Korea's part are low, as the regime's ultimate goal is to gain recognition as a nuclear state. The international community will not accept that, of course, so it is difficult to have meaningful negotiations in this situation. North Korea is actually following a schedule of its own. It will continue to pursue the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles that can attack America. So the friction on the peninsula won't decrease, it will intensify.

Dr. Kim Byoung-joo, the head of Seoul-based KL&P consulting, said Trump attacked the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement during his campaign. An agreement is an agreement, but it has been renegotiated once, but if it has to again, it will really send a negative message in terms of the image of the U.S., who may be a promise breaker.

The South Korean foreign minister said he expected the next U.S. government will stay on course and make sure the Seoul-Washington alliance will continue to pressure North Korea. Minister Yun Byung-se made the remarks at the National Assembly in a meeting with the ruling Saenuri Party.

US President-elect Donald Trump pledged his commitment to defending South Korea under an existing security alliance during a phone call with South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Thursday, her office said. Trump had said during the election campaign he would be willing to withdraw US military stationed in South Korea unless Seoul paid a greater share of the cost of the deployment. There are about 28,500 US troops based in South Korea in combined defense against North Korea. Trump said: We will be steadfast and strong with respect to working with you to protect against the instability in North Korea, the presidential Blue House said. The official newspaper of the Norths ruling Workers Party said on 10 NOvember 2016 the US wish for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program is only a fantasy of a bygone era.

A South Korean delegation returned from the United States 20 November 2016 after meeting with the transition team of President-elect Donald Trump. According to Seoul's deputy national security adviser Cho Tae-yong, who led that team, Washington was set to take a tough stance towards North Korea. Cho said the Trump team's stance towards the North doesn't differ much from that of the Obama Administration as Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons violates UNSC resolutions and goes against the international community. He described the 4-day discussions with Trump's key national security advisors "productive," as they focused on a Seoul-Washington alliance based on trust.

Trump indicated his intention to renegotiate what he considered unfair trade deals that put American industries at a global competitive disadvantage. After taking office in January he immediately pulled out of the multilateral Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, and U.S. trade officials are looking for ways to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA.) Trump also was highly critical of the US, South Korea bilateral free trade agreement (KORUS FTA) as a job killing deal that doubled our trade deficit with South Korea and destroyed nearly 100,000 American jobs."

The US Trade Representative (USTR) recommended reconsideration of the KORUS FTA due to the rising trade deficit between the South Korea and the US. The report noted that US exports to South Korea in 2016 were down $1.2 billion from 2011, the year before the free trade agreement went into effect, while imports of South Korean goods increased by $13 billion. If an emerging market does exactly what the IMF identifies as being the key steps they could take to prevent a financial crisis in their country, they will be the most likely to be targeted for currency manipulation charges by the US Congress.

Controversy raged in South Korea over Trump's mistaken assertion, made in April 2017 in a Wall Street Journal interview, that Korea actually used to be a part of China". In an interview with the Wall Street Journal held on 12 April 2017 [but reported 21 April], Trump described his recent summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said: He then went into the history of China and Korea. Not North Korea, Korea. And you know, youre talking about thousands of years and many wars. And Korea actually used to be a part of China. And after listening for 10 minutes I realized that its not so easy.

Cho June-hyuck, a spokesman of the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a briefing 20 April 2017, It is a clear historical fact recognized by the international community, which cannot by denied by anyone, that Korea was not a part of China over the past several thousands of years of history of Korea-China relations.

Donald Trump expressed strong determination 14 July 2017 to renegotiate the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement(FTA), calling the KORUS pact a horrible deal. He said that the U.S. had a bad deal with South Korea. He said the U.S. protects South Korea but is losing 40 billion dollars a year with Korea on trade. He then said Washington had just started negotiations with Seoul. But the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) did not call for a "renegotiation" of its free trade agreement with South Korea, when it requested a special Joint Committee meeting on the trade deal.

The U.S. chief delegate to talks with South Korea on renewing a cost-sharing deal for stationing U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula said 19 November 2019 that Seouls proposals were not responsive to the U.S. request for "fair and equitable burden sharing. James DeHart made the remark in a news briefing after wrapping up the third round of defense cost-sharing negotiations in Seoul. The meeting ended abruptly around an hour after the talks began at 10 am. The two-day talks began in Seoul were initially scheduled to continue until 5 p.m. Tuesday. DeHart said the U.S. delegation cut short the talks in order to give the Korean side some time to reconsider. He said he hopes to put forward new proposals that would enable both sides to work towards a mutually acceptable agreement in the spirit of their great alliance. The chief delegate added that the U.S. looks forward to resuming negotiations "when the Korean side is ready to work on the basis of partnership on the basis of mutual trust."

Washington reportedly demanded a five fold increase in Seoul's contribution, totaling some five billion dollars to cover expenditures related to the allies' combined military exercises and support for the U.S. troops' families. Under the current one-year Special Measures Agreement(SMA), set to expire on December 31, Seoul agreed to pay 1.04 trillion won or over 870 million dollars.

Donald Trump slammed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's black comedy "Parasite," which recently won four Oscars including best picture. During a rally in Colorado Springs on 20 February 2020, Trump began by asking, "By the way, how bad were the Academy Awards this year?" He continued by saying, "the winner is a movie from South Korea," adding, "We've got enough problems with South Korea with trade. On top of that, they give them the best movie of the year. Was it good? I don't know." He then said "Can we get 'Gone with the Wind' back, please? 'Sunset Boulevard'? So many great movies."

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Page last modified: 17-12-2020 20:15:14 ZULU