President Park’s dilemma

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President Park’s dilemma

Life is made up of one trial after another and some tests can be harder than others. This is the same for any nation. It is endlessly put to the test. China was first tested when it normalized ties with South Korea in 1992. Seoul was clear in choosing its side, severing ties with Taiwan.

Beijing, on the other hand, was more ambiguous between Seoul and Pyongyang on the diplomatic front.

Seoul complained that the United Nations Security Council could not take effective action against Pyongyang for its defiant nuclear test due to opposition from Beijing. Pyongyang was also disgruntled that its old ally went along with international sanctions.

But since Xi Jinping took office, Beijing has taken a more decisive stance and begun to regard North Korea objectively rather than out of decades-old traditional loyalty. Beijing became more outspoken against Pyongyang’s maverick ways and willingly joined the international chorus. Then it became our turn to test out our traditional ties with the United States.

Seoul had to be evasive about Washington’s plan of positioning the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) anti-ballistic missile system on the Korean Peninsula, and Beijing’s invitation to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), in order to avoid annoying either of the superpowers. Washington disliked that Seoul chose to join the new regional bank, which could challenge the United States and Japan’s Asian Development Bank (ADB). Beijing asked Seoul outright not to allow the U.S. defense system - whose radar Beijing claims can reach the Chinese mainland - into Korea. And after much debate, Seoul ended up joining the AIIB and putting off discussions on Thaad.

But the tests haven’t stopped. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been invited to China’s celebration on Sept. 3 marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. That day - the official memorial day of the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression - has been declared a national holiday -packed with parades and revelry over two days.

On Sept. 2, Japanese representatives signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender in Tokyo Bay aboard the U.S. warship Missouri. China declared the following day Victory Day.

Beijing has decided to hype this year’s commemoration for several reasons. It wants to raise awareness that World War II did not come to an end entirely through Western engagement. China and other countries in Asia fought vehemently against the Japanese and brought about its surrender.

Beijing also wants to send a strong warning about Tokyo’s attempts to whitewash and glorify its past aggressions. In short, it wants to flaunt its newfound power and role in Asia. State authorities have begun operations to clean up the air in Beijing to ensure the day goes well when the eyes of the world are directed toward the capital. It also sent invitations to world leaders including the Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. President Park was invited, but can’t easily accept.

Tokyo, which has tense relations with Beijing and is striving to restore some of its glory, can’t possibly be thrilled about that day being labeled as a victory against Japanese aggression.

But Seoul also can’t be comfortable about the idea of its president observing a military parade exhibiting China’s might. On a historical level, Korea is right to celebrate this occasion with China, as Korea’s independence movement against Japan had been mostly staged across China. It also offers a natural setting for both Korean heads of state to meet for the first time, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un likely to attend.

Seoul would put its already fragile relationship with Tokyo at stake if Park attends the ceremony, which unequivocally snubs Japan. Yet, it would also lose a chance to strengthen Korea-China and inter-Korean ties if it passes on it. Some have suggested the diplomatic alternative of sending the prime minister or another minister in place of the president.

The ceremony’s intent is just too blunt for Park to attend. China is free to name its event however it wants, but it should have been more subtle if it wanted to invite foreign leaders. It would be less controversial if Beijing just referred to it simply as Victory Day. China said it was celebrating this year’s anniversary in a grand way in order to raise awareness about past lessons and open a new chapter in a peaceful era. If so, it should have been more peaceful about planning the event.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 24, Page 28

*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.

by You Sang-chul

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