Opportunity for Korean leadership

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Opportunity for Korean leadership

President Park Geun-hye’s visit to Washington comes at critical moment for both the Republic of Korea and the United States. The preservation of peace and stability in Northeast Asia, a goal that both countries share, is now seriously threatened.

First and foremost, we face the serial provocations of the North Korean government, clearly aimed at heightening tensions on the peninsula. In its latest, and perhaps most ominous act, propelled by the decision to withdraw North Korean workers from the Kaesong Industrial Park, the Pyongyang leadership seems prepared to close down the last symbol of North-South cooperation.

Beyond the Korean Peninsula, we are witnessing persistent and even growing tensions between China and Japan, focused on problems of territorial dispute but fueled by the unresolved issues of wartime history. The danger of conflict, perhaps triggered by accident or miscalculation, looms over the region.

These threats reinforce the centrality of the U.S.-ROK alliance in the region and the need for the new South Korean President and her American partner to closely coordinate their views and actions in the months ahead. But these challenges also call for South Korea to move beyond a history of dependence on the U.S. to an assertion of leadership, both regarding the peninsula but also in Northeast Asia.

President Park has herself embraced this role for South Korea and is preparing to present her vision during her visit to Washington. It is vital that Americans listen carefully to what she will say here, both to the President and in her address to the U.S. Congress.

There are two foundations to President Park’s policy vision. The first, outlined during her campaign for office, is to embark upon a “trust-building” process with North Korea. This is an invitation to the government of Kim Jong-un to build mutual confidence and improve South-North relations, though not at the price of acceptance of Pyongyang’s claims to nuclear weapons power status. The second, presented since taking office, is to construct a broader “Seoul process” of multilateral cooperation in the region, with American participation.

President Park very insightfully put her finger on the existence of an “Asian paradox” that while there is a growing level of economic interdependence in the region, there is also an accompanying rise in contention over security and territorial issues, fueled by feelings of nationalism. Perhaps nothing captures the problem better than relations between South Korea and Japan, two American allies whose cooperation in dealing with security challenges such as North Korea is considered essential, especially to the U.S. Despite that need for cooperation, constantly stressed by American officials, the two countries are divided by their inability to deal with their wartime and colonial past. Despite the stated desire of both governments to improve ties, relations are, if anything, deteriorating. President Park has admonished the new Japanese government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that it will be impossible to move ahead if it seeks to revise the record of the wartime past. As Park has said repeatedly, a Japan that cannot deal with its past will be unable to provide leadership in Asia in the future.

President Park has turned instead much more towards China and emphasized her desire to deepen cooperation with Beijing. This has obvious value, particularly when it comes to dealing with North Korea. And in principle, there is no American objection to this goal, including the idea being pushed from Seoul of creating a triangular strategic dialogue between the three countries. But the U.S. would not want to see Japan isolated either. The Seoul Process must draw in Japan which could start with holding the postponed trilateral summit of China, Japan and South Korea as soon as possible.

Attention during this visit however will naturally focus on North Korea. Koreans should understand that there is little appetite in the U.S. today for renewed diplomacy with Pyongyang, given its track record and its repeated declarations of the intention to cling to its small arsenal of nuclear devices. That’s why it is so crucial that South Korea be at the forefront of defining our joint policy. This is the core recommendation made by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford, led by Dr. Gi-Wook Shin. As we said in a policy report issued in early March, after a visit to Seoul:

“In engaging North Korea, South Korea should aim to take the lead in dealing not only with inter-Korean relations but also the nuclear issue. Without a resolution to the nuclear issue, progress in inter-Korean relations is likely to be unsustainable, both because of domestic opinion in South Korea and because of American and international concerns. North Korea has consistently taken the position that only the United States can be its negotiating partner on the nuclear issue, but the United States no longer feels it has any basis for negotiating with North Korea. With China still wedded to a policy of support for the status quo in North Korea, that effectively leaves only the possibility of South Korea making diplomatic progress on the nuclear issue.”

The next months may prove to be among the most difficult and dangerous times in our long and often challenged alliance. But President Park rightly sees this as not just a threat but also an opportunity, one that calls out for South Korea to take on the leadership role it deserves.

* The author is the Associate Director for Research at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. A former foreign correspondent, Sneider writes widely on wartime history issues, Japanese foreign policy and U.S. security policy in Northeast Asia.

by Daniel C. Sneider
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