Not ceremony, but intimacy

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Not ceremony, but intimacy

The White House announced on Tuesday the visit of President Park Geun-hye to Washington on June 16. Any summit meeting by the U.S. and Korean presidents is important in its own right, but why is this visit especially important?

Contrary to popular opinion, this visit’s importance is not informed by some outspoken desire to “match” the visit of Prime Minister Abe of Japan from April 26 to May 3. Summit meetings are about substance, but they are also about protocol and ceremony. In this regard, many Koreans were upset by the “red-carpet” treatment afforded to the Japanese leader. Abe was treated to all of the trappings of a “state visit,” which is the highest level of ceremony at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, including a black tie dinner. In addition, Abe was given the privilege of addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress, the first Japanese prime minister to do so.

The reaction in Korea to all of this was nothing short of raw anger. During a CSIS trip to Seoul the week after the Japan summit, I found that nearly every Korean was not just disappointed at Abe’s lack of an apology for comfort women, but was peeved at what was perceived as over-the-top treatment. Korea’s reaction was “Why Abe and not Park?” The fact that Xi Jinping will come to Washington in the fall to a very similar level of pomp and circumstance also irks Koreans. Many see this as a subtle sign of disrespect for Park and favoritism toward Japan, the American favored son in the Pacific, or favoritism to China, the next rising power.

But this is the wrong expectation to have of Park’s impending visit. First, the White House is not disrespecting Park by giving her a working-level visit without all of the ceremony. Indeed, Park already had her “formal” visit in May 2013 when she received a black tie dinner at the White House, and a speech before a joint session of Congress. At the time, moreover, it was unheard of that two successive presidents from the same country would be given the honor of speaking at the Congress (the last president to do so at the time was Lee Myung-bak in October 2011). After her speech, the Korean president was like a rock star with normally dignified congressmen and senators jostling to take a picture with her. It was also unusual for a head of state to receive such treatment for a first visit to the White House (in Abe’s case it was his second visit).

Second, a number of the accomplishments of the Obama-Abe summit were important, but they should not be the object of envy or disdain by the Koreans. On the contrary, similar accomplishments have already been made in the U.S.-Korea relationship. For example, while the U.S. and Japan unveiled revised Defense Guidelines at the summit, the U.S. and Korea already completed OPCON consultations in October 2014, a new counter-provocations plan in March 2013 (Combined Counter-Provocation Plan), and extended deterrence dialogue in October 2011. While the U.S. and Japan worked hard on bilateral trade consultations in support of TPP, Washington and Seoul have already completed an FTA.

The point here is not to say that one alliance is “better” than the other one, but that all of the hand-wringing over Abe’s treatment in Washington and comparing summits is really meaningless. The U.S. and Korea have accomplished enough in their own right with little need for insecurities about Japan.

Thus, I choose to view the upcoming summit not by the metric of pomp and circumstance and ceremony. Instead, this is a “post-pomp” summit - that is, one between two very close allies with leaders who genuinely like each other. For this reason, there is no need for ceremony; instead, the atmosphere is understated and intimate. I look not for horns and trumpets but what is most important is that the leaders are able to spend “quality time” together thinking about climate change, trade issues, health security, and nuclear security and non-proliferation. When a close friend comes over for dinner, you don’t take out the fine china. Instead, it is the intimate, quality conversation that matters more, and that is what I expect to see between Park and Obama.

*The author is professor of government at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

by Victor Cha

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