A New Dawn in South Korea

A new pro-American president took the oath of office in Seoul today. After years of tense relations with South Korea, the United States needs to make up for lost time.

Earlier today, Lee Myung-bak took his oath of office as the tenth president of the Republic of Korea. Not only does the inauguration-the second peaceful handover of power from one party to political opponents since the country's 1988 transition to democracy-represent a significant milestone in South Korea's constitutional evolution, it opens a new chapter in the country's relationship with the United States which had been allowed to sour considerably under Lee's predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.

During his five years in office, Roh frustrated-if not alienated outright-many of Seoul's traditional allies by his constant failed efforts to cast himself as a mediator between them and the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-Il. In 2005, when the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution censuring North Korea for "systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights" including "torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, public executions, extrajudicial and arbitrary detention, the absence of due process and the rule of law, the imposition of the death penalty for political reasons, the existence of a large number of prison camps, and the extensive use of forced labor" as well as "all-pervasive and severe restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience, religion, opinion and expression," the South Koreans-who ought to know better than anyone else the truth of the resolution's charges-actually abstained, invoking "the sake of more urgent and important policy goals integral to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula." A year later, as the North Korean regime prepared a series of provocative missile tests, the South Korean foreign ministry insisted that Pyongyang was only planning to launch a civilian satellite. When, instead, Pyongyang fired off seven rockets-all of which are fully capable of hitting anywhere in South Korea-Seoul turned its ire on those who made an issue of the incident, criticizing "the creation of a state of needless tension and confrontation by the excessive reaction of certain parties" (viz., the United States and Japan) which would "not be conducive to problem-solving." Unfortunately for Roh's legacy, rather than being gratified by the apologetics, his mercurial North Korean counterpart went ahead later that fall with a full-blown test of a nuclear device-to which the South Korean president responded, in a nationally-televised address, by advising his countrymen that his "sunshine policy" was "not something we should give up upon."

Fortunately, for the future of not only the U.S.-Korean alliance, but also the balance of power in the region, South Korean voters thought otherwise and, turning on Roh's United New Democratic Party during the December 2007 poll, allowed Lee Myung-bak of the conservative Grand National Party to trounce his nearest challenger in the race for the Blue House by a 22.6 percent margin, the largest margin of victory ever in Korean history. With this electoral mandate behind him, Lee now has an opportunity to restore his country's battered relations with the United States as well as its ties with other partners-and it would be in America's interest to reach out to him.

Despite the efforts of Roh Moo-hyun to play to anti-American sentiments among younger South Koreans, the United States still keeps some 28,500 troops in the country, the overwhelming majority of the United Nations force that, since the 1953 armistice, has been providing the security guarantee under which South Korea has prospered. The American troop presence is more than symbolic: despite the severe economic depredations of recent years, North Korea is still a heavily militarized state on a permanent war footing which deploys most of its conventional forces within easy striking distance of the South Korean capital (Seoul is only about thirty miles from the demilitarized zone). In case of war, the U.S. military commander on the peninsula is expected to take command of the combined U.S.-South Korean forces and somehow hold the line with a mere fraction of the forces which General Douglas MacArthur had when the Kim family dictatorship last struck half a century ago.

President Lee's advisors have sent reassuring signals that they realize that the type of security that America has provided-at no little cost to itself-cannot be taken for granted. After all, Washington could conceivably still honor the terms of the mutual defense treaty with Seoul, which requires a U.S. response to any aggression by Pyongyang, without necessarily basing large numbers of American personnel in South Korea. In fact, an argument could be made that billeting the forces elsewhere actually gives U.S. commanders greater flexibility in their eventual response to any attack. Hence, Lee's advisors, including Harvard-educated academic Kim Byung-kook, who will serve as first senior presidential secretary for foreign and security policy, have been openly discussing what South Korea can do to support U.S. security priorities, including programs which would be clearly aimed at containing North Korea like the Proliferation Security Initiative and regional missile defense. Lee has even gone so far as to state that reinforcing the U.S.-South Korean alliance would improve stability on the Korean peninsula: "South Korean-U.S. ties have been neglected for the sake of South-North Korean relations. Strengthened ties between South Korea and the U.S. will help make South-North relations better. And if South Korea-U.S. relations improve, North Korea-U.S. relations will get better."