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What Can We Explore to Enhance the U.S.-ROK Alliance?

November 01, 2009

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Assemblyman Hwang Jin-ha is the Chairman of the Second Policy Coordination Committee of the Grand National Party.

The traditional strategic foundation of the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance has been security cooperation based exclusively on bilateral issues. Today, the alliance is faced with a complex set of future challenges and opportunities in a regional and global context beyond the Korean Peninsula. It is imperative for the Republic of Korea and the United States to articulate a joint vision and, accordingly, make mutual efforts to attain common strategic goals for a deeper, broader, and global alliance.

I would like to propose the following strategic principles for strengthening, expanding, and upgrading the U.S.-ROK alliance.

First, it is unquestionable that the success of reshaping and managing the alliance depends on considering the national interests of the two partners. Addressing interests requires both governments to build political confidence and trust, articulate a joint vision for achieving mutual goals, and continue strategic consultation. This process takes place at both domestic and bilateral levels. At a domestic level, public consensus is a primary goal. In democratic societies like the ROK and the United States, a number of actors in the government and the private sectors can influence decision-making on how best to achieve national interests as a result of negotiations between the allied partners. An obvious example is the South Korean public’s opposition to the U.S. beef import agreement in 2008. Due to public demonstrations in the streets of Seoul, the two nations made an additional agreement to strengthen the safety conditions of U.S. beef imports in South Korea.

Balancing does not mean equalizing each area separately, but a comprehensive pursuit of balanced trade-offs. For instance, the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) is a result of balanced trade-offs among all provisions negotiated. Some provisions may grant greater benefits to one side, but the end result was a balanced trade-off between the two parties. In order to maintain a successful equalibirum of national interests, it is critical to expand the benefits of the alliance and create public consensus about the mutual interests of the two nations.

Second, although the U.S.-ROK alliance is no longer solely a security-oriented alliance, North Korea’s military threats such as nuclear weapons development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) must be significant variables in the future of the alliance. The U.S.-ROK alliance has indeed traveled a troubled road for the past decade because of the two nations’ different perspectives on addressing North Korean issues. But policymakers should not assume that the alliance is solely a strategic means to discuss and resolve North Korean issues. And, North Korea should not become an obstacle to achieving the future-oriented strategic goals of the alliance. In a strategic context, the alliance covers a range of issues directly or indirectly associated with the broad national interests of the ROK and the United States.

The U.S. strategic priority regarding North Korea is denuclearization and prevention of WMD proliferation off the peninsula. In order to achieve these goals, the United States has initiated multilateral efforts such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in 2003 and close cooperation with the UN Security Council. Currently, the ROK actively participates in U.S.-led multilateral efforts. In this context, alliance-based cooperation between the ROK and the United States aims to promote international consensus and consistency in dealing with North Korean issues.

The importance of resolving North Korean issues, such as devising a collective strategic plan for preparing for sudden change in North Korea, should not be underestimated. But we also have to remember the danger of North Korea’s traditional approach of driving a strategic wedge between the ROK and the United States by luring the alliance to excessively focus on North Korean issues at the expense of broader strategic interests.

Third, exploring new areas of cooperation is vital to enhance the U.S.-ROK alliance. As a responsible member of the international community and the world’s fifteenth largest economy, the ROK has taken new initiatives in addressing international issues. In this light, it is a welcome signal that the two major highlights of the Lee administration’s foreign policy are to strengthen its commitment to international peacekeeping operations and to increase the volume of South Korea’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). At this point, I would like to emphasize a significant importance of the ROK to actively participate in international peacekeeping operations. South Koreans have incalculable debt to the international community in saving the country during the Korean War. For this reason, I am very pleased that the ROK government recently announced to send troops to Afghanistan. Furthermore, I must stress that the ROK is required to consult with the United States and the international community for a more active contribution to international efforts in maintaining global peace and stability.

Fourth, compared to the past history of the alliance which was focused on explicit and short-term mutual goals, the future of the alliance should be guided by common values such as democracy, a market-oriented economy, and human rights. As the alliance expands extensively in political, economic, social, and cultural contexts, a values-oriented alliance would provide a sustainable foundation for the alliance’s future. The alliance is now faced with global issues such as the international financial crisis and climate change which cannot be addressed through a short-term plan but through enduring and consistent mutual efforts. In addition, addressing these global issues benefits not only the ROK and the United States but also the international community. Establishing a robust and solid foundation for the future U.S.-ROK alliance requires shifting the basis of the alliance to one that is building on common values.