Walking a tightrope

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Walking a tightrope

President Park Chung Hee was here. So testifies an old photo hanging on the wall of a lobby at Washington’s landmark Omni Shoreham Hotel, which has been hosting world leaders since the 1930s. A strange feeling gushed up as I looked at the picture of Park. He was standing among the dignitaries to the state funeral of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Park, virtually unknown to Americans, met with Kennedy soon after Park ascended to power through a military coup in May 1961. After two years, he returned to Washington to mourn the death of the American president along with other world leaders.

Also included in the photo were Filipino President Diosdado Macapagal, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Belgium Baudouin I, Greek Queen Frederica of Hanover, and French President Charles de Gaulle. Park, then president-elect, was attending the funeral as acting president. The five countries in the picture had all joined the allied forces on the side of South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War. South Korea, still in rubble at the time, was a basket case even poorer than Ethiopia.

Park stood next to Macapagal, the father of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who served as the president of the Philippines from 2001 to 2010. That seems to be a bizarre coincidence.

In the 1960s, South Koreans were envious of the Philippines. Today, it’s the reverse. Filipino leaders have been poor in maintaining relations with their allies. Lack of statesmanship is partly the reason for the country’s weakened global status.

The Philippines, too, signed a security pact with the United States in 1951. In 1992, the Filipino legislature was swept up in sovereignty fervor. Politicians and citizens demanded the U.S. troops leave their country. Americans pulled out. The country suffers today from a snowballing defense cost. The economic benefits from the American presence also left.

The Chinese moved in to replace the power vacuum. The Filipinos resisted and clashed with the Chinese, leading to the ongoing territorial disputes over the Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island in China - a reputedly resource-rich group of coral and rock formations in the South China Sea. Amid the standoff that involved navy frigates and surveillance jets, the Philippines has again turned to its old ally - the United States. International politics is a jungle. A half-baked sovereignty demand by small and weak nations carries a heavy price.

Blind resistance to an alliance is no sovereignty. To rely on - or be independent of - a superpower like the U.S. can be adjusted and controlled. But a sense of balance is a must in diplomatic leadership of a small and weak nation.

Park Chung Hee applied “pragmatic sovereignty” to his policy toward the U.S. He carefully juggled pragmatism, sovereignty and balance. He capitalized on the alliance with Washington as an opportunity for national development. The U.S. military presence in South Korea helped to sharply reduce its defense cost.

Under the U.S. security protection, Park was able to entirely focus on economic drive and modernization. At the same time, however, he sought to reinforce sovereignty in defense. His balanced policy sharply contrasts with the overly anti-American sovereignty sought under the administration of President Roh Moo-hyun. The latter lacked diplomatic strategy, restraint and subtlety.

There is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum at the University of Texas at Austin. One of the exhibit rooms includes a display of a jewelry box inlaid with an abalone mother-of-pearl dragon decoration that was offered to President Johnson during his state visit to Seoul in 1966. The dragons embody President Park Chung Hee’s will on sovereignty. The same motif inspired his daughter and President Park Geun-hye’s foreign policy.

The six-decade-old alliance between South Korea and America is a dramatic success story based on delicate and tense calculations. The Korean Peninsula is surrounded by global powers. But a paradox is also at play in the interwoven geopolitical relationship. Though the fateful division of the peninsula is the last by-product of the cold war, the peninsula still plays a critical role in the new era led by two new superpowers - the U.S. and China. Posing as an intriguing challenge to international politics, Korea’s place in the world has become extraordinary. The Korea-U.S. ties have been persistently generating new strategic values. A bilateral relationship is evolving toward the axis of the new order in Northeast Asia.

South Korea’s status with or without the U.S. would be completely different. Without a solid partnership with America, South Korea’s value would plummet. Beijing would turn cold and domineering toward South Korea. Japan also could fearlessly bring up past ghosts.

At the center of the Seoul-Washington alliance is Pyongyang’s nuclear threat. The young Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambitions appear to be more desperate and fiercer than his father Kim Jong-il’s. President Park urged Beijing to exercise more influence on Pyongyang. Of course, China could probably rein in North Korea’s dangerous nuclear game. But nothing is free in international politics. China would want something tangible in return, as Beijing has consistently been anxious of the exclusively rock-solid ties between Seoul and Washington.

The Northeast Asian order is delicate and complicated. South Korea’s stronger and extended ties with the U.S. would trigger friction with China under the circumstances where President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” clash. But Seoul’s alliance with Washington can coexist with friendly relations with Beijing. President Park has an ambition to maintain a subtle gain from amicable relationships with the two countries.

Park has demonstrated an affinity for Obama. She is also familiar with the Xi government following the leadership of Hu Jintao. Trust between national leaders can play a pivotal part in national diplomacy. The close relationship with leaders of Washington and Beijing can strengthen Park’s foreign front.

How to adjust and balance South Korea’s ties with the two global powers could shape the future of the Korean Peninsula. That should be another starting point in Park’s trust-building process with the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang.

An alliance must be reciprocal. There have been ups and downs. The Nixon doctrine and Jimmy Carter’s campaign to pull out U.S. forces from South Korea were bombshells during the Park Chung Hee era. We cannot be too reliant on ties with America. South Korea should not forget that it is one of the two main actors in the epic drama it stages with the U.S. in Northeast Asia. We must be assertive in envisioning and designing a new regional order. To do so, the president must polish her strategic mindset and imagination on the foreign front.


* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon

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