Title: Hill Briefing- Change and Continuity: South Korean Elections and the Future of US-Korean Peninsula Relations
Host: The National Bureau of Asian Research
Date/Time: Friday, March 24, 2017 / 11:00am-12:00pm
Location: Rayburn House Office Building 2200
Choi Kang, Vice President for Research, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies
Roberta Cohen, Co-Chair Emeritus, Committee for Human Rights in North Korea
Patrick Cronin, Senior Advisor and Senior Director, Asia Pacific Security Program, Center for a New American Security
Dan Aum, Director, Government and Media Relations, The National Bureau of Asian Research (moderator)
On March 24, 2017, Choi Kang of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and other leading Korea experts briefed congressional staff at Rayburn House Office on the upcoming South Korean presidential election on May 9 and the future of US-Korean Peninsula relations. Hosted by The National Bureau of Asian Research, this briefing outlined key factors and interests that could shape the ROK-US relationship in the areas of security, geopolitics, and human rights during the period of leadership transition in both countries.
Choi shared his view on domestic politics and how it will affect the future of the ROK-US alliance and North Korea policy. With only five weeks until the presidential election, Moon Jae-in remains as the front runner with more than 30% support. However, there are several areas of concern for the hopeful candidate. Unlike previous administrations, there will be no period of transition for the Blue House. This will increase the likelihood of confusion and incoherence for at least the first six months. Despite a large support base in the Moon camp, this is focused on political mobilization rather than policy study. And it remains unclear whether a real policy review and development can take place before the election. Thus far, policy debates center around domestic issues including social welfare and economy, government transparency and communication with the public, and amendment of the constitution. Security issues such as North Korea and THAAD deployment are discussed but will most likely be dealt with after addressing these domestic issues in the next administration. In respect to Moon’s foreign policy, there is discussion on the revival of the Sunshine Policy. However, the continued provocations by North Korea and recent Chinese behavior vis-à-vis South Korea will hinder the incoming administration to change its policy toward a softer approach on North Korea. Regardless of who wins the election, the next president will have to form a coalition government. The Democratic Party and Liberty Korea Party have 121 and 93 seats, respectively, but no party has the majority in the National Assembly. Without a coalition government, it will be difficult to coordinate a policy direction in the coming years.
Patrick Cronin addressed the elements of change and continuity in the ROK-US relationship. Despite the possibility of two very different administrations, the interest of the alliance will endure as it faces a persistent North Korea threat and a potential ICBM capability in the near future. Deterrence continues to work under a strong ROK-US military alliance, but the United States and South Korea will need to take steps to reassure allies and augment defenses. North Korea cannot be stopped from making incremental improvements of WMDs but efforts can be continued to deter the use of any of those weapons and thereby deny North Korea significant advantage. These elements of change on the alliance create a defense sharing and power sharing question over OPCON. If the next Korean president wants to put OPCON back to a timeline rather than based on conditions, then that would become a political issue. Both the US and South Korea will prioritize their domestic economy over enacting policy change in respect to North Korea. The fundamental interest in managing the North Korea threat realistically but being ready for a crisis is to make sure that both economies are growing. If both economies are growing, these problems become easier. Conversely, protectionism and economic nationalism could spill over to the alliance. As the ROK and the US deal with THAAD, OPCON, North Korea strategy, and economic issues, they must find common solutions that minimize differences and maximize what they share.
Roberta Cohen emphasized the importance of addressing both human rights and security issues in a broader policy on North Korea. North Korea uses systematic crimes against humanity as state policy while developing nuclear weapons delivery systems at an accelerated pace. Without efforts to address this, a denuclearization agreement will inspire very little confidence or trust. The UN Security Council placed North Korea’s human rights situation on its agenda because its human rights practices affect the security of other states whether it be abductions, assassinations, trafficking, political defections, or arrests of visiting foreigners. The ROK-US alliance is not just based on military security but shared democratic and human rights values. Setting this aside not only undermines those values but cede the floor to North Korea. The Kim regime needs to know that any normalization of relations, peace treaty, economic aid, and lifting of sanctions will require changes in its human rights practices. A negotiation on human rights with North Korea should be planned for as part of a comprehensive policy that encompasses denuclearization, economic issues, humanitarian and human rights issues. To press North Korea on denuclearization, stronger financial sanctions are being considered as well as other steps. For human rights area, more potent measures could be taken such as mobilizing other states to adopt human rights sanctions like the United States has or exploring the withdrawal of North Korea’s credential at the UN General Assembly. Combining this action with similar steps on human rights may make for a more coherent policy.