While all eyes have been trained on North Korea's belligerent and aggressive actions in recent weeks, it is important to note that the U.S.-South Korea alliance has emerged as a linchpin in the Obama administration's efforts to successfully manage an overcrowded global agenda, and a pivotal tool for safeguarding U.S. long-term interests in Asia.
When South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak meets with President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday, the two leaders must effectively address three main areas: policy coordination to address North Korea's nuclear threat, the development of a global security agenda that extends beyond the peninsula, and collaboration to address the global financial crisis as South Korea takes a lead on the G-20 process.
By conducting a second nuclear test in May, followed by a number of missile launches, North Korea has forced its way onto the Obama administration's agenda. First and foremost, effective U.S.-South Korea alliance coordination is critical to managing both the global effects of North Korea's nuclear threat on the nonproliferation regime and the regional security challenges posed by potential regime actions that lead to further crisis in the region.
North Korea's internal focus on its leadership succession, and the apparent naming of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's little-known and inexperienced youngest son as his successor, make the task of responding to North Korea's aggressive and destabilizing actions all the more challenging. Both deterrence and negotiation must be pursued on the basis of close consultations. Presidents Obama and Lee must also develop coordinated contingency plans in the event of internal instability in North Korea.
Through effective U.S.-South Korea alliance coordination, it should be possible to forge a combined strategy capable of managing the nuclear, proliferation, and regional security dimensions of North Korea's threat. A coordinated position would also strengthen the administration's hand in its efforts to persuade China to put pressure on North Korea.
Both countries also face hostage crises involving citizens detained in North Korea. The recent conviction of two U.S. journalists heightens the stakes for the United States, although the administration has tried to decouple their plight from Pyongyang's missile tests.
Second, Presidents Obama and Lee should set the stage for a reinvigorated vision of a broader role for the U.S.-South Korea alliance as an important component of a broader U.S. strategy toward East Asia. A critical aspect of this vision is a mutual commitment to jointly address sources of global and functional instability beyond the peninsula. Lee Myung-bak has offered a vision of a global Korea that features an expanded commitment to peacekeeping and development assistance that is in greater proportion to South Korea's economic clout as the world's 13th largest economy.
As the third-largest contributor of troops to Iraq, South Korea has also demonstrated its capacity to make valuable contributions to post-conflict stabilization. The U.S.-South Korea alliance can serve as a platform by which South Korea can make such contributions in many other areas, including Afghanistan. South Korea has already made commitments to send engineers and medical personnel to Afghanistan. It is poised now to expand its contributions, in line with its broadening scope of interest in contributing to global stability and its economic prowess.
Third, South Korea is an essential partner in addressing the global financial crisis. Its emphasis on fighting protectionism and promotion of stimuli at the April G-20 leaders meeting in London illustrate how closely its priorities are aligned with those of the United States. A U.S. Federal Reserve Bank line of credit to South Korea last fall played a critical role in stabilizing the South Korean's currency and forestalled a possible repeat of South Korea's difficulties in the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago.
The Obama and Lee administrations have the opportunity to send a powerful signal opposing protectionism by winning legislative support in both countries for the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement negotiated by their predecessors. With the necessary revisions to meet new political conditions, Mr. Lee and Mr. Obama should urge their respective legislatures to consider early ratification of the trade pact. This would both support more effective coordination on the global financial crisis and underscore its value as a precedent that sets high standards for trade agreements in Asia, in contrast to the proliferation of Asian trade agreements that do little to promote a more open Asian trade and investment environment.
U.S.-South Korean coordination to manage North Korea's challenge to nonproliferation norms, the global financial crisis, and the transition in Afghanistan will underscore the practical value of alliance contributions to meet mutual interests in global security and prosperity. For this reason, Presidents Obama and Lee have a compelling interest in establishing a firm foundation for unlocking the potential of alliance cooperation in the service of our shared interests.
Jack Pritchard, former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, and John Tilelli, commander-in-chief of the United Nations Command and U.S. Forces in Korea, are co-chairs of the Independent Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward the Korean Peninsula sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. Scott Snyder is the director. The opinions expressed do not represent the views of the Task Force or of CFR.
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