The ICAS Lectures
U.S.-South Korean Summit Highlights Unbreakable Bond
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
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
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
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
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.
This page last updated November 2, 2015 jdb