Features | Security | East Asia

The Danger of Closer US-Korea Ties

Relations between the US and South Korea have been steadily warming. The problem is, it could push North Korea into even worse behaviour.

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).

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.

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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.

Meanwhile, US officials have also helped foster good relations between South Korea and Japan. US and Japanese ministers, for example, jointly denounced North Korean adventurism at their meeting last month in Washington, and reaffirmed their commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

But welcome as all this may be, these closer ties present some serious problems.

For a start, although dealing with North Korea is never easy, one reason why Pyongyang has engaged in so many particularly provocative actions in the past few years may be that it is trying to provoke tensions between South Korea and the United States. (North Korea no doubt picked up some tips from the way the United States sought for decades to weaken Pyongyang’s ties with Beijing and Moscow by placing pressure on both governments).

North Korean representatives have offered, in principle, to return to the Six-Party Talks, dropping previous demands for the lifting of UN sanctions and a US commitment to discuss a peace treaty. It has also made several other overtures, including by agreeing to participate in mid-level binary military officer talks. These talks, at the level of colonel, occurred from February 8 to 9 at Panmunjom. Yet instead of paving the way for higher-level defence talks and a broader dialogue between the two governments, the meeting ended abruptly on the second day when North Korean officers walked out after refusing to apologize for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents.

The problem is, of course, that it’s far from clear North Korea has any intention of ever relinquishing its nuclear arsenal. Pyongyang’s statements have varied, sometimes confirming earlier North Korean pledges to eliminate them, while at other times affirming its intent to retain nuclear weapons indefinitely and demanding that other countries acknowledge the country’s new status as a nuclear state.

South Korea and the United States aren’t prepared to abandon all hope for the talks. But their policy of waiting patiently for a change in North Korean policy is fraught with risk. First, it provides North Koreans with additional breathing room to refine their nuclear and missile programmes. It also risks providing space for North Korea to launch more ballistic missiles or detonate another nuclear device as part of continued development of its weapons programme – or just out of simple frustration about being ignored.

Most troubling, though, the wait-and-see strategy prolongs a potentially explosive situation resulting from South Korea’s policy of ‘proactive deterrence,’ which calls for responding immediately to North Korean military provocations. The South Korean Army has deployed new short-range missiles and other weapons systems in the border area that are capable of responding rapidly against any North Korean infraction. When nervous South Korean troops, seeking to implement the rapid response doctrine, shot at a civilian airliner earlier this month, they underscored the risks of miscalculation when one or both parties is in a hair-trigger state of alert.

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But the worst-case scenario would see the North Korean leadership, thinking that its nuclear and missile arsenals would protect it by deterring potential counterattacks, launching another provocation, only to trigger the massive and prompt response posited in the new South Korean strategy. Indeed, North Korea could respond by detonating a nuclear device in order to shock South Korea and its foreign allies into de-escalating the crisis. Or it might simply bombard Seoul and its environs with the enormous number of artillery systems that it has amassed in the border region.

Another likely by-product of the close alignment between Seoul and Washington is that it has led China to reverse its policy of recent years of distancing Beijing from Pyongyang. Tight US-South Korean ties have reinforced Chinese fears that North Korea’s collapse would be swiftly followed by an extension of the South Korea-US alliance northward, in the same manner as NATO moved its defences eastward into the countries that broke free of Moscow’s control in the 1990s.

As a result, China hasn’t challenged North Korea’s ‘interpretations’ of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, has relaxed its enforcement of international sanctions against North Korea, and hosted leader Kim Jong-il on three separate visits in recent months. Meanwhile, South Korean constraints on economic intercourse with North Korea have allowed Chinese companies to emerge as the clearly dominant foreign business presence in North Korea, alarming South Korean unification planners who fear North Korea’s de facto absorption into China’s economic empire.

China’s government is now joining some domestic US critics and urging the United States to enter into direct bilateral talks with North Korea even before an intra-Korean agreement on a North Korean apology or de-nuclearization. This leaves the United States with something of a difficult choice – should it engage North Korea directly and risk upsetting Seoul and Tokyo?

There are ways of avoiding this – confining outreach efforts to less controversial humanitarian issues such as joint recovery of Americans missing from the Korean War, for example. But it won’t be easy, and it risks undermining some of that US-South Korea goodwill in the process.