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Obama-Lee Myung-bak Summit: New Challenges for the U.S.-ROK Alliance

South Korea's Lee Myung-bak will visit the White House for a summit meeting with Barack Obama on June 16th, only days following the unanimous passage of a UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea's May 25th nuclear test. Main items on the agenda will include political and security coordination toward North Korea, the fashioning of an expanded global, regional, and functional agenda that extends beyond the peninsula, and the prospect of closer economic cooperation represented by the South Korea's involvement as a member of the leadership troika of the G-20 and prospects for the Korea-U.S. (KORUS) Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Through its efforts to support a deepened and broadened U.S.-ROK relationship, The Asia Foundation's Center for U.S.-Korea Policy addresses each of these areas.

Seoul National University Professor Ha Young-sun encourages the two presidents to coordinate on the issues of North Korea and South Korean contributions to the stabilization of Afghanistan in the June issue of the Center's newsletter. He argues that Presidents Lee and Obama must coordinate a new policy toward North Korea that anticipates the failure of UN sanctions and suggests that the presidents coordinate to encourage North Korea to pursue an "economy first policy of non-nuclearization instead of a military first policy of nuclearization." On Afghanistan, Ha anticipates South Korean support for sending a provincial reconstruction team to Afghanistan but that the dispatch of military forces would face domestic political opposition in South Korea.

Regarding alliance coordination toward North Korea, I have provided a detailed assessment of South Korea's emerging foreign policy priorities in the first year of the Lee Myung-bak administration which appeared in the latest issue of the Korean Journal of Defense Analysis early this year, along with efforts at this site to analyze the Obama administration's emerging policy toward North Korea during its first one hundred days as well as potential contradictions in that policy.

Presidents Obama and Lee will also need to set the stage for a reinvigorated vision for a comprehensive U.S.-ROK alliance as an important component of a broader U.S. strategy toward East Asia. South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan stated earlier this year that the U.S.-ROK alliance is a cornerstone of U.S. strategy in East Asia, an aspirational statement that underscores the extent to which this is a moment of opportunity for the alliance.

Mike Finnegan's essay for the Center for U.S.-Korea Policy comparing U.S.-ROK alliance with NATO and the U.S.-Japan alliance is a useful benchmarking exercise that underscores the need to broaden public support in both the United States and South Korea to take on an expanded agenda. He argues that the U.S.-ROK alliance "must maintain not only a strategic but operational rationale," as it grapples with new challenges, including questions related to burden sharing; i.e., "what the allies can do together to address shared interests" not what South Korea must do for the United States. He also highlights the importance of U.S.-ROK alliance cooperation on nuclear deterrence, a challenge that has clearly become even more important in the face of North Korea's nuclear tests, and may be addressed at the summit through a written assurance that the nuclear umbrella and extended deterrence remain as a critical American commitment under the U.S.-ROK alliance.

The economic leg of the relationship is both most intriguing and most uncertain. Dr. Sakong Il, South Korean Chairman of the G-20 Coordinating Committee, has reported on South Korea's efforts to work with the UK and Brazil to fight protectionism and promote stimulus efforts in response to the global financial crisis. It is striking how Lee Myung-bak's own policy approach to the G-20 is so closely aligned with U.S. priorities. U.S. Federal Reserve Bank line of credit to South Korea last fall played a critical role in stabilizing the South Korean won and forestalled a possible repeat of South Korea's difficulties in the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago.

CSIS's Steve Schrage has argued that South Korea's role in the G-20 places the U.S.-ROK alliance at the center of the global agenda for the first time since the Korean war, arguing that South Korea's leadership test as a member of the troika is the first test for an emerging economy to show real leadership at the global level and that South Korea's hosting of the G-20 in Seoul is an action-forcing event that might enable the U.S. Congress to consider ratification of the KORUS FTA, most likely following negotiation of side agreements to address sectoral issues that have special political significance in a new environment under the Obama administration.

Through coordination on North Korea, an expanded vision for the U.S.-ROK alliance, and U.S.-ROK cooperation on the global economic crisis, the U.S.-ROK alliance well-positioned to provide assistance in addressing core aspects of the Obama administration's global agenda. As South Korea's former prime minister Lee Hongkoo has written, "a truly effective bilateral alliance has to be an important part of a common effort to build both regional communities and a new global order for peace and prosperity." During their summit, Presidents Lee and Obama have the opportunity to lay the foundations to meet these objectives.

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