By Troy Stangarone
As the United States and South Korea begin celebrations of 60 years of the U.S.-Korea alliance, President Park Geun-hye arrives in Washington, DC for her first summit meeting with President Barack Obama at a time of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula. In recent months, North Korea has dominated the news, and U.S.-Korea relations, as it has conducted a third nuclear test, withdrawn from the Korean War armistice, effectively shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and increased its rhetoric to new levels. While addressing the challenges of North Korea will be central to the discussions between Park and Obama, it is not the only issue for the two leaders to discuss.
With relations between the United States and South Korea are at an all-time high, Park and Obama will discuss ways to continue the close cooperation the United States and South Korea have enjoyed in recent years. In the run up to this week’s meetings, both sides addressed one of the major issues confronting U.S.-Korea relations by agreeing to extend the two sides’ civilian nuclear cooperation agreement for two years. With the Park government and the second Obama administration only slowly coming into shape, buying time to further discuss issues such as South Korea’s request to reprocess spent nuclear fuel represents a prudent first step.
On the economic front, both sides will have plenty to discuss. With the KORUS FTA in place, both countries will continue to discuss ways to ensure that the agreement is fully utilized by both sides. To this end, Park is arriving in Washington with the largest business delegation of any prior Korean president to continue expanding U.S.-Korea economic cooperation. At the same time, Park will likely raise Korean concerns over the KORUS FTA’s dispute settlement mechanism and continue to press for Korea to receive an increase in professional visa’s to help spur additional economic cooperation. While the United States will seek South Korea’s participation in the growing Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade talks.
Also on the agenda will be the future role of the alliance. In 2009, the United States and South Korea released a Joint Vision statement outlining areas of regional and global cooperation. With the new administration in Seoul, discussions will center on how to further strengthen cooperation and the Park administration’s proposal of a Seoul Process to build trust and cooperation in Northeast Asia.
However, North Korea will present the most immediate challenge. Recent weeks have seen both the United States and South Korea transition from a period of deterring North Korea’s provocations to opening the door for further engagement with Pyongyang. Discussions will likely center on South Korea’s proposals for engaging North Korea in a trust building process and how best the United States can support South Korea’s leading role in engaging Pyongyang.
While summit meetings are often action forcing events, the first meeting is often more about developing a strong working relationship and setting a course for the years ahead. As Obama and Park hold their first formal meeting, they will look to build upon the strong working relationship that has existed between the United States and Korea in recent years and chart a course for the years ahead.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute of America.
Photos from Cheong Wa Dae and White House.