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The Peninsula

A New Type of Korean Leadership in the Midst of Continued U.S. Preeminence

Published October 14, 2011
Author: Sarah Yun
Category: South Korea

By Sarah K. Yun

During the Joint Session of Congress on October 13, President Lee Myung-bak told the epic tale of Korea’s journey from war to peace, and poverty to prosperity; a tale in which he has very much shared in his own personal life. While thanking Congress for the ratification of the KORUS FTA, President Lee talked about the need for continued U.S. leadership and Korea’s growing role on the world stage.

With China’s rise and the global financial crisis, many have begun to question the United States’ leadership and its ability to lead. Contrary to this, President Lee focused on the need for the United States to continue to play a leadership role in the challenges faced by the global community, especially if Northeast Asia is to play a constructive role in the global community. He stated that:

“Northeast Asia today is a more dynamic region than ever. And economic change in this region brings geopolitical change. It brings shifts in the balance of power that has long prevailed. The United States, as a key player of the Asia Pacific region and as a global leader, has vital interests in Northeast Asia… And your leadership that has ensured peace and stability of Northeast Asia and beyond the 20th century must remain supreme in the 21st century.”

This explicit statement in front of the Joint Session of Congress is significant in declaring that its staunchest and most important partner remains the U.S., not China as many believe will be in the future.

President Lee may have had two reasons for declaring support for U.S. leadership in the region. First, he wanted to send a clear and strong signal to the North Koreans and the Chinese, especially in light of North Korea’s changing attitude towards dialogue and engagement, as well as its growing political and economic ties with China. Second, he wanted to send a clear signal of strength to Americans and his domestic constituents in South Korea as both countries enter an election year in 2012. Highlighting the accomplishments from the alliance and reaffirming Korea’s support for U.S. leadership sends a strong message that, while the balance of power may change in Asia, the values and principals under which peace and security have be maintained should remain.

While the alliance has been imperative to both nations and the KORUS FTA will bring new economic benefits, President Lee also alluded to Korea’s unique path to leadership. To effect, he stressed Korea’s commitment to low carbon, green growth, and international development. He also emphasized the unique role education has played in Korea’s success. This allowed President Lee to show Korea as more than a faithful ally of the United States, but as a leader in its own right with a vision for a “Global Korea.”

Indeed, the relationship and friendship of the United States and the Republic of Korea is intricately and critically interwoven. As President Lee stated, the “alliance will grow and evolve… and it will prevail.” While saluting U.S. leadership and the U.S.-ROK alliance, President Lee’s speech also indicated South Korea’s desire to pave its own style of leadership. In recent years, Korea has emerged on the global stage and shown a willingness to act as a responsible stakeholder. From its own experience, Korea is able to be empathetic to poverty and need. Therefore, it now has a moral responsibility to give back to developing parts of the world. Perhaps this is the new and unique Korean leadership that President Lee Myung-bak is paving the way for.

Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo: Official Speaker of the House Photo

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