Reading US Tea Leaves: Obama’s State of the Unions

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Jaesung Ryu (East Asia Institute)
February 22, 2012 7:00 AM

Every January, North Korea watchers in the US grab their copy of the joint New Year's editorial—typically in translation—and try to read the tea leaves; we plead guilty to this ritual. But I was listening to Ambassador Bob King at USC last week, and he suggested that we should be reading our own tea leaves. He made the interesting observation that President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union made scant reference to Korea; he drew the inference that foreign policy was likely to get short shrift in this election year.

We decided to explore Ambassador King’s claim, and for the record here are all the portions of President Obama’s State of the Unions dealing with the Koreas. Korea does move from a strategic issue in 2010 and 2011 back to an economic one. There is no mention in the most recent State of the Union of the frustrating nuclear issues or the uncertainties of the post-Kim Jong Il order. But the biggest surprise to us is the extent to which South Korea appears repeatedly as an economic and social model. Is there a South Korean mole in the President’s speech-writing staff?

2009 address to joint session of Congress.

The Six Party Talks had just fallen apart at the end of the Bush administration and things were about to go south very quickly with the missile and nuclear tests of April and May. The economy was still front-and-center; South Korea gets backhanded praise for its technology, but with the implication we should pry manufacturing back from abroad.

"We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century.  And yet, it is China that has launched the largest effort in history to make their economy energy efficient.  We invented solar technology, but we’ve fallen behind countries like Germany and Japan in producing it.  New plug-in hybrids roll off our assembly lines, but they will run on batteries made in Korea."

2010 State of the Union

The Koreas get both economic and strategic play in 2010. The KORUS had risen to the top of the political agenda, and the administration had shifted towards sanctions in the wake of the missile and nuclear tests.

"We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are.  If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores.  (Applause.)  But realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules.  (Applause.)  And that's why we'll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia.  (Applause.)"

"Now, these diplomatic efforts have also strengthened our hand in dealing with those nations that insist on violating international agreements in pursuit of nuclear weapons.  That's why North Korea now faces increased isolation, and stronger sanctions –- sanctions that are being vigorously enforced.  That's why the international community is more united, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is more isolated.  And as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt:  They, too, will face growing consequences.  That is a promise.  (Applause.)"

2011 State of the Union

Newsflash: by 2011, the US had fallen behind Korea in both education and infrastructure. The partisan wrangling on the KORUS had finally been resolved, thanks in part to the Yeonpyeong-do shelling and the felt need to support LMB around his visit to Washington. The administration claims credit. Strategic patience gets only a brief nod.

"Let’s also remember that after parents, the biggest impact on a child’s success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom.  In South Korea, teachers are known as “nation builders.”  Here in America, it’s time we treated the people who educate our children with the same level of respect.  (Applause.)  We want to reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones.  (Applause.)  And over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.  (Applause.)"

"Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped.  South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do.  Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do.  China is building faster trains and newer airports.  Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a “D.”"

"To help businesses sell more products abroad, we set a goal of doubling our exports by 2014 -– because the more we export, the more jobs we create here at home.  Already, our exports are up.  Recently, we signed agreements with India and China that will support more than 250,000 jobs here in the United States.  And last month, we finalized a trade agreement with South Korea that will support at least 70,000 American jobs.  This agreement has unprecedented support from business and labor, Democrats and Republicans -- and I ask this Congress to pass it as soon as possible.  (Applause.)   Now, before I took office, I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers and promote American jobs.  That’s what we did with Korea, and that’s what I intend to do as we pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia and continue our Asia Pacific and global trade talks.  (Applause.)"

" Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher sanctions, tighter sanctions than ever before.  And on the Korean Peninsula, we stand with our ally South Korea, and insist that North Korea keeps its commitment to abandon nuclear weapons.  (Applause.)"

2012 State of the Union

The KORUS is now being sold as a policy accomplishment; better late than never. But as Ambassador King notes, who needs to remind the public of the knotty strategic problems on the peninsula? The references are to trade only, and are a little hyperbolic; we don't expect export-led growth to hit the auto industry in Detroit, Toledo and Chicago any time soon.

"We’re also making it easier for American businesses to sell products all over the world.  Two years ago, I set a goal of doubling U.S. exports over five years.  With the bipartisan trade agreements we signed into law, we’re on track to meet that goal ahead of schedule.  (Applause.)  And soon, there will be millions of new customers for American goods in Panama, Colombia, and South Korea.  Soon, there will be new cars on the streets of Seoul imported from Detroit, and Toledo, and Chicago.  (Applause.)"

Add new comment

More From

Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff

More on This Topic

Trade and Investment Policy Watch
March 28, 2018
Trade and Investment Policy Watch
January 26, 2018