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Q&A with Stanford’s Daniel Sneider on U.S.-Korean relations


Daniel Sneider

With fresh presidential administrations in the United States and South Korea, both countries are poised to deepen their military and economic ties. But the allies are still dealing with an old problem—North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

North Korea is close to launching a rocket that Washington says is meant to test a long-range missile, but Pyongyang insists it is armed only with a communications satellite. Meanwhile, Kim’s regime is detaining two American journalists who crossed into North Korea from China.

Daniel Sneider, the associate director of research at Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, was part of a group of 10 former government officials and scholars who recently presented recommendations to the Obama administration for revitalizing and expanding the United States’ relationship with South Korea.

He spoke with Stanford Report about the bond between the two countries and the immediate challenges they have dealing with North Korea.

Why should the Obama administration be so focused on South Korea right now?

South Korea is by any standard one of the most important allies we have in the world, and President Obama has made that statement very strongly. Many people think of South Korea only in military terms because that is the legacy of the Korean War. And we still have almost 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea. But our alliance goes beyond simply our military security commitment. South Korea is a major economic player in the world—it’s one of the world’s biggest economies and they have a huge impact on our own fate as a country. They’re our creditors as well as a marketplace for the U.S. There’s also a global dimension to our relationship. As allies, they’ve sent troops to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and they have a role in providing assistance to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. South Korea is a player on many key issues.

The United States and South Korea have a free-trade agreement that still needs to be ratified. What is the importance of pact, especially in light of the global economic crisis?

It’s an agreement that very much opens the markets in both countries to the products of each other. Korea has traditionally had a somewhat protected home market. They’ve followed an economic strategy protecting domestic producers from competition while building them up as global players in the marketplace. But now Korea is at a stage of its economic development where they’ve removed many of those barriers. One objective in this free trade agreement is to take those last barriers down, like those to U.S. financial service firms and law firms wanting to participate actively in the Korean market and allowing for more foreign investors in Korea.

It’s been a controversial agreement in both countries. In South Korea, it means more foreign competition and a loss of jobs for Korean workers. And there are those in the United States who believe the agreement wasn’t sufficient in creating access, particularly in the automobile market. Koreans sell a lot of automobiles in the U.S., but we sell hardly any cars in Korea.

But the agreement broadens the nature of our relationship beyond security dimensions. It lets the world know we’re allies and partners—not just because we have a history going back to the Korean War, but because we have overlapping and common interests in terms of how the global and regional economy is managed.

President Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak have called for “stern, unified action” if North Korea launches a rocket in the coming days. What specific action can we expect to be taken?

There is on the books a U.N. Security Council resolution calling upon North Korea to cease any test of ballistic missiles, and it imposes a range of sanctions. I expect the United States and South Korea and Japan to go aback to the U.N. Security Council to seek approval of a resolution condemning the North Korean test and asking for the implementation of the sanctions already in place. The question is how China and Russia will respond. Both of them will veto a resolution, and you can’t pass a resolution without them.

What implications will a rocket launch have on the already sputtering six-party talks over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program involving the United States, North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia?

A lot of people would like to see those talks resume. I would say the view in Washington and Seoul is that the six-party talks should not be allowed to completely collapse. And remember—bilateral talks have been ongoing between North Korea and the United States during the past two years. We should continue both the multilateral talks, but we should not be afraid to conduct direct talks with the North Koreans and to keep the door open under all circumstances.

Should there be any conditions on bilateral talks with the North?

We don’t recommend there be conditions. We can respond toughly to a satellite launch while still being ready to engage in diplomatic contacts. We have limited leverage with the North Koreans. We can’t credibly threaten the use of force because is raises the danger of a wider war on the Korean peninsula. And we don’t have much economic leverage because it’s such an isolated state. We have to look for whatever little leverage we have and be realistic about what our expectations are.

How does the detention of American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee play into U.S. relations with North Korea?

This is a somewhat strange and unfortunate case. The Obama administration has been very quiet about it. I suspect there is a quiet effort behind the scenes to negotiate their release, but I think that’s going to have to wait for the missile launch and the aftermath of that. It’s a little hard to deal with the issue of the journalists in that context. The North Koreans use everything—their missile program, their nuclear program—and now this little gift of having these journalists cross over their border. They use everything at their disposal to try and gain bargaining leverage.

The Obama administration has used a fair degree of mature patience not rising to the bait of provocation. It should simply stay on the line toward pushing the North Koreans toward negotiations over nuclear weapons with the understanding that we may not get immediate results.

The possibility that the North Koreans are going to give up their nuclear weapons in the near future is practically nonexistent. These weapons give them leverage and a tool of intimidation that’s been very useful to them. This is not a strong state that’s acting against us as a threat. This is a weak state that’s using these instruments trying to compensate for its underlying weaknesses.

Kim Jong-il reportedly had a stroke last year and it is assumed his health is deteriorating. What does that mean for North Korea’s future? What happens when he dies?

North Korea has a collapsed economy and a very serious domestic political crisis. Kim Jong-il hasn’t prepared his own succession. It’s largely a question of which one of his three sons is he going to designate as his successor, and there are issues with those sons. The two older ones are widely not considered to be capable to rule, and the youngest son is 25 years old. They’re desperately looking for time and for legitimacy to be able to deal with succession issues.

I suspect that part of what’s going on with the missile launch and the belligerent attitude the North Koreans have taken during the early Obama administration is a product of internal politics. Hard-line elements are in the ascendancy and the regime feels it needs to be quite aggressive because they’re actually quite weak.

My Note –
I had noticed a picture on the CNNI broadcast of the Korean military which featured an upclose look at the marching troop members and was taken by the fact that the soldier, well-groomed, uniformed and stern – looked like skin and bones. I don’t know when this photo was taken and it appeared tonight on their broadcasts about the N. Korean missile launch, but if the camera adds five pounds – these soldiers are starving – and if they are starving then the population is surely suffering.
– CricketDiane, 04-04-09