Korean President Park Geun-hye’s visit to the United States was postponed less than a week before the planned summit with President Barack Obama, scheduled for June 16. With new cases of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) reported on a daily basis, there was speculation that Park would shorten the trip by cancelling her plans in Houston and continue as scheduled for the summit in Washington, but the decision to postpone the visit altogether came as a surprise to many observers. Media reports are now overrun with the question of when and how soon the trip will be rescheduled. However, the focus of Park’s U.S. visit should be on what to discuss, not on when to reschedule.
From the beginning, the summit between Presidents Park and Obama was poorly framed in Korea. It was made public that the summit would be scheduled after and before visits to Washington by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, respectively. It was very difficult on both sides to avoid the public’s framing of the summit as a comparison to Abe’s recent visit in April. Abe addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, becoming the first Japanese leader to do so. His visit was successful in many ways, with the overarching theme celebrating the U.S.-Japan alliance and Japan’s global role, both of which were reflected in their discussions on the revision of defense guidelines and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
As Park has already addressed a joint session of Congress, the summit should not be directly compared to Abe’s visit. However, there was some public uneasiness that Park’s trip to Washington would be treated differently from Abe’s visit in April, and some even argued that the U.S. level of response and receptiveness would serve as a gauge between the two bilateral alliances.
In addition, as there were no imminent issues to be dealt with by the two leaders, it was difficult to pinpoint any clear policy deliverables from this summit. South Korea and the United States have already finalized important security and economic-related talks, such as the delay of the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) and implementation of the KORUS FTA (Free Trade Agreement). The agenda for the summit, as outlined by the Blue House, included political and economic bilateral cooperation, an assessment of global and regional issues, the North Korean nuclear threat, and enhancing the global partnership between Korea and the United States. However, outlining this broad agenda gave the impression to the media that no clear policy deliverables were set for the summit. In this sense, the two governments failed to convey the message to the public that a list of policy deliverables was not the only purpose of the summit. Here again, it’s likely that the visits by Park and Abe would have been highlighted in different ways in terms of their achievements.
The MERS Outbreak
Park’s domestic situation worsened with the outbreak of MERS, a virus originating from Saudi Arabia. On the day the trip postponement was announced, there were 108 cases confirmed and nine deaths from MERS, although patients who died from MERS were already suffering from other chronic diseases. It was only a couple months ago when Park was harshly criticized for scheduling her trips to several countries in South America on the day of the one-year anniversary of the Sewol Ferry disaster. The government still faces widespread criticism that it failed to respond quickly enough and lacked the correct assessment, resulting in the deaths of 304 citizens from the ferry sinking. This time again, the Korean government was criticized for its inability to respond to the early stage of the outbreak, allowing the situation to become more difficult to control.
Despite a similar outbreak of SARS in 2003, the current situation of public mistrust coincides more closely with public fear amid rumors of mad cow disease in 2008 and the swine flu pandemic (H1N1 influenza virus) in 2009. Both cases made it very difficult for the Lee Myung-bak government to regain any public confidence. Compared to other policy issues, matters of health more easily capture the public’s attention as health crises require no specialized knowledge, are non-partisan, and affect all sectors and generations of the population.
In light of the current political scandals involving several government officials and the severed relations with the National Assembly, the political section of the Blue House is under pressure to not let public approval fall any further. With general elections coming up next April, there may have been concerns within the administration that if Park is hit hard again after the Sewol tragedy, she will lose control over the politics next year. Therefore, the decision to postpone her trip and to stay back home is a grand gesture to the public that the Park government will make every effort to bring the MERS situation under control.
A Second Chance to Prepare
Following the postponement, the two governments will need to do some damage control by turning this diplomatic mishap into a lesson learned and utilize this time to prepare for the visit once it is scheduled.
We need to recognize that the trip postponement was a sudden and unilateral decision made by the Korean government. News that Park might cancel the trip initially stirred negative reactions in the United States. It would have been more understandable by U.S. counterparts if Park’s trip was merely shortened, as was the case when she shortened her UAE trip amid the Sewol ferry sinking tragedy in 2014. In a similar case, President Lee visited the United States for a summit amid the swine flu crisis in 2009. Thus, the underlying attitudes within the U.S. government toward the postponement may differ from official statements.
In addition, Park’s decision to cancel the summit with Korea’s most important ally put a spotlight on the MERS case in Korea and in turn inflated the seriousness of the situation. This may be just one repercussion, but from my experience in Washington, D.C. this is a real concern. After briefing congressional staff members with fellow Korea experts after the news of the postponement broke last week, I received a question on whether it is safe to make a trip to Seoul in August. To provide reassurance, we relayed information from an expert on the virus during the briefing.
More importantly, it is very difficult to reschedule a summit between two leaders. Considering their hectic schedules, it is said that there needs to be a six-month window to allow enough time to arrange a date for a meeting of this size and importance.
In the meantime, what should the two governments do to prepare before this summit takes place?
First, the message should be conveyed to the public and the media that the meeting itself and the confirmation of the alliance from both sides are just as important as any policy deliverables that may result from the summit. Even without policy deliverables, the meeting between the two leaders will send a message to stakeholders in the region and the world as well as domestic audiences.
Second, even though the situation may change leading up to the rescheduled summit, it will be important to reassure that both countries share a common view on their respective roles in the region and how to deal with North Korea. Those who argued for holding the summit as scheduled reasoned that this summit would serve as an opportunity for both presidents to discuss a nuclear North Korea, Korea-Japan relations, and China-related issues in the region before the two leaders are buried in domestic politics next year.
Third, as the summit was postponed, the two governments emphasized that they will rearrange the summit “at the earliest possible date.” There may be some push for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Korea to reschedule the summit in the near future, but how soon the two governments can rearrange the visit should not be an indicator of the strength of two allies. The more important matter should be what message can be delivered after the summit, whether it will be held one month or six months later.
Dr. Woo Jung-Yeop is a research fellow in the Center for Foreign Policy and National Security at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies