A picture-perfect summitThere have been various proposals for how President Park Geun-hye should handle her summit in Washington in mid-June. Some commentators in Korea view the visit as an opportunity to push back against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s successful visit in April and highlight Japanese historical revisionism. Others worry that Park will somehow look demoted because she is not receiving all the honors of a joint session of Congress or the pomp and circumstance afforded Abe and offered to Chinese President Xi Jinping on his mid-September visit to the White House. Professional diplomats are scrambling to think of “deliverables” they can cobble together on smaller issues that might in aggregate equal Abe’s apparent success on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the revision of U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines.
Instead, the Blue House should be thinking along the following lines:
1. Do not make the visit a rebuttal to Abe. The American public trusts Japan more than any other country in Asia right now and those numbers have actually gone up under Abe. Many journalists, policymakers and members of Congress think Abe needed to say much more than he did about history in his speech to Congress, but for the most part that speech cleared the bar for Americans. That said, President Obama is probably quite sympathetic to Park’s views on the history issue, and she should quietly work with him to think of ways to encourage a more forthcoming statement from Japan to the rest of Asia in August.
2. Put forward a positive vision. Park’s “Asian paradox” is an astute observation about Northeast Asian international relations today, but it is not a policy. The Blue House Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative is an interesting proposal for a forum to address issues, but it is a proposal for a process and not a strategy. On this trip, Park needs to offer a vision that demonstrates Korea’s ability to be a partner with the United States for a more peaceful and prosperous Northeast Asia - something that will not happen with observations on international affairs or proposals for process. Park should talk about the Asia-Pacific she envisions: one that is advancing the democratic norms Korea cherishes; that is rules-based and open; where disputes are settled by diplomacy and dialogue and not coercion; and one that steadily integrates different cultures and heritages. Koreans can make this case with great authority and credibility. Americans who worry (and some do) that Korea is “tilting” to China would take comfort in the commitment to democratic norms, while those concerned about working with China will see an inviting but principled approach to Beijing.
3. Get the U.S. administration to focus on North Korea. The Obama administration’s “strategic patience” with Pyongyang does not solve the problem posed by Kim Jong-un’s increasingly belligerent behavior and growing nuclear and missile arsenals. Increase pressure, but don’t reject dialogue. Whatever the formula, it is important for Park to get the U.S. administration to stop being quite so strategically “patient” and to turn its gaze from Iraq, Iran and Ukraine toward the problems of the Korean Peninsula. It does not appear that this was a major theme of Abe’s visit, and Xi is unlikely to focus on Korea in September. The Park visit has to be the one that refocuses Obama on the North Korea problem.
4. But don’t make it all about the Korean Peninsula. Visitors to the Oval Office need to remember the president of the United States has a lot of crises to handle and the meltdown of U.S. strategy in the Middle East is probably the biggest headache right now. If Park comes in with some muscle and some ideas to help with problems on the other side of the globe - or with issues like climate change, Ukraine or development - it would definitely make an impact and lead a grateful U.S. president to think harder about what he can do for Korea.
5. Think of the picture! Ninety-nine percent of Americans will not read fact sheets or joint statements or press comments from the summit - but they will remember a picture showing the two leaders are pals. Playing golf with Obama? Unfortunately, he doesn’t like playing golf as part of work. A walk in the woods in Camp David? Alas, it seems the White House is tired of all the mosquitoes. Walk to the Lincoln Memorial together? Nope - he did that with Abe. But there has to be something. Maybe it is a walk at the Korean War Memorial or a visit to a school where American students are learning Korean or Taekwondo (my son and daughter are learning Korean that way and are very proud of it). The right picture - whatever it is - will be worth a million words.
The bottom line is that the White House needs and wants a successful summit, and by all accounts Park is one of Obama’s favorite world leaders. That is the most important ingredient of all.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green