US President Obama and his South Korean colleague Park have in Washington expressed their concern over the North's repeated provocations. Both reiterated their commitment to keeping up a strong military deterrent.
For 60 years, the US and South Korea have been allies. Since the end of the Korean War, the American's have assured the safety and security of the southern part of the Korean peninsula. And nothing has changed. With the first visit of the newly elected South Korean President, Park Geun Hye to the United States, President Barack Obama used a joint press conference at the White House to announce, "if Pyongyang thought its recent threats would drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States or somehow garner the North international respect, today is further evidence that North Korea has failed again."
The alliance is "stronger than ever," the White House said, as the American president pointed to cooperation's such as sending troops into Afghanistan, joint military exercises and a trade agreement that was only signed last year. Obama said, as a result the US would sell more products in South Korea – more goods, services and agricultural products and automotive exports have increased by 50-percent. But it's too early to have a full overview, says Scott Snyder, Korean expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "The trade figures show an improvement, but so far it's not a dramatic improvement and it is really hard to identify in specific terms so far what aspects of that increase are being driven by the fact that it's a free trade agreement."
Maintaining a strong deterrent
The agreement, according to Snyder, is a political show of mutual ties. What connects these two countries is their military cooperation and common enemy: North Korea. Starting 2015, the power of command in case of war will be transferred from the US to South Korea. But, this doesn't mean the American will withdraw their troops," says Snyder. "They've never been discussing US withdrawal, they've been discussing basically a transition from a US approach to a US supported approach, where South Korea would be taking a more high profile role in terms of leading any war time command effort."
Both leaders seem to agree on policy with regard to North Korea. President Obama summed it up by saying "we are going to maintain a strong deterrent, we're not going to reward provocative behavior, but we remain open to the prospect of North Korea taking a peaceful path." His comments correlate with Parks' "trust policy," which researcher Nicholas Eberstadt from the American Enterprise Institute says is not so clear. "But if you look at President Parks' approach to North Korean affairs, she's been pretty tough." Park explained she would leave it up to the military to respond to provocation from the North without fear of political reprisals.
Neither Park, nor Obama, wanted to say though that the recent withdrawal of two rockets from their launch positions was already a positive step. The days when North Korea could create a crisis and elicit concessions were over, he added. However, it is clear to those in Washington and Seoul that the only way forward is to take small steps.
For US interests in Asia, South Korea is a crucial partner. Scott Synder points out that "this is one spot where the United States has bases on the mainland of Asia." But Washington is well aware that the alliance needs to be modernized – from a military to a economic international partnership. But there are also areas of friction - Snyder points to South Korea's nuclear policy. "South Korea has an advanced nuclear program for peaceful production of nuclear energy didn't want to take an action that would extend enrichment and reprocessing, especially at a time when that is one of the main sticking points in the relation with North Korea." This is not popular in the US, yet is a central sticking point with North Korea. The South Korean president has indicated she will use her speech before congress to ask that qualified Korean workers in the US are able to more easily get a working visa.
Whether they can retain their alliance once North Korea as a common enemy no longer exists, remains to be seen. This, Nicholas Eberstadt says, could be the case in the not too distant future. "If the alliance is going to continue into the future, the political leaders in both countries are going to have to make that argument and they are going to have to convince their people." But, we are not there yet, there still is that one common enemy.