What to expect in WashingtonPresident Park Geun-hye travels to Washington, D.C. from Thursday to Friday in a period of warm U.S.-Korea ties but without the prospect of dramatic initiatives or outcomes that would seize the public’s imagination. Her visit is likely to receive less press attention than either Shinzo Abe’s April visit or Xi Jinping’s September stop. Abe’s first-ever speech before a joint session of Congress by a Japanese prime minister and his pledge to deliver new security legislation to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, garnered front-page headlines. After a period of sometimes rocky relations, Abe demonstrated how strong U.S.-Japan relations are.
Xi Jinping, on the other hand, came at the nadir of U.S.-China relations, with American criticism of China mounting over cyberattacks, human rights violations and China’s airfield building in the South China Sea. Xi tried to put a positive spin on the relationship with vague commitments not to “militarize” the South China Sea and promises of new confidence-building measures in cyberspace, but the American press coverage was largely negative, and the Obama administration appeared happy just avoiding a deterioration of U.S.-China ties.
Park is unlikely to face the kind of bad news stories that plagued the Xi visit, but she lacks the same opportunities to grab the headlines that Abe had. In a way, that situation reflects the strength of U.S.-Korea ties and the success of Park’s previous visit to Washington. Americans trust Korea and support the U.S.-Korea alliance. Park’s visit can deepen that trust, but she will have to think about how she frames four sets of issues.
First, what is the overall theme for the visit? Officials are talking about the “new frontier” - a way to emphasize that the United States and Korea are working together on space exploration, climate science and new technologies that affect all of mankind. This is good branding. It is not as compelling as President Lee Myung-bak’s “Global Korea” - which was reinforced by high-profile summits in Seoul for the G-20, nuclear safety and the effectiveness of development assistance. Nevertheless, the “new frontier” demonstrates like “Global Korea” that Seoul is a thought leader and contributor to the global common good.
At one point, officials in Seoul probably preferred to build the summit around the theme of Park’s Northeast Asia Peace & Security Initiative (NAPSI), but within the Obama administration, there was skepticism on several counts, including how the initiative could work without improved ROK-Japan ties and whether it would last beyond Park. This was shortsighted on the part of the Obama administration, and I hope that NAPSI continues at least as a forum for scholars in the near future.
The second issue Park will have to prepare for would be a North Korean provocation. There was widespread expectation that before Oct. 10, Pyongyang might conduct a satellite test - or to be precise, a ballistic missile test. This would clearly have violated UN Security Council resolutions. The test didn’t take place, luckily. The American people are inclined to support Seoul’s lead on North Korea, and with “strategic” concerns like missile and nuclear tests, there is less concern in Washington about overreactions from Seoul (in contrast to provocations like the August crisis or Cheonan incident that result in deaths or injuries to Korean citizens.)
On the other hand, any North Korean missile test will lead contenders in the American presidential primaries to accuse the Obama administration of being too passive or soft towards North Korea. Park will want to demonstrate firmness, close coordination with Washington and an openness to diplomacy without appearing tolerant of the growing North Korean threat. Park’s message on unification will be well-received in Washington, as would a robust declaration of commitment to improving the human rights situation in the North, particularly in the wake of the UN Commission of Inquiry.
Third, Park should be prepared in the Oval Office or in her press encounters to explain her thinking on China more clearly. American trust in Korea is high, but there is growing puzzlement at Park’s approach to China compared with other U.S. allies that are expressing concern to Washington about Chinese coercion. Americans need to understand the logic of the Park strategy - that Seoul has a chance to gain more purchase on the North Korea problem as Beijing grows wary and weary of Kim Jong-un’s erratic behavior.
At the same time, Park needs to understand the two areas of American concern: first, that Seoul’s China strategy is still theoretical and the real proof will come in Beijing’s response to the next North Korean provocation; and, second, that the strategy marginalizes Japan in ways that seem counterproductive for both Seoul and Washington. There are rumors that the Blue House wants a U.S.-China-Korea trilateral summit to emerge as one deliverable from the summit in Washington. If those rumors are true, it is difficult to see President Obama embracing the idea without significantly greater improvement in Korea-Japan ties.
The fourth issue that will be on the mind of many American observers will be Park’s plan to revive the Korean economy. There is no need for her to appear desperate to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, since ratification of the agreement in the U.S. Congress will eat up the last year of the Obama administration. On the other hand, there are concerns that Seoul has relied too much on Chinese economic growth instead of focusing on restructuring and deregulation that would foster a more dynamic and versatile Korean economy. Park will want to demonstrate confidence in Korea’s economic fundamentals. President Park and Korea are in very good standing in Washington and in the United States more broadly. Dynamic but steady and reliable - that is the Korea Park can quietly project next week.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green