US-Korea Relations: Smooth Sailing in the Wake of the Cheonan (Part II)

By Victor Cha, Senior Adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and Ellen Kim, Research Associate at CSIS Korean Chair

Six-Party Talks and Exit Strategies

There was no agreement reached among countries to resume the Six-Party Talks, despite a flurry of shuttle diplomacy during the quarter.  Starting with Chinese Chief Nuclear Envoy Wu Dawei’s visit to North Korea in mid-August, China took the first step to kick off the conversation for the resumption of the talks.  Wu traveled to Seoul on August 26-28 to convey the North’s expressed hopes of returning to the negotiation table and discussed ways to resume the talks.  A week later, South Korea’s Chief Nuclear Envoy Wi Sung-lac and his Japanese counterpart, Akitaka Saiki, each flew to Washington and held a separate meeting with U.S. government officials to exchange views on the issues.  Then, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth and Special Envoy for the Six-Party Talks Sung Kim took a brief East Asia tour to South Korea, Japan, and China.  Reopened dialogue channels and a series of active consultations and meetings among the representatives of the Six-Party talks triggered widespread speculations that the talks could be resumed soon.  After his meeting with Korean counterparts, Stephen Bosworth also expressed his optimism that “at some point in the not too distant future, we can be back engaged.” However, he also quickly noted that the U.S. was not interested in talking “just for the sake of talking” and urged North Korea to show its sincerity in denuclearization through meaningful steps.

Given that the U.S.-ROK policy agenda towards North Korea remains in the shadow of the Cheonan, a key precondition for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks appears to be the reengagement between the two Koreas.  After the U.S. and South Korea have taken joint military exercises and ratcheted up new sanctions on North Korea, questions have emerged in both countries as to what are their next steps and when and how they are going to move beyond the Cheonan Incident.  President Obama understands well the gravity of the Cheonan, and has made fairly clear through the NSC and State channels that the U.S. is not interested in a return to talks until the Cheonan issue is resolved to the ROK president’s satisfaction.  Should the North acknowledge the death of the 46 South Korean seamen, then a possible next step might be unofficial engagement among the U.S., ROK, and DPRK to gauge if the North is serious about returning to talks to discuss implementation of the 2005 and 2007 Bush-era denuclearization agreements.  Formal resumption of talks might then proceed on this basis.  The September 28 DPRK Worker Party’s special Congress anointed the youngest son, Kim Jong-eun, as the successor to his father, thus creating  a new independent variable whose impact on the country’s nuclear policy is yet to be known.  But the mere news of a leadership transition is not likely to change U.S. policy since this policy is based not on leadership change, but as Obama officials have often stated, on behavior change by Pyongyang regarding nuclear weapons and conventional provocations.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Visit to North Korea

Former President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea this quarter on a mission to release Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an English teacher and human rights activist from Boston, who had been detained in North Korea since this past January for his illegal entry to the country.  The U.S. State Department had been laboring along with the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang to secure his release for months.  In July, the North Korean media reported that Gomes attempted suicide, and a few weeks later, a U.S. consular official and two doctors were allowed to visit him to assess his condition.  They immediately called for his release on humanitarian grounds, and the State Department and President Obama continuously expressed deep concern over his health.  In the beginning of August, however, Philip Crowley, the State Department spokesman, stated that Washington had no immediate plans to send a high-ranking envoy to North Korea to negotiate Gomes’s release.  On August 25, former president Jimmy Carter flew to North Korea on what the State Department describes as a “private humanitarian mission” in the hopes of bringing Gomes back to the United States.

The Obama administration emphasized that Mr. Carter’s trip was purely a private visit to North Korea and was not to be associated with official U.S. diplomatic missions or negotiations.  North Korea had previously made it clear that it wanted a high-ranking U.S. official to personally retrieve Gomes, but the United States could not be seen as making concessions to North Korea during this period of heightened tensions on the peninsula. Carter’s was a compromise: his status as a former president satisfied North Korea, and he was not a sitting U.S. official, meaning his visit was not official U.S. diplomacy.

The U.S. government has previously used former presidents to negotiate the release of U.S. citizens from North Korea.  Former president Bill Clinton visited North Korea in August 2009 to retrieve two American journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested for illegal entry into the country.  And Jimmy Carter visited North Korea once before as a private citizen in 1994, and he convinced Kim Il Sung to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program in exchange for reopening channels of dialogue with the United States, eventually leading to the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework.  Unlike Clinton who met with Kim Jong-il during his visit, however, Carter did not have a chance to meet the North Korean leader as Kim Jong-il traveled to China the day after Carter’s arrival in the North.  There are several possible explanations to this.  First, Kim Jong-il’s health is deteriorating. His reported absence from Pyongyang provided the excuse not to meet with Carter in his condition.  Second, the pardoning of Gomes, which the KCNA referred to as a ‘manifestation of [North Korea’s] humanitarianism and peace-loving policy,’ may be attributed to Kim Jong-eun to build up his succession credentials.  Lastly, schedules simply may not have coincided.  Kim’s trip to China may have been scheduled in advance and overlapped with Carter’s trip to Pyongyang.  What did appear evident to North Koreans was that the past practice of using high-level American interlocutors to try to pressure the United States no longer worked.  Both Carter and Clinton conducted purely humanitarian missions to retrieve detained Americans in North Korea and performed no other policy function.  This sent a clear signal to Pyongyang that they must deal with the Obama administration and advance the denuclearization agreements of the Six Party talks.

Tepid Public Support for the KORUS FTA

The U.S. and South Korea worked hard to achieve breakthroughs in their negotiations over outstanding issues related to KORUS.  Although the June directive by President Obama to resolve differences with the ROK by the November G-20 deadline rekindled hopes for ratification of the KORUS FTA, the negotiators of the two countries reportedly have not yet closed the gap in their disagreements over South Korea’s auto and U.S. beef issues.

While both U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk and his counterpart, ROK Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon, reiterated their commitments to complete the negotiation before this November, Kim also noted in a recent interview with JoongAng Daily on Sept. 16 that the ratification by the current deadline is “not a sure thing” given the current speed of the negotiations.  A week after his remark, Wendy Cutler, Assistant USTR for Japan, Korea, and APEC Affairs, and Choi Seok-young, Deputy Minister for Trade at MOFAT, consulted on the timing and venue of an upcoming ministerial meeting on KORUS.  USTR’s Office spokeswoman Carol Guthrie confirmed that no date and location for the meeting had been decided yet.  Though there may appear to be a lack of progress, these negotiations have stakes that are too high for either side to allow elements of the negotiations to float in the public domain until the very last stages.  Because the remaining issues are so intractable and intensely political in both countries, the negotiations will probably come down to the eleventh hour with both sides seeking top-level support to break the logjam.  This will inevitably require personal phone calls by President Obama to key members of Congress with the argument that passage of the agreement is not only related to trade but to the reinforcing of a broader U.S. strategic concerns in Asia.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Council on the Global Affairs released a new public opinion survey, which found that general American attitude towards KORUS is “lukewarm,” with 44 percent of the survey respondents expressing their support. In a report co-written by this author and Katrin Katz on this survey, it was noted that this tepid support is not particularly different in comparison to other potential U.S. free trade agreements with trading partners: Japan (52%), India (45%), China (37%) and Colombia (35%).  From this, the report offered an explanation that the current adverse conditions of the U.S. economy, rather than specifics of each trade agreement, may have a bigger impact on general American support for Senate approval of any free trade agreements.

The report also provided two policy implications.  First, it is important that the public education on the KORUS FTA should focus on strengthening the public perception of South Korea as a fair trade country.  The cross-tabulation of the survey data across countries discovered that there is a high correlation between the public perception of a country practicing fair trade and the support for a free trade agreement with that country.  In the case of KORUS, sixty-one percent of Americans who believe Korea practices fair trade support its ratification.  In contrast, twenty-seven percent of those who say Korea practices unfair trade support its ratification.  Second, given that there are huge public concerns about jobs and burgeoning U.S. trade deficits, policymakers on both sides should do a better job in explaining how the ratification of KORUS can actually boost jobs and economic growth in both countries and create greater trade and investment opportunities. (To see more details of the report, please visit )


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