Challenges and promise on the Korean Peninsula

ObamaLeeLOGO President Barack Obama and President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea walk together following a bilateral meeting at the Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 11, 2010.

Relations between the United States and South Korea today are stronger than ever, as reflected in President Barack Obama's recent announcement of his commitment with President Lee Myung-bak to ratifying the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) free trade agreement, the United States' largest free trade agreement since NAFTA. At the same time, the North Korean government's increasing aggressiveness amidst an impending leadership change in Pyongyang poses a serious challenge to the U.S.-South Korean longstanding alliance. Just one week after North Korea attacked the South Korean island of Yeonpyong, killing four people, Northeast Asia experts from the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (Shorenstein APARC) met in Seoul with scholars and former senior officials from the United States and South Korea to discuss the alliance, policy toward North Korea, and regional dynamics within Northeast Asia.

The Stanford scholars and experts visited Seoul in connection with two Shorenstein APARC initiatives by director Gi-Wook Shin, the Korea-U.S. West Coast Strategic Forum and the New Beginnings policy study group. Not surprisingly, their discussions focused on how to interpret and counter North Korea's recent heightened belligerence, including not only the Yeonpyeong attack but also the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel in March of this year with the loss of 46 sailors.

David Straub, associate director of Shorenstein APARC's Stanford Korean Studies Program, notes that this was the first time since the Korean War ended in 1953 that North Korea has attacked South Korean territory. "This [attack on Yeonpyeong Island] is something that frightened the South Koreans," he says, "It was unexpected and unprecedented. With North Korea moving toward putting Kim Jong-il's son in place as his successor, people in South Korea assume there is a lot of potential instability in the North and that this may be driving some of North Korea's actions. There is a lot of concern among the average South Korean now about what North Korea might do."

Shin initiated the West Coast Strategic Forum in 2006 to give greater voice to the many prominent Korea experts on the U.S. West Coast on Korea-related issues, and to serve as an ongoing forum for the exchange of views on issues of significance to the U.S.-South Korea alliance. This most recent meeting of the Forum was the fifth session. Strategic Forum workshops are held semi-annually, alternating between Stanford and Seoul. The Sejong Institute is Shorenstein APARC's Korean counterpart organization. In addition, American and Korean participants maintain frequent contact among themselves via telephone and e-mail, and they travel individually to each other's country on a regular basis to keep abreast of alliance developments.

The New Beginnings policy study group was established in 2008, after a decade of rocky U.S.-South Korea relations, with the promise of new presidential administrations in both countries. "We were optimistic that relations could be improved and wanted to contribute to that effort," says Straub. The ten members of New Beginnings, leading scholars and experts on Northeast Asian affairs throughout the United States, usually meet as a group for workshop discussions once or twice each year, and travel together occasionally for on-site discussions in Seoul, Washington, D.C., and New York. Shorenstein APARC has partnered with The Korea Society of New York City on this project. The group annually prepares a report for the U.S. administration with recommendations for strengthening its alliance with South Korea.

During the meetings in South Korea, discussions about the alliance focused, in part, on how to deter future attacks from North Korea, and how to better respond-individually and jointly-in the event of another assault. The intended ratification of the KORUS FTA was also discussed. According to Straub, the KORUS FTA is generally viewed favorably in South Korea and is likely to be ratified despite resistance from South Korea's opposition party. With South Korea's total future trade with China soon expected to amount to more than its combined trade with the United States and Japan, the FTA will not only significantly bolster U.S.-South Korea trade, it will also broaden and deepen the alliance relationship. "From a South Korean perspective it helps to maintain some balance in overall relations between the United States and China," states Straub, "It also serves as a precedent for South Korea's intended negotiations with other countries for free trade agreements. In the United States, President Obama has linked it to his plan to double export growth by 2015."

Shorenstein APARC plans to continue holding meetings of both the West Coast Forum and New Beginnings. "Even though overall government-to-government relations are at their best ever," says Straub, "there are continuing political divisions in South Korea on issues of importance to the relationship and North Korea's behavior is getting increasingly worse. We think that there is reason to continue the New Beginnings project for some time to come." In addition to better informing policymakers in the United States and South Korea, the meetings of the Forum and of the New Beginnings policy group strengthen the scholarship of the participants, and all public documents, including the annual reports to the U.S. administration, are published on the Shorenstein APARC website.