On Obama’s Korean table, much China

When President Barack Obama and his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye meet Friday, they could spend as much time talking about China as about the relations between their two countries.

Indeed, their White House session at the end of Park’s three-day Washington visit likely will involve much comparing of notes, according to Georgetown University professor and former Bush administration official Victor Cha. Both presidents have held extensive conversations recently with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Mr. Obama hosted Xi’s state visit to Washington last month. Park was a prominent guest at the Beijing World War II anniversary celebrations earlier in September.

But just because China is a major issue for both countries does not mean the interests of all three coincide. Park’s overriding goal and mission is the unification of South and North Korea, bringing together one country of 50 million people and among the world’s wealthiest, with another country one half its size and among the most impoverished. The key interest of the United States over three administrations is to somehow rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons arsenal, which one recent U.S. think tank study estimated at as many as 22 bombs. China’s main goal for North Korea is stability even though Xi has made clear his displeasure with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Xi has met several times with Park, not once with his supposed communist ally Kim.

China’s hardly hides its frustration with North Korea and its young leader. But as one Chinese scholar, Xiahe Cheng said at a recent Washington forum, the two are not headed for a major breach.

“Relations will not return to the 1950s (when the two were tight), but China will not embrace a confrontation path,” Cheng told an audience at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Park’s visit will be her second to Washington since her 2012 election to the post once held by her murdered father. In contrast to the panoply of a state visit accorded on her trip in 2013, her meetings this time will be more low key.

According to several Washington analysts, the U.S.-South Korean relationship is in as good shape as it has been for years, no major tensions and even public approval of the United States above 50 percent among South Koreans. Similarly, Park’s once sinking popularity ratings recently have bounced upward, in part because of her handling of the crisis that erupted when two South Korean soldiers were severely wounded by a landmine placed in the Demilitarized Zone by North Korea. The armed forces of both countries went on high alert, but hours of negotiation eased tensions to the point that they are talking of new reunions among families that were separated by the Korean War.

Like other major U.S. military allies in Asia, South Korea now carries on more trade with China than with the United States ($214 billion versus $100 billion). It was quick to break ranks with the Obama administration and sign up for the China-created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank last year. But according to analysts in both countries, South Korea is likely to join the second round of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, assuming the just-completed pact of the U.S. and 11 Pacific nations is ratified by national parliaments and comes into force within a couple of years.

For the Obama administration, a big goal in its diplomacy with Seoul is to ease tensions between South Korea and Japan. As long as those two are at odds, it is hard for the Americans to lead a united front to confront China’s Asian ambitions. Seoul-Tokyo relations have increasingly soured during the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. South Koreans regard Abe as a nationalist who refuses to apologize sufficiently for Japanese actions during its colonial occupation of Korea and its mobilization of Korean women as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers during World War II.

U.S. officials hope that the tensions can be reduced during sideline meetings between Abe and Park at two major international summits this fall, the climate conference in Paris and the G20 economic gathering in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Asian diplomatic table increasingly resembles a giant chessboard of more than a half dozen alliances and economic and political groupings with the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea all trying to exert some control over the pieces.

What has diminished in the meantime is the central piece in the effort to rein in North Korea’s nuclear program. The Pyongyang regime sidestepped a new crisis this past weekend, not using the occasion of the Oct. 10 anniversary of the communist party to launch a new missile test. But still in limbo are the so-called six-party talks involving the U.S., South Korea, North Korea, China, Japan and Russia to wind down the nuclear program that the Kim government has vowed never to give up.

At times in the past two decades, the Korean nuclear issue seemed to consume both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. It has not received that priority for the Obama administration, according to Washington analysts.

Indeed, expectation for either those multi-nation talks or for the Park visit were summed up by Bonnie Glaser, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Obama has decided on his legacy issues,” Glaser said. “And North Korea is not one of them.”