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Strengthening South Korean Ties

Interviewee: Scott A. Snyder, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Korea Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
June 17, 2009

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Less than a month following North Korea's second nuclear test along with multiple missile launches, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington on June 16. A joint statement from the two presidents discussed continuing U.S. commitment toward South Korean security, including U.S. nuclear deterrence. "That represents the highest-level direct statement on the issue of extended deterrence that has existed within the alliance context so far," says Scott A. Snyder, CFR's adjunct senior fellow for Korea Studies. Snyder says recent decisions by Seoul such as joining the Proliferation Security Initiative shows that the United States and South Korea are very closely coordinated with each other. However, he says some aspects of the Lee administration's policy toward North Korea and toward the United States remain "politically contested" in South Korea. "So, it is possible that there could emerge issues between the United States and South Korea that could become divisive in South Korean domestic politics," he cautions.

The presidential level meetings come in the wake of a new United Nations Security Council Resolution imposing stricter sanctions on North Korea, which include inspecting North Korean ships suspected of carrying any banned cargo such as nuclear-related or ballistic-missile related materiel. "The real challenge for the resolution in many respects will be whether or not it's possible to pursue pressure simultaneously with dialogue in the event that negotiations resume," says Snyder. He says the prior resolution, UNSC Resolution 1718, which condemned the first nuclear tests, failed on this point because implementation of the resolution stopped the day it was announced that North Korea would return to the negotiating table.

The joint statement from the White House talked about the "continuing commitment of extended deterrence including the U.S. nuclear umbrella."  Is this what Seoul was really looking for on security?

I believe that that statement is particularly important in light of the fact that North Korea's nuclear weapons capability could be perceived as giving it the ability to threaten or extort South Korea. But this reassurance provides an effective counter to that possibility. The critical question related to extended deterrence is the question concerning the possibility that a state that has nuclear weapons could threaten a non-nuclear ally of the United States and what the assurance provides is essentially a commitment on the part of the United States to use every means at its disposal to defend South Korea against that type of unconventional threat.

"[T]here is a need for a shared political understanding of how to respond to possible instability in North Korea and I believe that process should have received some support as a result of the summit meeting between the two presidents."

It represents the highest-level direct statement on the issue of extended deterrence that has existed within the alliance context so far. It shows that the United States has provided the maximum possible reassurance to South Korea--that the United States would respond to any type of threat, including nuclear threats to South Korean security.

What kind of contingency plans are the United States and South Korea talking about, going forward, in case of instability in North Korea emerging from a regime succession?

Well, we know that there have been military consultations between U.S. forces in Korea and the ministry of national defense to build on prior consultations known as the "Concept Plan 5029." In addition, there is a need for a shared political understanding of how to respond to possible instability in North Korea and I believe that process should have received some support as a result of this summit meeting between the two presidents.

The joint statement also mentioned the plan for South Korea to take the lead role in its defense and there have been concerns in South Korea regarding this--of the United States transferring the operational command of all forces to South Korea by 2012. The United States has also decreased its troops stationed in South Korea as part of the plan. Is there any talk of revising this plan or for additional troop deployments now?

There has been political discussion that has emerged in South Korea on the question of whether or not that plan should be revised. I believe that it was premature for that type of discussion to occur at a presidential level because I think that that discussion has been primarily driven by the shock associated with the second North Korean nuclear test. I'm sure it will continue to be a subject of discussion and evaluation between the two militaries but I think the ultimate determination will be based on the extent to which South Korea has been able to put into place the capabilities necessary to be able to successfully exercise operational control with the United States providing support toward that end.

South Korea recently decided to join the Proliferation Security Initiative, though it had refused to do so in 2006 after North Korea's first nuclear test. There also seems to be broader consensus now on stricter sanctions against Pyongyang. However, there are those in South Korea who are concerned about Seoul's stance. Has the ground shifted in South Korea's posture or are there internal fissures that Washington should be worried about?

" [I]t is possible that there could emerge issues between the United States and South Korea that could become divisive in South Korean domestic politics."

The government under Lee Myung-bak has decided to join the Proliferation Security Initiative and this represents a significant shift from the previous administration, which opted not to join that initiative following the first North Korean nuclear test. So, one aspect of this decision is that it shows that the United States and South Korea are very closely coordinated with each other. A second aspect of this is that many of the steps that have existed under the Proliferation Security Initiative have now been given a kind of indirect authorization under the new UN Security Council resolution [1874]. So the Proliferation Security Initiative activities are now blessed by an international authorization. The other aspect of this is [that] aspects of the Lee administration's policy toward North Korea and toward the United States remain politically contested in South Korea. The administration does suffer from low public support ratings at this time. So, it is possible that there could emerge issues between the United States and South Korea that could become divisive in South Korean domestic politics.

You talked of low popularity ratings for President Lee. Are there concerns how effectively he can manage domestic issues such as the economy with a more belligerent North Korea?

I would say the South Korean public has been disappointed by economic performance under Lee Myung-bak. There have also been criticisms from the progressive segment in South Korea that Lee has mishandled the inter-Korean relationship, although public opinion polls suggest that his policies toward North Korea still retain strong support even though his personal popularity has dropped.

How effective do you think the new United Nations Security Resolution 1874 will be?

"The [UN Security Council] resolution suggests there's a higher level of consensus that has existed in the past especially with regards to the unacceptability of North Korea as a nuclear state."

Well, the resolution provides a strong indication of the international community's disappointment regarding North Korea's provocative actions. It provides specific new ways by which North Korea can be punished for those actions if the Security Council resolution is fully implemented by member states [and] also provides a means by which there could be a return to dialogue. I think that in recent days following the resolution that has been a point that the Chinese in particular have emphasized. The real challenge for the resolution in many respects will be whether or not it's possible to pursue pressure simultaneously with dialogue in the event that negotiations resume. The prior resolution [UNSC Resolution 1718] condemning the first nuclear tests is regarded by many to  have failed on this point because implementation of the resolution stopped the day that it was announced that North Korea would return to the negotiating table.

On the broader question on Northeast Asian security, is there consensus among Japan, China, and South Korea on how to manage the North Korean threat or is that something Washington has to carefully balance while dealing with the regional players?

I believe that there's an increasing consensus, but there are also points of difference within the region. The [UN Security Council] resolution suggests there's a higher level of consensus than has existed in the past, especially with regards to the unacceptability of North Korea as a nuclear state. The differences occur in terms of tactics regarding how to address that challenge with China showing more caution regarding the possible negative impacts related to sanctions against North Korea.

Ahead of the meetings with President Obama, President Lee had called for a ratification of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement that was signed in 2007. There has been resistance from the U.S. auto industry, which is facing its own troubles, on this. President Obama today did not commit on a timeline when this pact would be presented to Congress for consideration. Do you think we will see this agreement ratified any time soon?

What I think was important was the expression of qualified support that the president gave to the idea of a Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, pending the resolution of outstanding obstacles especially in the areas of beef and autos. So that suggests that it is still possible for the free trade agreement to go forward but there are a number of other issues that are clearly higher on the priority list for the administration.

How would you sum up these meetings today and what was their significance?

The main message from the meeting was an expression of solidarity between the two countries in the face of North Korea's challenge to regional and global stability. In addition, the [joint] statement also emphasizes the potential for expanded U.S.-South Korea cooperation to address many new areas including clean development, counterterrorism, and peacekeeping. These are areas that expand the scope and application of the alliance in ways that enhance the mutual interests of the two countries.

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