The nuclear security summit held in Seoul this past month was swiftly overshadowed by North Korea’s plans to launch a ballistic missile. According to the US, South Korea, and Japan, North Korea’s proposal to send a long-range rocket will violate the UN Resolution on missile launches. This comes at a time when the US is highly sensitive to foreign policy involving nuclear weapons. The US had proposed (and revoked) 20,000 tons of humanitarian food assistance to North Korea in return for better transparency of aid distribution and cultural exchanges. However, this had put South Korea in a tight spot. Since 2010, President Lee Myung Bak of South Korea had– controversially–banned humanitarian assistance to North Korea, as well as contact between citizens of the two neighbouring countries until its government showed a commitment to stopping the nuclear program. A shift in US policy would have created space between the two allies.
Why is the US so anxious about returning to peace talks with North Korea? This is in part due to the election cycles of the US. With an election approaching, President Obama’s pledge for “a world without nuclear weapons” seems to have made little impact, and the President is anxious for foreign policy victories. An even more important issue is the effect that North Korea’s nuclear program will have with regard to Iran. Israel has already announced that it will launch attacks, if Iran does not halt its uranium enrichment. This announcement helped sparked soaring world oil prices, which could threaten the US’s fragile economic recovery.
Advancement in the North Korean nuclear problem can also have a positive effect on Iran. Both Iran and North Korea have been sensitive to outside interference with their sovereignty. If the United States works out an agreement where North Korea is able to stop its uranium enrichment, become transparent to the IAEA, and gain reassurance of its sovereignty, Iran can be persuaded to do the same. Israel will be more inclined to keep quiet about its discontent with Iran, and the President will be able to avoid the stamp of failure while helping to stabilize oil prices.
In the midst of all this, South Korea is stuck helplessly in a cycle of frustration both with the US for ploughing ahead with its interests and with North Korea for its unpredictable acts of aggression. Both sides of the Korean peninsula are refusing diplomatic talks, and the Lee administration has neither the inclination nor the time to engage in an uphill battle with North Korea.
The US is stuck in a dilemma between serving its national interests and not antagonizing its model ally in East Asia, an ally that has provided troops to Afghanistan and is one of the US’s largest trading partners. If American policy isolates South Korea, there are concerns that China will take advantage of the situation to further push the US out of the Asian sphere. The President will need to strike a delicate balance as he attempts to realize his promise of a world without nuclear weapons.
Gina Park is a junior in the School of Foreign Service and is the editorial assistant for the Business and Economics Section of the Journal.