Strategic Divergence: Different Countries, Differing Views

By | May 04, 2012 | No Comments

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell has a conversation with South Korean foreign minister Yoo Myung-Hwan during a trip to the Korean peninsula | Pool/Getty Images AsiaPac

Although it may be too early to tell, it seems that a strategic divergence may be developing between Washington and Seoul as a result of domestic politics and frustration over failed diplomacy.  A nascent surge in populism in South Korean politics and indications of a hawkish shift in American foreign policy towards the peninsula suggest the opening of a strategic divergence between the two allies.  If true, this would further complicate South Korea’s already difficult diplomatic situation on the peninsula as a middle power located between two super powers and  a significant departure from assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell’s declaration that the road to improved US-DPRK relations “runs through Seoul.”  With presidential elections coming at the end of the year in both countries, predicting the direction that the United States or South Korea will take towards North Korea throughout this year may prove difficult.  However, if the conditions discussed below highlight any bit of truth, the US may be taking a different route to Pyongyang in the near future.  — S.C. Denney, Assistant Editor

Strategic Divergence: Different Countries, Differing Views

by Steven Denney

A New Conservative | Although difficult to gauge during an election year, the political current here in Seoul seems to indicate that whoever is elected, Conservative or Liberal, there will be a move away from what many consider to be Lee Myung-bak’s hardline policy towards North Korea.  Despite his Vision3000, which called on North Korea to start the process of de-nuclearization in exchange for a necessary level of economic assistance to raise the per capita GDP of the DPRK to $3,000, the complete opposite occurred: Following the sinking of the Cheonan in 2010, President Lee approved cutting off of commercial activity.  While one could make the case that President Lee had in fact arrived in office not with a hardline policy, but simply one that established conditions for aid, the events of 2010 resulted in a “harder-line” policy.

Of course, there are some around Seoul who think that isolation and containment was President Lee’s plan from day one.

Hardline or not, popular perception is key, particularly in a democracy.  Although the Saenuri Party, the re-manifestation of the Grand National Party (GNP), maintained its majority through the last parliamentary election, it may have done so only because of its modified party platform, which, under the leadership of chairwoman and presidential hopeful Park Guen-hye, has undergone self-rebranding by portraying itself as a party geared to tackle social inequalities instead of one committed to supporting big business ventures.

Populist Sentiment | Although not directly related to North Korea, the ruling party’s shift towards a more populist platform indicates a leftward-leaning trend in South Korea politics.  Such a shift implicitly includes a new North Korea policy.

The Liberals, especially those of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun type, axiomatically support engagement with North Korea. So the political Left are already committed to an engagement policy.  The Right, although generally associated with aid-for-denuclearization, strong ties with the US and a less conciliatory approach towards the North, will likely adopt a new policy based on some form of engagement.  Although a more conciliatory approach towards the North will be more of a political move executed in order to capture votes and preserve power, a general shift is nevertheless likely to occur.

A similar political stance on North Korea from both sides of the political aisle is the central message of this IISS Strategic Comments monograph from March of this year.  At the time, the authors of the monograph noted the shifting domestic sentiment and the Conservative government’s response that started prior to the parliamentary elections, as indicated above:

The Lee administration and the GNP [Saenuri] are clearly modifying their position.  The party, which is seeking to remodel itself ahead of parliamentary elections due in April and the presidential poll in December, does not wish to be seen as responsible for deteriorating inter-Korean relations. … With the GNP’s ultimately unproductive North Korea policy expected to contribute to a shift leftwards in the elections, a softening of Seoul’s stance towards the North is likely regardless of whether an opposition or GNP [Saenuri] candidate is elected president.

Of course, the IISS document was released before the satellite/missile launch and the political fallout of North Korea’s decision to show the world, or perhaps more specifically its own citizenry, that the DPRK is a “strong and prosperous nation.”

However, the notion that both Conservatives and Liberals are leaning to the left, even in a post-Un Ha political environment, is unlikely to change, as indicated by Professor Moon Chung-in in a recently published interview. Professor Moon as well notes that regardless of whether a Conservative or Liberal is elected, there will likely be a change in the South’s North Korea policy.

All Hawks Now? |  If the mood coming out of Washington, and from the lips of leading voices from the policy-realm, is any indication of the future of US policy towards the Korean peninsula, a strategic divergence between the US and the ROK may be on tap in the near future. The contours of this divergence are somewhat difficult to gauge because of the election season, now in full swing, but they are unmistakable.

President Obama has indicated that patience with North Korea is at an all-time low and a new, less-conciliatory policy towards the DPRK is on the docket (Joshua Stanton’s skepticism notwithstanding). With Prime Minister Noda of Japan standing symbolically at his side, Obama remarked that “[t]he old pattern of provocation that then gets attention and somehow insists on the world purchasing good behaviour from them, that pattern is broken…”  Leaning on a familiar pattern, emphasis was placed on North Korea’s failure to abide by “international norms” as a cause of tension and further strain between US-DPRK relations.

Although talk is cheap at official press conferences, actual conferences of scholars and policy makers tend to be more substantive in content.  The notion that the Obama administration will adopt a more hawkish stance towards North Korea was reinterred throughout a recent panel at last week’s Asan Plenum in Seoul entitled “American Foreign Policy towards the Korean Peninsula,” which included influential US policy wonks and academics Scott Snyder, Victor Cha, Christopher Hill and Bruce Klingner.

Despite the differing views and different points emphasized throughout their respective speeches, all panel members struck one similar chord:  North Korea’s behavior, particularly its two missiles launches (2009 and 2012) have precipitated a shift in attitudes of the entire administration.  In the words of former US Ambassador to Korea, North Korean recalcitrance has transformed Obama administration officials into “real hawks.”  Commenting on the future of US-ROK cooperation, Snyder emphasized that despite Korea’s “global Korea” movement and the strengthening of bi-lateral ties, Washington’s change in attitude towards North Korea indicates the possibility of a strategic divergence, conceptualized by Synder as the inability to “continue to share common goals and objectives.”

Unclear Future | How the failed Un-ha 3 missile launch and the pending nuclear test will alter Seoul’s northern policy and the joint US-ROK approach to North Korea is hard to say, given the recent power change in Pyongyang, the upcoming power change in Seoul and the Romney-Obama stand-off ready to commence in the States.  But, as Stephen Costello discusses, real progress has only come when both Washington and Seoul see eye-to-eye on how to approach Pyongyang.  The development of a strategic divergence between the US and Korea is not likely to bode well for either country, much less North Korea.

Former US Ambassador to South Korea Christopher Hill and Scott Synder from the Council on Foreign Relations at the Asan Plenum in Seoul, Korea | Image courtesy of the Asan Institute

Further Reading:

For the ambitious, this report by the Korea Institute for National Unification on the Lee Myung-bak administration’s North Korea policy is an insightful read. It reiterates the concepts of “Denuclearization and Openness,” two pillars of the Lee Myung-bak’s North Korea policy.

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