Saturday, February 2, 2008

North Korea Nutshell: South Korea’s New Administration

Nearly two months have passed since the election of South Korea’s new President-elect Lee Myung-Bak. Although he will not officially take office until the end of February, decisions are already being made that will greatly affect both the North Korean nuclear negotiations and the overall U.S.-ROK alliance.

As a member of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP), Lee represents a stark departure from the policies of the last decade. A former Hyundai executive, Lee seeks to streamline the government into a more corporate organizational style and promote economic policies that favor market solutions. He is also pursuing a new and much improved relationship with the United States to remedy the fact that ties between the two nations have become increasingly strained over the past ten years. Already, several groups of Korean experts from the United States have made trips to Seoul to advise the Presidential transition team and Lee has responded by recently sending Cheung Mong-jun to Washington for further deliberations.

President-elect Lee has indicated that his administration will take a different path in dealing with North Korea. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification has long been the lead agency in managing relations with North Korea. Many of the frustrations between the United States and South Korea over the issue of what to do about the North have stemmed from the fact that the Unification Ministry has refused to coordinate or even discuss its policy initiatives with the United States. Lee seeks to change that by folding the Unification Ministry into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and thereby make policy towards North Korea more balanced with other international considerations. This new policy direction follows from Lee’s previous decree that North-South economic aid and cooperation will only come after the North has worked to resolve the nuclear issue.

In the coming months, two main issues will serve as the first tests for this newly forged U.S.-ROK alliance. The first will come with the inauguration of President Lee in February. Right from the start, U.S. diplomats will request that Lee suspend as much aid from North Korea as is politically viable and instead link the aid to ongoing progress on denuclearization. Lee has already made statements outlining such a policy, but he also supports investment into joint projects with the North. North Korea is also undergoing a food crisis due to severe flooding and there will be pressure to continue aid for humanitarian purposes. U.S. State Department officials have said that they hope to have the declaration issue dealt with by June and begin work on the implementation plan for full denuclearization.

The other thing on the agenda will be the Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement or KORUS. As with all of these bilateral trade agreements, the purpose here is to lower tariffs and moderate trading policies to allow for a freer flow of goods and services between the two countries without artificially inflated costs. Support in Korea for the agreement has been mixed, with many in the country worried about a great influx of imports in the auto and movie industries. For its part, American reaction to the deal has also been mixed. Members of the auto industry feel that there aren’t enough reductions in barriers to the domestic Korean market, and beef industry remains furious over the fact that Korea has yet to open itself up to a resumption of imports. While there are many factors influencing whether KORUS will be finished this year, such as the question of whether the U.S. Congress can address meaningful legislation this year, the final outcome of this deal has the possibility of jump-starting a new cooperation between the two nations. The deal will likely receive some attention when President Lee makes his first official visit to Washington in April.

The United States is attempting to establish stronger ties with its Asian allies in an attempt to hedge the growing influence of China. South Korea, as one of the region’s largest economies, is a vital part of this strategy not only for their regional influence but also because of their fundamental role in resolving any issues with North Korea. The election of Lee Myung-bak seems to indicate an improvement of the U.S.-ROK relationship in the near future. However, before this renewed alliance becomes a reality, both governments will have to find a way to succeed in the extremely difficulty areas of nuclear nonproliferation and trade globalization. No small feat.

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