The Development of a U.S-South Korea Global Partnership and its meaning for the South Korean Labor and Progressive Movement


From May 6 to 9, President Park Geun-hye made her first trip to the United States since her inauguration. The highlight of the trip (save the sexual harassment scandal that has emerged surrounding her former spokesperson), came on May 7 when Park held a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Barak Obama in the White House Oval Office. The Park-Obama meeting drew widespread attention, coming as it did a midst a particularly high level of tension between the governments in Seoul and Pyeongyang. Many observers in the U.S. and South Korea expected the two leaders would layout a new blueprint for policy towards North Korea.

In general, these expectations proved to be correct. Regrettably, however, rather than discussing a new policy framework that might lead to the possibility for a breakthrough in the South-North stalemate, the two leaders essentially confirmed the currently existing hard-line stance towards North Korea and committed to increasing their military capacity vis-à-vis the already defensive nation. Further, the two leaders put for a vision for an upgrade of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, committing to latter's full integration into the former's plans to maintain its hegemony in the East Asian region.

Much of the substance of the bilateral meeting can be gleaned from the 'Joint Declaration in Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States of America' released at the meeting's conclusion. This declaration proclaims the commitment of the two leaders to development of a U.S.-South Korea relationship described as "inextricably linked to regional and global security and economic growth" into a "global partnership", while also strengthening its original function as a military alliance. In so doing, the declaration demonstrates the momentum gained by Obama's so-called 'pivot to Asia' policy (of strengthening of military and economic intervention in the region) due to the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula, and South Korea's commitment to assuming the role of junior partner in the U.S.' regional and global strategy.

Cooperation on Policy towards and Military Pressure on North Korea

Through the Park-Obama meeting, it became clear that the U.S. and South Korean governments agree that sanctions and collective military pressure are more likely to bring about change in North Korea's attitude than negotiations. The Joint Declaration states that the two countries, 'Share the deep concern that North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missiles programs and its repeated provocations pose grave threats to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.' Moreover, Obama's statement in a briefing after the meeting that, “The days when North Korea could create a crisis and elicit concessions...are over,” signals the United States' lack of willingness to change its policy framework. Park's call for the international community to, "Speak with one voice" about "North Korea's bad behavior" and "constantly send a firm message that they will not stand for it," struck a similar chord.

The two leaders also discussed a broad plan for strengthening their military alliance in order to back up cooperation on North Korea policy. The Joint Declaration reaffirms the United States' commitment "The defense of the Republic of Korea, including through extended deterrence and the full range of U.S. military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear." At negotiations concerning North Korea's nuclear program, held before the bilateral meeting, the two countries agreed to early development of a "tailored deterrence strategy" in relation to North Korea, suggesting plans to increase the reliability of the United States' nuclear umbrella and strengthen the joint U.S-South military force through restructuring of its command and weapons structure. In particular, the Joint Declaration implies the plan to include South Korea in the U.S.' Missile Defense System (MD), stating, "We are resolved to continue to defend our citizens against North Korea's provocations by strengthening our comprehensive, interoperable, and combined defense capabilities, to include shared efforts to counter the missile threat posed by North Korea and integrated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems." Based on this statement, it can be expected that South Korea's, as well as Japan's, integration into MD and the related issues of the conclusion of a South Korea-Japan information agreement and the strengthening of the two countries' conventional weapons capacity (such as through the introduction of precision-guided munitions or 'smart weapons') are likely to become heated issues in the wake of Park's trip to the U.S.

Development of a 'Global Partnership'

In addition to discussing the strengthening of their military alliance, Obama and Park discussed the development of the two countries' relationship into a 'global partnership'. As can be seen in the Joint Declaration, the U.S.-Korea FTA is a central piece of this plan. According to the declaration, through expanding trade and investment between the two countries, the FTA will not only bring economic profits to both countries, but will also, along with their military cooperation, enable the two country's to serve as a 'linchpin' to peace and security in the region.

Over the course of the past three administrations, the character of the U.S-Korea alliance has expanded and evolved to include more and more spheres of cooperation. The labeling of the alliance as a 'global partnership' signifies its development to include active involvement on a diverse range of issues including not only economics and culture, but also climate change, energy security, human rights, humanitarian aid, development, responses to terrorism, nuclear power safety and cyber security, with South Korea being brought in as a junior partner in the U.S.' global governance in these areas. This process has already been evident in the last several years in South Korea's dispatch of troops to Iraq to support the U.S. 'War on Terror', South Korean consent and aid to the realignment of the U.S forces in Korea based on the latter's Global Posture Review, the conclusion and enactment of the U.S.-Korea FTA and South Korea's hosting of the Nuclear Security Summit originally proposed by the U.S. as a means to maintain its nuclear hegemony.

Obama's pivot to Asia is a significant part of the U.S. strategy for exiting the global economic crisis. The pivot centers on a dual policy of engaging China (G2), but also developing the relationship with Japan and South Korea (G3) as guarantee against the possibility of conflict with former. This strategy appears on the one hand in the U.S.' attempt to respond to the changing balance of power resulting from China's growing economic power through changes in its military strategy and strengthening of its alliances with Japan and Korea and on the other by its plan to first include Japan and Korea in the Trans-Pacific Partnerships (TPP) and then develop the TPP into a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) modeled on the U.S-Korea FTA. Despite the fact that the TPP was not discussed directly in the recent bilateral meeting, the Joint Declaration's positive evaluation of the U.S.-Korea FTA suggests that in the near future efforts will be made to coax Park into join the TPP negotiations.

Tasks for the Labor and Progressive Movement

As stated above, the Park-Obama bilateral meeting marked a commitment to a strengthening of military cooperation, continuation of the policy of sanctions and military pressure against North Korea and the development of a U.S-South Korea Global Partnership. We must be clear that the continuation of pressure against North Korea is not a solution to tensions on the Korean Peninsula and instead will only exacerbate them. The strengthening of the U.S. and South Korea's already highly superior military strength will likely provoke North Korea to seek further development of its nuclear and missile capacity. In addition, if South Korea begins to participate in MD and the TPP, this will instigate a response from China, expanding tensions throughout the region. So, what must the labor and wider progressive movement do to respond?

First, we must commit not merely to participate in the peace movement, but rather to reinvigorate and eventually lead it. Over the last few months, the U.S. and South Korea have been strengthening their combined conventional and nuclear capacity under the name of 'tailored deterrence'. Concretely, this means joint military exercises, an increased coverage under the U.S.' nuclear umbrella, South Korea's introduction of smart weapons, the establishment of Korean Air Missile Defense (KAMD) and attempts at MD forward deployment. The labor and progressive movement must call for an end to joint military exercises, stop the augmentation of U.S and South Korean troops and the introduction of U.S.-made weapons, oppose an increase in South Korea's share of payment for the stationing of U.S troops in South Korea and demand a withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and U.S. troops. At the same time, we must also respond to Park's attempt to make way for South Korea's own nuclear armament and export of nuclear power (not addressed directly in the bilateral talks). To make this possible we must care out education for union members and the wider public about the reality of U.S.-South Korea and South-North relations, and also build a wide alliance with other progressive forces in South Korea and throughout the Asian region.

Second, we must keep watch for signs that South Korea is moving towards joining the TPP negotiations and at the same time develop a comprehensive alternative to free trade agreements in general. Up to this point, the South Korean government has kept its distance from the TPP, choosing instead to focus on the possibility of South Korea-China and South Korea-China-Japan FTAs. Nonetheless, given that the U.S. government has made it clear that the TPP is a top priority it is likely South Korea will not be able to delay participation for long. In the past, the U.S.-Korea FTA was seen as a key to advancing the U.S.-South Korea alliance by both governments. Now, Japan's participation in the TPP negations is being seen in a similar vein as a means to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance in the face of conflict between Japan and China. Reflecting on these facts, it can be assumed that the commitment made by Park and Obama to forming a global partnership will justification for the U.S. to demand South Korea's participation in the TPP. The labor and progressive movement must put forth a clear critique of the likely consequences of this global partnership, education union members and the public on this critique and develop a multifaceted strategy for response.

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