By Troy Stangarone
It has generally been acknowledged that the U.S.-Korea alliance is at an all time high. At a time of rising international challenges from the 2008 global financial crisis to enhanced efforts to secure nuclear materials, Korea has played an increasingly prominent role on the global stage and become a key partner for the United States. Despite all of the progress the two sides have made in recent years, elections for the National Assembly in Korea on April 11th will likely be the firsts of a series of turning points over the next year that could reshape the alliance.
Over the next nine months, three critical elections will take place which will impact how U.S.-Korea relations evolve in the coming years. While the United States will hold presidential and Congressional elections in November, and Korea will vote for its next president in December, the National Assembly elections will come first and begin to indicate the potential directions of change.
Only a few months ago, the general consensus was that the opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) would cruise to a significant victory in the National Assembly. The ruling Grand National Party, now the New Frontier Party (NFP), had lost a snap Seoul mayoral election in October to political novice Park Won-soon and despite the poor performance by the DUP trends seemed to be moving in the direction of progressives. However, with six months being an eternity in politics, recent polling data from the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and other outlets indicates that the two parties are virtually tied and that the balance of power in the National Assembly will be held by smaller parties.
It is unclear if a coalition government in the National Assembly will work as smoothly as the Conservative-Liberal coalition in the United Kingdom or the minority Conservative government that ruled Canada until recently. Instead, there is a chance that without a working majority, either party might be pulled to the extremes by its coalition partner. The most likely outcome would be the DUP needing votes from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to create a working majority. With the DPP being firmly against the KORUS FTA, it could push a DUP minority government in the National Assembly to take harder line positions on the agreement than it might otherwise want.
Adding to the complicated picture is the chance that liberal parties could end up in control of the legislature while the conservatives win the Blue House in the fall. While the parties have yet to nominate their candidates, Park Geun-hye of the NFP is the likely leading candidate, with political novice and independent Ahn Cheol-soo potentially another strong contender.
What will these, and changes in the United States later this year mean for the alliance? One potential outcome is something similar to what has become of the U.S.-Japan alliance in recent years. After reaching a high tide with the personal relationship between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and President George W. Bush, the relationship cooled as politics became more complicated in Japan and that warm personal relationship was removed from the equation.
One of the current strengths of U.S.-Korea relations is the close personal tie between President’s Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak, who is perhaps President Obama’s closest ally abroad. Even should Obama be reelected, the nature of the relationship with a new president in Korea will likely change. Add in the likelihood of political gridlock in the National Assembly impacting U.S.-Korea issues, and one could see something similar to what happened in Japan occurring in Korea.
A second potential outcome could be an alliance where both parties seek to emphasize new interests. Regardless of who wins the presidential elections in the United States, the emphasis on the Asian pivot will likely remain. However, much of its focus to date has been on South Asia rather than Northeast Asia. At the same time, progressive forces in Korea could seek to move away from the heavy level of cooperation with the United States and seek greater balance in Korea’s relations with other nations. Under this scenario, while the United States and Korea would remain cordial allies, the current level of coordination and cooperation would likely be scaled back.
Another factor will be who wins the U.S. and Korean presidential elections. One of the strong aspects of the current relationship is the close level of coordination between the United States and Korea on North Korea policy. However, even Park Geun-hye and other conservatives have indicated a new approach to North Korea may be needed. If Mitt Romney were to win the presidency, there could be a push for a more hard-line policy in the United States at the same time Korea sought to go another direction.
From the Korean side, should Ahn Cheol-soo decide to run for the presidency and win, he could create a completely unknown dynamic. While he continues to flesh out his political philosophy, he has indicated a desire to move beyond ideological politics. How this would translate in practicality is unclear. Alternatively, he could serve as a kingmaker endorsing the progressive candidate of his choice much as he did in the Seoul mayoral election.
Whoever wins the elections on April 11th, or later this fall, the nature of the relationship will begin to change. Each of the parties will bring new interests and new perspectives on the alliance. This will not necessarily be a bad thing. Alliances grow and evolve over time. While the Roh Moo-hyun years were often contentious, they were also highly productive years in terms of negotiating the KORUS FTA and restructuring the security aspects of the alliance. That being said, U.S.-Korea relations will soon begin transitioning from the close relationship of the last few years to a more normal alliance.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director of Congressional Affairs and Trade for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
Image from Jens-Olaf’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.