NEXT WEEK, new South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will visit Washington on his first foreign trip abroad, hoping to cement closer ties with the U.S. government. His hopes are likely to be dashed, and the effect on the 50-year-old U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) alliance could be catastrophic. Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are conspiring to yank the rug out from under Lee's feet.
Despite some early stumbles, including the resignation of some Cabinet picks due to corruption charges, Lee has shown himself a bold and visionary leader who intends to transform his country's relations with the rest of the world. For Washington, there could be no better partner in the work of stabilizing the Korean peninsula, improving trilateral relations among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, and showcasing the strength of democracy in a region of the world that desperately needs such examples.
Just this week, South Korean voters showed their weariness with a decade of appeasing neighboring North Korea and its Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. They gave Lee's Grand National Party (GNP) a resounding victory in legislative elections and a majority in the National Assembly. Lee now has a clear mandate to pursue his economic and foreign policies. The question is whether Korea's closest ally, the United States, will help or hinder the bold plans of the new Korean leader.
President Lee is a former businessman, and has promised to double the per capita income of South Koreans (to US$40,000 per year), as well as achieve 7 percent annual economic growth. He plans to cut corporate taxes, spur foreign investment in Korea, trim the federal bureaucracy, and provide housing aid for those caught by the rise in property prices. On the foreign front, Lee has made it clear that North Korea will receive aid from the South only if it sticks to its promises to denuclearize. In addition, Lee has called for a closer alliance with the United States, warmer relations with Japan, and for making Korea a bigger player in the global arena.
In response, the North Korean news agency has called the new President a "traitor" and sycophant to the Americans, all the while warning the South that it will be turned to "ashes" if it continues to threaten Kim Jong Il's regime. Pyongyang has also expelled a twelfth South Korean official from one of its joint industrial-construction projects in North Korea. The offense? Statements by South Korean officials that continued cooperation would be difficult if the North refused to move forward with denuclearization. Meanwhile, Pyongyang launched a volley of short-range missiles in an attempt to intimidate South Korea's voters from supporting President Lee's party in this week's legislative elections.
But whereas South Korea's voters showed fortitude in choosing hope over fear, American politicians are caving in to foreign and domestic demons. North Korea, it seems, gets far more solicitude than our ally. The State Department yesterday announced the latest "agreement" between Assistant Secretary Chris Hill and North Korea, in which Pyongyang promises yet again to give a full accounting of its nuclear programs at another unspecified date, though it still doesn't have to account for what weapons it has already produced nor how much plutonium it has. The payoff this time? Delisting from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, which would give Pyongyang a huge moral victory, not to mention access to international financing currently restricted by its terrorist activities. Such a declaration by Washington is likely to materially damage relations with Japan, our main ally in Asia next to South Korea, and could undercut Lee's attempt to hold Pyongyang's feet to the fire. In addition, the Pentagon has brushed off Lee's requests to reconsider dissolving the combined forces command that controls U.S. and ROK troops in wartime, despite near universal opposition from South Korean military officers.
Over on Capitol Hill, on the other hand, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is doing its best to kill further free trade agreements, including the one already signed with South Korea and awaiting ratification. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may think it good politics at home to destroy America's reputation among its allies, but South Koreans won't be so forgiving of her motives. Korean officials have hinted for months that the failure to pass the Korea-U.S. FTA will have major repercussions on the alliance and will be interpreted as a lack of American commitment to the relationship.
So what can President Lee expect from his trip to Washington? Lots of niceties and little that will help him achieve his goals. Unless our policies change soon, America will find itself increasingly isolated in Asia, watching from the sidelines as China increases its influence and North Korea bests Washington once again in international diplomacy. South Korea and Japan will conclude that America is more interested in avoiding trouble than in solving problems and maintaining leadership. It is ironic that President Lee is coming during the peak of cherry blossom season, since the good will between Korea and the United States seems as fragile and fleeting as the blossoms themselves.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.