South Korean President Park Geun-hye is about to visit Washington, D.C. Park will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama on October 16 for a summit that originally was set for June this year, but had to be delayed because of a MERS outbreak in Korea. After the June summit was postponed, many observers thought that rescheduling the summit within a six month window would be very difficult. However, both governments managed to squeeze the summit into their respective president’s hectic schedules.
Washington and Seoul both faced pressure from the public, which saw the question of how soon both governments could reschedule the summit as an indication of the strength of the alliance. By rescheduling the summit relatively earlier than expected, both governments alleviated that kind of public pressure.
In a previous article for The Diplomat about the cancellation of the Park-Obama summit, I argued that the summit’s agenda will be the most important question. At the same time, I pointed out that an ill-framed summit could tarnish any important accomplishments off the summit. In June, the question was about the summits agenda since the two countries did not have any imminent issues to deal with. That means no policy deliverables were expected at that time. As a result, more attention were paid to perception issues, including how to compare Park’s visit with Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s U.S. visit in April.
But what about now, four months after the original date for the Park summit?
First, we need to draw a line between what should be the highlight at this summit versus what will be discussed between the two leaders. The media is arguing that a number of current issues are most pressing for the two governments to answer, and that these topics should be on the summit agenda. Those include recently emerged issues like South Korea’s possible entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership and export licenses for four core fighter technologies related to Seoul’s acquisition of 40 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters, as well as issues that have existed for more than a year, such as the possible deployment of the THAAD missile defense system in Korea. Of course, North Korea should be discussed too, as many speculate that North Korea may be about to conduct another provocation, including possibly missile tests (satellite launching tests, according to North Korea, of course). However, we need to remember that the summit is not only about these policy deliverables or resolving any specific disputes between the two leaders. As I’ll argue below, Park and Obama should aim for a broader focus.
Second, the role of third countries should not dominate the summit. In June, the discussion on Japan, especially Abe’s visit to D.C., was almost like a barometer for Park’s visit. What Abe did during his visit, what he said, and what he and Obama did together dominated the discussion of what Park should do during the ROK-U.S. summit in June. This time, it is China that risks overshadowing the summit. Both sides have concerns over whether South Korea is being dragged into China’s orbit. Even though the U.S. did not officially oppose Park’s attending the military parade in China in early September, many in D.C. raised eyebrows over her decision. Knowing this is the atmosphere in D.C., many in Korea advised that we need to do something to change the U.S. perception. Though China is the most important factor in the region, both economically and in the security sphere, more attention should be paid to how the U.S.-Korea alliance will evolve.
This summit should not be about immediate policy issues or third parties, but about the vision by which the two leaders can lead their alliance into the future. That means actually solving the challenges that South Korea faces with regard to alliance management.
It is not incorrect to assume that U.S. policy toward South Korea is not a top priority within the United States overall policy towards Asia. Any discussion of U.S. policy towards Asia always puts China in the front. It is also not wrong that the United States views South Korea through the lens of its relationship with China. This kind of atmosphere is dominating Washington even as the ROK-U.S. summit will be held this week.
Very cynically speaking, South Korea is perceived in Washington to be taking a passive stance in order to satisfy both the U.S. and Chinese sides and to avoid conflict with either side at the very least. An example of this passive approach for the upcoming summit is Korea’s focus on dispelling the negative U.S. perceptions that arose from Park’s attendance at the military parade in China. As many observers in Korea focused their attention on this, the issue became a question of how to please the United States, which restarted the debate onwhether or not this, in turn, will incite China. The THAAD debate is another case in which Korean national and security interests were put on the back burner. So far South Korea has failed to show the U.S. and the world where it is heading because it seems that Seoul has placed too much focus on U.S. and Chinese reactions.
To solve this issue, Korea’s policy direction needs to come to light. South Korea can proactively let others know what it plans to do. First, in regards to the so-called “tilting” toward China, Seoul has to actively assert why it is pursuing its current policy toward China. South Korea’s so-called “tilt” toward China is based on the assumption that China will never move. Thus, the assumption is that a small boat like Korea cannot drag a big ship like China, but will be dragged in instead — whether Seoul likes it or not. That has not been the case so far, however. Attending China’s military parade did not lead to a pro-China policy. At the same time, an actual transition in Chinese policy also remains distant. However, it needs to be highlighted that the picture of Park with China’s leader has created an opportunity for reshaping Chinese public perceptions toward South Korea and North Korea. The U.S. and South Korea should share the interpretation that Seoul’s policy toward China is designed to guide China to transition its policy on the Korean peninsula over the long term. While a shift in Chinese policy is not visible in the foreseeable future, South Korea needs to make sure that the United States takes a broader view on Korea’s policy toward China.
In order to achieve this, Seoul needs to make sure that the U.S. sees the ROK-U.S. alliance as aiming in the same direction. At this juncture, South Korea needs to show that the ROK-U.S. alliance is a strong global partnership. Rather than persuading the United States with just words, South Korea needs to demonstrate the level of value attached to the alliance through concrete policy. South Korea can actually achieve its purpose by promoting a strategic vision backed by concrete policies, and not by sticking to what is currently viewed as a passive approach.
First, South Korea has to show that the ROK-U.S. alliance is able to expand beyond traditional bilateral security areas and into other domains, such as cyber security and space security. Since these two issues move beyond just the bilateral relationship and are closely related to international norms and regulations, it should also alleviate any concerns about China’s response. ROK-U.S. cooperation here is not about China, but about global norms. Both South Korea and the U.S. are trying to set and follow international norms which are shared by two countries’ leaders. South Korea’s active involvement in the Ebola crisis, for example, has propelled Seoul in the domain of international health. The Korean government needs to persuade those at home and abroad that South Korea should pursue a global leadership role in tackling such global issues.
Second, South Korea can proactively pursue security cooperation with Japan on regional security issues. It is understood by many observers in Washington that Seoul has reasons not to be satisfied with Japan’s approach to history. However, at the same, U.S. analysts have always emphasized that Korea should separate these issues from security concerns. With regards to Japan, Abe’s revisionist views on historical issues, including the “comfort women,” need to be resolved in the political domain and should be separated from security cooperation. If the U.S. perceives that South Korea and Japan can coordinate their security matters, worries about Korea’s so-called “tilting” toward China would decrease in Washington. Meanwhile, Japan’s position is that security cooperation and historical issues are not intertwined. However, if South Korea proactively moves toward security cooperation in the region, Japan will feel pressure to respond in political and history issues.
If South Korea tries to explain and clarify its case in a passive manner, using only rhetoric, it will be confined to being seen as a shrimp among whales. South Korea must set a proactive direction and demand a policy pursuant to it. Once Park and Obama share an understanding of the value of the alliance and where the alliance is heading, it will pave the way to resolve many complicated issues between these two allies.
Dr. Jung-Yeop Woo is a research fellow in the Center for Foreign Policy and National Security at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Eileen Block is the assistant director of the Washington, D.C. office of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.