FPI Bulletin: South Korea’s Summit Diplomacy

October 14, 2015

Barack Obama will meet with South Korean President Park Geun-hye this week for what may be their final summit meeting.  Even as the two leaders pursue a full agenda at their meeting, it will also serve as a prelude to the trilateral summit that President Park will host with her Chinese and Japanese counterparts this fall in Seoul. These meetings come amid rising tensions – centered on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and China’s reckless behavior – as well as the promise of such breakthroughs as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was concluded in early October.  The challenge for the United States and the Republic of Korea (ROK) will be to meet these growing challenges while building on recent successes.

Meeting the North Korean Threat

The Obama-Park meeting will focus, first and foremost, on how the Washington and Seoul can continue to strengthen their alliance in response to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and military provocations.

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are growing, and the Institute for Science and International Security reports that Pyongyang may be able to field an arsenal of as many as 80 nuclear weapons in the next five years. NORAD Commander Admiral William Gortney warned this month that North Korea has the ability to strike the mainland United States with a nuclear weapon placed onto an ICBM. The regime’s nuclear capabilities pose an even greater threat to its neighbors. Bruce Klinger of The Heritage Foundation notes that Pyongyang has deployed hundreds of missiles capable of striking South Korea and Japan, as well as U.S. bases on Okinawa and Guam.

The threat posed by North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction is compounded by its ongoing and deadly provocations against South Korea. The August land mine attack that severely wounded two South Korean soldiers near the Demilitarized Zone left the two countries threatening escalation until North Korea expressed “regret” for the incident. In 2010, the North sank a naval vessel and shelled a South Korean island, resulting in the deaths of 50 ROK service members and citizens.  After those attacks, South Korea and the United States announced new initiatives to limit North Korea’s ability to conduct similar provocations in the future; this week’s summit presents an opportunity to redouble that effort.

One valuable step would be an agreement to deploy Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense interceptor batteries in South Korea.  Such a deployment would complement the U.S. and South Korean low altitude missile defense systems stationed on the Peninsula. It would not only signal to Pyongyang that its missile advances will be met with strengthened defenses, but also provide greater security for the U.S. forces throughout the Asia-Pacific which would be called upon to defend South Korea in the event of conflict. Beijing opposes  such a deployment, yet its continued subsidization of the North Korean regime has created the need for such protective measures. Although Obama and Park will not discuss this issue, according to press reports, it merits action in the near future.

President Park will reportedly seek President Obama’s approval for renewed diplomatic outreach to Pyongyang. Although an actual diplomatic breakthrough with the North would be welcome, the U.S. and South Korea must avoid the trap of granting concessions to Pyongyang in exchange for dialogue.  Instead, the U.S. and South Korea should enhance their leverage at the negotiating table via concerted action to further squeeze the Kim regime’s coffers. Legislation for this purpose has been introduced in both the House and the Senate, including a recent proposal by a coalition led by Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) to “impose and tighten sanctions on North Korea for a range of illicit activities, including violations of United Nations resolutions, development of ballistic missile technology, illegal arms transfers, cybercrimes and espionage, [and] human rights violations.” Increasing the costs for North Korea’s continued bellicosity remains Seoul and Washington’s best bet for bringing Pyongyang to the table for serious talks.

Responding to China’s Recklessness

China’s recent activities in the Asia-Pacific will likely be a source of some tension during talks between Presidents Obama and Park. American policy makers are deeply concerned about China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea, threats toward Japan over the Senkaku Islands, and expansive cyber espionage activities. In contrast, President Park has so far courted Beijing as a potential partner in negotiations with North Korea, and avoided criticizing China’s activities in the East and South China Seas. As if to emphasize the fact, President Park was the only leader of a major Asian democracy to attend China’s Victory Day celebration in early September, where the People’s Liberation Army paraded its arsenal of weaponry developed to target U.S. military forces in the Asia-Pacific.

Although President Park is working to persuade Beijing to increase its own pressure against Pyongyang, U.S. observers like Richard Fontaine at the Center for a New American Security are concerned that her approach is “premised more on hope than concrete achievements.” Although China’s Xi Jinping is eager to warn President Park against the deployment of THAAD missile defenses to the Korean Peninsula, it is less likely that he would consider any steps to place meaningful pressure on Pyongyang. China has also worked to exploit lingering tensions over historical issues and South Korean territorial concerns to worsen relations between Japan and South Korea.

In light of these developments, the meeting between President Obama and President Park will provide the two allies with an opportunity to establish that they are on the same page regarding the need for China to end its reckless behavior in the region. They should use this opportunity to criticize China’s militarization of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, unilateral imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea two years ago, and continued support for Pyongyang. The two leaders can set the right tone for the upcoming summit that President Park will host with Japan’s Prime Minster Shinzo Abe and China’s Premier Li Keqiang – the allies will cooperate with China when it is their mutual interest, and oppose Beijing’s behavior when it endangers regional security.

Advancing the Alliance

The upcoming month of summit meetings will provide President Park an opportunity to build on some recent success within U.S.-Korean the relationship. During her visit to the United States, President Park will engage on a number of issues that do not always make headlines, but represent the expanding frontiers of the U.S.-ROK alliance. She will visit the NASA Goodard Space Flight Center to discuss expanded space cooperation between the two allies. She will be accompanied by a record delegation of 166 South Korean executives looking to expand bilateral economic ties in the wake of the KORUS Free Trade Agreement, which entered into force three years ago. She will also engage U.S. business leaders and policy makers on such topics as climate change and global health policy, areas where South Korea can further partner with the United States.

The United States also has an opportunity to advance its interest in closer relations between South Korea and Japan, two critical allies whose relations have been strained under President Park and Prime Minister Abe. Obama should take this opportunity to express his support for Tokyo’s new interpretation of its constitution, which will improve Japan’s ability to support U.S. forces in the region, a net positive for Asia-Pacific security. 

The recent conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement provides another opportunity to strengthen U.S.-South Korean trade relations. Although President Obama still has to secure approval of the agreement in Congress, it makes sense to open the pact to South Korean accession in the near future. This move would strengthen Seoul’s economic ties with the other 11 parties to the agreement and demonstrate that the TPP is open for to those countries that are able and willing to meet its standards.

These moves, combined with efforts to strengthen bilateral defense cooperation against North Korea and clarify the allies’ shared positions on China’s activities in the region, will provide President Obama with an opportunity to significantly advance America’s goals in the Asia-Pacific as he enters his final year in office.  It is vital that he spare no effort to leave behind a U.S.-ROK alliance that is even stronger than when he became president. 

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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