'Allies need clear strategic vision'
By Kim Young-jin
Seoul and Washington, enjoying a heyday in relations, still have their work cut out for them to clearly define the future of the alliance while hammering out remaining key issues, analysts said Sunday.
Last week, the sides pulled closer than ever by agreeing to strengthen a missile shield to deter North Korea during high-level talks in Washington. It also saw the 10th anniversary of the death of two South Korean schoolgirls who were accidentally struck by a U.S. armored vehicle, an event that prompted a low moment in ties.
Following the talks, Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan sought to reframe the alliance, saying it had evolved beyond security to encompass “shared values” on global issues such as non-proliferation and climate change.
What is less clear is how the values will translate as Seoul pushes to rework bilateral agreements to increase its missile strike range and broaden nuclear energy capabilities to reprocess its own fuel rods.
“There is no denying that the U.S.-ROK relationship is at an all time high,” Victor Cha, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said during a recent statement to the U.S. House of Representatives.
“But one cannot make progress on these or other issues unless we embed them in a broader strategic framework designed to take the U.S.-ROK alliance to the next level.”
Echoing the foreign minister’s remarks, Cha suggested the sides reframe the alliance to have a more global scope and tackle international issues. As such, the analyst suggested, it is possible to advance on the nuclear issue by positioning Seoul to stand as an example of a responsible full-nuclear fuel cycle state.
Yoo Ho-yeol, an international relations expert at Korea University, said the alliance could also be framed as a regional lynchpin of security as North Korea attempts to cement its new leadership and China bolsters its economic and military clout. Washington recently announced it would center its foreign policy on the region. “The role of South Korea is getting more important in terms of Washington’s interests,” Yoo said.
Lee and Obama have been seen to be in lockstep during their terms and their close relationship has been on display in Seoul’s hosting of the G20 and Nuclear Security summits over the past two years. Analysts say that in addition to their shared vision, external factors such as Pyongyang’s deadly attacks in 2010 and Japan’s inward-looking policy have enhanced ties.
Recent opinion polls show that the majority of Koreans view the U.S. presence here favorably, a sentiment that the next president will take into account when shaping foreign policy. Cha said that while Lee’s successor would likely seek to “normalize” the tone of the alliance from its current peak the overall strategy would likely stay the same.
There will be a “little more talk about a balanced relationship. Perhaps a little more outreach to China, but not a major turn in strategy that we saw, for example, under (late former President) Roh Moo-hyun. Even progressives in Korea are aware of the public’s general affinity for the alliance.”
At least one U.S. lawmaker was on board for a new strategic vision.
“It is an opportunity for us to decide whether we shoot for the stars or embrace the status quo,” Rep. Donald Manzullo, a Republican from Illinois, said recently. “If we choose the path of the status quo, then we forfeit a tremendous opportunity to forge a lasting, mutually beneficial relationship for generations to come.”