Previewing the Park-Obama Summit: Intimacy and Substance, not Ceremony
October 14, 2015
Q1: What should we expect from President Park’s visit?
A1: The upcoming visit marks President Park’s second visit to Washington since coming to office in 2013, with her planned visit earlier this June delayed by the MERS outbreak at home. This is a good chance for President Park, midway into her presidency, to reaffirm trust, solidarity, and friendship with its closest ally. Unlike the pomp and circumstance of Xi Jinping’s first state visit a few weeks earlier, expect this visit instead to be more intimate, substantive, and strategic. A lot of the homework from the previous visit has already been finished. The new 123 agreement was signed earlier this May after years of negotiations. A new special measures agreement addressing United States Forces Korea (USFK) cost-sharing was agreed to without much controversy, and the base realignment plan to relocate U.S. forces from Yongsan Garrison to Camp Humphreys has proceeded quite seamlessly. In essence, this visit provides an opportune time for the two friends to celebrate all the achievements that have already been accomplished.
Q2: What does the regional picture look like?
A2: There was handwringing in Washington last month when President Park stood next to President Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing at the September 3 Victory Day celebrations, where she was the only head of state from a major Asian democracy to attend the military parade. But despite growing worries that Park may be slowly gravitating towards Xi and moving away from Obama and Abe, what we may actually be witnessing is Diplomacy 2.0: a nuance, three-dimensional foreign policy strategy by Park, designed to alter Chinese strategic thinking, engage U.S. interests, and ultimately build Northeast Asian cooperation – through her Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative (NAPCI) – where there was little in the past. By all indications so far, this seems to be working. Seoul’s relationship with Beijing has never been better. The Park-Obama relationship, though it may never been as close as the unique Bush-Lee friendship, is nonetheless strong and robust. Ties with Tokyo, though frosty from the beginning, have also recently showed signs of thawing, with an important trilateral meeting in Seoul between the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean leaders expected either at the end of this month or the beginning of the next. Inter-Korean relations, which ratcheted to dangerous confrontational levels during the height of theloudspeakers crisis in late August, have also since toned down, with the two expected to hold family reunions later this month (October 20 – 26) at Mount Kumgang.
Q3: What is the road ahead for the relationship?
A3: Despite all that has already been accomplished, there is more homework yet to be done. Expect the two leaders to discuss taking the alliance to the next level to build on a deep, comprehensive global partnership. Discussions of the ROK’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), with negotiations concluded and a deal announced on October 5, will likely feature in the conversation between the two presidents, as they seek to etch out a roadmap for ROK’s eventual inclusion.
Expect the two leaders to highlight a wealth of cooperation on “New Frontiers” in the relationship where the United States and Korea venture into the areas of global public goods, including global health, international development assistance, cyber security, space cooperation, and clean energy. New memoranda of cooperation in each of these areas help take the alliance from “good to great.”
Then there is always the perennial elephant in the room for the two, North Korea. Although Kim Jong-un refrained from launching a ballistic missile during the 70th anniversary of the Workers’ Party of Korea on October 10, he settled for the second best thing -- he proudly paraded his ballistic and military capabilities in what may have been the biggest parade ever during his family rule. He also delivered his first public address in three years, where he provocatively and unabashedly declared that his regime is “ready for any kind of war against the United States.” Although no world leaders attended his parade, he was accompanied prominently by Liu Yunshan, the fifth-ranking member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, and the highest ranking Chinese official to ever visit Kim Jong-un since he came to power. It is too early to call that photo-op a reset in frosty China-North Korea relations. Instead Park and Obama will discuss how to promote better dialogue with China on the path forward in reigning in this difficult regime.
Victor Cha is a senior adviser and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. Andy Lim is a research assistant with the Korea Chair.
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