There were fears that the departure of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak would mark a deterioration of relations between his country and its security ally, the United States. While his successor, Ms. Park Geun-hye, is a fellow conservative, her approach to key issues and her priorities were likely to differ.
Moreover, a series of issues had proven too contentious to settle and they threatened to roil the alliance. Finally, some worried that the U.S.-South Korea relationship had reached its high-water mark and was just too good to sustain.
Yet her first visit to the U.S. as South Korea’s leader, made earlier this month, can only be described as a triumph. Ms. Park had a good meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.
In addition to the usual fare — mutual applause for each counterpart and affirmations of their partnership and alliance — the body language between the two leaders demonstrated an ease and engagement that are the starting point for a strong bilateral relationship.
The decision to go to the U.S. for her first overseas trip as president was intended to signal continuity in Seoul despite the change at the Blue House. While some worried that Ms. Park’s policy toward North Korea — she is thought to favor more engagement with Pyongyang — might undermine Mr. Obama’s “strategic patience,” the U.S. president described her approach as “very compatible” with Washington’s policy.
The prospect of a clash between the two countries has been diminished by North Korea’s own ham-fisted behavior: Rather than courting the new president to encourage her to take a softer line, Pyongyang insulted and tested Ms. Park even before her inauguration. That series of provocations has made alignment between Washington and Seoul even easier.
After the meeting, Ms. Park delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress, the fifth South Korean president to be afforded that honor. She hit all the right notes in that address, thanking Congress for its support of her country, affirming the alliance and the friendship that is “second to none,” and pledging never to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. Her reception by Congress was described as “rapturous,” with her remarks repeatedly interrupted by applause.
North Korea has made the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korea alliance much easier. Its threats and provocations have reminded the publics in both countries of the meaning and importance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Pyongyang’s continuing misbehavior will only strengthen that bilateral partnership.
That’s fortunate, given some of the issues that the two governments must deal with. First, there is the once-postponed transfer of control of wartime command of forces (usually referred to as OpCon) from the U.S. to South Korea that is scheduled for 2015. Some South Koreans fear that this is cover for U.S. disengagement from the defense of South Korea, forgetting that the process was launched by a South Korean government.
While there are grounds to be concerned — particularly about the signal that might be sent in a crisis — this transfer is well in train and a change in plans would undermine readiness and command and control.
The second problem concerns burden sharing within the alliance. This is a set of perennial issues that range from host nation support and procurement decisions to defense policy. More than just money is involved.
For example, Seoul has been determined to acquire weapon systems that the U.S. fears are duplicative, not especially cost effective, or of questionable utility against a North Korean threat. At a time of increasingly tight budgets, Washington wants to ensure its allies are spending defense dollars and pursuing roles, missions and capabilities that make sense for an alliance. Japan faces similar challenges.
The final and most contentious issue is the civilian nuclear energy agreement. Concerned about running out of storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel and worried about the viability of its nuclear exports, Seoul wants the U.S. to agree to South Korea’s possession of capabilities to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. Washington is adamantly opposed, insisting that this would send the wrong signal at the time that it is trying to tighten the global nonproliferation regime.
The two governments have agreed to kick the can down the road by postponing a final decision for two more years while they conduct a joint study. That agreement merely buys them time: A final decision remains difficult. In the nuclear negotiations, South Korea has insisted that it should be treated like Japan, which has been allowed to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, and not like Iran. That is a good point.
It also underscores the significance of Japan for South Korea — Seoul uses Tokyo as its benchmark in many cases. And indeed, that makes sense, given the many similarities shared by our two countries — values, interests and geopolitical setting.
We only hope that Ms. Park will take Japan into consideration in other ways and devote as much energy to building a strong relationship with Tokyo as it does with Washington.