Park Needs to Tackle New Power Structure in Northeast Asia

      May 13, 2015 13:23

      President Park Geun-hye will travel to Washington next month for yet another summit with U.S. President Barack Obama. This will be her third trip to the U.S.

      Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the U.S. last month and delivered a speech before Congress, while Chinese President Xi Jinping plans to visit in September. Obama wanted to meet with all three Northeast Asian leaders.

      There are no very pressing concerns Park and Obama need to discuss. Most of the issues of contention between Seoul and Washington -- FTA ratification, postponement of the handover of full operational control and revision of the nuclear accord -- have been resolved. But there are mounting public concerns that the government is failing to deal with a geopolitical power shift in Northeast Asia. 

      Since last month's summit the U.S.-Japan relationship has been closer than ever. The two sides revised their defense guidelines for the first time in 18 years to bolster military ties and strengthen their economic alliance through the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is nearing completion.

      Meanwhile, Xi and Russia President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow last weekend touting close ties. The recent diplomatic spat between Washington and Beijing over the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea and Seoul’s participation in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank raised concerns of a new Cold War in the offing.

      This, then, is a difficult time for Park to visit Washington. The government has failed to reassure the public that it can deal with this change with confidence. The foreign minister has claimed that the new situation is a "blessing" for South Korea, but opportunities can turn into crises if people fail to seize them. 

      Park must ensure that the Seoul-Washington alliance is strong and send a stern warning to North Korea, which is now developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile. If the alliance weakens, it will also diminish Seoul's voice in dealing with Beijing.

      Seoul should also convince the U.S. that even closest allies cannot agree about everything and that a healthy alliance would not put one partner in the predicament where it is forced to take sides against another friendly nation. 

      The U.S. enters presidential election season in the second half of this year. This may be the last chance for Park and Obama to hold substantive talks. They need to make sure they are willing to forge a new framework for the bilateral alliance.

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