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The Peninsula

U.S.-Korea Relations: The Obama Years

Published January 19, 2017

By Troy Stangarone

Summing up a presidential legacy is a complex endeavor. There are countless details that are either unknown or just too difficult to fit into the flow of a single piece. There are choice that in the immediate term may seem wise, but in the hindsight of years less so. While mistakes today may come to be viewed as prudent years on. This is even more the case when it deals with only a single aspect of one part of the presidency, the relationship between the United States and the Republic of Korea. A relationship that while vibrant and strong, is also inevitably tied to both countries’ relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

For the last eight years, we’ve seen a relationship that has grown beyond the Cold War confines of the threat from North Korea and that has begun to evolve into more of a partnership that works together both in the region and on the global stage. This shift was possible in large thanks to the relationship that the Obama administration inherited and the partners they had to work with in South Korea under the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations.

When President George W. Bush handed U.S.-Korea relations over to President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, he handed over an alliance that was in good shape. While the relationship between the United States and South Korea had been rocky at times during the early years of the Bush administration, even during those difficult times progress was made on the alliance. As a result President Obama inherited an alliance that was already growing and changing as Bush administration left a legacy of a completed but unratified free trade agreement with South Korea (KORUS FTA), and agreements to move U.S. Forces Korea from Seoul to Camp Humphreys near Pyongtaek and to transfer wartime control of South Korean forces back to the South Korean government.

Over the last eight years, the Obama administration has built on the foundations of the alliance it inherited. While the alliance remains rooted in the United States’ commitment to defend South Korea against North Korean aggression, the Obama administration has worked with South Korea to move the alliance beyond deterring North Korea. Perhaps most critically in this was the administration’s support for Lee Myung-bak administration’s efforts to see South Korea contribute more to the global community. As part of these efforts, the Obama administration supported Seoul’s efforts to host the G-20 leaders summit in 2010 and asked South Korea to host the second Nuclear Security Summit as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to enhance global nuclear security.

Beyond summits, the Obama administration has sought to increase cooperation with South Korea in a wide range of areas that are now referred to as the New Frontier issues and include areas such as cyber security, climate change and global health. As an example, in the area of global heath South Korea worked with the United States and other nations to deal with the Ebola outbreak in Africa in 2014.

In the economic relationship, the Obama administration engaged South Korea in additional negotiations to address concerns related to trade in autos with the KORUS FTA. After reaching an agreement, the KORUS FTA went into effect on  March 15, 2012. The administration also negotiated a new 123 agreement to continue civilian nuclear cooperation between the United States and South Korea.

At the core of the alliance, defense cooperation, the administration has proceeded and largely concluded the efforts begun by the Bush administration to move U.S. troops from Seoul to Camp Humphreys. It also updated the decision to transfer wartime operational control to South Korea by moving the agreement from a deadline based transition to a conditions based agreement that would implement the transition only once South Korea has developed the intelligence and command infrastructure necessary to undertake operational control of forces.

If the relationship with South Korea has been a boon for Obama, than it is the relationship with North Korea where the long eye of history may have more to say in the years to come. While he inherited a North Korea that had already tested a nuclear weapon, North Korea has gone on to conduct four additional nuclear tests during his time in office and he will pass along to the Trump administration a much more dangerous North Korea than he inherited.  Many have criticized the Obama Administration’s “strategic patience” approach, but alternatives are limited if the goal is a denuclearized North Korea within a short time span.  There may have been other tools that the Obama Administration used over the past eight years that are not in the public domain to prod change in North Korea that only time and change in North Korea may tell.

Much as in the case of South Korea, leadership has likely played a role in the deteriorating situation with North Korea. If President Obama was fortunate to have willing partners in South Korea, the death of Kim Jong-il left a much more aggressive Kim Jong-un in charge of North Korea. While Kim Jong-il famously slapped away Obama’s inaugural offer of talks, it is unclear if diplomacy could have played much of a role in convincing Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program.

Shortly after Kim Jong-un came to power, the Obama administration negotiated a moratorium on missile launches that North Korea would soon violate and despite efforts by the Park Geun-hye administration in South Korea to build relations with North Korea Kim Jong-un instead chose to greet her administration with confrontation through an ICBM test, a nuclear test, and the withdrawal of North Korean workers from the joint North-South industrial complex in Kaesong. It is perhaps telling that a U.S. administration that, despite domestic opposition, negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and reopened relations with Myanmar and Cuba found North Korea an unwilling partner for improving relations.

With the path to negotiations closed the administration instead pursued a course of increasing pressure on North Korea. It’s perhaps most significant achievement on this end was the development of increased cooperation with China on sanctions in the United Nations. While the robust sanctions negotiated after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January of 2016 were found to have been flawed, those sanctions were revised after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test to close loopholes and being to bring real pressure on North Korea.

In addition to international sanctions, the administration took advantage of new sanctions authorities granted to it by Congress, though perhaps reluctantly and not to the degree critics of the administration might have hoped. Perhaps most significantly on this front, the administration has sanctioned both Kim Jong-un and his sister personally for their roles in human rights violations in North Korea.

Perhaps the last legacy item for the Obama administration in regards to North Korea has been its efforts to increase the deterrent capabilities of the alliance. It reached an agreement with South Korea to expand the range of South Korean missiles to allow Seoul to be able to target any area of North Korea and to help facilitate its “kill chain” concept of being out to take out North Korean nuclear facilities prior to an imminent attack. On the more controversial side, it also worked with Japan to develop new defense guidelines that would allow Japan to play a more active role if the U.S. were to come under attack and which would also aid in a contingency on the Korean peninsula and for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to protect parts of South Korea against North Korean missile attacks.

For President Obama it will be a strong legacy he leaves with South Korea, a nation that he visited more often than all but France, the UK, Germany, and Mexico and developed close personal relationships. It is North Korea where time may judge him more harshly, or depending on the actions taken by Kim Jong-un and the Trump administration come to view him as prudent. By his own standards, President Obama has done well.  He once described his foreign policy philosophy as looking for singles and doubles, and “don’t do stupid s@#%.” By that standard, President Obama has managed U.S.-Korea relations well. He’s made progress on a range of issues and avoided serious mistakes, and despite challenges presented by North Korea, he stands to hand the alliance over to his successor, Donald Trump, much as President George W. Bush did to him, in good shape.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from The White House’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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