- Hazards on the Road Ahead:The United States and the Korean Peninsula
In important ways, U.S. relations with the Korean Peninsula have been frozen in amber since the end of the George W. Bush administration. President Barack Obama did not try to revive the failed six-party talks. Instead, he cooperated with a friendly conservative government in Seoul—first under President Lee Myung-bak, then under President Park Geun-hye—both to strengthen sanctions on North Korea and to improve alliance and defense coordination among the United States, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and Japan. This resulted in Seoul’s decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system and to share military intelligence with Tokyo. It did not, however, stop Kim Jong-un from pressing ahead with the regime’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. With North Korea now threatening to deploy nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the continental United States, the need for unity between Seoul and Washington on how to confront this threat is greater than ever. But this comity will be harder to achieve than before because of the tectonic shifts that are occurring in South Korea just as the new U.S. administration is taking office.
This essay examines the outlook for U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula, beginning with an examination of the political upheaval currently occurring in Seoul and the growing threat posed by the Kim regime. The essay then analyzes options for the United States and concludes with policy recommendations for the incoming administration.
South Korea: Political Upheaval Could Challenge U.S.-ROK Alliance
Donald Trump suggested during the campaign that he is likely to seek renegotiation with Seoul and Tokyo to convince the two allies to increase their share of the cost to subsidize the expense of stationing U.S. troops in Northeast Asia. He might actually have had a good chance of extracting a greater contribution out of South Korea if the conservative Park remained in office as president. But she is in the process of being ousted as a result [End Page 21] of a scandal involving the undue influence exerted over her by long-time confidant Choi Soon-sil. Choi stands accused of abusing her privileged position to extort $70 million or more from leading chaebols (South Korean business conglomerates), with some of the money allegedly siphoned off for her personal use. This scandal considerably decreases the odds of the conservative Saenuri Party staying in power and increases the likelihood of a more liberal candidate winning the presidency. If that were to happen, it could heighten uncertainty about the future of the U.S.-ROK alliance because the opposition parties in South Korea are more inclined than Washington to find common ground with Pyongyang.
South Korea’s parliament impeached President Park in December 2016, and now the Constitutional Court must decide within six months whether to uphold the motion. If the impeachment motion is upheld, Park would have to leave office and a snap presidential election would occur within 60 days. Besides UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who has hinted strongly but not officially declared whether he will run when his term expires at the end of 2016, the leading candidate to replace Park is the liberal opposition leader, Moon Jae-in. Compared with President Park or Secretary General Ban, Moon is far less enamored of the United States and far more inclined to take a conciliatory line with North Korea. Moon is likely to revive his own version of the Sunshine Policy toward the North pursued by Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roo Moo-hyun from 1998 to 2008. During this period, Seoul pumped approximately $8 billion in economic assistance into North Korea in the hopes of improving bilateral relations, and there was a wide gap between Washington and Seoul over how to handle Pyongyang.1 Moon has also repeatedly underscored a policy favoring Beijing, which will likely entail a greater diplomatic investment in relations with China than with the United States. All in all, having declared his intent to revive former president Roh’s legacy, Moon is likely to modify the U...