U.S. and South Korea Relations: The Long Game

Dr. Jung H. Pak (SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies, Brookings Institution), Marc Knapper (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea), Young Jin Jang (Economic Minister, Embassy of the Republic of Korea), Wendy Cutler (Vice President, Asia Society Policy Institute & Senior Policy Consultant, Akin Gump), and Brittany Masalosalo (3M Head of International Government Affairs). Photo: Stephen Bobb.

“Let’s not forget our history and let’s not forget what we accomplished together,” urged Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) to a room of over 60 private sector, diplomatic corps, academic, non-profit, and U.S. government leaders on Meridian’s campus. Bera’s remarks kickstarted a timely discussion on the role of economic development in fostering U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) relations and the strategic importance of these ties particularly as trade relations strain between South Korea and Japan, another key ally of the U.S.

Congressman Bera, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and Co-Chair of the Korea Caucus, called on Congress to prioritize U.S. engagement in the region. The Republic of Korea has become an integral part of the interconnected global economy. Our relations, Bera asserted, shouldn’t use the same model as earlier years. Expanding and strengthening relations as fellow democracies is vital.

With the U.S. president serving 4-8 years and the Korean president serving for a maximum of five years, Bera stressed the need to separate domestic from foreign policy and the necessity of playing the “long game.” Bera also underlined economic development in North Korea as a pathway to peace on the Korean Peninsula, ideally in conjunction with security guarantees by China and Russia.

Dr. Jung H. Pak, SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institute, agreed on the importance of this long view, underscoring the vital role of resilience in bilateral ties. Resilience, according to Marc Knapper, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea, is strengthened by people to people ties; most importantly, the United States and the Republic of Korea are friends and allies. As an example, the panelists pointed to the participants from the U.S.-ROK Exchange Program in attendance at the event as key players in this relationship.

Although the security alliance used to be the most important facet of this relationship, according to Knapper, economic ties between the U.S. and ROK have reinforced our bilateral relations. The United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), which entered into effect in March 2012, provided an elimination of a sweeping majority of tariffs within five years and has created stronger protections for international firms operating in both countries. The revised version, one of the Trump Administration’s first trade revisions, removes additional regulatory hurdles. Economic Minister at the Embassy of Korea Young-jin Jang also pointed to the significance of the agreement, and underlined the importance of FDI and trade in building and maintaining a strong bilateral relationship amidst regional tensions. Recent investments in the United States by Korean firms include $370 million by SK into an ethylene acrylic acid manufacturing facility in Texas and $800 million by Hankook Tire to build a new factory in Tennessee, which has created nearly a thousand jobs for Americans.

In the absence of U.S. involvement in multilateral trade agreements, exemplified by the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in 2017, Vice President at the Asia Society Policy Institute Wendy Cutler asserted that South Korea has the opportunity to play a leadership role in the region. Cutler also spoke to the variety of ways that Americans and Koreans can work together to build stronger ties, including by working on issues of mutual concern like women’s economic and political empowerment.

Brittany Masalosalo, 3M’s Head of International Government Affairs, emphasized the value of economic development in deepening relations. Masalosalo pointed specifically to the KORUS agreement, which she says has helped provide a foundation for important supply chain decisions and has served as a “linchpin” in the region, while the U.S. withdraws from multilateral engagement.

This Meridian Center for Diplomatic Engagement program was held in partnership with SK, a South Korean conglomerate with core businesses in energy, chemicals and telecommunications. Meridian and SK are partnering on a convening series focused on the importance of foreign direct investment and trade.

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Project summary

U.S. and South Korea Relations: The Long Game | July 2019
Number of Visitors: 21
Number of Attendees: 69
Regions: East Asia and Pacific, Western Hemisphere
Countries: United States, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Thailand
Impact Areas: Business and Trade, Empowering Women and Girls, Foreign Policy, Public Diplomacy, Security and Defense
Program Areas: Convening
Partners: Private Sector