The ICAS Lectures


U.S.-South Korean Summit Highlights Unbreakable Bond

Bruce Klingner

ICAS Fall Symposium

October 20, 2015 1:00 PM - 6:00 PM
The Heritage Foundation Allison Auditorium
214 Massachusetts Ave NE
Washington DC 20002

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

Biographic sketch & Links: Bruce Klingner

U.S.-South Korean Summit Highlights Unbreakable Bond

Bruce Klingner
The Heritage Foundation

South Korean President Park Geun-hye traveled to Washington as the third of President Obama’s summit trifecta with northeast Asian leaders. Following the Japanese and Chinese leaders, Park had the opportunity to address growing regional security challenges and reassert an important Korean role on the world stage.

The U.S. – South Korean summit was important and very successful, though perhaps unexciting due to the lack of tangible "deliverables" – new agreements to be signed and heralded. But, in that sense, the bilateral relationship is a victim of its own previous successes. Washington and Seoul have already achieved a bilateral free trade agreement, revised and expanded alliance guidelines, implemented new contingency plans for North Korean provocations, and signed an updated civilian nuclear agreement.

The U.S.-South Korean summit also lacked the tense drama of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit because Washington and Seoul not only share so many common values but there is no daylight between us on a spectrum of security and diplomatic policies.

As is always the case, recent North Korean provocations and threats pushed the regime to the top of summit agenda. Although Pyongyang did not launch a long-range missile on October 10th to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the Korea Workers Party, it is only a matter of time before the regime does so.

As such, the presidents discussed coordinating a future response to yet another North Korean violation of UN resolutions. In an unprecedented joint statement on North Korea, the two leaders affirmed their common goal of a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. The allies warned of consequences, including further significant measures by the U.N. Security Council, if Pyongyang were to launch a long-range missile.

However, the Obama Administration has long warned it is considering additional punitive actions yet hesitates to implement the same targeted financial measures against North Korea that Washington has already imposed against other countries for less egregious actions. Beyond the U.S. policy of timid incrementalism, the allies will be hampered by Chinese resistance at the UN to more effective sanctions.

The North Korean military threat overshadows another tragedy on the Korean Peninsula – the plight of the North Korean people. They suffer under the scourge of human rights violations so widespread, system, and egregious that a UN Commission of Inquiry concluded they constituted "crimes against humanity."

The U.S.-South Korea joint summit statement "condemn[ed] the deplorable human rights situation in North Korea." Despite 18 months passing since the release of the UN report, the Obama Administration has not taken any action. Currently, the U.S. has sanctioned zero – yes zero – North Korean entities for human rights violations. And the South Korean legislature remains mired in a decade long debate over whether to approve a North Korean Human Rights Act. The North Korean people deserve better.

During President Park’s visit, Washington properly affirmed its stalwart commitment to use all necessary means to defend our critically important South Korean ally against its despotic neighbor to the north. Unfortunately U.S. allies worldwide now question American resolve following devastating cuts to the U.S. defense budget and unfulfilled presidential 'redlines' of commitment.

There should be no doubt in Seoul’s – or Pyongyang’s – mind that the U.S.-South Korea alliance forged in the crucible of war remains just as strong and unbreakable today. President Park’s visit to the Pentagon was a clear signal that the alliance remains the foundation bedrock of the bilateral relationship. It is because that foundation is so strong that the two presidents were able to discuss broader, non-peninsular issues.

Though a small nation, South Korea has frequently "punched above its weight" on the world stage. As such, the U.S. is looking for additional ways Korea can contribute to responding to security crises in Syria and Crimea. Beyond the security arena, South Korea’s entrepreneurial spirit should be included in focusing on "New Frontiers," including combatting global health challenges.

The summit was also successful for countering perceptions that "the U.S. worried South Korea is shifting toward China." Those concerns were actually more prevalent in Seoul than in Washington. The U.S. has tremendous respect and trust in President Park in part because she has a long track record of strong affirmations of the importance of the alliance.

That said, some U.S. experts have questioned her logic in attending the Chinese World War II anniversary military parade in September given that China, not Japan, is currently pursuing a expansionist policy in the East and South China Seas. Beijing has been using historic issues to divert attention from its own belligerence and to drive a wedge amongst the allies.

It also seemed an odd optic for the South Korean president to review the troops of the most recent country to invade South Korea, responsible for prolonging the war and increasing South Korea casualties and destruction, and whose incursion ensured the continued division of the Korean Peninsula.

China has repeatedly criticized U.S. and South Korean responses to North Korean provocations more strongly than the provocations themselves. Currently, Beijing is pressuring Seoul against deploying the THAAD missile defense system to better protect South Korea from North Korea’s growing nuclear threat. It should be clear that Washington, not Beijing, has Seoul’s best interests at heart.

Washington sees South Korea as a critically important global partner. President Park’s visit to the United States provided the opportunity to again highlight that Washington and Seoul share not only an indivisible alliance, but also a broader partnership and strong friendship.

Bruce Klingner is the Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation. He previously served 20 years in the U.S. Intelligence Community, including as CIA’s Deputy Division Chief for Korea.

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