Obama must come to SeoulDiplomacy is the art of fixing schedules. The itinerary of a head of a government on an overseas trip is an unequivocal indication of the direction - and priorities - of his or her foreign policies. That’s why destinations of government officials always carry great significance. U.S. President Barack Obama’s last-minute cancellation of a tour to Southeast Asian countries last October - albeit a unique case - significantly damaged his purported “pivot to Asia.” Although Obama made the decision due to a temporary shutdown of the federal government, Southeast Asia perceived it as a sign of growing isolationism in America.
Obama plans to resume his Asian travels in April to overcome some of the ramifications of the canceled trip. Though his schedule has not been finalized, the destinations reportedly include Japan, the Philippines and Malaysia. At the end of last year, Korea requested through diplomatic channels he visit Seoul this time, and the U.S. government is reportedly reviewing the request. A trip to Seoul and a summit with President Park Geun-hye will be possible during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing in October, but an April visit to Seoul would truly benefit the two allies considering the current tense situation in Northeast Asia.
If Obama only visits Japan after the Shinzo Abe government’s unprecedented provocations over territorial and historical issues, the United States will not be able to avoid criticism that it is siding with Tokyo on those disputes. That would lead to a colossal failure in America’s management of its allies.
Many potential flashpoints await Korea and Japan. Japan will hold its Takeshima Day in Shimane Prefecture later this month and will wrap up the government’s authorization of school textbooks claiming Dokdo as Japan’s territory. If Obama bypasses Korea under such circumstances, it is nothing less than Korea-bashing. But a visit to Korea could provide an opportunity to mend miserable relations between Seoul and Tokyo, not to mention a restoration of trilateral ties among Korea, America and Japan.
Many urgent issues face Seoul and Washington. A clear assessment of the precarious situation in North Korea and finding a way to deter Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are the core security issues, and they become even more grave as tensions rise in Beijing-Tokyo and Seoul-Tokyo relations. On top of that, Korea and the United States must deal with the critical issue of transferring wartime operational command of troops back to Korea. If Obama bypasses Korea this spring, it will send the wrong message to North Korea. A visit to Seoul is a litmus test of America’s role as a balancer in Northeast Asia.