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A Historic Trip: South Korean President Park Coming to America

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The Debate

A Historic Trip: South Korean President Park Coming to America

North Korea’s recent threats and economic matters will likely dominate talks next week.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye will leave for Washington, D.C. on Sunday in what her office is billing to be a historic trip.

Park will be in the United States from Sunday to next Friday for her first overseas trip since taking over as president in February. Unlike her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak’s, trip to the U.S. in 2011, Park will not be given a state visit. Instead, her visit is being labeled a formal visit but will still include a summit meeting and dinner at the White House.

Still, there are high expectations for the trip next week.

In one sign of the importance South Korea is placing on the trip, Park’s office announced on Friday that they had created a special English-language slogan for the summit: “Bound by trust, forward together,"

A presidential spokesperson, Yoon Chang-jung, explained the decision in a press conference earlier today.

"This English slogan was created on our own and condenses the meaning this summit carries toward the American people. As far as I know, this is the first time that (South Korea) has put forward an English-language slogan about a summit,” Yoon said, Yonhap News Agency reported.

North Korea is expected to be the main focus of Park’s meetings with Obama. Despite the unified response they showed in the face of North Korea’s latest provocations, the two allies have slightly diverging policies when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang.

Whereas the Obama administration has taken a hardline stance towards the North, Park is taking an approach that is being billed as a “trust building process for the Korean Peninsula.” The policy essentially consists of responding to all of Pyongyang’s provocations but delinking South Korea’s humanitarian aid and offers for dialogue from North Korea’s actions and rhetoric.

Nonetheless, Yonhap reports that the two leaders will try to talk with a “single voice” on North Korea during Park’s trip, and will issue a joint declaration on the importance of the U.S.-ROK alliance following their meeting.

As Yoon, Park’s spokesperson explained:

"On the occasion of a summit, the two countries will adopt a joint declaration about ways to move relations between the two counties forward at a time when they mark the 60th anniversary this year of the alliance."

North Korea will not be the only topic of discussion between Obama and Park. The leaders are also expected to discuss the negotiations surrounding the U.S.-ROK 1974 nuclear deal, which was set to expire in 2014. Negotiations over renewing the pact broke down last month over South Korea’s interest in acquiring enrichment and reprocessing facilitates to master the nuclear fuel cycle.  The U.S. has opposed this as it goes against President Obama’s global non-proliferation agenda and would likely complicate its efforts to persuade North Korea and Iran to give up their nuclear programs. With the talks reaching an impasse, the sides announced last week that they would extend the deadline for two years in order to continue negotiations.

Economic issues are also expected to figure prominently into Park’s trip to the United States. The United States is South Korea’s second largest trading partner with bilateral trade exceeding US$58 billion in 2012. This is expected to grow in the future now that the U.S.-ROK free trade agreement has gone into effect.

To capitalize on the increased opportunities, Park is traveling to the U.S. with the largest economic delegation in the country’s history. The 51-member business delegation will include the heads of South Korea’s five largest companies, including Lee Kun-hee, chairman of Samsung.

The meeting with Obama on Tuesday will not be the only symbolic point of Park’s trip, On Wednesday Park is scheduled to give a speech to a joint session of Congress, something only leaders of America’s closest allies are asked to do. Although five of Park’s predecessors have addressed joint sessions of Congress in the past, it is particularly unusual for a leader that is not on a state visit to do so.