Asan Plenum

Panel: Never Been Better? Korea-U.S. Relations
Date/Time: Wednesday, April 29, 2015 / 13:30-14:45
Moderator: Anna Fifield, The Washington Post
Van Jackson, Center for a New American Security
Kim Sung-han, Korea University
Sakata Yasuyo, Kanda University of International Studies
Yang Xiyu, China Institute of International Studies

Panel moderator Ms. Anna Fifield, the Washington Post’s Tokyo Bureau Chief, began the session entitled “Never Been Better? Korea-U.S. Relations” by listing the positive results of the Korea-U.S. relationship in recent years, such as the ROK-U.S. FTA and the new 1-2-3 agreement. Speakers were asked to give their assessments of the current ROK-U.S. bilateral relationship and possibility for Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral cooperation in the foreseeable future.

Dr. Kim Sung-han, professor of international relations at the Graduate School of International Studies and director of Ilmin International Relations Institute of Korea University, described the alliance as a ‘blood alliance’. However, he noted that even if Seoul and Washington have a good relationship, there will be concerns and skepticisms among U.S. policy circles when tensions between Seoul and Tokyo rise yet again. Since the Asia-Pacific does not have an institutionalized multilateral mechanism of its own, regional countries need to benchmark the European model—e.g. NATO, OSCE—for successful security cooperation. Dr. Kim suggested establishing a 1.5 track strategic dialogue or a certain form of national security panel among the countries, complementing it with mini-lateral efforts such as a Korea-U.S.-Japan trilateral consultative mechanism.

Dr. Van Jackson, visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security and Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, agreed with Dr. Kim’s comments and insisted that the two allies take note of areas of disagreement and see where they intersect with global and regional trends. Dr. Jackson mentioned three trends: China’s rise and the regional order, missile proliferation, and Japan. He argued that there is a security and economic divide of alliances within the South Korean policy. The United States is at the center when it comes to security matters, while China dominates South Korea’s economic talks. He went on to say that China is likely to run into a brick wall if it tries to coercively influence South Korea’s security alliance and vice versa for the United States with South Korea’s economic relations. Dr. Jackson also simultaneously claimed that the United States should not stop South Korea from acquiring offensive missile assets if it tries to, and that South Korea should get on the right side of missile proliferation—procuring defensive assets—now before it is too late. Lastly, with regards to Japan pivoting away from its pacifism, he argued that the question for South Korea is whether it will stay in or out of the dense defense network Japan will endeavor to build in the Indo-Pacific region.

Mr. Yang Xiyu, senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies and Executive Vice President at the Institute of Boao Forum for Asia, said that ROK-U.S. alliance is in the middle of a historical transition as the dynamics on the Korean Peninsula is changing. Commenting on closer ROK-U.S. relations as the result of bad inter-Korean relations, he argued that the two countries’ different strategic ambitions are a source of friction in the alliance. Thus, the fundamental challenge for South Korean policy makers is how to rebuild ROK-U.S. relations regardless of inter-Korean relations. Mr. Yang also pointed out that the military alliance can either positively or negatively influence Chinese actions, depending on whether the scope of the alliance’s endeavors stay within the boundaries of the Korean Peninsula or goes beyond it as the U.S.-Japan alliance has done.

The last speaker, Professor Sakata Yasuyo, professor of international relations at the Kanda University of International Studies in Japan, argued that the Japan-U.S.-ROK trilateral cooperation does exist. For the United States to sustain its influence in the region, it should keep the alliance robust. She also mentioned that a robust alliance with the United States is important for South Korea and Japan as well. Expressing her frustration regarding Korea-Japan cooperation, she said where Japan is positioned within the South Korean strategic mindset is important for future discussions of this bilateral relationship. Professor Sakata stressed that Japan’s security strategy and policy still remains pacifist. and the fundamentals have not changed despite recent changes. She argued that Japan is merely responding to changes in the global and regional security environment. At the same time, she recognized the need for the Japanese government to reassure regional neighbors in regards to its intentions and goals. Suggesting an adoption of additional information and logistics sharing measures and utilizing the China-Japan-Korea trilateral mechanism to engage China, she pointed out humanitarian security and general maritime security matters for possible areas of future cooperation.