The U.S. Rebalance and
the Seoul Process
How to Align U.S. and ROK Visions for
Cooperation in East Asia
Scott Snyder and Woo Jung-yeop
This publication has been made possible by the generous support of the Korea
Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation.
In her first foreign trip as president of the Republic of Korea (ROK), Park Geun-hye met with President Barack Obama at the White House in May 2013 and affirmed that the U.S.-ROK alliance “should continue to serve as a linchpin for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia.” The summit touched on many issues regarding the East Asian regional security environment that illustrated a broad commonality of views between the United States and South Korea. Afterward, President Park stated that “there would be synergy” between the two presidents’ signature regional initiatives for achieving these goals: President Obama’s policy of intensifying U.S. involvement in Asia, also known as “rebalancing” (“pivoting”) U.S. priorities to Asia, which was first announced in the fall of 2011, and President Park’s proposal in spring of 2013 for a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI), often referred to as the Seoul Process. President Park suggested that she and President Obama could play the role of “co-architects” to construct a combined vision for the region, specifically by addressing functional issues such as nuclear energy and nonproliferation, cooperative development assistance, and regional economic treaties.
For eighteen months following Park’s proposal, South Korea conducted a comprehensive review
to identify the main agenda items, character, and focus for the Seoul Process. In October 2014, the ROK Ministry of Foreign Affairs convened the first meeting to launch NAPCI. The following month NAPCI held a technical meeting in Seoul that brought together regional specialists on nuclear safety, one of the functional issues identified as an area of opportunity for deepened cooperation under the initiative. President Park has sought to leverage the U.S.-ROK alliance in a way that benefits Seoul politically and economically while simultaneously aiding the United States to strengthen interests and influence in the area. As a result, the Park administration has eagerly sought U.S. endorsement and participation in the establishment of NAPCI. Through NAPCI, South Korea aims to define its nascent leadership role within East Asia, even as it acts in concert with the United States to reinforce shared objectives such as nonproliferation and promotion of maritime dispute management mechanisms—goals central to the U.S. rebalancing effort. Likewise, participation in NAPCI provides the United States with an important new regional platform that is exclusively dedicated to subregional cooperation on these issues. Given their overlapping goals of promoting cooperation and strengthening respect for international norms in Asia, Washington should support the Seoul Process under NAPCI and Seoul should support the U.S. rebalance. This support will mitigate the costs of potential failure and impress upon the neighborhood the need to strengthen regional cooperation through these two important efforts.