Thursday, November 06, 2008

What Do Koreans Think About the American Presidential Election

I'm working on an update on Koreans thoughts on American presidential election.

In the meantime, Chosun Ilbo notes:

What Obama's Election Could Mean for Korea

The election of Barack Obama as the next U.S. president could bring about significant changes in Seoul-Washington and inter-Korean relations and function as a new variant on the Korean Peninsula. Some pundits on Wednesday speculated the Korea policy of the incoming U.S. administration will affect the currents of all East Asia.

◆ Diplomacy

The North Korea policy of the Obama administration begins in his criticism of the first-term Bush administration that said no to any kind of dialogue with Pyongyang. His position has been that dialogue even with America’s enemies should be “without preconditions.”

Frank Jannuzi, the head of the Obama camp's Korea policy team, publicly told the North that high-level direct diplomacy including the U.S. president is possible. Once a senior government official visits Pyongyang, as secretary of state Madeleine Albright did in 2000, a possible summit between Obama and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il cannot be ruled out.

There is also the possibility that the Obama administration may be more amenable to North Korea’s recurrent demands for a light-water reactor in return for giving up its nuclear weapons program. Some fear the new U.S. government could make too many concession if dialogue with North Korea goes well. Others say dialogue could encourage the North in its strategy to communicate solely with the U.S. and freeze out the South, to the detriment of Seoul-Washington relations, as was the case during the Kim Young-sam administration.

The Obama camp is saying it will not concede on the denuclearization principle, and conduct dialogue with the North under discussion with the South. It is committed to the principle of "complete verifiable elimination" covering even undeclared nuclear facilities, similar to the Bush administration's principle of “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization.”

◆ Free trade

The Obama camp has said it values American relations with South Korea. Congratulating President Lee Myung-bak on his election, Obama stressed “global cooperation.” The Democratic Party policy platform announced at its August convention, too, places Seoul-Washington relations on the same level as U.S. relations with Japan and Australia.

Vice president-elect Joseph Biden is friendly to Seoul and familiar with issues pending between South Korea and the U.S. But whether the two sides will be able to adjust mutual interests involving such sensitive issues as the handover of full control of Korean troops to Seoul and the relocation of the U.S. Forces Korea remains to be seen.

Conflict between the two countries is more likely in the economic sector. Obama has on several occasions criticized the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement as a "flawed deal." In a presidential debate, he said it's unfair for the U.S. to export 5,000 cars to South Korea a year while the latter exports 700,000 cars to America.

Even if those remarks were politically oriented, it will not be easy for Obama to reverse his position in the wake of his inauguration. If the Obama administration inclines to trade protection in the face of a deepening economic crisis, as evinced by the recent sharp rise in unemployment to 6.3 percent, conflict with South Korea could arise.

Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Lee Tae-shik told a parliamentary audit team last month that serious debate on the Korea-U.S. FTA could take as long as 2010. Should arguments on the FTA be prolonged, it might give the South Korean left an excuse for anti-American activism and hurt the credibility of bilateral relations.

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