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The Peninsula

U.S.-Korea Relations: Let’s Maintain the High Standard

Published October 30, 2012
Category: South Korea

By Thomas C. Hubbard

Nearly five years ago, when Lee Myung-bak had just been elected President of Korea, I participated in a study group sponsored by Stanford University and The Korea Society aimed at drawing up a blueprint for a “New Beginning” in U.S.-Korea relations. The goal was to help the new administrations coming into power in both countries restore a sense of well-being to an alliance that was perceived to be adrift after five years of sometimes contentious stewardship by the conservative administration of George W. Bush in Washington and progressive administration of Roh Moo-hyun in Korea.  At the time we didn’t know who would be the next President of the United States, but we worried that public attitudes toward the alliance were at a low point in both countries and knew that our new leaders needed to rebuild a sense of common purpose if we were to deal with pressing issues such as North Korea and the modernization of our military ties and achieve ratification of the Free Trade Agreement negotiated by the Roh and Bush Administrations.  Presidents Lee and Obama more than fulfilled our hopes and expectations. Despite coming from different ends of the political spectrum, they projected a positive tone for the relationship from the outset.

As a result of their leadership, we all agree that the alliance is stronger today than ever before. President Obama and other U.S. leaders consistently refer to Korea as one of our most important allies and we often talk about a new strategic partnership. President Lee has likewise worked hard to develop his relationship with President Obama despite taking some hits at home over such issues as beef imports. Although some oppositionists still complain about the FTA, U.S.-Korea relations are not a significant issue in the Korean election campaign.  One might argue that the North Koreans helped bring us together through outrageous acts such as nuclear tests and unprecedented attacks on South Korean ships and naval vessels. Indeed the convergence of our views on North Korea, the best I’ve seen in two decades of dealing with this problem, is central to the health of our relationship, but there are a number of other factors bringing us closer together. At a time when many Americans are concerned about China and frustrated with Japan’s leadership vacuum, Washington’s relationship with Seoul has been valued as a welcome source of strength and stability. Americans admire Korea’s economic and democratic success and its willingness to take a leadership role in the world. Among other things, we are gratified to see the Korean President chair the G-20 and Nuclear Security Summit and, most recently, volunteer to host the global Green Climate Fund in a new state-of-the art city.

As Koreans and Americans vote this year, the challenge before us is not how to achieve a “new beginning” but, rather, how to maintain the high standard set by Presidents Obama and Lee for smooth and productive ties. This is no easy task.  Transitions are often a difficult period in U.S.-Korea relations, and this transition could be doubly so if we wind up with new administrations in both countries at the same time.  Many of us remember with some pain the difficult early meetings between Kim Young-sam and Bill Clinton, Kim Dae-jung and George W. Bush, and Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush.  Miscommunications at the Summit level can be overcome, but only with time and hard work. So my first bit of advice to the incoming administrations is to prepare well for the first Summit. It can be a mistake to rush the process.

My second bit of advice to both sides is to try to avoid posing litmus tests to each other in the early days of new administrations.  President Clinton wanted Kim Young-sam to support his “comprehensive” approach to North Korean denuclearization before the Korean President was prepared to accept the political consequences of a U.S. lead in dealing with North Korea. The reverse occurred when President Kim Dae-jung, who insisted on meeting with President Bush within weeks of his inauguration, was deeply embarrassed when the U.S. President was not yet prepared to endorse his Sunshine policy. It took years to get over this miscommunication and return to a common track on North Korea.  Judging from their campaign statements, all of the Korean Presidential candidates appear to be looking for new beginnings with North Korea, in hopes of overcoming the confrontational atmosphere that has prevailed under the Lee Myung-bak Administration. That is probably a laudable aspiration, one that should be supported by the United States if denuclearization remains a central objective.  However, our leaders may need to allow each other a little slack in the post election period.  Experience suggests that we will consult very closely if we are to stay on the same song sheet during political transitions.

Finally, the FTA, signed under Bush and Roh and ratified under Lee and Obama, is a wonderful legacy of two administrations in both countries. It represents a powerful new element in our strategic relationship, but it is also a trade agreement that must be made to work to our mutual economic benefit. That means that American businesses must take advantage of the opportunity to expand exports of goods and services to Korea.  It also means that both sides must fulfill the letter and spirit of the agreement. We must trust that the backsliding we have begun to see in some areas will be only a passing figment of the Korean election campaign.

It is clear that our two countries need each other in today’s complex world, and I have every hope that the upcoming elections will produce leaders who, like Lee Myung-bak and Barack Obama, respect each and understand the importance of the relationship.

Thomas C. Hubbard is Senior Director for Asia at McLarty Associates and Chairman of The Korea Society. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 2001 to 2004. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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