South Korea’s first woman president, Park Geun-hye, will arrive in the United States for a summit with the U.S. president, Barack H. Obama today.
Tensions in North Korea will likely dominate a US-South Korean summit scheduled for Tuesday.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye is visiting Washington for a trip meant to celebrate 60 years of cooperation.
It will be the first face-to-face meeting for the two presidents since Park took office in late February.
In their opening months, both Obama and Park were busy putting together new cabinets. They did not have the opportunity to consult each other on a coherent foreign policy – just as North Korea kicked off a flurry of war rhetoric and tested its third nuclear device.
On Wednesday, Park is expected to address a joint meeting of Congress to reaffirm what Park recently called “the most successful alliance in history.” The talk is meant to stress economic ties between the US and South Korea but that will likely be overshadowed by discussion of how to approach conditional dialogue with North Korea.
So, of course, 51 South Korean business representatives should accompany their leader. Why?
- “The stated purpose of this high-powered business delegation is to expand trade and investment opportunities under the Korea–U.S. Free Trade Agreement that was passed last year. In practice, a top priority is to dispel any lingering doubts about the safety of U.S. investments in the South Korean economy caused by recent North Korean provocations.”
- “Another key goal is to coordinate closely with the Obama administration on efforts to pressure China to rein in its North Korean ally.”
- “Two major challenges that President Park will need to address during her term are the upcoming transfer of wartime operational control from U.S. Forces Korea to the South Korean military in 2015 and the renegotiation of the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement.”
Andrei Lankov argues also, that American preoccupation with denuclearization puts South Koreans and Americans on a collision course of priorities.
Many people in the US as well as in other Western countries tend to assume that the South Korean public also sees the North Korean nuclear program in the same light – as a grave and present danger, a direct threat to South Korean security. This, after all, seems to be the only logical way of seeing the issue. North Korea has been direct in describing the South Korean government as its mortal enemy. North Korea’s long-range missiles may be remarkably unreliable, but Seoul is located just 30 miles (48.2 kilometers) from the North-South border and is therefore far more vulnerable to an attack than Washington.
Such common sense assumptions are, however, remarkably wrong. The average South Korean does not care that much about North Korean nuclear weapons or missiles. While South Korean policy makers occasionally pay lip service to the importance of denuclearization, they are perfectly aware of this popular mood, and in most cases share it.
The average South Korean tends to believe that the North Korean nuclear program is not aimed at Seoul. It widely thought that Pyongyang will never use nuclear weapons against their compatriots in the South (or anyone else for that matter). Rather, they tend to see the North Korean nuclear program as serving two purposes.
First, nuclear weapons serve as a means to extract aid from the outside world. Second, nuclear weapons function as a deterrent against foreign – read: American – invasion. In other words, the South Korean public does not perceive the North Korean nuclear program as an existential threat, or even as something to give serious concern about.
This does not necessarily mean however, that South Koreans are very relaxed about the North. Instead, they are worried about a rather different set of issues.
First of all, the South Korean public does not look kindly upon low-level North Korean military operations – commonly, but somewhat misleadingly known as “military provocations”. Such operations are usually staged by the North Koreans as a way to penalize the South Korean government and its people for not paying enough attention (and not providing enough aid) to Pyongyang.
The latest of such provocations were the sinking of a South Korean warship and the bombardment of a South Korean island in 2010. Understandably, the South wants to avoid such clashes as much as possible. When such events occur, South Korean citizens are usually killed, and the South Korean economy usually suffers a minor shock as a result of the adverse publicity created by talk of the imminent threat of war in Korea in the international media.
At the same time, the South Korean public does not want the immediate unification of the two Koreas – in spite of frequent and loud protestations to the contrary. Younger South Koreans have long since come to realize that unification with the North will be very costly, with the them, the South Korean tax-payers, having to pay the near crushing burden of North Korea’s economic reconstruction.
While not challenging the idea of unification in principle, these people – a large and fast growing constituency – would much prefer to live in a divided but stable Korean peninsula. They do not care enough about the plight of North Koreans whom they increasingly see as being peoples of a foreign nation.
Therefore, what the South Korean public really wants to see in Korea is essentially a slightly improved version of the status quo. They want Korea to remain divided (without admitting this), but they also want it to be stable. They also would like to see the North’s economy grow and its society reform, but this goal is secondary to the almost overriding goal of stability maintenance.
This attitude ensures that South Korea’s approach to the North is bound to clash occasionally with the policies of the United States. While the US may favor pressure, sanctions and punishment, the South Korean side is understandably cautious about such a hard line approach. It is usually assumed that excessive zeal in the application of a hard line approach is likely to make North Korea less stable – and this is not what the average South Korean hopes for.
That’s also why President Park started her U.S. Trip in New York.