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As Tensions Grow In Region, Pence Reaffirms 'Ironclad' South Korean Relations


We wanted to know more about that alliance between the U.S. and South Korea, an alliance we just heard the vice president call ironclad and immutable. And to talk about that, we have John Park. He's director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School. Welcome to the show.

JOHN PARK: Thank you.

MCEVERS: So the U.S.-Korea alliance goes back to a treaty signed in 1953. What is that treaty? Remind us. And what does it oblige the United States to do?

PARK: Sure. I think it's important, Kelly, to remember the context that it was 1953, and we had the - not the end of the Korean War but a cessation of fighting. This led to the ceasefire and the armistice. The treaty specifies that the United States would come to the defense of South Korea. And at that time, the South Korean military isn't as strong as it is now - but certainly a joint response so strong that it would deter the North Koreans from doing it in the first place.

MCEVERS: There are now about 28,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. What are they doing there?

PARK: They are designed to be the tip of the spear so that if North Korea were to attack, there is a saying in the alliance that the U.S. is ready to fight tonight. And so I think with respect to that deterrent stance and strong defense, there is that clear message to North Korea; don't even try.

MCEVERS: As we just heard, Vice President Mike Pence talked about how, quote, "decades of strategic patience are over." How much of a departure is this from previous decades of U.S.-Korean relations?

PARK: While the name of this new North Korea policy, something that came out just before President Trump met with President Xi in Mar-a-Lago, Fla., is called maximum pressure and engagement, my colleagues and I looking at the policy tools see a lot of similarities with what the previous administrations have done. The main focus is now on the notion of secondary sanctions, and this would target Chinese companies and banks that are known to be engaging in business with North Korean entities.

MCEVERS: OK, so not much of a departure from the previous administration but this new emphasis on punishing Chinese entities that do business.

PARK: Potentially. There is a conditional statement here. If the Chinese help the United States in reigning in North Korea, then there could be a great trade deal. But if you look at the notion of China not carrying out that end of the bargain, then we could see the application of secondary sanctions.

MCEVERS: Do South Korean officials agree with this approach. I mean do they think it will be effective in deterring North Korea from further tests or even worse?

PARK: There is a high appetite in South Korea for sanctions. That has been the primary tool with which this current government - it's a caretaker government, really. There's also a political crisis unfolding in South Korea. We're going into the presidential elections. But we just saw the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.


PARK: And there is now an acting president in South Korea. But within the continuity of emphasis on policy tools, sanctions has really been the primary way that the previous administration has dealt with North Korea. But in terms of the broader engagement in trying to deal with this issue, the concern is really about this growing military threat from North Korea as it gets better with its nuclear and ballistic missile program. And I think that'll be the centerpiece of how we're going to look towards this new government in Seoul on May 9 where the presidential elections will have been completed.

MCEVERS: Here in the U.S., the tensions between this country and North Korea are very big news. How's the story playing in South Korea?

PARK: It seems like you're on a different planet. The priority focus, as I saw the news reports this morning - there is a k-pop star who will be getting married soon - a lot of coverage of that set of, you know, ceremonies...


PARK: ...And also a big focus on the presidential elections. So it's a very short cycle. You're looking at the leading candidate, Moon Jae-in, of the progressive side slightly leading. But the centrist candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, has been surging. So there is drama with respect to who might come on top on May 9.

MCEVERS: In the election. John Park is director of the Korea Working Group at the Harvard Kennedy School. Thank you very much.

PARK: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.