Park gets second wind at midpoint

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Park gets second wind at midpoint

Buoyed by a recent hike in her approval ratings, President Park Geun-hye is poised to carry out a number of policy initiatives with full investment of her political capital this year, the midpoint of a term that ends in early 2018.

Thanks to successful inter-Korean talks last month that defused tensions and a three-day trip to China that ended Friday, Park enjoyed a 54 percent approval rating in a poll conducted by Korea Gallup of 1,003 adults nationwide between Tuesday and Thursday.

The 54 percent figure is Park’s highest since the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April 2014 that killed over 300 passengers inside and sparked outrage over the government’s bungled rescue operations, which dragged Park’s approval down to the low 30 percent range.

With a rebound in popularity, Park is expected to throw her weight behind important policy initiatives, especially on improving ties with North Korea and inducing it return to multinational talks that have been suspended since 2007.

Park’s renewed emphasis on averting North Korea-originated crises and expanding inter-Korean cooperation and dialogue was obvious during her trip to China, where she stressed the importance of Korean unification.

During a summit with President Xi Jinping of China on Wednesday, she told Xi that peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula “in the nearest future” will contribute to the peace and prosperity of the entire region. The fact that Park conspicuously used the term “in the nearest future,” which she had not used before, reinforced the perception that improving ties with the reclusive state is a new, main priority.

Park also said “wide discussions will be launched soon to study how we could achieve reunification on the peninsula” during a brief meeting with reporters aboard the presidential plane on Friday as she wrapped up her trip.

She also said it “was of utmost importance” that “neighboring countries” agree with the need for reunification on the peninsula, adding that she hoped further efforts would be made to tell the world how reunification could contribute to peace on a global scale.

Park’s trip also underscored the importance of Beijing restraining Pyongyang from military provocations as she openly acknowledged China’s role in reining in the North in the latest crisis that ended on Aug. 25 with a six-point agreement from marathon talks.

In her opening remarks for the Wednesday summit with Xi in Beijing, Park thanked China for its “constructive role” in the South-North agreement, saying, “I appreciate China’s close communication with us and its constructive role to resolve recent tensions on the peninsula.”

When asked about that remark on Friday, she said the two countries had “close communication” in the course of round-the-clock talks, but declined to provide details to reporters on the plane.

“The important part [on the consent between Seoul and Beijing] is that the two will not accept any form of action that would escalate tensions on the peninsula,” she said. “We expressed our resolution to continue our cooperation [to defuse tensions] just like we did [in the latest crisis].”

Analysts said it is noteworthy that Seoul has won a nod from Beijing on the need for a dialogue on reunification, which it has never done before.

“It bears significance that Korea made a first step in discussing reunification with China, which had been uncomfortable with the issue,” said Kim Han-kwon, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy. “North Korea could feel added pressure [from China’s shift in attitude].”

Kim added that discussions over reunification and denuclearization of North Korea could gain momentum as Seoul has a busy diplomatic schedule for the remainder of 2015.

Park is scheduled to have a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama on Oct. 16 in Washington, during which the two allies are expected to reaffirm the importance of pursuing a denuclearized North Korea. Park will also try to ease Washington’s concerns about her attendance of China’s massive military parade last week. Park was one of the few leaders of U.S.-allied nations that accepted Beijing’s invitation to the extravaganza.

“Korea needs to show the diplomatic world that the Seoul-Washington summit involves higher stakes than the one with Beijing,” said Kim Sung-han, former foreign affairs vice minister who now teaches at the Graduate School of International Studies at Korea University.

“Instead of touching upon abstract agendas, the two leaders should present specific principles and rules in engaging with North Korea, with a special aim to dismantle North’s nuclear program.”

Another big diplomatic event on the horizon is a possible three-way summit in Seoul with China and Japan later this year, the first trilateral summit in three years.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan also supported resuming the trilateral talks. In an interview with the Yomiuri Telecasting Corporation on Friday, Abe said he sincerely wished to hold his first summit with Park on the occasion.

“Having wide discussions on political, diplomatic and economic matters [between the two nations] is what people in Korea and Japan wish [their leaders to do],” said the prime minister, adding that there were international issues that needed to be addressed, which was believed to be a reference to North Korea denuclearization talks.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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