US - Korea
Shortly after a U.S. official briefed South Korea, Japan, and China on North Korea’s clandestine sales of processed uranium to Libya, North Korea declared in early February that it possessed nuclear weapons and would indefinitely suspend its participation in the Six-Party Talks. Seeking to keep alive the nuclear negotiations, both the U.S. and South Korea downplayed Pyongyang’s announcement. But in the following days, media leaks indicated that Vice President Richard Cheney pressed Seoul to turn down North Korea’s request for a large quantity of fertilizer and sought to suspend Seoul’s participation in a joint industrial project at Kaesong, just north of the demilitarized zone.
When South Korea resisted the U.S. request, the Bush administration called for “coordinated approaches” to North Korea, diplomatic code words for Seoul to support the U.S. position. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun indirectly responded by emphasizing the equality of South Korea with the U.S. in their alliance relationship.
In late February, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il told a high-level Chinese delegation that North Korea would return to the Six-Party Talks when conditions are “mature” and “suitable.” Kim emphasized once again that the U.S. would have to show “no hostile intent” before it could expect Pyongyang to rejoin the negotiations.
Visiting the region in the latter part of March, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged North Korea to return to the Six-Party Talks. In her bilateral meetings, she said the U.S. would pursue unspecified “other options in the international system” if Pyongyang continues to refuse to negotiate.
U.S. and South Korean defense negotiators could not reach agreement this quarter on the amount of Seoul’s contribution to the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Korea. The two countries remained wide apart in their demands, with South Korea asking for a 50 percent cut in its share and the U.S. requesting a 10 percent increase.
This quarter South Korea became ranked as the 10th largest economy in the world, based on 2004 gross domestic product. Despite an ongoing dispute over South Korea’s refusal to import U.S. beef, American and South Korean trade officials conducted two working-level meetings in their early efforts to conclude a bilateral free trade agreement.
Speculation about a possible North Korean nuclear test spiked tensions on the Korean Peninsula this quarter as Pyongyang continued to refuse to return to the Six-Party Talks. Pyongyang underscored its status as a nuclear weapons state by removing spent fuel rods from its five-megawatt reactor, and then testing a short-range missile in the direction of Japan.
If North Korea’s purpose was to heighten differences between South Korea and the U.S, and thus weaken the alliance, its efforts proved successful through May. The U.S., as a veiled threat, moved 15 stealth fighters to South Korea, broke off talks on recovering Korean War remains, and considered seeking sanctions against North Korea at the UN.
After Seoul openly rejected seeking UN sanctions, South and North Korean diplomats met for the first time in 10 months on May 15 to discuss “inter-Korean issues.” Seoul promised North Korea large-scale aid if it returned to the Six-Party Talks, but gained no commitment from Pyongyang on the nuclear issue.
With Washington and Seoul far apart on how best to deal with North Korea, President George W. Bush and President Roh Moo-hyun held a one-day summit June 10. Rather than resolving their tactical differences, the two leaders emphasized strategic agreement on the importance of the U.S.-Korea alliance and a peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue.
A few days after the summit, South Korea’s Unification Minister Chung Dong-young met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il who declared his country would rejoin the six-party process in July if the U.S. “recognizes and respects” his regime. Although U.S. officials remained skeptical since North Korea did not provide a firm date for attending the negotiations, it appeared Pyongyang might make a concrete commitment before or during a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao in July.
The U.S. and South Korea settled a dispute this quarter over OPLAN 5029, a contingency plan laying out responses to cataclysmic events in North Korea, including regime collapse or a refugee crisis. South Korea had objected to putting its forces under U.S. command pursuant to this plan. The two governments agreed to further develop the concept of the contingency plan without deciding its operational components.
Incoming U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said this quarter the U.S. would not negotiate a free trade agreement with South Korea until “additional progress” is made on outstanding trade disputes. His position put pressure on Seoul to allow greater access for Hollywood films to the South Korean market and to end its import ban on U.S. beef.
For the first time in more than two years, diplomats at the Six-Party Talks made significant progress this quarter on the nuclear issue with North Korea. In a joint statement of principles, Pyongyang committed itself to “abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning at an early date to the treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.”
In return, North Korea received security assurances, a U.S. and Japanese promise to take steps toward normalization of relations, a South Korean offer of 2 million kilowatts of electricity, and a commitment to implement the agreement sequentially on a reciprocal basis. In the Chinese-brokered joint statement, the United States and North Korea further agreed to discuss Pyongyang’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy and its demand for light-water reactors at a future meeting.
Importantly, the agreement also gave impetus to negotiating a permanent peace regime for the Korean Peninsula and establishing a system for multilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia. The parties decided to conduct another round of the Six-Party Talks in November 2005 to discuss detailed arrangements for verifying and implementing the joint statement.
Their successful meeting came after more than a year-long impasse in the talks. North Korea agreed to resume the negotiations July 9, following a meeting in Beijing where the U.S. envoy to the Six-Party Talks, Ambassador Christopher Hill, conveyed several desired assurances to Pyongyang.
Despite political pressure that arose after the London terrorist bombings in July to withdraw South Korean forces from Iraq, South Korea appeared to lay the groundwork this quarter to extend its troop deployment into 2006. Without an extension, the National Assembly’s mandate for the forces in Iraq will expire at the end of November.
U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman announced in early September that the U.S. would decide by the end of the year whether to launch a negotiation for a U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement. He said Washington’s decision would hinge on Seoul’s willingness to resolve several outstanding trade issues, including South Korea’s “screen quota” on showings of Hollywood movies and its import ban on U.S. beef. At the end of the quarter, South Korea was reportedly reassessing its refusal to meet U.S. demands on those issues.
The Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program suffered a major reversal this quarter as Washington and Pyongyang unleashed verbal attacks on each other over activities outside the scope of the negotiations – counterfeiting U.S. dollars, drug trafficking, and Pyongyang’s dismal human rights record. North Korea said it would boycott the talks until it obtained a high-level meeting with U.S. officials to discuss financial sanctions related to North Korea’s alleged counterfeiting.
Factions in the Bush administration that oppose the Six-Party Talks or seek to rein in Ambassador Christopher Hill (who achieved the September agreement to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program) escalated U.S. rhetoric to a high pitch in early December. After U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow termed North Korea a “criminal regime,” Pyongyang fired back that his remarks constituted “a provocative declaration of war on our people.”
By the end of the quarter, it appeared that the apparent disarray within the U.S. government over policy toward North Korea had seriously undercut the ability of U.S. negotiators to reach a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue. It was not clear whether or when a new round of the Six-Party Talks could be scheduled.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry sought National Assembly approval in December for its plan to cut the number of South Korean forces in Iraq by 1,000 – approximately one-third of the contingent of 3,250 troops South Korea has sent to Iraq to support the U.S.-led coalition. Although the U.S. protested this decision, South Korea’s defense minister justified it by citing the success of the Oct. 15 referendum in Iraq, which laid the basis for adopting a new national constitution.
On economic and trade matters, Presidents Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush, at their meeting in mid-November in Gyeongju before the APEC summit in Busan, agreed to put a U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement (FTA) on a fast track, with negotiations beginning this spring. Their decision reflected the desire of both governments to strengthen U.S.-South Korea relations at a time when differences over strategy toward North Korea have caused major strains in the alliance.
In fits and starts, North Korea and the U.S. sought procedural common ground this quarter for resuming the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. The deputy head of Pyongyang’s delegation, Ri Gun, traveled to New York in early March for a “working-level” meeting to discuss U.S. financial sanctions for North Korea’s alleged counterfeiting of U.S. dollars.
The substantive positions of the two sides remained the same after the meeting: Pyongyang said it would continue to boycott the nuclear talks until Washington lifted the financial sanctions; Washington argued the sanctions were a purely “law enforcement measure” not linked to the nuclear issue. In mid-March, however, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow proposed that discussions on the financial issue could continue bilaterally at the Six-Party Talks. At quarter’s end, North Korea had not yet responded to this proposal.
In early February, the U.S. and South Korea announced the beginning of negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Rob Portman called the “most commercially significant free trade negotiations we have embarked on in 15 years.” Not to be outdone, South Korean Trade Minister Kim Hyun-Chong said the initiation of FTA negotiations “is the most important event [in U.S.-Korea relations] since the signing of the military alliance in 1953.” The first round of official talks is scheduled to begin in early June, following several procedural meetings.
The U.S. and South Korea held their first “Strategic Consultation for Allied Partnership” (SCAP) this quarter, not long after Presidents George W. Bush and Roh Moo-hyun agreed to initiate these talks at their summit meeting in November. During the consultation, the two governments reached a general agreement that the U.S. could exercise “strategic flexibility” and use its forces stationed in South Korea to meet military contingencies outside the Korean Peninsula.
Late in the quarter, the U.S. and South Korea also agreed to form a joint panel to consider the modalities of transferring wartime command of South Korean armed forces to the government of South Korea. At present, the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea would exercise operational control over the armed forces of South Korea, through the Combined Forces Command, during wartime.
After the impasse in the Six-Party Talks deepened this quarter, North Korea shocked its neighbors as well as the United States by launching seven missiles July 4 into the Sea of Japan. One of these missiles was a long-range Taepodong 2 that theoretically might have reached the U.S., but failed, 40 seconds into its flight.
The missile tests fed a widespread perception in the U.S. that North Korea’s action represented a political failure for the Bush administration. U.S. financial and diplomatic pressures over the previous 10 months had neither contained Pyongyang nor caused it to submit to U.S. political demands. Together with the U.S. refusal to offer any positive gesture toward North Korea, these pressures merely formed the backdrop to North Korea’s all too familiar defiance of the outside world.
The U.S. and South Korea held their opening round of negotiations on a Korea-U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) during early June. Among the most contentious issues were the U.S. demand to open the South Korean rice market to U.S. exports, and South Korea’s demand that the U.S. extend favorable tariff treatment, under the FTA, to all products produced in the Gaeseong Industrial Zone in North Korea. On the rice issue, South Korean negotiators gave no ground and are under considerable pressure from farmers not to allow U.S. rice into the country. On the Gaeseong issue, U.S. negotiators rejected the Korean request, claiming that North Korean workers at the site are subject to harsh, exploitative treatment by the Pyongyang regime.
Finally, at a meeting in Singapore, South Korea’s defense minister and the U.S. secretary of defense appeared to reach general agreement that operational control of South Korea’s armed forces during wartime would be transferred back to South Korea after five or six years. The final agreement will be announced at the ROK-U.S. Security Consultative
North Korea elevated the 11-month impasse in the Six-Party Talks to a diplomatic crisis in early October by conducting a test of a small nuclear device. The U.S. responded by calling for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to impose harsh sanctions on North Korea “unlike anything that they have faced before.” President George W. Bush explicitly drew a diplomatic red-line that the United States would regard Pyongyang’s “transfer of nuclear weapons or material” to other states or terrorist groups as a “grave threat” that would impliedly bring a U.S. military response.
North Korea’s nuclear test Oct. 9 followed a unanimous statement of the UNSC on Oct. 6 that a nuclear test would “jeopardize peace, stability, and security in the region and beyond.”
In an earlier unanimous resolution, the Security Council condemned North Korea in mid-July for test launching seven missiles and imposed a set of missile-related sanctions on Pyongyang. Instead of vetoing this measure, as Pyongyang undoubtedly expected, China delivered a major diplomatic shock to North Korea by voting to approve the resolution, which called on UN member countries to prevent transfers of missile technologies and “financial resources” to Pyongyang. For the moment, Washington, Seoul, and Beijing seemed to be speaking with one voice.
At the mid-September summit meeting of President Bush and ROK President Roh Moo-hyun, the two presidents indicated they would follow a “common and broad approach” to the North Korean nuclear issue. President Bush gave his blessing to President Roh’s request for returning operational command of South Korea’s forces during wartime to Seoul. Bush defused opposition to this proposal from South Korean conservatives by promising that U.S. forces would come to South Korea’s aid in an emergency and continue to play an important military support role on the Korean Peninsula.
In two rounds of negotiations this quarter on a U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, U.S. and South Korean trade negotiators put on the table a number of critical issues in manufacturing, services, and agriculture but were only able to reach an apparent agreement on pharmaceuticals. In South Korea, the government is under popular pressure from farmers, labor unions, and business organizations to resist any excessive U.S. demands for opening the Korean market.
North Korea made good on its long-time threat to conduct a nuclear test when it exploded a small nuclear device of less than a kiloton on Oct. 9. The test generated political shock waves and led to comprehensive sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council Oct. 14. Under tremendous pressure from the international community and China, in particular, North Korea announced Oct. 31 it would return to the Six-Party Talks.
When the talks reconvened in Beijing on Dec. 18, they made little progress other than reaffirming the main accomplishment of these negotiations to date – the Sept. 19, 2005 joint statement in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for security, political, and economic benefits. Given North Korea’s nuclear test, the real surprise this quarter was that a new round of nuclear negotiations occurred at all.
In their ongoing negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA), the U.S. and South Korea ran into difficulty on issues including autos, pharmaceuticals, antidumping measures, and beef. At the end of the quarter, Korean negotiators were reportedly considering whether to propose a “big deal” that would resolve outstanding differences on major issues. Both the U.S. and Korean negotiating teams are aware that they must wrap up an agreement by March 31 and give Congress 90 days for review before President Bush’s “fast-track trade promotion authority” (TPA) expires June 30, 2007.
The U.S. and South Korea agreed in late October to transfer wartime operational control of Korean troops to South Korea between Oct. 15, 2009 and March 15, 2012. The precise time of transfer along with detailed implementing arrangements will be decided in joint consultations during the first six months of 2007. The U.S. will continue to provide significant air and naval “bridging capabilities” as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance until South Korea acquires sufficient capabilities of its own in these areas.
South Korea notified the U.S. in early December that it would extend the deployment of its troops supporting U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq for another year, although at a reduced level. South Korea’s “Zaytun Division” has contributed humanitarian and reconstruction assistance since 2004 in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. Korean commandos have also provided security for the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq.
Concerted efforts by the U.S., China, South Korea, and Russia in mid-June finally overcame “technical problems” and led to the return of approximately $25 million in frozen funds to North Korea. After helping to break this logjam, U.S. chief envoy to the Six-Party Talks Christopher Hill traveled to Pyongyang for meetings with the DPRK foreign minister and chief delegate to the Six-Party Talks.
Hill strived to accelerate North Korea’s compliance with the Feb. 13, 2007 joint agreement by urging Pyongyang to quickly accept inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), shut down its nuclear facilities, and participate in a new round of nuclear negotiations in July. Hill’s meetings were the highest level of U.S. bilateral contacts with North Korea’s regime since October 2002.
The U.S. and South Korea signed the free trade agreement (FTA) at the end of the quarter, just one day before President Bush’s “fast track” authority to negotiate trade agreements expired. Despite the positive notes struck by U.S. and Korean trade officials, however, Democratic Congressional leaders immediately announced they would oppose the FTA because it adversely affected U.S. auto manufacturers and workers. Democrats, who control Congress following the 2006 mid-term elections, are likely to block ratification of the FTA unless the Bush administration undertakes a strong lobbying effort in the coming months.
North Korea promised to shut down and seal its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon this quarter in a deal that implements the Six-Party Talks September 2005 Joint Statement, committing Pyongyang to dismantling its nuclear weapons program. To achieve this breakthrough, the Bush administration agreed to transfer back to North Korea approximately $25 million in funds that were frozen since the fall of 2005 in a Macau bank for reported laundering of U.S. money.
Despite the political will on both sides, however, “technical issues” involving financial regulations prevented the funds from being transferred, as scheduled, by the mid-March round of Six-Party Talks, which was quickly adjourned. At the end of the quarter, U.S. diplomats expected to resolve the banking issues shortly so North Korea would move to shut down its reactor and allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to reenter the country.
The U.S. and South Korea reached an historic free trade agreement (FTA) at the end of the quarter, which must now go to the U.S. Congress and South Korean National Assembly for ratification. The agreement would eliminate more than 90 percent of the tariffs currently applied in the two countries’ international trade. Reportedly, a “rice for beef” deal clinched the FTA. South Korea agreed to lift completely restrictions on U.S. beef that aim at preventing the spread of mad cow disease. In return, U.S. negotiators agreed to exclude rice from the FTA, effectively giving into demands from Korean rice farmers who had angrily demonstrated against the accord.
Senior U.S. and South Korean defense officials reached a tentative agreement in March on the timetable and funding to relocate U.S. forces in South Korea to a newly expanded base at Pyongtaek, south of Seoul. South Korea agreed to pay $6 billion of the $11 billion project and promised that base construction would be completed no later than 2012.
In an historic breakthrough at the Six-Party Talks, North Korea committed to disabling its Yongbyon nuclear facilities and declaring all its nuclear programs by Dec. 31, 2007. It also pledged not to transfer nuclear materials, technology, or know-how. In exchange, the U.S. agreed to move toward normalizing relations with Pyongyang by fulfilling its commitment to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism and end the application of the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act as Pyongyang fulfills its denuclearization commitments.
North Korea’s agreement in the nuclear negotiations created a positive atmosphere for a successful North-South summit, held Oct. 3-4 in Pyongyang. In their summit declaration, signed by President Roh Moo-hyun and Chairman Kim Jong-il, the two Koreas pledged to work together on security, economic and humanitarian issues while making only passing reference to smoothly implementing the Six-Party Talks agreement. Significantly, the declaration also explicitly acknowledged that “the South and the North both recognize the need to end the current armistice regime and build a permanent peace regime.” According to U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow, Washington and Seoul “have already begun consultations…in order to develop a common approach” to this issue.
As the ratification process for the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) moved ahead, Seoul resumed imports and inspections of U.S. beef. South Korea seemed to take seriously the warning of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns that the Congress would not ratify the FTA as long as restrictions on U.S. beef remain in effect. In early September, the South Korean government submitted the FTA to the National Assembly for ratification.
Finally, in a change long sought by South Korea, President Bush signed into law in early August a measure that will allow South Koreans to visit the U.S. without a visa, for a period of up to 90 days. The change is set to go into effect in July 2008, at the time the Korean government is expected to issue biometric “e-passports” to its citizens.
Despite the progress made on several fronts, there was also an undercurrent of tension that marked the relationship between both Koreas and the U.S. throughout the quarter. Nevertheless, each time the tension bubbled to the surface both sides seemed intent on smoothing over the differences and moving on with the issue at hand.
North Korea followed through on its Oct. 3 commitment to disable its nuclear facilities this quarter, but resisted giving an “complete and correct” declaration of its nuclear programs. While the disabling actions – which would prevent North Korea from producing nuclear material for at least a year – encouraged U.S. officials, Pyongyang’s unwillingness to declare its uranium enrichment program, in particular, created a potentially major obstacle in the Six-Party Talks. At the end of the quarter, the U.S. faced a diplomatic dilemma: how to incentivize Pyongyang to continue the disabling process, while pressuring North Korea to come clean on its past nuclear activities. Pyongyang insisted it had engaged in “sufficient consultation” with the U.S. on the declaration and threatened to slow down the disabling process until it received more compensation.
The election of South Korea’s conservative party candidate, Lee Myung-bak, on Dec. 19 signified that Seoul and Washington will soon likely have a more coordinated policy approach toward North Korea. Lee stressed that he would adopt a “pragmatic” approach and support large-scale South Korean economic assistance to Pyongyang – but only if North Korea first abandons its nuclear program. U.S. and South Korean officials sparred this quarter over Korea’s decision to suspend U.S. beef shipments because of the threat of mad cow disease. They proved unable to resolve this issue, although President Roh Moo-hyun and President-elect Lee pledged to work together to ratify the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) at the upcoming session of the National Assembly in February.
The major event of the first quarter of 2008 was the inauguration of a new government in South Korea. The Lee Myung-bak government offered some initial signals of the types of policies it intends to pursue both on and off the peninsula. While there is much that was accomplished under the Roh Moo-hyun government in U.S.-ROK relations, most experts agree that the overall tone between the new Lee government and the Bush administration will improve considerably. Meanwhile, U.S.-DPRK relations in the context of the Six-Party Talks remain stuck on completing the second phase of the denuclearization agreement, despite some audibles by the U.S. team in conjunction with the Chinese. While we may be in the first quarter of the year, it may be the last quarter for the six-party process absent any progress.
The quarter started off well with the first meeting of Presidents George W. Bush and Lee Myung-bak at Camp David in April. The two leaders emphasized common values and the global scope of the alliance. They reached an agreement to maintain current U.S. troop levels on the Peninsula, which appeared to be an attempt by conservatives in Seoul to reverse the unfortunate trend they saw during the Roh-Rumsfeld era where each side was perceived as whittling away at the foundations of the alliance for disparate reasons. An important but understated accomplishment was Bush’s public support of Lee’s request to upgrade the ROK’s foreign military sales status. Should this request be approved by the Congress, it would amount to a substantial upgrading of the bilateral alliance relationship as it would give Seoul access to a wider range of U.S. military technologies similar to what NATO and other allies like Australia enjoy. Finally, the two governments inked a memorandum of understanding on security improvements necessary to enable the ROK’s entry to the U.S. visa waiver program.
The big news in the penultimate quarter of 2008 centered on leadership ills (literally) in North Korea and Pyongyang’s rolling back of the six-party denuclearization agreement. On the U.S.-ROK front, President George W. Bush made his last trip to Asia of his presidency, stopping for a brief visit in South Korea on his way to the Beijing Olympics. While the free trade agreement (FTA) remains mired in U.S. domestic politics, important low-key agreements were reached to help bolster the people-to-people aspects of the alliance. As the quarter ended, the Bush administration was making preparations to make what some described as a last ditch effort to salvage the aid-for-denuclearization deal with North Korea by sending Six-Party Talks negotiator Christopher Hill to Pyongyang for a third time.
The last four months of U.S.-ROK relations under the Bush administration saw the completion of a mission that helped to define the broadening global scope of the alliance as well as the final resolution of the troublesome “beef issue.” Tough negotiations were completed on a new defense cost-sharing agreement and the ruling party in the ROK began the process of passing the implementing legislation for the free trade agreement. All of this amounts to President Obama’s inheritance of an alliance relationship that is in fairly strong shape, but a North Korean nuclear negotiation that remains unfinished. Despite the best efforts of the U.S., Pyongyang remained unwilling to accept standard verification procedures as part of the six-party denuclearization agreement. This was despite the fact that on Oct. 11, the U.S. removed the country from the terrorism blacklist. Obama’s team will need to adhere to seven key principles as it continues to navigate the labyrinth of these difficult negotiations and bolster the strength of the alliance.
The first quarter of 2010 set the stage for what should be a busy year in US-Korea relations. The Six-Party Talks remain stalled, although dire conditions in the North may force Kim Jong-il back to negotiations soon. While North Korea continues to demand concessions before a return to talks, the US shows no sign of caving in. In South Korea, there was a flurry of mixed signals on whether the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) to Seoul scheduled to be completed in 2012 would go ahead as planned. Prospects for the US-ROK free trade agreement got a boost from President Obama and his administration, however, it remains uncertain when the deal will move to Congress for ratification. Finally, the issue of spent nuclear fuel reprocessing in South Korea has made its way to the forefront of US-Korea relations, where it will likely remain for some years.
The second quarter saw a series of major events in US-ROK relations. With the sinking of the Cheonan in late March, the quarter saw the possible return to armed conflict in Korea. The North Korean torpedo attack on the South Korean warship caused the two Koreas to break ties, intensified the tension along the border, and blasted hopes for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks. Meanwhile, the US-ROK alliance was at its zenith as the US showed solidarity with South Korea on its response to the provocation and put pressure on China to support a strong UN Security Council measure identifying North Korea as being responsible for the attack. The two presidents announced a delay in transfer of wartime operational control and President Obama, in a surprise announcement on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Toronto, called for ratification of the KORUS FTA. Though these two developments were not a direct result of the Cheonan sinking, they were influenced by a desire by both allies to show strong, deep partnership in the face of North Korean threats, and perhaps more important, by a personal chemistry between the two leaders that is unique in the history of the alliance.
The sinking of the Cheonan remained the predominant issue in the US-ROK relationship as both countries spent the quarter coordinating and undertaking punitive measures against North Korea for its alleged attack on the ship. The UN Security Council adopted a Presidential Statement condemning the attack but did not directly blame North Korea. The US and the ROK held their first “Two-plus-Two” meeting in Seoul where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met Foreign Minster Yu Myung-hwan and Minister of National Defense Kim Tae-young. While countries reopened their dialogue channels in the hope of resuming the Six-Party Talks, there remain many challenges and uncertainties that make the future direction of the Talks unclear. Several issues remain to be resolved on the KORUS FTA while negotiators are expected to hold a ministerial meeting soon to strike a deal. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released a report on US attitudes toward South Korea that highlighted public support for trade agreements, including the KORUS FTA, is lukewarm. Among those who viewed fair trade as critical for US interests, support for KORUS was much stronger.
US-Korea relations in the last quarter of 2010 centered around two major events. On the economic front, even though Presidents Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak failed to seal a deal on the KORUS Free Trade Agreement (FTA) during their meeting on the margins of the G20 in Seoul, the two countries reached final agreement a few weeks later, potentially opening a new era in bilateral relations pending approval in the two legislatures. Meanwhile, North Korea’s revelation of its uranium enrichment facility and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island raised a real possibility of war on the peninsula. South Korea and the US once again demonstrated their strong security alliance and solidarity even at the risk of a military conflict. North Korea’s artillery attack quelled ongoing diplomatic efforts to resume the Six-Party Talks, as the prospect for early resumption vanished.
The US and South Korea continued strong solidarity and close policy coordination on North Korea in early 2011. The US made repeated calls for North Korea to improve its relations with South Korea and show sincerity about denuclearization before the Six-Party Talks can resume. The Hu Jintao visit to the US in January paved the way for the first inter-Korean talks since the Yeonpyeong shelling, although they collapsed on the second day as the two Koreas could not resolve their dispute over the sinking of the Cheonan. While inter-Korean dialogue stood at a standstill, the US and South Korea agreed to pursue a UNSC Presidential Statement that would denounce North Korea’s uranium enrichment program. Possible resumption of US food aid and Jimmy Carter’s Pyongyang visit were new variables, although neither brought any change. The good news is that the KORUS FTA looks to be near its long-awaited passage in the Congress. With both the Obama and Lee administrations making final efforts to clear all political barriers, it appears that the measure will be passed in both countries in the coming months.
The summer months saw a potentially new cycle of US-DPRK dialogue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s invitation to DPRK Vice-Minister Kim Kye Gwan to visit New York for two days of official talks raised the specter that the North may be ready for re-engagement. Meanwhile, South Korea named a new unification minister, which some perceive to be the harbinger of a shift in its North Korea policy. But reliable sources say that President Lee Myung-bak will not cave so easily on his principles. Elsewhere, the Korea-US free trade agreement remains in limbo as it remains caught in partisan strife within the legislatures of both countries and the US received another lesson in Korea’s preferred terminology for Asian geography.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s state visit to the US was a big event that attested to the strength of the two countries’ relationship and the personal ties between Presidents Obama and Lee. The timely passage of the KORUS FTA in the US was the big deliverable for the summit. Final ratification of the FTA in both countries clears one longstanding issue and lays the foundation for greater economic integration and a stronger alliance. Meanwhile, the most shocking news for the final third of the year was the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in late December. His death disrupted US-DPRK bilateral talks as North Korea observed a mourning period for its late leader. The US and South Korea spent the last two weeks of December quietly watching developments in North Korea as the reclusive country accelerated its succession process to swiftly transfer power to the anointed successor, Kim Jong Un.
The most significant news in early 2012 centered on North Korea’s rocket launch. In a slightly different twist, this latest provocation came just two weeks after reaching what seemed to be a new deal with the US to freeze its missile and nuclear programs in exchange for food assistance. After Pyongyang went ahead with the launch in defiance of its international agreements and its so-called “Leap Day” deal with the US, it felt like Groundhog Day. The question soon became how soon a nuclear test might be in the offing. Meanwhile, the KORUS FTA finally took effect after seven years of deliberation, and US sanctions on Iran and US beef imports in the ROK reemerged as issues for the relationship.
In May, US-Korea relations were marked by nervousness about a potential crisis with North Korea as telltale signs of activity at Punggye suggested preparations for a third nuclear test. Though a test did not occur, no one is confident that a crisis has been averted. In US-South Korea relations, differences over imports of Iran oil and US beef calmed down without causing a major hiccup. Meanwhile, a number of difficult bilateral negotiations remain unresolved. While there are signs of progress on the New Missile Guidelines (NMG), the civil nuclear talks remain deadlocked. Territorial and historical disputes between Japan and Korea have complicated and frustrated US desires to strengthen trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan.
US-ROK relations saw several significant events as 2012 ended. President Obama won his reelection against Republican contender Mitt Romney and South Korea had a historic election, with Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party being elected as the first female president in the country’s (and indeed East Asia’s) history. Sandwiched between these elections, North Korea conducted a successful rocket launch, putting an object into orbit for the first time and marking a major milestone in its decades-long effort to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Meanwhile, the US and ROK successfully concluded an agreement extending South Korean missile ranges, but remained deadlocked on the revision of a bilateral agreement on civilian nuclear energy.
In early 2013, the Korean Peninsula cycled back into crisis. Three weeks after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea for its rocket launch in December 2012, North Korea conducted a third nuclear test. This led to a series of antics from the young leader, including a meeting with former NBA star Dennis Rodman, preparations for missile tests, and a pronouncement ending the armistice and declaring a new state of war on the peninsula. These threats were designed to test ROK President Park Guen-hye, who took office in February. Meanwhile, Seoul and Washington celebrated the one-year anniversary of the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement, agreed to a two-year extension of their civil nuclear agreement, and began preparations for special measures negotiations (a burden-sharing agreement for military forces).
The highlight of US-ROK relations was the first summit between Barack Obama and Park Geun-hye in Washington where the two presidents celebrated the 60th birthday of the alliance. Obama announced his support for Park’s “trustpolitik” initiative, demonstrating bilateral agreement on policies toward North Korea. The US also voiced support for the thaw in inter-Korean relations reflected in resumption of dialogue over the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Meanwhile, South Korea and the US agreed to an extension of the US-ROK civil nuclear agreement, began negotiations on a Special Measures Agreement (host nation support for US forces), and restarted discussions on a possible delay of OPCON transfer.
The best news in the final months of the year was South Korea’s announcement of its interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Beyond that, we saw bad, ugly, and unpredictable developments. North Korea startled the world by purging and executing Jang Song Thaek, only to be followed by the indefatigable Dennis Rodman’s visit to the country. China’s declaration of its new East China Sea ADIZ caused a momentary lapse in Seoul’s good alliance management. The year ended with no progress on bilateral negotiations between the US and ROK on a range of issues, leaving 2014 with a great deal of unfinished business.
The highlight in US-Korea relations was President Barack Obama’s visit to Seoul in April. The visit came at an uncertain time in Korea: South Korea was in the troughs of a national tragedy with a ferry sinking, North Korea threatened a “new form of nuclear test,” and regional tensions remained high amidst territorial and historical disputes. During his visit to Seoul, Obama offered sympathies to the families of the victims of the ferry disaster and assurances with Park on North Korean rumblings. Meanwhile, North Korea returned to a pattern of bellicose spring rhetoric for the second year under Kim Jong Un, ostensibly as a counter to US-ROK military exercises. This escalation in belligerence seemingly negated earlier diplomatic overtures.
The summer months saw steady progress in ROK-US relations, following President Obama’s visit to Seoul where he offered reassurances on the US rebalance toward Asia. Military activity included Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises, involving tens of thousands of South Korean and US soldiers. Pyongyang grumbled about the exercises as well as the visit by Pope Francis to Seoul, but contained its anger to diatribes and short-range missile launches. The biggest development for the ROK-US relationship came with the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Seoul for what some viewed as an overly warm summit with President Park Geun-hye.
The closing months of 2014 saw new US vulnerabilities as North Korea purportedly leveled a massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures Entertainment. President Obama attributed the attack to the DPRK and promised a “proportional” response. Citing an increase in the broader DPRK threat, the US and ROK affirmed common cause and new resolve, agreeing to delay transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) over ROK forces. Meanwhile, North Korea’s human rights record was condemned as the UN General Assembly voted for a referral to the International Criminal Court. The DPRK responded with a diplomatic “charm” offensive involving senior-level engagements around the globe and the release of three US detainees.
The early months of 2015 saw little change in US-DPRK relations while there were several positive developments in US-ROK relations. There were new US sanctions on North Korea over the Sony Pictures cyber-hacking incident and increased concern about North Korean advances in nuclear and missile technology as the US and others continued to criticize the DPRK’s human rights record. Meanwhile, South Korea and the US held their annual military exercises and concluded a new civilian nuclear agreement. Distractions from the positive trajectory in US-ROK relations included the debate over the value of deploying the THAAD system in South Korea and the unfortunate attack on US Ambassador Mark Lippert.
The US and ROK marked the 65th anniversary of the start of the Korean War while the region commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which also marks Korean Liberation Day. The US and South Korea conducted annual military exercises mid-August amidst a flare up in inter-Korean tensions. North Korea backed down from a semi-war state and expressed regret over the landmine maiming of two ROK soldiers, as South Korea agreed to silence its speakers along the DMZ, and both agreed to talks aimed at family reunions.
The final months of 2015 saw hedging around South Korea’s relationship with China, strong support for the US-ROK alliance in the face of DPRK threats, a US-ROK summit, and heightened concern as North Korea prepared for a fourth nuclear test, which came on Jan. 6. With the US and South Korea watching closely for signs of a missile or nuclear test, North Korea marked the 70th anniversary of its Workers Party on Oct. 10 without incident. The US-ROK presidential summit appeared solid, with a joint statement against the North Korean nuclear and missile threats and shared concern over DPRK human rights violations. The US again took up the issue of DPRK human rights violations at the UN Security Council in December as reports of possible purges in North Korea continued to attract US and ROK attention. The US was pleased in late December by an agreement between South Korea and Japan on “comfort women.”
US and South Korean concerns spiked in early 2016 as North Korea demonstrated worrying advances in nuclear weapon and missile technology. Despite a rather placid New Year address, Kim Jong Un raised international alarm with the DPRK’s fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6. A month later, North Korea launched a three-stage rocket, a direct violation of a UN missile ban. The US Congress passed more rigorous sanctions legislation, seeking to stem financial flows and punish second-party facilitators. On March 3, UN Security Council Resolution 2270 calling for tougher sanctions passed unanimously. Seoul added its own unilateral sanctions on March 8. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un’s display of a nuclear device and reentry technology, failed intermediate-range missile tests, and a successful submarine-launched ballistic missile test added to growing concerns. ROK President Park Geun-hye called for additional multilateral efforts. While North Korea is pushing back hard, some suggest its provocations and rhetoric may be for foreign consumption in the lead-up to the highly anticipated Party Congress in May, a first in 36 years.
The United States and South Korea entered the summer months with growing concern over North Korean missile capabilities. The DPRK Workers’ Party Congress in May signaled solidarity in Kim Jong Un’s reign, replacing the National Defense Commission with a new State Affairs Commission, and appointing Ri Yong Ho as foreign minister. Mid-summer, the US sanctioned Kim Jong Un and 10 other individuals and entities for human rights violations, and the US and ROK agreed to deploy the THAAD system against North Korea. Angered, the DPRK severed the New York channel. The US and South Korea joined together in military exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian. Pyongyang responded by threatening to turn Seoul and Washington into a “heap of ashes through a Korean-style preemptive nuclear strike.” Finally, South Koreans expressed growing concern over the course of the US presidential campaign.
North Korea opened the final months of 2016 with a bang by conducting its fifth nuclear test on Sept. 9. It followed up with a series of rocket and missile tests, culminating the year with Kim Jong Un’s claim of an imminent long-range ballistic missile capability. Yet, political transition in South Korea and the United States proved the hallmarks of late 2016, suggesting potential shifts in the approaches on the Peninsula, while underscoring the firm commitment of the US and ROK to their alliance. The Park-Choi scandal led to massive protests the final two months of the year and an impeachment vote on Dec. 9 by the National Assembly, confusing political observers about the implications for South Korean political stability. Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the US raised questions among Koreans about US reliability as an alliance partner.
North Korea tested President Trump’s new administration with a New Year promise of imminent ICBM capability and subsequent missile launches. Tensions rose to the highest level since 1993/1994 with missile launches, the assassination of Kim Jong Nam, and a possible ICBM on display at a military parade to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the DPRK’s Korean People’s Army. Washington offered Seoul assurances of support, sending Defense Secretary Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, and Vice President Pence in early 2017. Yet, Trump’s comments about sending an “armada” with the dispatch of the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group led South Koreans to fear blowback if the US conducted a preemptive or preventive strike against DPRK facilities. South Korea saw deployment of the first stages of THAAD, but the missile defense system and broader policy differences with May 9 ROK presidential victor Moon Jae-in will be challenges for US-South Korea relations.