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Next U.S. President’s Northeast Asia Policy

Posted June. 26, 2008 03:06,   


“Korea constitutes a ‘pivotal nation’ for the United States to advance its national interest in the Northeast Asian region. The importance of Korea will be increasing in the next U.S. administration,” said Michael Green, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Green also said, “For the United States to take firm root in the region, counter emerging China in a more confident manner, and to strengthen security, enhanced alliance with friendly nations is necessary. This is the basic perception of Sen. John McCain.”

Q: Which country is the most important in Northeast Asia?

Green: Of course, China will get the most attention in U.S. foreign policy in the region, but in formulating Asian policies, allied countries such as Korea, Japan, and Australia are most important. In particular, the attitude of Korea, which is a traditional ally to the United States, is critical considering fast-emerging China and nuclear threats from North Korea.

Q: How is McCain’s Northeast Asia policy different from that of Sen. Barack Obama?

Green: McCain is in favor of free trade. His line of logic is very strategic. He thinks that Asian markets should be integrated down the road, and when regional trade becomes brisk as a result, the United States should become a stakeholder in the region. In this regard, McCain expects the free trade accord reached between the United States and South Korea to be a bridgehead for a new relationship with Asian countries.

Q: There also seem to be some differences in policies for North Korea.

Green: McCain sticks to the principle of ‘trust but verify’ which was advocated by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He also admits the importance of diplomatic effort through the six-party talks, but he is opposed to the current negotiation methods, which only provide incentives. The current methods lack verification and there is little effort in consensus building among allied countries as well.

Q: A cooling tower at North Korea’s main nuclear site in Yongbyon is expected to be blown up soon.

Green: That is a political propaganda show. The blowing-up of the cooling tower will be a symbolic event that shows Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization. It doesn’t mean Pyongyang has fulfilled the second-stage of its promise to disable and completely declare all nuclear programs. Furthermore, the cooling tower is a concrete structure that can be restored at any time.

Q: If Pyongyang submits the declaration, it will be removed from the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring nations.

Green: Sen. McCain regrets not only the fact that the scope of the declaration is limited to plutonium but also the fact that Washington failed to warn Pyongyang if the declaration isn’t sincere, it will face grave consequences. He thinks the current situation rather acts as a hindrance for the denuclearization process moving forward to the third-stage.

Q: Is there any possibility for the six-party talks to evolve into a regional multi-party security framework?

Green: Though McCain didn’t express his opinion on the matter, he believes it’s a good idea. But he opposes any gathering of high-ranking officials from related countries before North Korea’s complete denuclearization. Pyongyang is highly likely to capitalize on this meeting to consolidate its status as a nuclear weapons state.

Q: What’s your stance on the transfer of wartime operational control?

Green: In my personal opinion, the agreement between Seoul and Washington to transfer wartime operational control by 2012 should be respected. But also necessary is flexible approaches that take into consideration changes in security situation and war-fighting capability.

Q: Why is the McCain camp against the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq?

Green: Sen. Obama wants to channel diplomatic energy, the troop withdrawal from Iraq will bring about, into the Asian region, but he is oblivious of the realities. Blind pull-out of troops will create a power vacuum in the Middle East, which may, in turn, undermine global trust in the United States. This is not good for Asian nations either, because they will have difficulties in securing energy. The new U.S. administration that will launch next year must thoroughly review what has been discussed by the predecessor regarding the future course of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, and come up with its own new vision.

Richard Bush, senior fellow and director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, pointed out, “The worst mistake the Bush administration has made in policies for the Korean Peninsula was its unilateral action that denied sufficient agreement with the South Korean government.”

But Bush stressed before the interview that this is not Obama’s official opinion but his personal view as a researcher on Northeast Asia.

Q: Do you agree with the Bush administration’s restructuring plan on the U.S.-South Korea alliance, which includes the reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea and strategic flexibility?

Bush: I worry about the fact that the restructuring plan was not preceded by sufficient discussions with Seoul. Sometimes Washington failed to obtain agreement from Seoul not only when implementing policies, but also when preparing them.

Q: Could you give some examples?

Bush: The transition of wartime operational control is a good example. Obviously, the request was made first by South Korea, but then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took up the issue and agreed immediately as if waiting for the suggestion. I don’t think he was prudent at the time. I believe the issue should have received enough discussion to reflect both countries’ national interests.

Q: What is the most difficult Northeast Asia issue that will face the new U.S. administration?

Bush: The North Korean nuclear issue will remain the most critical issue. What matters is whether or not Pyongyang is committed to denuclearization. Also important is its willingness to renounce nuclear arms, to faithfully declare the amount of recycled plutonium, and to have it verified. The United States is still suspicious of North Korea and there is a long way to go.

Q: What country in the Northeast Asian region is most significant to the United States?

Bush: Allies of the United States are important. However, China should be also dealt with very carefully, because now nobody knows its future development for sure. During World War II, Britain’s failure to control Nazi Germany led to a global catastrophe. The same could be said of China. How to deal with China will be a great challenge to the United States.

Q: The odds of Congress approval of the KORUS FTA look slim.

Bush: Judging from my experience at Congress, various factors come into play when it comes to free trade approval. The Congress dominated by Democrats believes the Bush administration unilaterally clinched the trade deal without sufficient discussion. Furthermore, in a situation where the U.S. economy is slowing down, the judgment of U.S. auto industry that the deal won’t fully open the Korean market has a negative impact on the approval. The Korean people’s negative perception on U.S. beef should also be addressed. The problem is that political circles in both countries are reluctant to ratify.

Q: Some forecast that if the deal fails to be ratified, it will deal a blow to the alliance.

Bush: The U.S.-Korean alliance still remains strong. What I want is a change in political atmosphere in Korea and Korean people showing more trust in the United States.

Q: What can be a starting point for a Northeast Asia policy?

Bush: Needless to say, coming up with a new policy direction is the job of the new administration. However, what is characteristic in Northeast Asia policy is that policy continuity has been guaranteed compared to Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. That’s why many think a Democratic administration will not make a drastic change in policies for Northeast Asia.