Jaw-Jaw: Why weaken the U.S. - South Korea alliance?

Sung Kim, an experienced and competent professional who has worked on Korean issues for years as a senior U.S. diplomat, has been nominated to the post of U.S. Ambassador to South Korea. Our ally Seoul has indicated its support of the Kim nomination.

So why has an unknown Senator – presumed widely to be from the GOP - placed a “hold” on the process at precisely the time when North-South relations – and by extension U.S.-DPRK talks - are finally showing small signs of improvement?

The U.S.-South Korea relationship is among the most important of America’s strategic alliances. It is unique in many ways – colored as it is by an enduring “state of war” with North Korea and a large U.S. military presence - and it is constantly tested by provocations from the North. Over the past two years it has been clear that the Obama Administration places the relationship among its highest priorities. Washington has stood resolute in its condemnation of direct military attacks by the North and has been in lock-step with Seoul in the response.

South Korea has said it welcomes Sung Kim’s nomination. Seoul has also initiated talks with Pyongyang in the margins of a recent ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali indicating the South’s desire to re-engage with the North. Moreover, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak recently endorsed providing North Korea with relief supplies to help its neighbor recover from a devastating flood.

Washington has stood behind its ally, but now we risk losing our way. Why would any senator oppose what Seoul has asked? It weakens the alliance and our ability to coordinate effective responses to the shared threat of North Korea.

Perhaps the answer lies in the deep-seated suspicions that many Americans hold of any engagement with North Korea. The recent visit to New York by North Korea official Kim Gye Gwan for discussions with U.S. diplomats clearly ruffled some feathers. Some cannot bear the thought of the United States even talking to North Korea’s ‘rogue regime’.

Several Republican senators reportedly have sought commitments from Secretary of State Clinton that the U.S. will not engage in any more bilateral talks with North Korea or extend food aid. Such actions would oppose Seoul’s positive efforts towards conflict resolution: a script that leads only to setbacks.

The obstructionist(s) seem to prefer to follow these misguided ideological beliefs rather than an objective evidence-based approach.

Recent testimony by Victor Cha before the House Foreign Affairs Committee demonstrated clearly that when the U.S. is engaged with North Korea, it restrains belligerent behavior. Missiles don’t fly and bombs don’t go off. Cha would know: he served as a high-level Asia adviser in the Bush Administration. South Korea also knows this, and it has signaled that it is high time to re-engage.

Governor Bill Richardson, a diplomatic expert on North Korea, made a case just last week that engagement is the best way to achieve a roadmap for the dismantlement of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Make no mistake, talking with and making concrete progress with Pyongyang on security issues is not and never will be easy. Any progress will be halting and frustrating. But the alternative has been proven time and again to be worse.

Cha calls North Korea “the land of lousy choices”; but that is different from the Land of No Choices. We have an ally awaiting our help; we shouldn’t let misguided ideology stand in the way.    

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