The Status of U.S. Ties with South Korea

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Debbie Elliott explores the current state of relations between the United States and South Korea with Kurt Campbell, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


To take a closer look at what's troubling the U.S.-South Korean partnership, we spoke with Kurt Campbell, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. KURT CAMPBELL (Asia Expert, Center for Strategic and International Studies): At the heart is a very different vision about what works best for dealing with North Korea. I think South Korea would prefer the kinder and gentler approach. They don't like pointing out publicly that North Korea has large percentages of its population that suffer from something very close to starvation, huge prisons camps. It is a deeply brutal regime, and I don't think anyone questions that. But the South Koreans believe you have a better shot at either changing or moderating that behavior by engaging North Korea. Where I think the United States position currently is to try to isolate them. That's the heart of the tension, and from there many other things complicate relations.

ELLIOTT: Are there any concrete examples of how this tension has manifest itself?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, let me give you a specific example associated with Iraq. For quite some time, the number three contributor of troops to the military engagement in Iraq has been South Korea; right behind Britain. Well, on several occasions, including the State of the Union a couple of years ago, the United States has either forgotten to thank South Korea, or has not given South Korea enough credit for such a major contribution.

And as a consequence of that, there have been a lot of anxieties in South Korea that the United States is ungrateful for the contribution that South Korea has made on behalf of the alliance.

ELLIOTT: Does the U.S. still consider South Korea a strategic ally?

Mr. CAMPBELL: I think the answer is fundamentally yes. But there are many problems in the relationship. I can best approximate it to a long royal marriage. And you know how a king and queen will go out, wave to the adoring crowds from the balcony, appear to be the picture of, you know, health and vitality. And then once that's over they will both retreat silently to their respective parts of the palace.

Both South Korea and the United States have made an assessment that they're not very close right now. They have many strategic differences, but that the process of divorce is unacceptable. But the process of trying to fix the relationship is also very difficult as well.

So I think in many respects, both countries go a little bit through the motions and don't address some of the fundamental problems that are at the heart of a relationship, at least in my view, has been central to a successful American strategy in Asia over the last half century.

ELLIOTT: Kurt Campbell is the senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Thank you.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Thank you very much.

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