Posted : 2008-09-08 17:30
Updated : 2008-09-08 17:30

McCain, Obama and Korea

By Andy Jackson

If nothing else, the U.S. presidential election offers a contrast on issues related to Korea, especially on U.S.-Korean trade and how to deal with North Korea.

Perhaps the most obvious difference is on trade as the candidates have staked out starkly different positions on the Korean-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA). Their positions are important because it looks increasingly likely that the next president will be charged with steering it through passage in the Senate.

McCain's position on the KORUS FTA is straightforward. He supports both bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements, and he specifically backs the Korea-U.S. agreement, saying that it will ``expand American exports and create American jobs.''

McCain's view on the FTA is also in keeping with his general policy of improving ties with Korea by ``emphasizing economic and security cooperation.''

While McCain's position on the agreement is clear, Obama's position is more nuanced.

Obama has said he would vote against it if it comes up for a vote in the U.S. Senate and would send it back to Korea if elected president. However, there is some hope that his threats are just election year talk.

Obama had expressed similarly strong negative feelings about the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, even going so far as to threaten to unilaterally ``opt out'' of the three-nation agreement during campaign stops in industrial states last February.

However, his senior economic advisor Austan Goolsbee assured Canadian officials in a private meeting on February 9 that Obama's rhetoric was ``more reflective of political maneuvering than policy."

When rumors of the meeting began circulating, Obama denied it, saying; ``Nobody reached out to the Canadians to try to assure them of anything.'' However, a leaked Canadian government memo confirmed that that the NAFTA discussion had taken place.

Has there been a similar private meeting with Korean officials to assure them of his future support the KORUS FTA? There is no way to know at this point.

We certainly could hope that Obama's rhetoric on the FTA is simply election-year pandering to part of his political base and that his position would ``mature'' after he gets into office, but that is a very slender hope to grasp for anyone supporting the free trade agreement.

The Lee Myung-bak administration has taken considerable political heat for its part in advancing the FTA, as did the previous Roh Moo-hyun administration. President Lee endured months of protests over the decision to reopen American beef imports, a decision that was made primarily with an eye towards securing American support for the FTA.

Pulling the rug out from under the Korean government after all the work and sacrifice that has gone into it would be a major blow to Korean-U.S. relations. McCain recognizes that and warned in May that that a ``partnership in a dangerous part of the world could be harmed by casting aside our trade agreement with South Korea."

The Candidates have staked out somewhat overlapping positions on North Korea's nuclear programs, essentially supporting a mix of negotiations and sanctions. Also, neither candidate has ruled out the use of force against North Korea.

However, there are significant differences between the candidates, especially on the structure of denuclearization talks and on how they view America's alliance with Korea and Japan.

The language used in the candidates' official reactions to the Bush administration's June agreement to take North Korea off of the list of state supporters of terrorism (in exchange for what has turned out to be an incomplete and unverified declaration of its nuclear programs) is illustrative of the divergence in their views.

McCain's statement mentioned the six-party agreement twice and noted in the first paragraph that he wanted to ``make sure we fully account for the legitimate concerns of our South Korean and Japanese allies as we move forward.'' McCain would work more closely with America's allies in the region on the North Korean nuclear problem and other issues than Bush recently has.

McCain also emphasized, in a May 27 Wall Street Journal column co-authored with Senator Joe Lieberman, the need to ``reinvigorate the trilateral coordination process with Japan and South Korea'' on the North Korean nuclear issue in order to maintain the trust of America's two allies in the six-party talks.

By comparison, Obama's statement on the June agreement reads as if the only two interested parties in the denuclearization talks are North Korea and the United States. It never mentioned the six-party agreement, South Korea or Japan (although it did tack a statement on working ``with our friends and allies'' in the last sentence).

That lack of mentioning either South Korea or the six-party talks in the statement was not an oversight but part of a policy of de-emphasizing America's traditional alliance structure in the region.

In previous statements Obama said he would meet with Kim Jong-il ``without preconditions," dismissed the six-party talks as ``ad hoc arrangements" and expressed a desire for ``direct and aggressive diplomacy" diplomacy with North Korea.

Given Obama's views on the KORUS FTA and his more go-it-alone approach to negotiations with Pyongyang, Seoul could be forgiven for wondering if an Obama presidency would offer a Jimmy Carteresque policy of supporting any foe and opposing any friend on the Korean Peninsula.

In comparison, McCain's support of the FTA and his view that American policy in Northeast Asia is best conducted in step with America's traditional allies in the region must be reassuring.

While President Lee Myung-bak is probably too polite and too politically savvy to endorse one of the candidates, there can be little doubt where his heart lies.

Andy Jackson teaches American government in the Lakeland College bridge program at Ansan College, Gyeonggi Province. He can be reached at
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