Is Park’s regional peace pact realistic?

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Is Park’s regional peace pact realistic?

President Park Geun-hye just completed a masterful summit in Washington. She gave a strong performance in fluent English to much applause before a joint session of Congress and an equally impressive address over lunch at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In her first face-to-face meeting with President Obama she appeared to win his confidence in her judgment and her policies. Her government skillfully avoided a potential disaster on the bilateral 1-2-3 peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement by extending the current pact in order to buy more time for innovative compromise. Most important, she won a strong endorsement of her “Trustpolitik” strategy toward North Korea from Washington, while simultaneously leaving no doubts about U.S.-South solidarity in the face of growing North Korean provocations.

Only one theme on her trip seemed vague and incomplete. That was President Park’s proposal for a Northeast Asia peace pact. As she described the proposal in her address to Congress:

And so I propose an initiative for peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia. We cannot afford to put it off - a multilateral dialogue process in Northeast Asia. Together, the United States and other Northeast Asian partners could start with softer issues. These include environmental issues and disaster relief. They include nuclear safety and counterterrorism. That will be built through this process. And that trust will propel us to extend the horizons of our cooperation. (Applause.) The initiative will serve the cause of peace and development in the region. Of course, North Korea could also be invited to join.

The idea for a Northeast Asia peace forum is not new, of course. In the 1990s it was proposed separately and repeatedly by both the Korean and Japanese governments and it formed one element of the September 2005 Six Party Joint Statement. But rolling out the proposal in new clothing in the wake of unprecedented North Korean provocations immediately raises three critical questions:

First, if Pyongyang refuses to abide by the September 2005 denuclearization agreement, which seems likely, then would this forum not appear to be a framework for “peaceful coexistence” with a nuclear-armed North Korea? Importantly, the Park proposal does not include discussions on a peace treaty, which helps to limit the potential legitimization of North Korea’s ongoing nuclear weapons program. Still, even multilateral discussions on transnational security issues would run the risk of suggesting that the other parties have given up on denuclearization and are prepared for business-as-usual with Pyongyang. Unless, of course, a commitment to denuclearization is a pre-requisite for North Korea’s participation - a point not made clear in the proposal.

Second, is this an incremental process - one in which North Korea is not initially included because it refuses to abide by the September 2005 agreement - then how would Seoul convince China to participate? The Bush and Obama administrations tried several times to convince Beijing to either convene the Six Party Talks without the North when Pyongyang refused to cooperate or to establish a separate Five Party process to discuss energy and other transnational security issues outside the prevue of the Six Party meetings.

Korea, Japan and sometimes Russia all agreed to these proposals, but Beijing steadfastly refused every variation on the theme. The Chinese side was simply unwilling to isolate North Korea in such an obvious manner. Perhaps North Korea has driven Xi Jinping to the point that he would agree this time, but this remains to be seen.

This then leads to the third questions: what is the Seoul Process really meant to achieve? Is it camouflage for something else? Is the real purpose to provide cover for engaging with the North? Is it meant to induce Beijing into discussions with Seoul on the future of the peninsula?

Or is it a political gesture meant to demonstrate that Seoul has not lost the initiative in the wake of the North’s termination of North-South linkages such as Kaesong? The answer will determine whether this proposal will last longer than the half dozen Northeast Asia proposals that came before it.

Proponents of the Northeast Asia Peace Forum note that the European Union started six decades ago with small steps between France and Germany to cooperate on coal and steel, but these were not mere symbolic gestures. Germany and France had fought repeated wars over which country would control the coal and steel heartland of the Ruhr Valley.

What would a comparable effort look like in Northeast Asia? A common fisheries pact with respect to all contested islands might fit the bill? Or rather a framework for energy cooperation? Perhaps the Seoul Process could evolve in such a direction after tackling easier questions. As President Park noted in her address to the Congress, “if we start where our initiatives overlap, then later on it will be easier to find common ground on the larger challenges, easier to find solutions to our mutual benefit.” That makes sense - and one cannot expect detailed analysis in a speech that is only introducing the concept. Still, a lot more thought will have to go into this concept before it can gain traction among the powerful players caught in what President Park calls the “Asia paradox” of cooperation and rivalry.

*The author is a senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael J. Green
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