Sneider: Cautionary lessons for U.S.-Korea relationship

%people1%, associate director for research at Shorenstein APARC, gives a few cautionary lessons on U.S.-Korea relations.

Earlier this month I visited Seoul as a member of “New Beginnings,” a study group of former American policymakers and experts on Korea, co-organized by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford, and The Korea Society. We formed this group last year, anticipating that the upcoming Korean elections and the American presidential elections afterwards would offer an opportunity to embark upon a “new beginning” in our alliance.

After several days of meetings in Seoul, most importantly with President-elect Lee Myeong-bak and his senior advisors, we came away convinced that our hopes for a “new beginning” were more than justified. As President Lee takes office, it is clear that his administration is deeply committed to restoring the alliance to its previous place as the foundation of Korean foreign and security policy. Equally important, the new government is focused on the need to boost economic growth based on the free flow of trade and investment, and sees the conclusion of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States as central to that goal.

For those of us who have long argued that a vibrant Korea is vital to America’s interests, these were welcome words. It is no secret that there was a perception in the United States that President Roh Moo-hyun, backed by a significant portion of the Korean people, no longer saw the alliance as a strategic imperative for Korea. Unfortunately, many Americans, particularly in Congress, had begun to share this view of the alliance, fueled by a mistaken belief that Koreans were “anti-American.”

This view of President Roh and of Korea was unfair and even distorted. President Roh deserves credit, particularly in the last two years, for taking important steps to improve alliance relations, not least his promotion of the negotiation of the FTA. He made unpopular decisions, such as the dispatch of troops to Iraq, in order to preserve a cooperative atmosphere. And as we saw demonstrated in the election, public opinion in Korea regarding the United States has shifted dramatically since the emotional days of 2002.

The Lee administration can anticipate a warm greeting in Washington, as is already clear in the preparations for his visit next month. The new President has sounded all the right notes – seeking closer cooperation on North Korea policy, restoring positive ties with Japan, America’s other vital ally in Northeast Asia, and building a broader strategic partnership with the U.S. beyond the Korean peninsula.

Amidst the renewed embrace of the alliance, it is worth however keeping a few cautionary lessons from the past in mind:

1. Not everything will be Smooth Sailing

Despite the welcome official rhetoric, it is no secret that the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea has never been entirely smooth. From its earliest days, born out of Korea’s liberation and the trials of the Korean War, the alliance has been marked by both close cooperation and by clashes over key policy goals. While bound together by strategic necessity, the national interests of Korea and the United States have not always been identical.

There is nothing unusual about such differences among allies. Look for example at the tensions that plagued U.S.-European relations over the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. Even with the best of intentions, there will be moments of conflict between Seoul and Washington. What is important is how governments manage those differences to protect the underlying relationship. Both Koreans and Americans need to remember the virtues of quiet diplomacy, trying to avoid negotiating their differences through the media.

2. All politics is local

Alliance relations can no longer be managed solely by diplomats or by friends meeting behind closed doors. Those ties are crucial but both Korea and the United States are democracies in which the issues that are at the core of the relationship – from trade to the alignment of military forces – are matters of public discussion. Domestic politics shapes policy decisions but both Koreans and Americans sometimes forget the pressures operating on the other side.

This is particularly important in an election year. The Korean National Assembly election in April is already having an impact, delaying ratification of the FTA. The U.S. election will mean FTA ratification by the U.S. Congress this year may be impossible. Presidential candidates are taking positions that they may adjust after gaining power. On another level, the new government in Seoul needs to remember that the Bush administration is a lame duck affair and begin to prepare for a new government in Washington.

3. Expect the Unexpected, particularly with North Korea

The limited progress on the nuclear negotiations with North Korea has temporarily brought closer coordination between Korea and the US. But it would be foolish to assume that this trend will necessarily continue. The negotiations are already facing a slowdown as negotiators grapple with much tougher problems. If they break down, both Seoul and Washington, along with their other partners in the 6-party talks, will face some hard questions about how to respond. Any attempt to pressure Pyongyang is likely to bring an escalatory response, not least to test the new government in Seoul.

It is possible that Seoul and Washington will once again be somewhat out of synch. Ironically, the Bush administration – and whatever follows it -- may favor greater concessions than the new administration in Seoul would prefer to make.

These differences are manageable. The key is real policy coordination between the US and Korea – and the inclusion of Japan in a revived trilateral coordination mechanism. If both sides keep that commitment, we will indeed have made a “new beginning” in our alliance.

Daniel Sneider is the Associate Director for Research at Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. A former foreign correspondent, Sneider covered Korea for the Christian Science Monitor.