President Obama's Trip to Korea
November 17, 2009
Q1: What are the key defense issues?
A1: President Obama will seek to reaffirm the bilateral alliance and review progress in modernizing the defense relationship between the two countries, including the 2004 agreement to return over 50 U.S. camps and bases to Korea. Conservatives in Korea would like to see the two leaders delay the 2012 reversion to South Korea of wartime operational command from the United States given the heightened threat from North Korea, but the Obama administration is sticking with the original agreement and timeline.
Q2: What are the issues of contention on trade?
A2: Koreans have very high expectations that Obama will bring some positive news on moving forward with the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), which has languished in Congress since 2007. They are likely to be disappointed. Obama has not enunciated a trade policy despite attending the APEC forum (the economies of which constitute nearly 50 percent of global trade), and the administration wants to reevaluate clauses of the 2007 agreement related to autos. South Korea meanwhile has grown impatient and has negotiated FTAs with other major economies, including the European Union and India, to the disadvantage of U.S. businesses. Advocates of the FTA view congressional passage of the agreement as not only increasing bilateral trade, but also as an important strategic step in deepening overall ties and in rooting the U.S. presence in Asia in the face of a looming China.
Q3: Why is Obama opposed to the KORUS FTA?
A3: The primary issue appears to be the auto sector, but most other sectors including manufacturing and services do well by the agreement. Nonpartisan expert studies estimate that the FTA would lead to increased exports of American goods and services to Korea, creating as many as 240,000 new jobs in the United States.
Q4: What about next steps on North Korea?
A4: Presidents Obama and Lee will seek to coordinate their latest initiatives vis-à-vis North Korea. The United States is likely to dispatch a senior envoy to Pyongyang, Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, shortly after Obama’s return from Asia. South Korea has also engaged in quiet discussions about a possible inter-Korean summit, though tensions have risen since the naval altercation off the Korean coast on November 10. The objective of both diplomatic efforts is to coax North Korea back to the Six-Party Talks and to the 2005 denuclearization agreement. The leaders will also strategize over how to get China to play a more productive role in pressing the North to stop its nuclear and missile tests.
Q5: Is Obama naive enough to believe a high-level bilateral meeting with North Korea would convince it to give up its nuclear weapons?
A5: No. Obama and his Asia team are not naive in this regard. They probably see the sending of a high-level envoy as the most direct way of putting pressure on the Chinese to use its substantial material leverage to compel Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party Talks. Should the United States send an envoy—as China has urged—and the North is uncooperative, then the onus falls on Beijing to exercise its leverage.
Q6: What is the global agenda for the two leaders?
A6: Obama and Lee are likely to review South Korea’s decision to dispatch combat troops to Afghanistan. Given the recent history of captive South Korean missionaries, this courageous move to reengage will certainly be applauded by Obama. The two leaders will also discuss plans for global economic recovery. South Korea is the first of the Asian economies to show significant signs of improvement, registering trade surpluses and growth in the last quarter thanks to the Lee administration’s bold economic stimulus packages. South Korea will host the G-20 meetings in November 2010. The Koreans also have been good players on the climate change agenda.
Q7: Anything distinct about this visit?
A7: This visit is unusual in the sense that, for the first time in recent memory, the Korea stop for a U.S. president is actually the “easiest.” It used to be Japan, when Tokyo and Washington were in lock step on almost all issues, while liberal governments in Korea chafed at U.S. policies. Now, a new government in Japan and a plethora of difficult issues with China make Korea—with its economic stimulus, contributions to Afghanistan, and forward-leaning positions on climate change—the “good ally” in Asia.
Victor D. Cha holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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© 2009 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.