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[East Asia Forum] Park–Obama summit bolsters US–ROK alliance

May 16th, 2013

Author: Robert A. Manning, Atlantic Council

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Successful summits tend to be more about symbolism than substance.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s summit with US President Barack Obama certainly had its share of symbolism:the first foreign trip of South Korea’s new first woman President; the 60th anniversary of the USROK alliance; and USROK messages to North Korea, Japan and China.

But President Park’s US trip rose above mere symbolism on a number of important fronts. It marked a deepening institutionalisation of the US-ROK alliance beyond defence into a larger partnership encompassing economics and global cooperation.

In her one-on-one meeting with Obama, her well-received speech to a Joint Session of the US Congress, and her interview with the Washington Post, Park outlined her approach to North Korea — one that was endorsed by Obama and in the US–ROK Joint Statement.

President Park is pursuing a different approach to Pyongyang than her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, though they are from the same conservative political party. During Lee’s tenure, North–South ties hit new lows as confrontations such as the sinking of the ROK naval ship, Cheonan, and the shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in 2010 inflamed tensions and angered the South Korean public. Lee’s hardline policy and demand for reciprocity from the North was a shift from the previous ROK ‘Sunshine policy’, begun by Kim Dae Jung, which offered aid and cooperation to North Korea despite it being largely a one-way street.

Instead, Park wants to pursue a ‘trust-building’ process with North Korea, maintaining deterrence but keeping a window for dialogue and cooperation and humanitarian assistance, hoping to induce North Korea to comply with its previous denuclearisation obligations. This approach was explicitly supported by Obama. Park referred to a Korean saying, that ‘it takes two hands to clap’. Obama stressed that there was no distance between the United States’ and South Korea’s policies and that ‘The days when North Korea could create a crisis and elicit concessions … are over’.

President Park, according to news reports, raised the troubling issue of Japanese revision of history in her discussions with Obama and publicly in her address to the US Congress, and in an interview with the Washington Post. Park told the Post that she was ‘disappointed and frustrated at the lack of progress in relations with Japan’. She complained that ‘the Japanese have been opening past wounds and have been letting them fester, and this applies not only to Korea but also to other neighboring countries’. While she did not mention Japan by name to the US Congress, her speech did say that ‘differences from history are widening’, adding that ‘those who are blind to the past, cannot see the future’.

In regard to China’s support for North Korea, Park noted some changes in Beijing’s policy when Xi Jinping took office. She said in an interview that China could exert more influence to change North Korean behavior, but that if North Korea ‘chooses not to take the right path’ then she would ask China to rethink whether its current policy toward North Korea, ‘is sustainable’.

One little-noticed initiative from the Park visit was her call to create a new multilateral dialogue process in Northeast Asia to address the deficit of political/security cooperation. Park suggested it could start focusing on environmental issues, nuclear safety, counterterrorism and disaster relief and then build a wider agenda. She appeared to be thinking of the five parties in the now lapsed six-party talks, but added that North Korea might be invited.

While the United States and South Korea reaffirmed commitments to implement the US–ROK Free Trade Agreement (FTA), it was unclear whether a Northeast Asia grouping would address trade or whether the issue of Seoul joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was discussed. The US–ROK FTA is a high-quality accord largely compatible with the goals of the TPP, the negotiations for which Japan has recently agreed to join.

At a time of tension and uncertainty in Asia, the Park trip to the United States clearly was about more than symbolism. But whether the diplomacy will yield more than modest progress in addressing the North Korea problem or frayed ROKJapan or SinoJapanese relations is unclear. Yet the Park trip accomplished several noteworthy things: it clearly energised US–ROK relations; it has put some interesting new ideas on the table for Northeast Asia; and, not least, it showcased President Park Geun-hye as an assertive new Asian leader determined to meet the challenges facing Northeast Asia.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor to the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs from 2001 to 2004 and a member of the US Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008.

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