The Danger of Closer US-Korea Ties
Image Credit: US State Department

The Danger of Closer US-Korea Ties


The latest meeting between senior South Korean and US officials confirmed that relations between South Korea and the United States are the best they’ve been in decades. The two governments have set aside past disagreements and adopted a common policy on numerous international issues. They also now closely coordinate mutually supporting policies on regional security, nuclear security, Afghanistan, and development assistance. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rightly noted during the recent visit of South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan: ‘Our partnership truly has gone global.’

The trouble is that this harmony has actually worsened ties between South Korea, the United States and important third parties, such as North Korea and China. These states fear that a US-South Korean partnership will harm their own regional interests, and could potentially provoke North Korea. With this in mind, are Washington and Seoul really likely to keep prioritizing bilateral ties at the expense of other actors?

Certainly until there’s a rethink, things are looking rosy between the two, not least because South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has prioritized developing strong ties with the United States. This is in contrast with the administrations of Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who considered the United States an obstacle to Seoul improving relations with North Korea and China. The two leaders did little to block anti-American protests, in stark contrast with Lee, who has sought to firmly anchor Seoul to the United States. (Even the recent scare over traces of dioxin found near Camp Carroll, a US military base in South Korea, failed to incite much poplar anger).

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Another reason for the healthy ties is that the Obama administration has firmly backed South Korea’s position regarding North Korea. For the most part, the Lee government insists that North Korea must first apologize for its past recent provocations before any intra-Korean dialogue can resume. Lee has in mind two incidents last year – the March sinking of the Cheonan warship and the November artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. Should Kim Jong-il’s regime decide to apologize, the Lee administration would likely be prepared to negotiate with North Korea directly over denuclearization.

But the South Koreans won’t be holding their breath. North Korea has yet to acknowledge its full responsibility in the two incidents – Pyongyang has confirmed shelling Yeonpyeong, but claims it was responding to South Korean and US military activity in the vicinity. As a result, the Six-Party Talks involving China, Japan, Russia, the two Koreas, and the United States aimed at North Korea’s de-nuclearization remain deadlocked over how to verify North Korea’s nuclear elimination. Indeed, talks haven’t been convened since December 2008.

South Korean leaders for their part believe that North Korea has been pursuing its traditional strategy of first trying to intimidate South Korea through provocative actions and then demanding food, economic assistance, diplomatic engagement, and other concessions to cease its threatening activities. Lee’s government has sought to break the cycle by conditioning new concessions on North Korea ending its provocative actions and accepting responsibility for last year’s incidents. The Obama administration’s ‘strategic patience’ policy complements this position by refusing to resume direct negotiations with North Korea until it clearly changes its policies.

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