Examining the Growing US Republican Voice on the Korean Peninsula

The situation on the Korean Peninsula has become more complicated because of the victory by Republican hardliners in the U.S. midterm elections in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The political reality between now and the presidential elections in 2016 is that the Obama administration, as the minority government, is in a stranglehold. There is growing concern that this could throw the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia into chaos if the already strained relations between South and North Korea deteriorate or if the delicately-balanced Korea-China relationship begins to stumble.

Because of the “winner take all” principle that operates within the House and Senate, the shuffling of committees in favor of the Republicans will cause U.S. foreign policy to take a more hard-line stance. In particular, Sen. Bob Corker, almost certainly the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is an example of a hawkish Republican hardliner. He created a name for himself by criticizing Obama’s vulnerable foreign policy, particularly Obama’s positions on North Korea and Iran’s nuclear development programs. It would not be surprising to see Sen. Corker raise North Korea’s human rights issues as well. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain also opposes unconditional dialogue with North Korea and has historically supported the hardliner position in favor of pressure and sanctions against North Korea.

It is not certain yet what exact effects the Republican hard-liners’ foreign policy will have on the Korean Peninsula. There is also the view that in order to strengthen the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) Alliance, Republicans may not deviate from President Obama’s current North Korea policies. However, after the issue of wartime operational control has been settled, there is the growing possibility that South Korea could be mobilized to apply pressure in Northeast Asia, specifically against China. In addition, the final stages of the U.S.-ROK civil nuclear negotiations regarding jurisdiction over the reprocessing of nuclear fuels may take a difficult turn. Even the inevitable lame duck president cannot completely disregard the Republican hard-liners. It is worth recalling the end of the Clinton administration in 2001, when the Republican takeover altered the state of affairs on the Korean Peninsula. There is good reason for officials in the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs to investigate the new condition of foreign relations.

The Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience,” which includes a refusal to negotiate with North Korea unless there are signs of genuine change, is surely easy pickings for Republican conservatives. There is a good chance that the hard-line hawks in the Republican Party will push the North Korea sanctions bill forward in the Senate. Last July, the House of Representatives approved sanctions against North Korea in response to North Korea’s nuclear programs, with a focus toward impeding the Kim regime’s financial backers and resources. More and more Republicans, who now control the Senate, are taking the position that the Kim Jong-un issue needs to be addressed. However, sanctions alone will not strike the perfect blow against the North Korean regime.

Given the enthusiastic support for the U.S. pivot to Asia by Republican hard-liners and the military-industrial complex, there is a growing probability that the U.S. strategy of rebalancing toward Asia may turn to the extreme right. Last April, South Korean and American leaders agreed to reinforce their global partnership, most likely because the hard-liners pressured China into doing so. Soon, under the guise of returning wartime control to South Korea, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) may materialize on the Korean Peninsula. China obviously would oppose this extension of the U.S. missile defense system. At any moment, Northeast Asia could be sucked into conflict. In order that U.S. political change not harm South Korea’s national interests, it is imperative that South Korean foreign ministry officials lead a careful examination of the current situation.

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