[Viewpoint] Playing the wild cardThe president of a country with a per capita national income of $120 made a state visit to the United States in May 1965. The richest country in the world invited the president of one of the poorest countries as a state guest. President Lyndon Johnson welcomed President Park Chung Hee cordially, and a car parade was offered in his honor in New York.
And President Lee Myung-bak has received the most hospitable reception since Park, as the United States is in desperate need of Korea once again.
Forty-six years ago, Washington wanted Korea to dispatch combat troops to Vietnam. Today, the United States, especially Obama, hopes for strategic, multilayered cooperation in politics, economy and security.
Obama is faced with a number of obstacles as he gets ready to stand for reelection next year. The U.S. economy has been slow to recover and angry protestors have formed the Occupy Wall Street movement. To Obama, Korea is exemplary of the “can do” spirit he hopes to advocate in the U.S.
Korea has the values that the U.S. needs today. Korea emerged from poverty as a powerful country. It accomplished countless successes through a passion for education and overcame its own financial crisis.
Obama mentions Korea in his speeches often. The state visit of the president of the “can do” nation may represent the message Obama wants to convey to American citizens.
The biggest fruit from the summit meeting is the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. As a Democratic presidential candidate, Obama was skeptical of the Korus FTA. But this time, he displayed strong leadership, pushing Congress to pass the deal in time for Lee’s state visit. He must have decided that economic cooperation with Korea is crucial.
Apple is in competition with Samsung Electronics, and 35 percent of the parts in a General Motors car are made in Korea. With the Korus FTA, the United States seeks to expand to East Asia, the most dynamic region in the world. The FTA may open up new opportunities to the United States as a Pacific nation.
In fact, America’s crucial strategic interests can be found behind the spectacles of the state visit. The strategic focus of the United States has deviated from the war against terrorism of the last ten years and is shifting to the Pacific. The emergence of China and strategic cooperation with Korea are key areas of policy focus.
Obama was not trying to please Lee but was frank about the inner thoughts of Washington when he called the Korea-U.S. alliance “the cornerstone of U.S. security in the Pacific Region.”
As Washington cannot count on the alliance with Japan due to the absence of leadership there and natural disasters, the Korea-U.S. alliance has become ever more important.
The evolution of the Korea-U.S. relationship into a multilayered strategic alliance will ignite drastic changes in the regional order. Japan estimates that the Korus FTA will result in approximately $45 billion in loss per year.
But it is China that will be most affected. Korea is of tremendous geopolitical importance to China. The People’s Republic of China was still a vulnerable, fledgling state right after the proclamation in 1950, when North Korea was in jeopardy, so it entered the Korean War.
If you look at a map of East Asia, you can see that Beijing is located in the middle of a bay surrounded by the Shandong Peninsula in China and the Ongjin Peninsula in Korea, with the Korean Peninsula encircling the entire area.
In order for China to advance to the Pacific and the world, it must pass through Korea. China is likely to aggressively make friendly offers to change the hearts of Koreans by suggesting a free trade agreement between the two countries.
It seems like the rivalry between China and the United States may play out with Korea in the middle. While Korea may have the worst geopolitical situation, we can reverse the circumstances in our favor and decide that we have the wild card in the game.
Korea is no longer the kingdom of Joseon on the verge of collapse in the early 20th century or the poor country with per capita income of $120 in 1965.
If we make sure we do not forget our “can do” spirit, we may be able to lead the chess game between Washington and Beijing.
*The writer is a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.
By Yun Deok-min