Find a breakthrough in AmericaOn March 8, 2001, President Kim Dae-jung rushed his visit to Washington. While he was advised to postpone the trip as President George W. Bush had just been inaugurated on Jan. 21 and had not finished reviewing his North Korean policy, President Kim was firm. He wanted to win the support of President Bush for his appeasement policy toward the North. On the surface, the outcome of the meeting was spectacular. The joint statement included grand phrases like reinforcement of the Korea-U.S. alliance, support for the appeasement policy and maintaining the Perry Process. But in reality, the meeting was a colossal failure not just because Bush referred to Kim as “this man” — a diplomatic gaffe — but because his visit failed to change the Bush administration’s policy on North Korea.
President Roh Moo-hyun’s first summit with Bush in May 2003 was not successful either. He prepared thoroughly to attain the goal of peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and made exceptional remarks to win the favor of Washington. “If the U.S. hadn’t helped Korea 53 years ago, I may have ended up in a concentration camp by now,” Roh said. But Bush was not moved, and Washington’s distrust of Roh was not cleared. Domestic reception was also harsh. Rho was criticized for the regression of the appeasement policy and for servile diplomacy. Roh ended up with the worst results: failing to persuade Washington and being criticized by his support base in Korea.
Right before his first visit to Washington in April 2008, President Lee Myung-bak said that the purpose of the summit was to improve the bilateral relationship that had been damaged over the past decade and bring back trust. America received him with a special welcome. President Bush and Laura Bush invited Lee and his wife Kim Yoon-ok to the presidential retreat at Camp David — a special hospitality extended to a Korean leader. President Lee returned the favor by announcing the agreement on the U.S. beef import deal, which had been progressing slowly, 11 hours before arriving at Camp David. Also, he personally asked for a steak from a 32-month-old Montana cow for dinner. Moreover, Lee upgraded the Korea-U.S. alliance into one of value, trust and strategy. Bush may have been moved, but his stubbornness instead infuriated Koreans. The candlelight protests and nationwide criticism were too painful in exchange for the hospitality Lee received in the U.S.
On May 7, President Park Geun-hye meets with her counterpart Barack Obama in Washington together with a speech to Congress. She must be contemplating what to bring forth for a successful trip. If she highlights hard-line positions — such as strengthening international cooperation on sanctions against the North, reaffirmation of proliferation deterrence and the nuclear umbrella, postponing the transfer of wartime operational command or missile defense cooperation — the Obama administration and Korean conservatives would be pleased. But the cost is obvious: Inter-Korean relations would turn sour and our relationship with China would also suffer. If the jitters over national security over the last five years come back, citizens will question her administrative agenda of the “new era of happiness and hope.”
It also seems inappropriate for Park to present to Obama her “Seoul Process,” an initiative to achieve peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia. There is no reason to propose the idea in Washington. It would be better to announce the plan in Seoul or bring it to a Seoul-Beijing-Tokyo summit. Moreover, when the risk of military collision is escalating, highlighting the peace process at this point might obscure the agenda and dilute the outcome of her visit to Washington.
Rather, she needs a straightforward approach in the summit. She should directly address the most urgent pending issue: how to overcome the crisis on the peninsula. With limited time, Park must inform Obama of her signature “trust-building process” with Pyongyang and provide a fundamental and comprehensive plan to overcome the conflict by creating a momentum for Seoul’s leading role. She should propose specific and meaningful ideas, including substantial alternatives to improve our and America’s relationships with the North, a proposal of four-way talks to replace the existing truce regime with a peace system and resumption of the six-party talks to solve the North’s nuclear conundrum.
The distance between trust and distrust, confrontation and cooperation are not very far. Our fates will be determined depending on how we use the opportunity. President Park’s historical mission is to create a system of peace and trust on the peninsula.