Barbecue and diplomacy
Presidents Park and Obama will have many issues to discuss when they meet today. Unlike the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the White House last month, Park’s visit will be without the elaborate ceremony, but not without substance. The Xi visit was like a black tie dinner party where the hosts and guests use formality and ceremony to compensate for a lack of closeness. The Park visit is more like a casual backyard barbecue among close friends, where formality is not necessary and intimacy is more valued. (Besides, Park enjoyed all of the ceremony of a state visit on her last trip to the United States in 2013.)
North Korea will be a central topic of conversation even though Pyongyang did not carry through on its threat to launch a satellite or missile on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party on October 10. This does not mean that a missile test won’t follow the anniversary, as the latest commercial satellite imagery suggests the North has shrouded its missile gantry, which indicates some sort of preparations are taking place. The two leaders will make strong statements of alliance cohesion and deterrence to show that there is no daylight in dealing with the threat. They will call on the North to return to denuclearization negotiations and will hold out the promise of political, economic, and energy incentives if Pyongyang makes the right strategic choice.
Trade and business issues will figure prominently in the meetings. Park’s business delegation is the largest in recent memory with well over 160 members. This reflects her focus on drumming up business opportunities and investment for Korea and raising growth rates. Obama will support her latest efforts at instituting structural reform of the labor market. The agreement on a basic text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is an important new development that will only highlight South Korea’s standing request to be one of the first major economies to join TPP after the charter agreement is completed. Obama is likely to support TPP membership for Korea coming out of the summit even though there still exist complaints about implementation of KORUS among some on Capitol Hill and in business.
The third major element of the visit will be increasing cooperation between Washinton and Seoul outside the Korean peninsula. The term of art adopted by policymakers lately is the “New Horizons” or “New Frontiers” of U.S.-Korea cooperation. This refers to a linking up of the U.S. global agenda with Korea’s increasingly prominent role as a “middle power.” The two sides are likely to announce new cooperative arrangements in areas such as global health, cyber security, outer space, development assistance, disaster relief, clean energy development and climate change. Park will seek Obama’s support of her NAPCI concept. Obama will want Park to improve relations with Japan. And both are not likely to be disappointed in response to these requests.
But the most important behind-the-scenes discussion that will not make it into a press statement will be the conversations on China. This is because under the wholly positive exterior picture of deep trust and affection portrayed by both sides, lurks a small but not insignificant discomfort. While most other friends and partners of the U.S. are expressing concerns about China’s more assertive behavior under Xi Jinping, Korea is pressing on all fronts for deeper engagement with Beijing. In this regard, Obama will want to know what Park’s views on China’s latest reef-building activities in the South China Sea. He will not be satisfied with some vague reference to freedom of navigation, but will want to know how South Korea plans to embed its significant commercial sales to Southeast Asian countries in a broader strategic vision that supports regional stability and opposes any efforts by parties to change the status quo.
Park will want to hear Obama’s reaction to her new “geometry diplomacy” in Northeast Asia. That is, Park’s attendance at Beijing’s V-Day celebrations is but a part of her larger use of geometry diplomacy to bring Beijing, Seoul, and Washington together. And this fall appears to be the appropriate moment for her plan to come together: Park met with Xi in Beijing on September 2, Xi met with Obama in Washington on Sept. 25, and Obama and Park will meet in Washington on October 16. Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean leaders are scheduled to hold a trilateral meeting in Seoul at the end of October or beginning of November. These meetings provide the building blocks for what Seoul hopes will be the first-ever three-way discussion between the China, South Korea, and the United States later this year or early next year. Although no formal date has been announced, a trilateral meeting could be held on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Turkey in November, the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, or the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington next March. If such a meeting were to occur, its agenda could be used to coordinate priorities on thinking about unification, North Korean contingencies, and in general and increase transparency between actors.
Good friends don’t need pomp and circumstance. They just need some quality time together to map out strategy, which is what the two leaders will have.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 16, Page 32
The author is a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at CSIS in Washington DC.
by Victor Cha