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The Peninsula

5 Important Issues for the New U.S. Ambassador to Korea

Published September 18, 2014
Category: South Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz & Phil Eskeland

With the expectation of the confirmation of Mark Lippert to be the United States’ next Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (South Korea), he will face a series of challenges and opportunities in his new role. In his prepared testimony and at his nomination hearing, Mr. Lippert rightly discussed the importance of major issues for the U.S.-Korea alliance and relationship. Because of his defense background and the military role of the U.S.-Korea alliance, he highlighted issues such as OPCON transfer, the downturn in Korea-Japan relations and its impact on U.S.-Korea-Japan trilateral cooperation, and the difficulty in dealing with North Korea as issues that he will focus on during his tenure as Ambassador to Korea. However, there are other issues in the relationship that Mr. Lippert will be called to work on as ambassador in order to help keep the U.S.-Korea alliance strong and active, both in the Northeast Asia region and around the globe.

1.)    People – to – People Connections

In his testimony he wisely mentioned people-to-people ties. While this is the duty for every Ambassador, it will be important for Mr. Lippert, especially early in his term.. He has an excellent background in foreign policy and Asia, but he might not be seen as having the direct connections and experience with Korea compared to his two immediate predecessors. By quickly getting out in the right forums, Mr. Lippert can overcome this perception.

Moreover, people-to-people connections are a major bond that holds the U.S.-Korea relationship together. Emphasizing shared values, dedication to education, and a desire to make a difference in the world will help remind people both in the United States and Korea about the importance of all types of people and organizations working together, not just government officials. This aspect will be especially important for programs that help make these connections, such as the Fulbright scholarship program and scholarships at universities for study abroad, are constantly in danger of reductions in funding.  Plus, with the rise of China and Korea’s desire for better bilateral relations with China, there are more opportunities now for South Koreans to study in China, work with Chinese companies, and learn about Chinese culture.  This dynamic is another reason why people-to-people connections will continue to be an important part of any new ambassador’s role.

2.)    Full Implementation of KORUS

Mr. Lippert will also have to balance between being a spokesperson and salesmen for the benefits of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), while advocating for U.S. companies that still encounter difficulties in penetrating the Korean marketplace. Implementation of KORUS was the first question he received during his hearing. Getting U.S. and Korean businesses to utilize the FTA as well as highlight success stories will be necessary. The slow rebound from the global economic financial crisis and the nature of trade make it difficult to have huge immediate affects from the agreement. However, as more companies begin to understand and work through the agreement, the easier it will be to demonstrate the benefits proponents predicted and refute arguments from naysayers.

Full implementation of the KORUS FTA will also be vital for encouraging South Korea to join the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations because Members of Congress will want to see progress on resolving issues in the U.S.-Korea trade relationship before voting on any new market opening agreement.

3.)    Reshaping the Alliance for the 21st Century

One of the goals of both governments in recent years has been to move the alliance beyond its original security architecture and develop it into a broad based global partnership, or 21st century alliance. The idea of transitioning the alliance to a global partnership goes back to the 2009 Joint Vision Statement and was reaffirmed in the 2013 Joint Declaration in Celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Alliance. While Mr. Lippert’s background is in security, working on new ways for the United States and Korea to cooperate on non-traditional issues such as energy security, climate change, human rights, and joint development cooperation will increasingly become a larger part of the alliance relationship. This will especially be the case as South Korea continues to expand its role in global affairs as a rising Middle Power.

4.)    Inter-Korea Relations

It is important for the two governments to continue to remain in-sync with respect to how far to engage with North Korea. Currently, there is strong support within the U.S. Administration for the “Trustpolitik” approach of President Park Geun-hye that seeks a middle ground between more openness with North Korea and more isolation. In addition, there is more attention being paid to the costs and benefits of unification of the Korean peninsula. However, many in the U.S.  Congress have reservations about the “strategic patience” policy of the U.S. with respect to North Korea.  These concerns, in part, led to the recent passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of legislation (H.R. 1771) to augment sanctions against North Korea. If North Korea tests a fourth nuclear devise or launches another long range missile, the U.S. Ambassador will be key in helping coordinate the responses of the respective governments to this provocation, particularly as it relates to inter-Korea relations.

5.)     123 Agreement

The current U.S.-Korea civilian nuclear 123 cooperation agreement was temporarily extended by Congress through March 19, 2016.  Next year will be a critical time to complete the negotiations in order to give time for Congress to review and approve the new agreement before the deadline.  The U.S. Ambassador can play a role in helping to bridge the understanding between those with non-proliferation concerns with those who want to permit nuclear reprocessing in Korea. Resolution of this issue is critical to buttressing the U.S.-ROK relationship.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs and Phil Eskeland is the Executive Director of Operations and Policy for the Korea Economic Institute of America.  The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo from Chuck Hagel’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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