US - Korea
In the first four months of 2021—the first three and a half of a Biden administration focused on domestic progress and COVID-19 vaccinations—US relations with the Korean Peninsula assumed familiar contours after four years of an unorthodox Trump administration. The US and South Korea quickly reached a military burden-sharing agreement and pledged cooperation in a variety of areas, although the regular differences of opinion lurk under the surface regarding how closely Seoul should work with both North Korea and Japan. The US-China rivalry remains a shadow over the Asia-Pacific security and political economy situation, complicating South Korea’s regional hedging strategy. Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program advanced apace, US and South Korean attempts to open dialogue were rebuffed, and the Biden team’s North Korea policy review will not endear it to Pyongyang.
After a months-long wait to see who would lead the US from 2021, both South and North Korea got an answer in November: Joe Biden. South Korea moved to forge ties with the incoming US administration, relieved at the prospect of a more conventional White House, yet anxious for it to adopt an approach to North Korea congruent with that of the Blue House. North Korea has stayed mum on Biden’s victory, reflecting its poor relations with the former vice president, a pause to recalibrate diplomatic expectations, and domestic issues that overshadow foreign policy in Pyongyang. The latter point is fitting, as it is also true of Washington. The early days of the Biden presidency will see domestic focus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout, economic recovery, and the need to try to heal political and cultural divisions in the United States. That said, neither Korea can be neglected for long.
While inter-Korean relations saw a fraught—even explosive—May-August reporting period, US relations with South Korea and North Korea settled into a holding pattern commingling frustration, disappointment, occasional bared teeth (from North Korea), and frequently forced smiles (from South Korea). Washington and Seoul failed to reach agreement on troop burden-sharing, an issue weighing down the US-South Korea alliance. Meanwhile, US-South Korea joint military exercises remain scaled-down, in part due to COVID-19, even as South Korea is committing to greater capabilities for its own defense. Regarding alliance coordination on diplomacy with North Korea, the administrations of Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in continue to try to mask obvious differences in prioritization of engagement for reconciliation and pressure for denuclearization. Ties between Washington and Pyongyang have stalled such that even talking about talking makes news. And in the background, Kim Jong Un’s regime continues to build up and improve its nuclear weapons program and missile arsenal.
Overall, US relations with the two Koreas are in a wait-and-see mode, with all three governments delaying significant steps until after the November US presidential election.
The US impasse with both Koreas carried over into 2020, with little official contact with North Korea and negotiations with South Korea over troop burden-sharing going into overtime. The global pandemic forced all three governments to make sharp adjustments, with President Trump reaching out to both Seoul and Pyongyang to either offer or solicit assistance. But in both cases, the rifts appear too deep to forget, even in the face of a shared catastrophe like COVID-19.
US footing on the Korean Peninsula grew less firm as both Koreas resisted moves by Washington. The initial White House call for an increase in annual South Korean host-nation support (HNS) for US Forces in Korea to $5 billion was met with incredulity among the Republic of Korea’s officials and public. By yearend, there were media reports of a lowering of the US ask and agreement by Seoul to arms purchases, but the challenge of finalizing the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) and a residue of resentment remained. Seoul, too, was unhappy with Washington’s lack of progress with Pyongyang, a foil to President Moon Jae-in’s peace ambitions.
North Korea raised its stakes higher, rejecting diplomatic overtures by the United States and its “hostile policy,” disregarding curtailment of US-ROK military exercises, and testing 27 short range ballistic missiles, as well as multiple rocket launchers and engines, between May and the end of the year. December saw activity at the once-decommissioned Sohae Launch Facility. At year’s close, Kim Jong Un declared abandonment of North Korea’s long-range missile and nuclear testing moratorium, expectations of continued sanctions and renewed “self-reliance,” and the promise of a “new strategic weapon.”
Despite the renewal of limited US-ROK joint exercises on the Korean Peninsula, the United States and South Korea saw friction on other fronts. This includes the lack of progress in US-DPRK talks and by extension South Korea’s engagement with the North, renewed focus on host-nation support during the new US defense secretary’s visit, the suggestion that the US would place intermediate-range missiles in South Korea, Seoul’s decision to withdraw from a defense intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, and President Trump’s perceived lack of sensitivity toward South Korean interests. The ROK’s economic slowdown complicated its growing strategic frustration, and the flareup in South Korea’s relations with Japan left the US pondering its role as tensions worsened between its two Northeast Asia allies. North Korea condemned the US-ROK military exercises, tested multiple new short-range missiles, praised Trump while berating his subordinates, and stalled on working-level talks, despite Kim Jong Un’s commitment to Trump in Panmunjom, following Trump’s historic step across the military demarcation line.
Late February summitry gave way to stalemate, raising the specter of increased tension on the Korean Peninsula. President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Un signaled warmth around their Hanoi meeting – their second summit in a year – but Trump’s walkout hours short of the planned conclusion and the absence of an agreement left everyone struggling to define next steps. South Korea’s surprise at the lack of a deal gave way to efforts at facilitation with calls for inter-Korean economic engagement and President Moon Jae-in’s April visit to Washington. Trump and Moon urged patience and diplomacy and the US and ROK canceled spring military exercises, allowing space for North Korea negotiations. The DPRK still criticized the more limited exercises, announced an end-of-year deadline for the US to change its approach, snubbed South Korea on the first anniversary of the Panmunjom summit, and condemned US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton. Meanwhile, the US and ROK reached an agreement on host nation financial support for US forces stationed in Korea, quieting discord in an otherwise sound alliance.
Despite an impasse in the US-DPRK dialogue, the United States and Republic of Korea largely voiced common cause while tacking to new realities. The allies showed flexibility by continuing the drawdown in military exercises and destroying military posts along the demilitarized zone following the Moon-Kim summit in Pyongyang. The outgoing and incoming USFK commanders both acknowledged challenges to readiness, but spoke in support of inter-Korean efforts to reduce military tensions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bristled at inter-Korean accords made without US consultation, while President Moon Jae-in credited the alliance with facilitating the dramatic improvements in inter-Korean relations. Moon sought to spur a second Trump-Kim Jong Un summit, with both seemingly committed. Chairman Kim Jung Un and Pompeo met in October, yet North Korea turned away both Pompeo and the new US special representative for North Korea policy, Stephen Biegun, a month later over sanctions concerns and a block on US aid workers. The US and ROK tacked on an updated KORUS free trade agreement and the launch of a bilateral working group aimed at coordinating North Korea policy. Domestic political developments – Trump’s midterm loss of the House and Moon’s skeptics and economic concerns – will check momentum, though a second Trump-Kim summit might stimulate some activity in relations.
In contrast to last summer’s hot rhetoric and spiking tensions, the United States and North Korea moved to a June thaw with the dramatic Singapore summit. After some heavy lifting from South Korea, Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un produced a vague commitment to denuclearization. By summer’s end there was little progress as North Korea and the US appeared at odds on next steps, with North Korea insisting on a peace regime and the US insisting on visible steps toward denuclearization. South Korea has emerged as the mediator. The US finally saw a new ambassador in Seoul with the appointment of Harry Harris. USFK Commander Gen. Vincent Brooks agreed with ROK defense plans for reducing posts along the DMZ, while joint US-ROK military exercises remained on hold, although Defense Secretary James Mattis hinted at their resumption next year. President Moon’s poll numbers declined, as concerns over slow progress and fissures with the US grew.
Following weapon tests and rhetorical fury in 2017, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signaled in his New Year address a marked turn toward improving inter-Korean relations. South Korean President Moon Jae-in seized the opening, lauded Trump’s hardline, stood up military hotlines, and moved North Korea to the Olympic moment. The PyeongChang Winter Olympics, Korea’s peace games, won early gold, despite US misgivings. Sport gave way to diplomacy, as North and South Korea agreed to a summit and Seoul sent its representatives north. President Trump surprised everyone by accepting Kim’s offer to meet. Washington and Seoul vowed to maintain maximum pressure and mute Trump trade concerns. Their de facto downgrade in the size of joint military exercises demonstrated flexibility. Seoul couched the Moon-Kim summit as a preliminary to the Kim-Trump sit down. Amid concerns of a split, Moon suggested Trump receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3 and its Nov. 29 ICBM test launch were unfortunate bookends to increased tension between North Korea and the US in the closing months of 2017. The missile test, which Kim Jong Un hailed as “completing the state nuclear force,” potentially placed the entire US within range, leading Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford to warn of the likelihood of conflict. Two new UN Security Council resolutions tightened economic sanctions against North Korea. There seemed little prospect for a resumption of negotiations, despite senior US officials urging diplomacy and a visit to Pyongyang by UN Under Secretary General for Policy Jeffrey Feltman. President Trump’s September UN address and subsequent tweets challenged the DPRK leader personally and directly, renewing a war of words. Trump’s November visit to the ROK struck a more restrained tone and saw a positive ROK response. The US conducted several military exercises with its allies. Meanwhile, Seoul-Washington fissures grew over Trump’s criticism of the KORUS free trade agreement and President Moon’s eagerness to engage the DPRK – a drift that may grow after Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s call for talks and possible DPRK participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Tensions rose to new levels on the Korean Peninsula as North Korea fired multiple missiles demonstrating markedly enhanced capabilities and crowned the Labor Day weekend with a sixth nuclear test with a significantly larger yield than previous tests. The United States tackled its most significant global security challenge by reinforcing its deterrent capabilities, tightening the financial noose on the North, President Trump tweeting stern warnings, and military and diplomatic leaders calling for dialogue. South Korea responded by reiterating its military readiness, expanding its own missile capabilities, and reeling from Trump’s rhetoric that likened President Moon Jae-in’s push for talks to “appeasement” and his threat to scrap the KORUS trade agreement. Despite joint military exercises, live fire drills, B-1 dispatches, and shared statements condemning Pyongyang to signal alliance strength, the relationship between the United States and South Korea appears frayed in dramatic new ways.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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 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 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 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 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 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 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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 final quarter of 2009 included a number of significant developments in US-Korea ties. President Barack Obama made his first trip to Seoul in November, and Special Envoy for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth traveled to Pyongyang in December. The summit between Presidents Obama and Lee Myung-bak marked the continuation of an historical high in relations between the two countries. On issues affecting the alliance, Obama and Lee found common ground on North Korea, while they inched forward with the Korea-US free trade agreement. Meanwhile, Bosworth’s three days of talks with North Korean officials brought the most encouraging signs of a return to the six-party process since talks broke down at the end of 2008. The Obama administration is faring well on the Korean Peninsula, even as relations with other major powers of the region become more complicated. Those accompanying Obama on his trip to Asia informally acknowledged that Korea was the “best stop” on the trip and sensed a personal connection between the two leaders.
The quarter saw a good deal of U.S.-Korea activity, largely the result of several trips by high-level U.S. officials to the region. While extended deterrence was a major topic of conversation between the allies, Washington and Seoul also coordinated policy on North Korea with some indication that groundwork for reengagement in nuclear negotiations may be in the offing. Former President Bill Clinton’s surprise visit to the North was successful in achieving the return of detained U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee.
The quarter saw a plethora of provocations by North Korea, ranging from ballistic missiles tests to the country’s second (and more successful) nuclear test. The United Nations Security Council responded with Resolution 1874 that called for financial sanctions and the institutionalization of a counterproliferation regime that would have made John Bolton proud. The U.S. and ROK presidents held their first summit amidst all this noise and sent clear signals of alliance solidarity. Washington exhibited the closeness of the alliance, being the only country to send a presidential delegation to the funeral of former President Roh Moo-hyun. These rhetorical demonstrations of the alliance’s strength, however, cannot drown out the potential substantive setback to the alliance as the KORUS Free Trade Agreement continues to languish.
The quarter ended with the question of whether President Obama’s first late-night crisis phone call – the metric for leadership bandied about during the campaign – would be over a ballistic missile test by North Korea. The suspenseful end to the quarter contrasted with its quiet start where the focus of U.S.-ROK bilateral relations was on initial contacts between the Lee and Obama administration teams and policy coordination over the global financial crisis, while the North Korea missile launch issue slowly but steadily moved from a simmer to a slow boil. However events unfold, the launch itself gives the new administration its first taste of North Korean bad behavior and confronts it with the problem of finding the right balance between under- and over-reaction that is needed to move denuclearization negotiations forward.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the reelection of President George W. Bush, South Korea embarked on an unusually aggressive diplomatic campaign this quarter to prevent neo-conservative hardliners in the Bush administration from obtaining a dominant role in U.S. policymaking toward North Korea. During speeches in Los Angeles and several European capitals, President Roh Moo-hyun ruled out using military options or taking other “forceful action” against Pyongyang in resolving the nuclear issue. Roh asserted the “leading role” of South Korea in the Six-Party Talks and rejected “regime change” as a policy approach for dealing with Pyongyang.
During talks with Roh on the sidelines of the APEC summit meeting in late November, Bush reiterated the U.S. policy of promoting a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue. The most notable U.S. reaction to Roh’s diplomatic initiative came from incoming National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who stressed the U.S. favored the “transformation” of North Korea by economic means, and not harsh measures that would bring about the collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime.
The Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program remained in an impasse this quarter, as North Korea protested a naval exercise of the U.S.-sponsored Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and resisted a new negotiating round until seeing the shape of U.S. policy after the presidential election. U.S., South Korean, and Chinese efforts to convene a six-party meeting in late December sputtered, and officials increasingly focused on the possibility of continuing the negotiations in early 2005.
After an extensive investigation, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) criticized South Korea, this quarter, for not reporting nuclear experiments in 1982 and 2000, but did not refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council. Following the IAEA announcement, Seoul offered to explain its nuclear experiments to North Korea at the next round of Six-Party Talks. Pyongyang had previously cited the secret experiments as one reason for resisting a new round of multilateral negotiations.
The U.S. and South Korea reached agreement on a plan to delay withdrawing one-third of U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula, as part of the global realignment of U.S. forces. Under the agreement, the U.S. will withdraw only 5,000 troops by the end of 2005, including the 3,500 already redeployed to Iraq, and gradually pull out an additional 7,500 by 2008.
Responding to South Korea’s desire for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, a senior U.S. trade official expressed interest in beginning negotiations as soon as Seoul “shows it is willing to take some tough decisions to resolve outstanding trade disputes.” Among the current issues in contention between Washington and Seoul are South Korea’s “screen quota” (which limits the showing of Hollywood films), pharmaceuticals, automobiles, intellectual property rights, telecommunications, and agriculture.
In mid-December, South Korea inaugurated the opening of its Kaesong Industrial Zone, which is under construction in North Korea, 40 miles north of the demilitarized zone. Still under discussion with the United States, however, is a modification to existing U.S. export control law and policy, that would permit South Korean companies to use desk-top computers in the new industrial zone.
The six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program remained in a holding pattern this quarter as Pyongyang evaded a new round before the U.S. presidential elections in November. Although Bush administration officials stressed the benefits North Korea would receive from accepting the current U.S. proposal, Pyongyang was uncooperative and denounced the “hostile policy” of the United States.
In September, North Korea gave as a new pretext for delaying the next round of talks the need for South Korea to disclose more details of the nuclear experiments it conducted in 2000 and the early 1980s. Pyongyang seemed to be betting that a defeat of President George W. Bush in the upcoming U.S. elections would lead to a more accommodating U.S. policy toward North Korea.
The U.S. and South Korea reached agreement during this quarter on the relocation of the U.S. command headquarters from Yongsan base in central Seoul to the Pyongtaek region, approximately 70 kilometers south of the capital. But they were unable to resolve the issue of how many troops the U.S. would withdraw from the South by the end of 2005 as part of the planned global realignment of U.S. forces. South Korea is seeking at least a two-year delay in this redeployment and the allies are likely to announce an agreement at their ministerial-level defense consultation in late October.
On economic and trade issues, the U.S. and South Korea conducted discussions, at both working and senior policy levels, on whether U.S. export control laws should ban the export of computers and other dual-use high technologies to the Kaesong industrial complex in North Korea. South Korea hopes to locate 15 companies at this site by the end of 2004. Originally announced at the June 2000 South-North summit meeting, the planned Kaesong complex symbolizes the extensive economic development that could arise from détente on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea conducted an impressive diplomatic campaign during this quarter to improve its relations with China, South Korea, and Japan, and thus strengthen its position in the six-party talks. In late June, under pressure from South Korea and Japan, the Bush administration made its first detailed negotiating proposal on the nuclear issue since taking office. The proposal called for a three-month freeze of North Korea’s nuclear program, accompanied by energy aid from South Korea, China, and Japan, as well as a “provisional security guarantee.” If North Korea readmits inspectors to verify compliance and meets specific deadlines for nuclear dismantlement, the U.S. would agree to continue energy assistance, provide permanent security guarantees, and take a variety of other steps to normalize relations.
The pressure on the U.S. from Japan and South Korea to negotiate seriously with Pyongyang enabled the State Department’s moderates to overcome the internal paralysis that has long marked U.S. policymaking on North Korea. Whether the neo-conservative hardliners, located mainly in the White House and Defense Department, will now abandon their efforts to torpedo the six-party talks and to seek regime change in North Korea remains to be seen.
North Korea reacted to the U.S. proposal by characteristically demanding more energy assistance, more time for implementation, greater security assurances, and more incentives of other kinds. But it expressed a willingness to “compromise” and “show flexibility” on the U.S. proposal if the Bush administration increases the incentives and specifically gives energy aid of its own.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance suffered serious strains during this quarter, as the U.S. announced, with little forewarning, that it would send a brigade of 3,600 troops from the Demilitarized Zone to Iraq and withdraw a total of 12,500 troops from South Korea by the end of 2005. The proposed withdrawal represents about one-third of the approximately 37,000 troops that the U.S. now keeps on the Korean Peninsula. South Korean officials felt blind-sided by the announcement, although they stuck to their plan to send 3,000 South Korean troops to Iraq, at U.S. request, to bolster U.S.-led coalition forces.
Friction continued in U.S.-South Korea trade relations during this quarter over Washington’s efforts to improve Seoul’s enforcement of intellectual property rights (IPR). South Korea expressed “regret” at the U.S. decision to keep it on the “priority watch list” for countries that do not adequately protect IPR. Despite this ongoing dispute, the U.S. and South Korea were able to resolve a contentious internet issue and appeared to make progress on the problem of “screen quotas” that has held up completion of a Bilateral Investment Treaty for several years. After months of resistance, South Korea’s minister of culture said his ministry would re-examine the screen quota system, drawing a harsh response from the South Korean film industry.
Contrary to expectations, the six-party talks on the nuclear issue with North Korea failed to reach an agreement or even release a joint statement after several days of negotiations in late February. North Korea balked at accepting the eventual “complete, verifiable, and irreversible dismantlement” of its entire nuclear program, which would have included ending any future capability for peacefully generating nuclear energy. Had North Korea agreed to the goal of dismantlement, the U.S. was reportedly prepared to accept Pyongyang’s offer to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for energy assistance that South Korea, Russia, and China would have supplied.
Despite the inability of the talks to take any substantive first steps, the U.S. positively assessed the meetings as making a “good deal of progress,” especially in their agreement to “institutionalize” the process of negotiation by establishing working groups. The U.S. was also pleased that Russia and China endorsed for the first time, the U.S. goal of fully dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program, verifiably and irreversibly.
Looking toward the next round of talks, scheduled to occur no later than the end of June, it will fall mainly to China to bridge the U.S. and North Korean positions. If China fails to broker an agreement, the continuing impasse in the negotiations, in the context of the U.S. presidential campaign, may ratchet up significant domestic political pressure on U.S. President George W. Bush to take tougher measures against North Korea.
On other security issues, South Korea’s National Assembly approved, during this quarter, President Roh Moo-hyun’s proposal to dispatch 3,000 Korean troops to Iraq to assist U.S.-led coalition forces. The original deployment plans were scuttled by the violence in Iraq and are being reassessed. U.S. and South Korean defense officials also continued their consultations on how best to carry out the agreed transfer of the U.S. military command from central Seoul to a more southern location by 2007.
Finally, in U.S.-Korea trade talks, negotiators temporarily settled a dispute over South Korea’s pending adoption of a new single national standard for accessing the internet through cell phones. If South Korea were to adopt this standard, it would shut a major U.S. company, which has developed an alternative technology for the same purpose, out of the Korean market.
Looking toward a second round of six-party talks in mid-December, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan sparred with North Korea this quarter over the content of an agreed joint statement for the negotiations. Despite President George Bush’s willingness to provide written multilateral security assurances and other unspecified benefits to North Korea in exchange for “coordinated steps” toward nuclear dismantlement, Pyongyang stuck to its familiar approach. North Korea offered merely to freeze its nuclear program if the U.S. offered security assurances, an end to sanctions, energy assistance, and removal from the U.S. terrorist list at the outset. After President Bush rejected North Korea’s effort to negotiate a new version of the 1994 Geneva Agreement, the possibility of a December round of the six-party talks evaporated.
At the end of the quarter, the U.S. announced it would send 60,000 metric tons of food aid to North Korea as a humanitarian gesture and looked forward to a new round of talks in early 2004. For its part, North Korea confirmed on Dec. 27 that it would participate in a second round at an early date in 2004 “to continue the process for a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue.” It now falls to China to use its diplomatic leverage to broker a joint statement for the second round of talks that will bridge the difference between the joint U.S.-South Korean-Japanese position and the North Korean position.
In order to strengthen the U.S.-Korea alliance and obtain greater influence over U.S. policy on the North Korean nuclear issue, South Korea agreed this quarter to dispatch 3,000 troops to assist U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq. Although the official purpose of the deployment is to aid in Iraqi reconstruction, 1,400 of the troops will consist of combat forces whose mission is to protect the other members of the South Korean contingent.
In the context of overall U.S. efforts to redeploy the bulk of U.S. troops south of Seoul, the U.S. and South Korea could not agree on a plan to leave a garrison of about 1,000 U.S. troops in Seoul to man the United Nations and Combined Forces Commands. On the trade front, South Korea welcomed President Bush’s decision to lift steel tariffs even as it appealed to the World Trade Organization (WTO) a decision by the
U.S. International Trade Commission to impose punitive tariffs on Hynix Corporation’s semiconductor chips.
The “nuclear issue” with North Korea continued to dominate U.S.-Korea relations this quarter, although it appeared no closer to resolution at the end than the beginning. When China, the U.S., and North Korea met together in April for their first “multilateral” dialogue, North Korea continued its strategy of making nuclear-related threats while offering to dismantle its nuclear facilities in exchange for U.S. concessions. Refusing to negotiate under Pyongyang’s gun, the U.S. pursued a policy of enlisting its allies to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on North Korea. The Bush-Roh summit in mid-May aimed to strengthen the U.S.-Korea alliance, and while affirming the need for a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue, committed both countries to consider taking unspecified (and impliedly coercive) “further steps” against Pyongyang. At the end of the quarter, diplomats pushed for a new round of multilateral talks with North Korea, with the U.S. threatening to seek condemnation of Pyongyang at the UN Security Council if North Korea rejected U.S. negotiating demands.
In early June, Washington and Seoul agreed on major realignments and redeployments of U.S. forces in South Korea over the next several years. U.S. troops will be withdrawn from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and from Seoul’s Yongsan garrison, to be redeployed south of Seoul. The redeployment followed mainly from the Pentagon’s view that it was no longer necessary to maintain a military “tripwire”on the DMZ in view of new U.S. warfighting capabilities. Finally, a trade conflict over Korean sales of memory chips in the U.S. simmered throughout the quarter, after the U.S. imposed heavy punitive tariffs on Hynix corporation. The Korean government vowed to contest these penalties at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
After a period of diplomatic limbo and uncertainty in July, China brokered the first round of six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue during this quarter. North Korea used the late August multilateral talks to rattle its nuclear saber and otherwise threaten the U.S. On the margins of the general meeting, North Korean diplomats met bilaterally with U.S. officials, but their discussion did not foster any apparent progress. The main achievement of the talks was a tentative, as yet unconfirmed, agreement to meet for a second negotiating round in the fall.
U.S. and South Korean military officials continued during the quarter to fine-tune the redeployment of U.S. troops away from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and from Yongsan Army Base in downtown Seoul. The talks were characterized by mutual agreement on the redeployment plan and transfer of military missions to South Korea but differences over its timing. Finally, South Korea challenged the U.S. decision to impose high tariff penalties on Hynix Corporation for its export of semiconductor chips to the United States. South Korea will appeal the U.S. decision at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and attempt to reverse it.
Sharp rhetorical attacks and military friction between the U.S. and North Korea mounted this quarter, reaching the highest level since the 1994 nuclear crisis. With South Korea insisting that war was not a feasible option, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), restarted a nuclear reactor, tested two surface-to-surface missiles, sent a fighter into South Korean airspace, and shadowed a U.S. reconnaissance plane. For its part, the Bush administration downplayed the provocative North Korean actions and, while hesitating to negotiate bilaterally with Pyongyang, underlined its commitment to peaceful diplomacy. By deploying new military assets to the region and conducting regular military exercises, the administration elevated its deterrent posture on the Peninsula, even as it concentrated its main foreign policy efforts on bringing about “regime change” in Iraq.
This quarter will likely go on record as one of the most contentious and troubling in U.S.-Korea (North and South) relations – at least until next quarter, which promises to be even more challenging. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly’s long-awaited visit to Pyongyang began a steady decline in U.S.-DPRK relations after Pyongyang reportedly responded to Kelly’s allegations of North Korean cheating on its nuclear promises by defiantly acknowledging that it had been “compelled” by Washington to begin a uranium enrichment program to defend itself after being branded a member of the “axis of evil” by President Bush. To make matters worse, Pyongyang threatened to restart its frozen nuclear reactor and began removing monitoring devices and seals from its reprocessing and other nuclear facilities in a blatant attempt to force the Bush administration to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, growing anti-Americanism in the South, spurred by a tragic military training accident last June that took the lives of two South Korean teenage girls, continued to steam roll as the U.S. military (rightfully) refused to turn the two soldiers involved over to South Korean courts, trying and acquitting both before a military tribunal on charges of negligent homicide. Ruling party presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun successfully rode the ensuing anti-American bandwagon to a close victory over opposition party candidate Lee Hoi-Chang, who was widely perceived (and labeled) as Washington’s preferred choice. By quarter’s end, outgoing President Kim Dae-jung and President-elect Roh were echoing Washington’s call for immediate North Korea compliance with its nuclear obligations, but both were becoming increasingly critical of Washington’s steadfast refusal to enter into negotiations with the North, ensuring a difficult diplomatic road ahead.
This quarter began with a serious naval confrontation between North and South Korean patrol vessels on Korea’s West Sea. It ended with the surprising diplomatic breakthrough in Japan-North Korea relations at the Koizumi-Kim summit in mid-September and the ensuing U.S. decision to send Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly to Pyongyang for consultations. Through it all, the Bush administration watched warily, postponing its special envoy’s planned trip to Pyongyang in July, but cautiously welcoming the results of the summit meeting. Strategists planning the next U.S. diplomatic move now have to pay greater attention both to Japanese policy and South Korean public opinion to avoid weakening U.S. standing in the Northeast Asia region. This is especially true given growing anti-American sentiments in the ROK, stimulated by the tragic death of two South Korean girls during a U.S. military training accident.
This quarter in U.S.-Korea relations opened with a bang and ended with a long pause. At the outset, South Korea’s Special Presidential Envoy Lim Dong-won undertook a critical mission to North Korea to put the process of inter-Korean reconciliation back on track. North Korea’s willingness to meet with Lim signaled a desire to improve the atmosphere on the peninsula after more than a year of verbal sparring with the Bush administration.
Lim’s mission was broader than that of previous South Korean envoys. In addition to improving the atmosphere for North-South talks, Lim aimed to persuade Pyongyang to resume bilateral negotiations with Washington. This was not an easy task in the aftermath of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in late January, which raised the level of animosity between the U.S. and North Korea significantly.
After months of hearing the U.S. say “the ball is in North Korea’s court,” Pyongyang finally agreed with Lim in early April to resume bilateral negotiations with Washington. North Korea also decided to continue reunions of divided Korean families, organize a new round of South-North economic talks, and continue discussions with South Korea on military confidence building.
Analysts speculated that Lim’s mission was mainly intended to head off a new confrontation with Washington on nuclear-related issues. President Bush’s earlier refusal to certify North Korea’s compliance with the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework signaled Washington’s official unhappiness with North Korean actions to date. Although Bush indicated that the U.S. would continue supplying North Korea with heavy fuel oil, his action raised the specter of a renewed conflict on nuclear-related issues.
Once North Korea decided to resume negotiations with the U.S., a predictable political debate occurred in Washington between moderates and hard-liners over the reason for Lim’s breakthrough. Conservatives argued that Bush’s new hard-line policy, expressed in his “axis of evil” remarks, had brought Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Moderates took the view that Lim’s new effort at reconciliation with the North, a component of President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, was the motivating factor.
What most influenced North Korea’s decision will probably never be known precisely. Most likely, fear of Washington’s new aggressiveness in confronting potential enemies in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, was a significant factor. The fact that North Korea faced yet another period of economic and humanitarian crisis also presumably focused Pyongyang’s attention on repairing its domestic problems during the immediate future.
From President George W. Bush’s highly controversial “axis of evil” speech in January to a surprise announcement in late March that a high-level South Korean envoy would visit Pyongyang, this quarter was the most tumultuous in recent history in U.S.-Korean relations. At the end of the quarter, there is no more assurance of diplomatic progress toward peace and stability in the region than there was at the beginning. Much depends on North Korea’s intentions, which at this point are still unknown.
The war against terrorism in Afghanistan largely shaped the development of U.S.-Korean relations this quarter. Although the actual conflict took place far away, new U.S. military and diplomatic needs, South Korea’s alliance responsibilities, Bush administration rhetoric, and North Korea’s reactions complicated and altered security relations on the Peninsula.
As this quarter drew to a close, South Korea endured a domestic political crisis and faced high economic uncertainty for the immediate future. Following a no-confidence vote on Unification Minister Lim Dong-won, President Kim Dae-jung replaced his Cabinet and prepared to govern without his party’s control of the National Assembly. This political crisis brought to the surface deep misgivings in South Korean public opinion and among politicians about the president’s Sunshine Policy toward North Korea. On top of domestic factors, the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington ignited fears about significant international damage to South Korea’s economy, which was already in the midst of a slow-down and facing a possible recession. Seoul also fears that Washington’s preoccupation with the war on terrorism will further reduce the prospects of a resumption of U.S.-DPRK talks.
Ironically, the South’s internal political problems likely influenced North Korea’s decision to agree to a new round of inter-Korean talks in mid-September, the first such meeting in five months. While no major progress was reported at that meeting, it appeared to get the inter-Korean peace process back on track, in stark contrast to still-stalled relations between Washington and Pyongyang.