Park kicks off trip to China, Russia and Laos

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Park kicks off trip to China, Russia and Laos

President Park Geun-hye kicks off today her eight-day trip to Russia, China and Laos, where, on the sidelines of global meetings, she will hold a series of bilateral summits with the leaders of Russia, China and the United States. Park will focus on the issue of Pyongyang’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities while explaining Seoul’s decision to deploy a U.S.-led antiballistic missile system to Korea in her separate bilateral talks with her Russian and Chinese counterparts, said a presidential aide Friday.

She will attend the two-day Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok through Saturday and hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines. Park will then head to Hangzhou to attend a Group of 20, or G-20, major economies leaders’ summit over Sunday and Monday, where she will hold bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Park will then head to Vientiane to take part in Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meetings, where she will hold bilateral talks with U.S. President Barack Obama. She is also scheduling talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs, Kim Kyou-hyun, said during her meeting with Putin and Xi, Park will explain the Thaad deployment and discuss the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities, including its submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Park’s visit comes at a crucial time, after Russia and China have protested Seoul’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense(Thaad) system.

This will mark Park’s first face-to-face meeting with Xi since Korea announced it would deploy the Thaad battery in early July. Lim Sung-nam, Korea’s first vice minister of foreign affairs, headed to Beijing on Thursday to hold talks with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin ahead of the G-20 summit specifically to finalize details for the talks. Ahead of the upcoming summits, the JoongAng Ilbo surveyed and interviewed 31 Korean foreign affairs and security experts between Aug. 21 and 29 and asked them about pressing diplomatic issues.

“There is no need to directly mention and criticize the measures China has taken in retaliation [to the Thaad decision] such as tightening visa application procedures [for Koreans],” said China expert Kang Jun-young, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “However, we need to send a message that, while the government can squabble, let’s not hurt our people, or else this could harm bilateral relations after the issue between the governments is resolved.”

Of those surveyed, over 70 percent said U.S.-China tensions will continue or even worsen, which could put Seoul in a pinch.

“China, unlike in the past, is showing a stronger tendency toward hegemony,” said Yun Duk-min, chancellor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. “We can be pushed more and more into a situation where China may press us to take a side, and Thaad is an example.”

Experts pointed out that China and the United States pressuring Seoul to pick a side is a worst-case scenario.

“While Washington does not outright demand Seoul pick a side,” said Kim Sung-han, international relations professor at Korea University, “the atmosphere is one where it will ask what role Korea will take on issues.”

But Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said, “If the Korea-U.S. alliance and the Korea-U.S.-Japan cooperation is strengthened, this will rather be in accordance with China’s national interest. Without Seoul, a U.S.-Japan alliance will do whatever it takes to block China, so Korea can play the role of steering mechanism or brake, if it is included.”

“Korea’s strategic worth is elevated only if it holds onto both China and the United States,” Hankuk University’s Kang added. “We need to draw an unyielding line and speak to both sides. We have to be able to say ‘no’ to the United States so that we can say “no” to China, and vice versa.”

The experts picked Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as the leader who was best at practicing pragmatic diplomacy, with 65.5 percent, or 19 votes.

Abe drew attention at the Olympic Games’ closing ceremony in Brazil on Aug. 22 for dressing up as Super Mario to celebrate the official Olympic handover to Tokyo.

“That was expected of Abe - you can’t beat that,” said one foreign affairs expert who had served as a high-ranking diplomat, who shared the opinion with analysts that the Japanese prime minister was provocative but good at what he does. Over the past year, Abe made a series of diplomatic achievements, including U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Hiroshima in May, which came at a time when Washington encouraged Tokyo to have a stronger presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Under Washington’s pressure to bolster trilateral cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo, Abe also led the agreement on Dec. 28 to resolve the issue of the Japanese military’s wartime sexual slavery, despite his consistent language disparaging the so-called comfort women issue in the past.

Abe, while actively participating in the U.S.-led sanctions against Russia for the Ukrainian crisis, also went ahead and held a summit with Putin in May, prioritizing the need to open an Arctic route. Abe scored only 15.2 percent in a similar diplomacy poll of 31 foreign and Korean experts conducted by the newspaper in May 2015. However, Xi last year garnered 33.8 percent of the votes, placing first in the survey, whereas this year he drew in only 17.5 percent. Obama came in third at 10.3 percent.

Xi’s drop in ranking reflects negative reactions to his strong rejection of the ruling by an international tribunal on the South China Sea issue, which was unfavorable to Beijing, and China’s backlash to the Thaad deployment as well as the pressuring of nations to join the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

BY SPECIAL REPORTING TEAM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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