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New Chapter for U.S.-Korea Alliance

by Jack Pritchard, John Tilelli, and Scott Snyder

The recent White House summit between Barack Obama and Lee Myung-bak came at a moment when the U.S.-ROK alliance has emerged as a linchpin in the Obama administration's efforts to successfully manage an overcrowded global agenda and as a pivotal tool for safeguarding U.S. long-term interests in Asia. The two leaders addressed three main areas: effective policy coordination to address North Korea's nuclear threat, the development of a global security agenda that extends beyond the peninsula and collaboration to address the global financial crisis as South Korea takes a lead on the G20 process.

By conducting a second nuclear test in May, followed by a number of missile launches, North Korea has forced its way onto the Obama administration's agenda. First and foremost, effective U.S.-South Korea alliance coordination is critical to managing both the global effects of North Korea's nuclear threat on the nonproliferation regime and the regional security challenges posed by potential regime actions that lead to further crisis in the region. The two leaders sent a strong signal of alliance solidarity in the face of North Korean provocations, making clear a desire to break with past patterns in which allies make concessions but no progress toward denuclearization.

North Korea's internal focus on its leadership succession, and the apparent naming of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's little-known and inexperienced youngest son as his successor, make the task of responding to North Korea's aggressive and destabilizing actions all the more challenging. The two presidents presumably began a conversation on contingency plans in the event of internal instability in North Korea, but more intensive political negotiations will be necessary to prepare for a range of possible future scenarios.

Through effective U.S.-South Korea alliance coordination, it should be possible to forge a combined strategy capable of managing the nuclear, proliferation, and regional security dimensions of North Korea's threat. A coordinated position would also strengthen the administration's hand in its efforts to persuade China to put pressure on North Korea.

Both countries also face hostage crises involving citizens detained in North Korea. The recent conviction of two U.S. journalists heightens the stakes for the United States, although the administration has tried to decouple their plight from Pyongyang's missile tests.

Second, Presidents Obama and Lee have set the stage for a reinvigorated vision of a broader role for the U.S.-South Korea alliance as a contributor to a broad range of shared global challenges, most notably including nuclear non-proliferation and climate change. The broadening of alliance cooperation supports Lee's vision of a global Korea that features an expanded commitment to peacekeeping and development assistance that is in greater proportion to South Korea's economic clout as the world's 13th largest economy.

As the third-largest contributor of troops to Iraq, South Korea has also demonstrated its capacity to make valuable contributions to post-conflict stabilization. The U.S.-South Korea alliance can serve as a platform by which South Korea can make such contributions in many other areas, including Afghanistan. South Korea has already made commitments to send engineers and medical personnel to Afghanistan. It is poised now to expand its contributions, in line with its broadening scope of interest in contributing to global stability and its economic prowess.

Third, South Korea is an essential partner in addressing the global financial crisis. Its emphasis on fighting protectionism and promotion of stimulus at the April G20 leaders meeting in London illustrate how closely its priorities are aligned with those of the United States. A U.S. Federal Reserve line of credit to South Korea last fall played a critical role in stabilizing the South Korean's currency and forestalled a possible repeat of South Korea's difficulties in the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago.

The Obama and Lee administrations have the opportunity to send a powerful signal opposing protectionism by winning legislative support in both countries for the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement negotiated by their predecessors. Although Obama's public comments on this issue were cautious, there is a clear commitment to move forward if political obstacles to passage of the agreement can be effectively addressed. With the necessary revisions to meet new political conditions, Lee and Obama should urge their respective legislatures to consider early ratification of the trade pact. This would both support more effective coordination on the global financial crisis and underscore its value as a precedent that sets high standards for trade agreements in Asia, in contrast to the proliferation of Asian trade agreements that do little to promote a more open Asian trade and investment environment.

U.S.-South Korean coordination to manage North Korea's challenge to nonproliferation norms, the global financial crisis, and the transition in Afghanistan will underscore the practical value of alliance contributions to meet mutual interests in global security and prosperity. For this reason, Obama and Lee have a compelling interest in establishing a firm foundation for unlocking the potential of alliance cooperation in the service of our shared interests.

Jack Pritchard, former special envoy for negotiations with North Korea, and John Tilelli, former commander-in-chief of the U.N. Command and U.S. Forces in Korea, are co-chairs of the independent task force on U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations. Scott Snyder is the director. The opinions expressed do not represent the views of the task force or of CFR. This article appeared in the July 1, 2009 edition of The Korea Herald, and an earlier version of the article appeared earlier on -- Ed.

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