U.S.-South Korea RelationsCongressional Research Service
Since late 2008, relations between the United States and South Korea (known officially as theRepublic of Korea, or ROK) have been arguably at their best state in decades. Much of thecurrent closeness between Seoul and Washington is due to the policies undertaken by PresidentLee Myung-bak, who will leave office at the end of February 2013. His successor, Park Geun-hye, is another conservative leader who is expected to maintain strong ties to the United States.However, while the overall U.S.-South Korean relationship is expected to remain healthy under Park, she also has hinted at policy moves—particularly with respect to North Korea and civiliannuclear cooperation—that could strain bilateral ties. Members of Congress tend to be interested inSouth Korea-related issues because of bilateral cooperation over North Korea, the U.S.-SouthKorea alliance, South Korea’s growing importance in various global issues, deep bilateraleconomic ties, and the interests of many Korean-Americans. The 112
Congress held over 15hearings directly related to South and North Korea.
Strategic Cooperation and the U.S.-ROK Alliance
Dealing with North Korea is the dominant strategic element of the U.S.-South Koreanrelationship. South Korea’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military power has given Seoul amore direct and prominent role in Washington’s planning and thinking about how to deal withPyongyang. The Obama and Lee Administrations have essentially adopted a joint approach thatsome labeled “strategic patience” and includes four main elements: refusing to return to nuclear talks with North Korea unless Pyongyang demonstrates that it is taking “irreversible steps” todenuclearize; gradually attempting to alter China’s strategic assessment of North Korea;tightening sanctions against North Korean entities in response to Pyongyang’s provocations; andinsisting that significant multilateral and U.S. talks with North Korea be preceded byimprovements in North-South Korean relations.It remains to be seen how U.S.-South Korea cooperation on North Korea will shift under President-elect Park, who has called for a new combination of toughness and flexibility towardPyongyang. Perhaps most notably, Park has proposed a number of confidence-building measureswith Pyongyang in order to create a “new era” on the Korean Peninsula. Two key questions will be the extent to which her government will link these initiatives to progress on denuclearization,which is the United States’ top concern, and how much emphasis she will give to North Korea’shuman rights record. Likewise, an issue for the Obama Administration and Members of Congressis to what extent they will support—or, not oppose—initiatives by Park to expand inter-Koreanrelations.The United States maintains about 28,500 troops in the ROK. Since 2009, the two sides haveaccelerated steps to transform the U.S.-ROK alliance’s primary purpose from one of defendingagainst a North Korean attack to a regional and even global partnership. Washington and Seoulhave announced a “Strategic Alliance 2015” plan to relocate U.S. troops on the Peninsula and boost ROK defense capabilities. Some Members of Congress have criticized the relocation plans,and Congress has cut funds for a related initiative that would “normalize” the tours of U.S. troopsin South Korea by lengthening their stays and allowing family members to accompany them. Inthe first half of 2013, the U.S. and South Korea are expected to negotiate a new Special MeasuresAgreement (SMA) that includes always-contentious discussions over how much South Korea
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