Madame Park Goes to Washington

Interview with John S. Park
May 6, 2013

Ahead of new South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s visit to the United States in May, John S. Park (NBR) discussed several of the issues Presidents Guen-hye and Obama were likely to address as tensions on the Korean peninsula continued to simmer.

An Interview with John S. Park

By Abraham Denmark and Isaac Medina
May 6, 2013

This week South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, makes her first trip to the United States since assuming office in February. As tensions on the Korean peninsula continue to simmer, John S. Park (NBR) discusses several of the issues Madame Park and President Obama are likely to address during her visit.

Aside from the traditional objective of reaffirming a strong and vibrant U.S.–South Korea security alliance, what are the key goals that President Park Geun-hye will seek to achieve during her visit to the United States?

During the recent month-long escalation of tensions on the Korean Peninsula, major U.S. investors were rattled by North Korea’s colorful threats of war and the enhanced show of military force by the United States and South Korea. To allay these concerns, a 51-member South Korean business delegation will be accompanying President Park on her first official visit to the United States. Included in the delegation are heads of South Korea’s five major chaebols, or conglomerates—most notably, Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung Electronics Co. The stated purpose of this high-powered business delegation is to expand trade and investment opportunities under the Korea–U.S. Free Trade Agreement that was passed last year. In practice, a top priority is to dispel any lingering doubts about the safety of U.S. investments in the South Korean economy caused by recent North Korean provocations.

Another key goal is to coordinate closely with the Obama administration on efforts to pressure China to rein in its North Korean ally. Progress in this area would create diplomatic space for President Park to try to launch her “trustpolitik” strategy, which is primarily aimed at effectively managing inter-Korean relations during her term. Continuation of unbridled North Korean provocations would likely lead to another cycle of frozen relations between the two Koreas, as her predecessor experienced. Having exhausted the financial sanctions route, Washington and Seoul are attempting to persuade the new leadership in Beijing to use North Korea’s growing economic dependence on China as a rare lever to moderate the behavior of the Kim Jong-un regime.

Two major challenges that President Park will need to address during her term are the upcoming transfer of wartime operational control from U.S. Forces Korea to the South Korean military in 2015 and the renegotiation of the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement. What related turbulences will she have to navigate?

Keeping the transfer of wartime operational control on track is already a daunting task. Adding to the complexity is the looming renegotiation of South Korea’s burden-sharing agreement with U.S. Forces Korea on host-nation support. With austerity deepening in Washington and the South Korean media focusing on every detail of the contentious burden-sharing agreement talks, Presidents Park and Obama’s stewardship of the alliance will be tested early on in their respective terms. Questions regarding who pays for what and how much were traditionally addressed behind closed doors for political considerations. The increased scrutiny has sparked strong reactions in both capitals. Among members of the U.S. Congress from both parties, the current split of Seoul picking up 42% of the tab and Washington covering the remainder has elicited shock that a prosperous ally is paying so little for the security provided by U.S. troops on Korean soil. In Seoul, members of the National Assembly and the public are alarmed that South Korea is paying so much for hosting U.S. troops—even in the aftermath of recent North Korean provocations against the South. Cost considerations are likely to add another level of difficulty to the already complex preparations for the transfer of wartime operational control.

Another set of turbulences that President Park will have to take the lead in managing is directly related to the renegotiation of the 1972 nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and South Korea. With no deal in sight after initial talks, Seoul and Washington agreed to extend the expiration date of this agreement from 2014 to 2016 in order to avoid an early major policy crisis. In technical terms, Seoul seeks a deal that would allow it to enrich uranium or reprocess spent nuclear fuel for its civil nuclear energy program. Washington’s main concern is that such a deal would impede its efforts to address North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear-proliferation activities. In political terms, the Park administration views renegotiation of the 1972 pact as a critical test of trust between two countries that will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of their alliance in October 2013.

At the strategic level, the overall goal of President Park’s visit is to set a tone of continuity in the dynamic relationship between South Korea and the United States. By projecting an image of Seoul’s unique access to Washington, she will be able to raise the bar in engaging the new Chinese leadership in a bid to improve relations with Beijing, as well as be in a better position to contend with an increasingly volatile regime in Pyongyang.

Abraham Denmark is Vice President of Political and Security Affairs and Isaac Medina is an Intern for Political and Security Affairs.