Park’s trip to WashingtonPresident Park is no stranger to Washington. As a politician, she regularly made sojourns to the city, meeting with specialists, think tanks, businesspeople and politicians. She made a positive impression on everyone on these trips. Whether Democrat or Republican, all viewed her as a capable, intelligent and important political figure.
So, what made her trip to the White House different? First, she returned to Washington as a historic figure being the first female president of Korea. The fact that she won by the largest popular margin of any Korean president since 1987 only adds greatness to the already positive story about Korea’s democratization praised by the Western world. This may not seem like much to Koreans, but to Americans who see a great deal of male chauvinism in Asian societies, Park represents a milestone for all of Asia.
Second, her visit to the White House and her speech to a joint session of U.S. Congress allowed her to lay out her policies and vision for the country. But more important than policies, her meetings and public presentations allowed her to introduce her personal story to the American people. Past Korean leaders had compelling personal stories that resonate with Americans. Kim Dae-jung was lionized in the West as a fighter for democracy. Roh Moo-hyun’s personal growth from humble roots to passing the Korean legal exam to then becoming president resonated as an Abraham Lincoln-type story. Lee Myung-bak’s odyssey as a young man starting at the bottom at Hyundai and then rising to become head of Hyundai global construction and then president is a rags-to-riches tale not unlike a Korean version of the American Dream.
And so, Park Guen-hye’s visit enabled Americans to see a compelling story of a teenager who was thrust into the role of first lady of her country when her mother was killed by a North Korean agent. They were able to hear how she lost her father tragically and then disappeared from public life, only choosing to return when she felt her country was falling apart during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Her face still bears the scars of her commitment, having been slashed by a demonstrator while she was stumping. For Americans, this is an interesting and compelling political leader.
There were many issues to be discussed between Obama and Park. But more important than the nuts and bolts of policy issues, summits are for the purpose of sending messages and setting the tone in the relationship. This is especially the case for first summits. In this regard, President Park was able to talk about the values and principles that guide her presidency. Extolling the virtues of democracy, prosperity and social security for Koreans, she was also able to separate and yet not disrespect her father’s period of dictatorial rule of the country, which ended over three decades ago.
Explaining these principles, whether in the Oval Office, at Congress, or at a lunch with business people, is important because presidencies are rarely about pre-determined policies. Instead, they are about the surprises that come one’s way and how an administration reacts to the unexpected. This is where one’s principles matter. Historians write about presidencies based on their principles, not based on their policies.
There has been no bigger surprise than North Korea’s behavior over the past month. The summit allowed Park to explain her trustpolitik vision. Like most doctrines, it is simple but powerful in its logic - trust must start with keeping simple promises. Promises are then followed by a process. Promises and process then lead to institutions for cooperation. The obstacles to building trust with North Korea are clear. Indeed, there too many broken promises left on the engagement path to count, and regardless of good intention, serious cognitive and perceptual biases exist that will make genuine signaling difficult. For example, in the case of Burma, the leadership had a clear and unmistakeable way to signal their seriousness of purpose in opening to the world and that was their treatment of Aung San Suu Ki. No such easy signal exists in the North Korean case. Nevertheless, Park undoubtedly told her American counterparts that her vision for building trust does not emerge from behind rose-colored glasses and it is coupled with a no-nonsense pledge to stand tough against the North if provoked.
It was fitting that on the 60th anniversary of the alliance, President Park was able to address a joint session of Congress and host a large dinner at the Smithsonian for friends, war veterans, and supporters of the U.S.-Korea alliance. The lessons out of these events were that the Park presidency still holds the alliance as its center of gravity, even as Seoul may reach out to other partners in the region.
*The author is D.S. Song-KF professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at CSIS.
by Victor Cha