By Chad O’Carroll
When South Korea picks either a progressive or conservative leader next month, we will know the full extent of the impact of President Obama’s re-election on the next four years on the Korean peninsula. Whether Obama and the next leader of South Korea will be able to sustain the current momentum of the U.S. – Korea alliance remains an unanswered question. But while there is much to suggest that Obama is in an advantageous starting position to work on U.S.-Korea ties, there are nevertheless several areas of real concern as we move forward post the December election.
Having strengthened the U.S – Korea alliance and forged a close friendship over the past four years with President Lee Myung Bak, Obama has proven he has the ability to work well with even those at the opposite end of the South Korean political spectrum. Having signed off on the KORUS FTA and cooperated closely on major global issues, whoever takes power in South Korea this December will inherent an excellent relationship from Lee Myung-bak. However, as Ambassador Thomas Hubbard recently pointed out, political transitions can be difficult periods when it comes to U.S. – Korea relations.
If Park wins the election, her administration will inherit five years of tacit experience in working with the current White House, a great starting point to be sure. And while a progressive administration will be starting afresh with Obama, compared to a Romney victory they can at least benefit from an external working understanding of how the relationship has worked so far. However, there is always the risk that things could deteriorate from the status quo, especially when considering how important personal friendship has been to contributing to the success of U.S.-Korea relations of late.
What does an alliance look like when personal friendship is lacking? The case of Benjamin Netanyahu’s relations with Obama is a case in point, showing how tensions can emerge among allies when the personal relationships of the two leaders don’t chime. For Israel – U.S. relations, over the past four years seemingly impassable policy chasms have been accentuated by leaks, distrust and seemingly artificially created protocol issues. As a result, Obama is often obliged to reach out to the Israeli public in order to remind them that the U.S. is still committed to Israel’s security. While this is a strong example, it underscores the importance of mutual respect between leaders. Naturally, both Washington and Seoul will be eager to avoid a repeat of the acrimonious relations that Bush had with the late progressive president Roh.
Another trouble spot for U.S. – Korea relations circles around North Korea policy. With Obama likely feeling burnt by his last attempt to engage Pyongyang in the “Leap Day Agreement”, it is unclear how supportive the U.S. will be of the next South Korean administration’s North Korea policy. After all, all three Korean candidates are campaigning for increased inter-Korean engagement, with even the conservatives calling for comparatively radical initiatives such as the opening of liaison offices in Pyongyang. Here the problem comes down to how denuclearization is prioritized by South Korea when it comes to engagement. That’s because Obama may have a hard time reducing focus on the denuclearization of North Korea if he is to continue emphasizing his wider global non-proliferation strategy. As such, there is a risk that an incoming South Korean administration may wish to sequence this goal in a way that proves incompatible with Obama’s own policy positions.
An additional hurdle that could set back U.S. – Korea relations relates to Seoul’s domestic nuclear power infrastructure. The current U.S.-ROK nuclear energy agreement is due to expire in March 2014 and South Korea is now increasingly eager to make use of the spent fuel from its nuclear reactors. Having outlined a goal of processing the spent fuel through a capability known as pyroprocessing, South Korea hopes to potentially recycle fuel by using the transuranic elements in fast reactors. As the world’s sixth biggest exporter of nuclear power plants, South Korea has an understandable desire to close the nuclear fuel cycle – doing so will put it in an even better position to offer full range of nuclear services worldwide and attract additional contracts. However, if the ROK were to be allowed to develop a reprocessing facility there would be consequences for global non-proliferation regime and implications for the dismantling of the DPRK nuclear program. As such, it is a delicate issue that will require thoughtful diplomacy to resolve.
Although there are challenges ahead, it is important to remember that Obama is extremely popular in South Korea. Data in a recent opinion poll released by the German Marshall Fund shows that compared to ten years ago, public support for the U.S.-Korea alliance has doubled under Obama’s stewardship. As such, there will be a strong onus on the incoming president of South Korea to maintain the close and friendly ties that have characterized the past five years between Lee Myung-bak and Obama. Correspondingly, among the risks outlined there should still be cause for optimism.
Chad O’Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from art_es_anna’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.