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2008/05/01 09:55 KST


South-North Korean Relations After the Rok-U.S. Summit

By Sang-Hyun Lee
Director of Security Studies Program, the Sejong Institute, South Korea

  South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. President George W. Bush held their first summit on April 19, 2008 at Camp David near Washington, D.C. During the summit, both presidents agreed to upgrade the ROK-U.S. alliance into a 21st century strategic alliance.

Major Achievements of the Summit at Camp David

  The summit's major achievements can be summarized in three areas. First, the summit reaffirmed defense cooperation between the two nations. In 2004, Korea and the U.S. began an alliance transformation that has involved realigning U.S. forces in Korea and relocating some of them from the peninsula. Since then, both Seoul and Washington have been in constant touch, reassessing both nations’needs and security situations through Future of the Alliance (FOTA) and Security Policy Initiative (SPI) meetings.

   At this summit, President Lee and President Bush agreed to maintain the current level of U.S. troops at 28,500, which is supposed to be reduced to 25,000 by the end of this year. At the same time, President Bush promised to ask the U.S. Congress to upgrade Korea's status in U.S. foreign military sales so that Korea has the same access to U.S. military technologies as members of NATO and other key allies. Signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on security improvements necessary for Korea to enter the visa waiver program is also a good sign for improved ROK-U.S. relations.

   Second, regarding the North Korean nuclear issue, both presidents reaffirmed that, together with China, Russia and Japan, Korea and the U.S. are pressing North Korea to fulfill its obligations to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Both presidents said that North Korea must fulfill its obligation to provide a full declaration of its nuclear programs and proliferation activities in a verifiable way. Particularly, President Bush clearly mentioned that his administration will judge whether North Korea has met its obligations to disable its reactor and account for its nuclear program and activities. In return, President Lee explained South's "denuclearization, opening and 3000 dollars" policy, and confirmed that the U.S. will support this vision.

   Third, both presidents talked about economic cooperation between the two nations. President Bush appreciated Korea's decision to reopen the Korean market to U.S. beef, saying this will be good news for both Korean consumers and U.S. beef producers. He also urged the U.S. Congress to reject protectionism, and to approve the free trade agreement with Korea this year.

   In summary, President Lee and Bush appeared very satisfied, and most analysts in Seoul believe that the alliance will improve dramatically in the coming years. Nevertheless, the summit's impact on South-North Korean relations is somewhat mixed at this moment. Currently, North Korea has shut down all dialogue channels with the South, and continues criticizing the Lee Myung-bak government's North Korea policy. Right now it seems inevitable to have a considerably lengthy period of stagnation in South-North interactions.

Key Aspects of the Lee Myung-bak Government's Pragmatic Diplomacy

   The inauguration of President Lee has brought about a sudden "euphoria" for better Korea-U.S. relations both in Seoul and Washington because Lee repeatedly emphasized the importance of the ROK-U.S. alliance during his presidential campaign. The Lee Myung-bak government's foreign and security policy is called "pragmatic diplomacy." Pragmatic diplomacy can include many things. Lee announced an "MB (Myung-bak) Doctrine" that includes the following goals for foreign policy: to promote strategic policies that will induce North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, and that will bring real change in the North; to practice a utilitarian foreign policy based upon the national interest, not ideology; to find a way to strengthen and improve the U.S. alliance based on a long tradition of friendly relations, common values and mutual benefit; to develop a new ROK-U.S. "strategic master plan," and so on.

   Key aspects of the Lee Myung-bak government's foreign and security policy will be revitalizing the ROK-U.S. alliance and solving the North Korean nuclear crisis. The new government's approach to the ROK-U.S. alliance is premised on the so-called "strategic alliance" that purports to cope with comprehensive security threats of the 21st century such as terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other transnational threats, in league with the U.S. It also envisions the alliance going well beyond the Korean Peninsula. As such, the strategic alliance has three components: (1) a values-oriented partnership based on the principles of democracy and the free market (2) an alliance that cultivates deeper trust through political, social, and economic interchanges and (3) teamwork that cooperates to promote both regional and global peace.

President Lee's North Korea Policy

  President Lee's North Korea policy can be found in his ambitious plan, "denuclearization, opening and 3000 dollars." In his inaugural speech on February 25, 2008, President Lee indicated that the South Korean attitude toward inter-Korean relations should be pragmatic, not ideologic. He reiterated his plan to provide assistance in order to raise the per capita income of North Korea to $3,000 within ten years if Pyongyang denuclearizes.

   Lee's "denuclearization, opening and 3000 dollars" approach to the North has three core principles. First, it requires more "strategic reciprocity" than the "Sunshine Policy." President Lee calls for carrying out a program of full-scale economic assistance and investment if the North first abandons its nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, Lee's administration would likely continue humanitarian aid even without denuclearization, if the North requested it.

   Second, it puts priority on the economic viability of inter-Korean economic cooperation. President Lee has stipulated that inter-Korean economic cooperation projects must be judged on their economic value and financial viability, and have the support of the South Korean people. This signals a much less sympathetic view, even of existing projects such as Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong, which depend on South Korean government subsidies.

   Third, it stipulates shifting priorities. In contrast to his predecessor, President Lee identifies the restoration of a robust ROK-U.S. alliance as his top priority and argues that inter-Korean relations can only develop if the alliance remains strong. His abortive proposal to dissolve the Unification Ministry, putting most of its functions within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, signaled that inter-Korean relations would no longer be the centerpiece of South Korean policy.

Vision of Strategic ROK-U.S. Alliance

   The Lee Myung-bak government's alliance vision and North Korea policy inevitably raise many concerns regarding South-North Korean relations. For instance, a value-oriented ROK-U.S. alliance will require both nations to speak in one voice about North Korea's human rights violations. Furthermore, Korea and the U.S. will cooperate to promote democracy and the market economy in North Korea in the long run, which Kim Jong-il interprets as attempts to crumble the whole North Korean regime and society.

   Likewise, a peace-promoting alliance vision will demand a much stricter stance regarding North Korea's nuclear issues, particularly the declaration of its nuclear program. The Bush administration believes that North Korea has long been involved in international proliferation activities at the cost of regional and global peace. Although the Roh Moo-hyun government was also aware of this, the Roh government did not take the same stance as the Bush team. In part, this was the reason for the awkward moment between the Bush and Roh administrations. The Lee government will more likely be in line with Washington's position in proliferation issues.

   Hence, a vision of a strategic ROK-U.S. alliance may impose additional burdens on the already strained South-North Koran relations in the near future. North Korea, after a long period of silence toward the South, began to show a harsh response to the South's new government. Indeed, North Korean words and deeds in reaction to the Lee government have already raised tensions on the peninsula. Many of the North's grievances have been directed personally at the new president. The situation, if prolonged and especially if it worsens, could escalate tension and undermine stability on the peninsula. That would hurt Lee's plans to increase economic growth and promote South Korea's global economic and diplomatic presence. Nevertheless, the Lee administration seems in favor of maintaining the status quo represented by the six-party talks and the existing level of South-North exchanges, unless and until North Korea denuclearizes.

South-North Relations After the Summit

  Right now North Korea seems to depend again on "Bypass the South, Dialogue with America" tactics, which brought some rewards to the North during the 1994 Geneva Agreed Framework. Now, the situation has changed and North Korea's policy of bypassing South Korea will have little chance of success as long as ROK-U.S. relations remain solid and stable.

   In order to cope with current predicaments, the Lee government must prioritize two approaches. First, South Korea and the U.S. should expand their common ground in their approach to North Korea. Regarding North Korea, the Lee government's priority should be on North Korean policy that goes well with the values and norms of international community, pursuing policies that can elicit enhanced reciprocity and transparency from North Korea. Although this will inevitably lead North Korea's antagonism toward both the South and the U.S., the Lee government must focus on policies that can change North Korea's negotiating tactics to comply to international norms and standards.

   Second, South Korea should fully utilize its leverage toward the North. In particular, economic cooperation projects between the two Koreas, including Kaesong and Mt. Kumgang, are good starting points. North Korea's dire economic situation provides one of the few levers to move North Korea to cooperate in attempts by the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia to halt and dismantle its nuclear program. As of November 2007, over 50 medium-sized South Korean companies were using North Korean labor to manufacture products at Kaesong, employing around 20,000 workers. Although the complex was planned, developed, and financed largely by South Korea, it has become a symbol of the growing level of engagement between the North and the South. Along with the Mt. Kumgang tourism project, Kaesong represents one of the important channels through which North Korea earns hard currency. By controlling the pace and progress in these economic cooperation projects, the South can hope to induce North Korea's policy changes in nuclear issues.

   Although the prospects are not good in the short term, the Lee government should do its best to break through the current difficulties in South-North relations. If current tensions are prolonged, deterioration of South-North Korean relations may elicit domestic critique to Lee's North Korea policy. Even though it may be the case, the Lee government should consider such a setback as a temporary adjustment period in the process of reorienting South-North relations onto the right track. Such patience will eventually benefit sound inter-Korean relations in the long run.