Rain Clouds Over Obama-Park Summit
It has been some time since a presidential summit has opened under such heavy clouds as will accompany Tuesday’s White House meeting between President Obama and South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye.
Not only is rain anticipated as President Park arrives, part of an unusually cool spring in the U.S. capital, but the agenda is clouded with North Korean nuclear and missile tests, potential disagreements between the U.S. and South Korea over that country’s civilian nuclear program and deepening tensions between China, Seoul and Japan, which further bedevil U.S. diplomacy in Northeast Asia.
And if that were not enough, at least one American analyst deeply versed in Korean matters says there is now “the danger of an increased probability of a second Korean War.”
That gloomy assessment came from Joel Wit, a former State Department official involved in decades of U.S. negotiations with North Korea. He was referencing the risk of a new provocation from North Korea, such as its 2010 shelling of a South Korean island, and asserting that the new South Korean government is determined to retaliate much more quickly and vigorously to such an act than its predecessor.
Observing the 60th anniversary of the end of the first Korean War and paying tribute to the 36,000 Americans who died fighting in it, is one of the stops on President Park’s crowded schedule. But the way that war ended in 1953 with an armistice between the United Nations, China and North Korea and all these years later still no formal peace treaty between the two Koreas, remains a visible example of the continuing volatility of the peninsula.
For the next two days, as President Park meets with the administration, hosts a dinner for several hundred at a Washington art museum and addresses a joint meeting of Congress, the Korean story will go back into the headlines where it was for a few anxious weeks at the beginning of the year thanks to its weapons tests and the fiery rhetoric of its youthful leader Kim Jun-Eun.
And in several Washington conferences over the past few weeks, analysts highly critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the Korean issue and those more disposed to giving it a passing grade all agree on one point: the administration wants this story off the front pages. According to Michael Green, who handled Asian issues under the George W. Bush administration, “the more North Korea is in the news, the worse you look.”
Another shared viewpoint among think-tankers is that the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea has run out of gas. Victor Cha, who also served in the Bush White House said the phrase means “we don’t know what to do.” Wit said, “it never made any sense” and was driven by U.S. domestic politics and the desire to keep the U.S.-South Korea alliance intact during the hard-line administration of Park’s predecessor Lee Myung-bak.
But beyond those points of rhetorical agreement, Korea analysts in Washington and Seoul remain divided on what the two capitals do next in dealing with North Korea. For example, Wit said it was fruitless to expect North Korea to yield to any kind of pressure and abandon its program that has produced an arsenal of perhaps a dozen nuclear bombs. He said the administration should pursue how serious North Korea is for a treaty to end the war in exchange for a moratorium on its nuclear program. Cha and Green reiterated the more familiar line that the U.S. cannot acknowledge a nuclear North Korea or appear eager to enter direct negotiations with Pyongyang.
Another point of general accord, not only among the Americans but also a group of Chinese scholars in Washington recently for a conference: China may be growing more frustrated with North Korea’s weapons testing and may take some behind-the-scenes measures, but it is nowhere near cutting off its vital aid and support to the Kim regime.
The analysts said there is a possibility the U.S. could agree to Park’s government taking the lead in opening talks with the North. The first test would be a commercial one: if North Korea is ready to back away from its closure of the joint industrial venture with South Korea at Kaesong. During the recent tensions, North Korea pulled its 53,000 workers from the complex. But on Monday, the North Korean government issued a series of demands for returning its workers, and Seoul promptly labeled them as unacceptable.
Beyond the diplomatic, President Park’s agenda also includes a luncheon talk Wednesday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to observe the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement. What she may not mention to a Washington audience attuned to shifts in the Asian balance of power is that China has now displaced both the U.S. and Japan as South Korea’s No. 1 trading partner.
Photo of South Korean President Park Geun-hye by Jean Chung/Bloomberg via Getty Images. Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.