Obama-II And The Korean Peninsula: The Road Ahead – Analysis


By Rajaram Panda

Will newly re-elected US President Barack Obama’s Korean strategy in his second administration undergo any major change, given North Korea’s continued belligerence and attitude of non-cooperation on the matter of resolving the nuclear issue? Are there challenges in this region, which run the risk of overshadowing his accomplishments in the alliance with South Korea?

Thus far, apart from its alliance relationship with Japan remaining the lynchpin of US strategy in East Asia, a strong alliance with Seoul also added another cog in the US wheel that helped the Obama administration maintain relative stability on the diplomatic front and buttressed Washington’s ‘pivot’ towards the Asia Pacific region.

North Korea–South Korea Relations
North Korea–South Korea Relations

The question is, can South Korea count on wholesale changes with Obama back in the White House or will it mark a departure from US strategy during President Lee Myung-bak’s regime? Until now, Seoul could maintain close and friendly ties with Washington and obtained US support for its stance towards North Korea. The potential game-changer could be South Korea’s leadership change next month as a Korean President is not allowed to seek re-election. However, from the overall perspective of the US ‘pivot’ to Asia policy, and the potential threat from North Korea that continues to lurk in the horizon and threatens the peace and stability in Asia, Washington’s stance will continue to be supportive of the new leadership’s stance on North Korea.

There is also a contrarian view. For example, Kim Eun-mee, Ewha Women’s University says that with change in the administration in South Korea, Obama’s policy towards North Korea will also change in correspondence to what changes in Korea. However, that may not be the case since all three presidential candidates (Park Geun-hye of the conservative and ruling Saenuri Party and daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, Moon Jae-in of Democratic United Party and Independent Ahn Chul-soo, the latter two from the liberal camp) plan to have a more open and engaged policy towards North Korea with a view to create permanent peace on the Korean peninsula. Therefore, a moderate approach by the new Korean President may be expected. As a start, Seoul may push to restart tourism to Mount Kumgang in North Korea and expand humanitarian aid and economic cooperation. In the face of Pyongyang’s continued intransigence on its nuclear program and Seoul’s possible initiatives during the term of the next President, diplomats are likely to face an early test to coordinate their North Korean strategy.

For the new Korean regime, the silver lining could be the expected departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has been the strongest advocate for a firm policy towards North Korea. Of the two potential replacements of Hillary Clinton, US ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, and Senator John Kerry, are likely to favour a more energetic outreach to the North.

It is possible that there may be some conflict of interest by the new dispensation in Seoul with the Obama administration as during his first term, he played safe with Pyongyang, allowing it to continue developing its nuclear weapons programs. According to Scott Snyder, at the Council on Foreign Relations, though the current stable relationship will be inherited by the new President of Korea, he should be prepared “for possible bumps in the road”. Coordination of strategy on North Korea has often been a source of rift between the two allies in the past, whenever there is a new President in South Korea. This time may not be different, though the intensity of the differences may remain minimal.

There are other unresolved issues between the two allies. For example, Washington continues to pressure Seoul to join its global missile defense program, to which Seoul is treading carefully, fearing that any such agreement could aggravate ties with China and North Korea. Dividing the cost of stationing US troops on the peninsula in the coming years and Washington’s efforts to further open South Korea’s beef market are other issues that may pose new challenges to the new administrations.

Handling the issue of a bilateral civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact that is set to expire in early 2014 is another tricky one. Seoul is seeking more non-military nuclear activities, including the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent fuel rods. According to Bruce Klinger at the Heritage Foundation, if Obama in his second term will be “willing to make adjustments in his non-proliferation policies to accommodate Korean interests, or whether UN non-proliferation interests ultimately serve as constraints that will limit the development of South Korea’s nuclear program” remains to be seen.

With no burden of re-election, Obama is expected to be more active on the Korean peninsula policy. During his first term, he maintained the policy of “strategic patience” – waiting for Pyongyang to return to the negotiating table while putting pressure on the regime to take steps towards denuclearization and to mend ties with South Korea. The Six-Party Talks was last held in December 2008, when Pyongyang walked out and remains suspended since then. Efforts may begin anew to re-start the dialogue sometime next year after elections are over in South Korea and leadership changes take place in China in the coming weeks. The new crop of leaders in the US, South Korea, China, possibly in Japan as well, since elections are expected in December if Noda dissolves the Lower House; besides Russia, would face the daunting task of navigating a course towards the resolution of North Korea’s nuclear issue in 2013.

Denuclearising the Korean peninsula will be a huge challenge.

Rajaram Panda
Guest Faculty, JNU


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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