60-Second Expert: U.S.-Korea Relations

The United States and North Korea are negotiating a resolution to the current nuclear crisis. Enthusiasm in Washington for regime collapse in Pyongyang has died down. But the United States hasn’t changed its fundamental approach to Northeast Asia.

  • The United States fundamentally doesn’t care about North Korea.
  • The United States is deeply ambivalent about Korean reunification.
  • And the United States is allergic to a regional security system.

These are not hard truths for Americans. After all, the average U.S. citizen doesn’t pay much attention to North Korea. Rather, these are hard truths for those in East Asia who hope for a true end to the Cold War in the region.

These three hard truths create sharp asymmetries in the U.S. relationship to the Korean peninsula.

The United States is currently focused on a single goal: getting rid of its adversary’s nuclear program. North Korea, on the other hand, is interested in a relationship: diplomatic ties with the United States followed by expanded trade and technical exchange. The United States is simply not interested in a special relationship similar to what prevailed between Beijing and Washington after the opening of the 1970s. It is not just that North Korea is reluctant to give up what the United States wants it to forgo. It wants what the United States is very reluctant to provide. This asymmetry extends to U.S.-South Korean relations. The two countries have a very different view of North Korea. Seoul can’t help but have some kind of relationship with Pyongyang while the United States can focus on other parts of the world.

The two Koreas are united by national interest and a sense of historical inevitability. The United States and North Korea have so little in common that a successful resolution of the Six Party Talks may prove ultimately elusive. As for the growing divide between the two allies, Washington and Seoul, it can only be hoped that the dissolution of the alliance, when it comes, will be amicable.

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John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) at the Institute for Policy Studies (www.ips-dc.org).