Madame President in Washington

October 18, 2015 11:00 AM

Summits can be forcing events, providing the opportunity for initiatives. Lee Myung Bak’s 2011 visit to Washington, for example, strengthened the administration’s hand in securing support for the US-Korea FTA. But sometimes summits are more akin to what the military calls “presence” operations: affirming existing relationships rather than breaking new ground.

While highly successful, Park Geun Hye’s recent trip to Washington fell largely in the second camp. The long Joint Fact Sheet had a lot of “affirms” in it, underlining a host of recent refinements in the alliance:

  • It noted the October 23, 2014 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on the delay of OPCON transfer;
  • Although making no mention of the more controversial issue of THAAD deployment, the statement mentioned the ROK’s intention to develop its own Kill-Chain and Korean Air Missile Defense (KAMD) systems. Despite a full honor parade for Madame Park at the Pentagon, one slight embarrassment was Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s refusal to reconsider a direct request from ROK Minister of Defense Han Min-koo about the transfer of key American technologies for Seoul's "KF-X" indigenous jet fighter development project (Yonhap). However, the blow was softened by a decision to establish a consultative forum on defense technology that would include the KF-X project.
  • The statement noted the recently-concluded U.S.-ROK Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (“123” Agreement) and the intention to establish a new bilateral forum on that issue as well;
  • The economic message included a nod to Korea’s interest in the TPP. In her speech at CSIS (podcast), President Park reminded the audience that Korea already had trade deals with 10 of the 12 TPP partners. It is a virtual certainty that Korea will ultimately join the TPP (assuming the US can ratify it; despite recent political defections, I am still reasonably confident it will get through Congress);
  • The two countries outlined a number of global public goods issues on which they have cooperated or plan to do so in new ways, including humanitarian operations, climate change and the environment, and perhaps most interestingly space and cybersecurity.

The most closely-watched issues centered on the Northeast Asian political landscape. Park Geun Hye’s decision to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War in Beijing raised some eyebrows, since she shared the dais with Presidents Putin and Xi and tacitly identified with China’s ongoing war-victim narrative. But South Korea’s diplomacy toward China should be viewed as one of the accomplishments of the Park administration, as she has astutely balanced her interests with respect to Washington and Beijing while underscoring South Korea’s rising stature and North Korea’s continuing marginalization.

At their joint press conference, President Obama rightly endorsed Park’s initiatives vis-à-vis China, while gently reminding President Park of the US interest in resuming trilateral cooperation with Japan, and—implicitly—putting an end to the bilateral spat on history questions that has plagued her relationship with Prime Minister Abe. The avenue for doing so is likely to be the resumption of the trilateral summits with China and Japan in November, summits that have not convened since May 2012. President Obama rightly endorsed these and the hint that she was open to a bilateral summit with her Japanese counterpart was—from a US perspective—the best deliverable on offer.

However, these positive signals were partly jammed by an unfortunate story that has not gotten the attention it deserves. Park’s ruling Saenuri Party has proposed that the government resume control over history textbooks, first introduced following the Yushin constitution in 1974 and not suspended until 2010 (New York Times here, Joongang Ilbo on the growing domestic reaction here). The opposition and historians are concerned that Park will whitewash South Korea’s history, including the role of Japanese collaborators and the political history of the long Park Chung Hee-Chun Doo Hwan authoritarian era. But the danger actually lies in an altogether different direction: that South Korea’s textbooks will become political tools of the history wars as they have in Japan and particularly China. My favorite treatment of the China story is Zheng Wang's cautionary tale Never Forget National Humiliation.  Read it and weep.

On North Korea, some useful commentary—such as Ankit Panda at the Diplomat—looked for subtle signs of a relaxation of preconditions for restarting the Six Party talks. A distinctive feature of the summit was a short joint statement on North KoreaXinhua picked up the issue by running--yet again--Beijing’s long-standing mantra that the US, South Korea and China will “strengthen coordination” to bring the DPRK back to the table. In the press conference, however, President Park offered an extended reflection on the barriers to talks that suggests that strategic patience is alive and well not only Washington but in Seoul as well; her comparison with the Iran deal is worth quoting at length:

“What’s important here is that you need to have this genuine willingness, on the part of North Korea, that they will give up nuclear capabilities.  This might not be a perfect example, but you can take a horse to the trough, but you can’t make it drink water -- there is a saying.

So it’s the same thing here.  North Korea has to come to its own conclusion that it is genuinely willing to give up nuclear capabilities and become a full-fledged member of the international society.  They need to have that.  If they don’t have that, then even if we have international concerted efforts, then we won’t see a conclusion to these negotiations or talks like we saw with Iran.  So that’s a big difference that I see here. (emphasis added)

There is nothing in the joint statement that was particularly hopeful either; in a brief clause, it notes that North Korea “has refused all offers of denuclearization dialogue,” a reminder that the US and South Korea see Pyongyang rather than their own policies as the central barrier to moving forward. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for a new beginning, and the mix of messages to the North itself—no hostile intent, while supporting Park’s puzzling unification policy—are not likely to break the logjam either. The opposition built up the summit as an opportunity to do more on the issue (for example here and here) and was quick to point out the lack of concrete accomplishments (for example here). At this point, progress is likely to hinge on whether the apparent North Korean breakthrough with China—visible in the Liu visit—actually yields anything new or simply deepens China’s moral hazard problem: committing to the regime in a way which weakens, rather than increases, its leverage.

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